Prince Albert would be delighted to see the thriving museum quarter of South Kensington today. More than 150 years ago, the husband of Queen Victoria envisioned a grand cultural quarter to help educate the general public. In 1851, the Prince helped organize the Great Exhibition, an international exposition of manufactured products, which took place in a temporary glass structure erected on the edge of Hyde Park. The Exhibition was such a success that proceeds were used to purchase land south of the event site to further promote the link between science, art and industry.
Sadly, Prince Albert died in 1861, before he could realise his dream, but Queen Victoria worked to complete the cultural mecca known as Albertropolis. About 10 years ago, the areas outside South Kensington tube and Exhibition Rd were semi-pedestrianized, furthering Prince Albert’s objectives. A day here is a window to the glories of the Victorian age.
The domes of the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Queen’s Tower at Imperial College and the Royal Albert Hall are in a straight line along Exhibition Rd. The main campus of the prestigious Imperial College is woven throughout this small area which also boasts the Royal College of Music, the Royal College of Art and the Royal Geographical Society.
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South Kensington is a huge tourist draw because of the three heavyweight museums here: Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A). The collections at these museums are too vast for even one day. It’s best to peruse websites before you visit and decide what you’d like to see most. Even if you don’t tour the Natural History Museum, its Wildlife Garden is an impressive microcosm of British landscapes and well worth a look. But you’ll miss a lot in this part of town if you only visit the museums.
Next to the V&A, the Brompton Oratory, one of London’s grandest Catholic churches, offers peaceful respite. Just behind, is the church’s cafe which is a welcoming and pleasant alternative to nearby chain coffee bars. Across the street from the Oratory, have a peek at Thurloe Square, a classic London garden square.
To the north of Exhibition Rd., the Royal Albert Hall is one of London’s most beloved theaters. The backstage tours here are great fun and provide insight on the development of Albertropolis. Across the street, the gold of the Albert Memorial glistens in Kensington Gardens, near to where the Great Exhibition took place. It is a glorious tribute to the achievements of the Victorian age.
Queen Victoria grew up in Kensington Palace, now best known as the former home of Princess Diana and current London abode of her son, Prince William. If you are a fan of British royalty, it’s worth visiting here. But the expensive entry fee for what can be somewhat bland rooms (part of the authentic presentation) can be disappointing.
When you’ve had enough learning and viewing, head back to South Ken tube and walk southwest along Old Brompton Road. This area lined with cafes and shops is Gallic-infused, thanks to the large French expat population.
Stroll along the side streets, particularly Onslow Gardens off Old Brompton Rd., to see how the incredibly fortunate live in grand houses with large communal gardens. Small flats here sell for more than £2,000,000.
For a Parisian treat, pop into Aux Merveilleux de Fred at 88 Old Brompton Rd. for artful meringue concoctions or Maître Choux on Harrington Rd. for authentic choux pastry, éclair heaven (although an expensive nirvana).
If you need a drink after all that sightseeing head for the bar at Nam Long Shaker. Formerly the hangout of hedonistic City bankers who during 1990s crammed into this small space and drank intoxicating Flaming Ferraris. You can still get the drink and it’s a good antidote to a long day of sightseeing.