For the longest time, London was the only place I dreamt of. Back when I was in high school, I wanted to move there and I used to visit at least once or twice every year. I loved everything about the city, the music scene, the art scene, the shops, the museums, even the Tube. Then, after a while, I started to grow bored of it and I started to dream of other places. And travel accordingly.
Then, all of a sudden, a few years ago, after many years of not visiting London, I had the chance to go back on what we can call a business trip. I was working on an exhibition in a gallery in Mayfair with an Italian artist and we stayed there for a while. And I fell in love all over again!
London can seem inhospitable. There, things seem too overwhelmingly fast and always changing, and everyone is always late. But behind the crazy-busy schedule and awkward no-eye-contact Tube rides, London is an old quirky lady. Guaranteed to make you feel uncomfortable at times, but also able to entertain you in many unexpected ways.
When it comes to contemporary art, London by itself is one of the greatest markets in Europe. It comes with no surprises that it is also a bustling city, rich in every kind of space, exhibition, and artist. And since I know it can be expensive (did someone say shopping?), here are some of the best places to enjoy contemporary art in London on a budget.
Back when I dreamt of living in London, my dream job was at Tate Modern. And in a way, it still is. Tate Modern is one of the first museums I fell in love with. Have you ever walked over the Millenium Bridget coming from St. Paul’s Cathedral, looking over to the Museum? Isn’t it an incredible view?
Most of all, Tate Modern is where I have visited some of the best exhibitions ever. Tate Modern is Britain’s national museum of modern and contemporary art, Britain’s most visited museum and one of the largest and most important museums in the world. No doubts the quality of the exhibitions is sky high!
Located in a former power station, for me it is the quintessential London experience. It pairs a great collection with amazing temporary exhibitions. You can roam around the galleries or just stare at whatever is going on in the Turbine Hall, a piece of art by itself. It has an austere look from the outside, but it’s flamboyant on the inside.
But most of all, speaking of contemporary art in London on a budget, you can visit it for free. You only need a ticket if you are planning to visit the temporary exhibitions, but you can enter the museum and visit the permanent collection without paying a single penny. I would highly recommend to spend a little bit more and visit the exhibitions they have on display, but if you want to be extremely budget-friendly, that is the number one destination you should consider.
Bankside, London SE1 9TG, United Kingdom
Open daily, 10 am – 6 pm, Friday and Saturday 10 am – 10 pm
Admission: free (temporary exhibitions vary)
Newport Street Gallery
This is a recent addition to my list, but a very good one.
Newport Street Gallery is a private gallery that displays Damien Hirst’s private collection. Located in a former scenery painting studio built in 1913 in Vauxhall, a little bit far from the most touristy spots (which is not necessarily bad), it spans 37,000 square feet over two levels. The gallery hosts rotating solo and group exhibitions with pieces from Hirst’s collection.
The Murderme collection, which Hirst has been acquiring since the late 1980s, contains over 3,000 works and features works by, among others, Francis Bacon, Banksy, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Pablo Picasso, Richard Prince.
If you are planning a trip to London on a budget and looking for contemporary art, then you should really consider it. The gallery has a nice cafe as well, and you can enjoy a few hours in a peaceful area of London. The exhibitions are great, the collection is impressive and it has very well designed spaces. But most of all, admission is always free.
Newport Street Gallery
Newport St, Prince’s, London SE11 6AJ, United Kingdom
Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am – 6pm
Gallery hopping in Mayfair
Mayfair is a gem hidden in plain sight. It’s almost like a portal to a different dimension. It is located right behind Piccadilly Circus and Regent Street, yet not many tourists end up here. It’s there, it’s close to everything and yet it feels like a completely different place. It has nothing to do with the chaos of Oxford Street or Carnaby Street. Mayfair is rich, posh, fancy, and walking around makes you feel like you are in a movie. The shops are high end, the people are elegant and charming. It is where you want to go to feel a little bit royal yourself.
But most of all, Mayfair is where a lot of galleries are located. The area has both small and bigger galleries and here you can find big names and interesting smaller exhibitions. Some of my favorite galleries around this area are Massimo De Carlo, Sadie Coles, and Simon Lee. Here you can find Gagosian’s wonderful London gallery, but also David Zwirner, Pace Gallery, and Hauser & Wirth.
But all in all in can just walk around and pop inside any place you can spot. Walking around Mayfair is a real joy, the streets are beautiful, the architecture is great, and you can enjoy the many nice spots for shopping, food, or coffee. You can also pay a visit to the Royal Academy, while you are in this area, or just walk a little bit further to the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Last but definitely not least, the Serpentine Galleries are the other place where I dreamt of working as a teenager visiting London. I mean, the director is Hans Ulrich Obrist, and who wouldn’t want to work with him?
Located in Kensington Gardens inside Hyde Park, Serpentine Galleries comprise the original Serpentine Gallery and the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. The first one was originally opened in 1970 in a tea pavilion located in the park. The second one was later added and opened to the public in 2013 when Zaha Hadid added an extension to a pavilion located right across the Serpentine Lake.
The two galleries together host amazing exhibitions by the world’s top artists, as well as screenings, lectures, educational programs, and a year-round calendar of events. If you want to enjoy contemporary art on a budget together with the beautiful parks that London offers, then this is the right place for you.
If you happen to be here during the summer, you can also visit the temporary summer pavilion. Every year since 2000 the Serpentine Gallery has commissioned a pavilion by a leading international architect. Each Pavilion can be visited on the Gallery’s lawn for three months, over summer.
Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA, United Kingdom
Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am – 6pm