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All of the world’s great cities have “places of culture” – theatres, museums, concert halls – but in only a few of them can you string these together for a walk that, although allowing only the briefest of visits to each stop on the list, is in itself an enriching cultural experience. Culture cannot normally be transmitted through osmosis, but in London, it really works. If you don’t want to take my word for it – just check it out for yourself.
You can do this walk easily in a single afternoon, taking in some classical or pop music or other street performances along the way, visiting the birthplaces of Elizabethan drama and punk rock while sampling some of the world’s finest works of modern art in between.
Where else but in London?
Michael Schuerman's cultural walk through London
Covent Garden is famous among lovers of classical music as the home of one of the world’s leading opera houses – but this piazza in the heart of London has far more to offer. Another 12 theatres can be found in the area, including Drury Lane, London’s oldest surviving playhouse (100 years older than Covent Garden and originally the posher of the two, although dedicated to light entertainment now it's been acquired by Andrew Lloyd Webber), and two important chapters of rock music history were written here. The Roxy music club (on 41 Neal Street, now a Speedo store) is considered the cradle of the punk rock movement, and Beatles manager Brian Epstein had his offices in near-by Monmouth Street. The piazza itself is one of London’s most culturally vibrant places, with a daily arts and crafts market and a culture of street performances that reaches back to the 17th century.
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Tate Modern is the world’s most visited modern arts gallery, counting roughly five million visitors every year. That’s a lot of tickets sold for a museum, or would be if they sold any: entrance to the Tate Modern is free. This is certainly one reason for the large number of visitors, but there are three others. First, there is the museum's audience-friendly approach: the Tate is always trying to make modern art accessible to the ordinary man and woman in the street. Second, there is the interesting history of the building itself as a former power station and its modernist, Art-Deco-inspired architecture. And third, there are the splendid views you get across the river to the City of London and St Paul’s Cathedral, best enjoyed over a meal or a cup of coffee from one of the balconies in the museum’s third-floor Espresso bar.
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Virtually next door to the Tate Modern, you can find another of London’s most famous cultural attractions – and one with an equally chequered history. When the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker announced his intention to build a replica of a Shakespearian theatre in modern London, the city’s cultural elite broke out into an almighty condescending sneer. Many of them baulked at what they saw as the “Disneyfication” of Britain’s greatest writer.
But the Globe, against all odds, soon became a critical as well as a popular success. The building – featuring an all-oak frame without any structural steel and London’s only thatched roof with a building permission since the Great Fire of 1666 – is a close approximation of what a theatre would have looked like in the early 17th century (plays are performed only from April to October, but you can join guided tours – every 30 minutes from 10:30 to 5 p.m. – all through the year).
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A quarter of a mile upstream to the west, cultural London has taken the diametrically opposed approach: as though intended to demonstrate that the flower of art can blossom in the least promising surroundings, the South Bank complex – Europe’s largest centre for the arts – is an exercise in the ugliest possible 1970s brutalism. And you know what? That worked, too.
It may not always be pleasurable to move across the windswept walkways that connect the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, the National Theatre and the various other outposts, but you always feel that the close vicinity of so many sites of cultural distinction is mutually enriching. Do not miss a trip to the shop of the National Theatre with its broad collection of books and DVDs on theatre as well as recordings of some of the NT’s greatest triumphs. Or spend some time at the British Film Institute’s Mediatheque that gives you access to the National Picture Archive with thousand of films including rare footage of the 1908 Olympics, early Hitchcock movies and groundbreaking documentaries.
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Street performance on South Bank
And to wrap up your afternoon, just continue leisurely up the river in the direction of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament – this stretch of the riverbank is home to London’s most diverse street theatre scene. While performances in Covent Garden are strictly regulated (guidelines as to how long the individual artists are allowed to perform and as to what can be shown in what corner of the piazza are strictly enforced), literally anything goes in the gardens underneath the London Eye for a manic, surreal and very English free-for-all. On any day of the week, you will encounter all types of buskers, impersonators of H.M. The Queen in rubber Thatcher masks, unicyclists, fire eaters and grown men dressed as kittens – or as green-feathered birds. Don’t ask what it all means – simply enjoy.
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Main Image Camden Photo walk by Tim
Covent Garden by TEDizen
Tate Modern by Michael Schuermann
Globe Theatre by Michael Schuermann
South Bank by Sheila Thomson
Street performance by Donald Judge
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