South Kensington has always been one of the most well-off neighbourhoods, and it would seem this good fortune extends to culture as well. The Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Science Museum are three of the most celebrated institutions in the country.
Whether you’re taking in the Royal connections of Kensington Palace over the centuries or the simple, relaxing pleasures of Hyde Park, you can be sure many famous characters from the past will have walked the same steps.
Things to do in South Kensington
The Victoria & Albert Museum
If you want to visit somewhere in South Kensington that will blow your mind with the sheer diversity of human creativity, then The Victoria & Albert Museum should be on your list. It is the world’s leading museum of art and design.
It houses a permanent collection of more than a staggering 2.8 million objects, books, and archives that reach back over 5,000 years.
Just some of the disciplines it includes are architecture, furniture, fashion, textiles, photography, sculpture, painting, jewellery, glass, and ceramics.
The museum started out as the Museum of Manufactures in 1852, with Queen Victoria laying the foundation stone in 1899. Since then, it has continually evolved its art and design collection to reflect the diversity of human creativity.
Related: Best Free Museums in London
Harrods aims to be the number one department store in the world for luxury branded merchandise, maintaining an unprecedented level of retail standards, expertise, and profitability. That goes some way to explain, the steady stream of Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces that deliver customers to the entrances.
Check out all manner of luxury goods, including designer clothes, make-up, jewellery, furniture, shoes, cigars, and an entire department devoted to food and drink.
Opened in 1824, it has grown to be the largest department store in Europe and one of South Kensington’s biggest tourist attractions. It’s just as much fun looking at the other customers, as it is seeing the goods on sale. Try a cream tea in Harrods Tea Rooms for an unforgettable experience.
Holland Park is a 22-acre garden in West London. The gardens originally surrounded Holland House, which dated from 1605, but this was unfortunately destroyed in the early part of the war. Kyoto Garden was built inside Holland Park in 1991 to commemorate the long-standing friendship between Britain and Japan.
Kyoto Garden always has a calming atmosphere and has been built to reflect a traditional Japanese garden. There are tiered waterfalls, ponds with Koi Carp, maple trees and sometimes even peacocks strutting through. It’s a great spot to visit when you need a break from the crowds of tourists. The garden is open from 7:30 AM to 30 minutes before dusk.
The Design Museum
The Design Museum reflects all types of contemporary design in every form, from architecture and fashion to graphics, products, and industrial design. The driving force behind the Design Museum was innovative retailer, Sir Terence Conran.
His aim was to provide a place where the design industry, educators, and the public could all come together and discuss design as it is today and can be in the future.
The museum houses permanent collections, featuring items from areas such as fashion, architecture, engineering, and the digital world, and how they rely on the processes of designing.
There are also interactive exhibits, which exhibit cutting-edge design processes such as 3-D printing and CAD. There is also an app designed by Jaguar that lets you design your own car. Naturally, there is also a beautifully designed cafe where you can enjoy tea and cake.
Dining in South Kensington
With the number and variety of restaurants in and around South Kensington, you’re bound to find something that appeals.
Best South Kensington cheap eats: Franco Manca – authentic and cheap pizza
Best South Kensington fine dining: Launceston Place – modern British menu, amazing wine
Best South Kensington British: Publiq. – Cosy restaurant, modern British menu
Best South Kensington Lunchtime Eats: Tapas Brindisa – Open kitchen, Spanish tapas
There are eight Royal Parks in London, of which Kensington Gardens is one of the most famous. There are numerous things to do as you wander around, or you can take a guided tour to discover some of the history associated with the gardens.
The author JM Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, lived in the area in the first part of the 20th century and was a keen visitor to Kensington Gardens. To celebrate his work, JM Barrie commissioned Sir George Frampton to construct a bronze statue of Peter Pan, which has been in the gardens since 1912, to the west of Long Water.
Diana, Princess of Wales, used to live in Kensington Palace and so it was thought appropriate to create a Memorial playground in her name in the gardens. It was opened on 30th June 2000 and has been one of the most visited features in the gardens.
The styling of the Italian Gardens can be traced to Osborne House, the holiday home of the Royal family. Prince Albert was an enthusiastic gardener, and he oversaw the creation of an Italian garden at Osborne House. Pleased with the results, he transferred many of the ideas to Kensington Gardens, creating a second Italian garden in 1860.
The Science Museum is a fascinating place to visit. You don’t have to be a real science buff to find it interesting. The aim of the museum is to create a lasting record of scientific, technological, and medical advancement from across the world.
There are a huge number of exhibits, so you can explore the oldest collection of clocks and watches or trace the history of flight with an exhibition of planes and rocket motors through the years.
There are also numerous interactive exhibitions, as well as cutting-edge environmental projects to explore different technologies to store excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In the IMAX Ronson Theatre, you can settle back in your seat and experience audio and video of 3-D subjects, projected onto a screen four times the size of a double-decker bus.
Pubs and Bars in South Kensington
Most English South Kensington Pub: Churchill Arms – Very British pub, visited by Churhill’s parents
Best South Kensington Bar: Nocturne Prohibition Bar – Friendly staff & cool decor
Best South Kensington Wine Bar: Margaux – Extensive worldwide wine list
Best South Kensington Cocktail Bar: Amaro Bar – New, Amazing cocktails & service
Natural History Museum
In the Natural History Museum you can learn about all the different types of animals and plants that have lived on the earth. These range from full-size models of dinosaurs to blue whales and thousands of other creatures besides. You can discover the evolution of fish, amphibians, and reptiles and learn how birds have evolved over millions of years.
There is a section called Our Broken Planet, which explains how man’s activities in the world have transformed the life cycles of many creatures. The exhibition also puts forward numerous solutions to counteract the damage already done.
Hyde Park has a long and complicated history. Henry VIII took over Hyde Park from the monks of Westminster Abbey in 1536. A big fan of hunting the King and his court could often be seen chasing across the park for deer. The park was opened to the public in 1637.
Later in 1665, the Great Plague descended on London killing thousands. Many Londoners in the City fled to Hyde Park, hoping the open space would enable them to escape the disease.
Hyde Park is divided in two by Serpentine Lake and Long Water. The Serpentine Lido is a public swimming area which is open the whole year round. The Serpentine Swimming Club is the oldest swimming club in Britain and the members swim every day in the Serpentine between 5:30 AM and 9:30 AM. To one side of The Serpentine Lido, you can find the Lido Cafe Bar, which has tables and chairs by the water and where you can enjoy drinks and snacks.
Hyde Park is also home to the Diana Memorial Fountain which celebrates the life of Diana, Princess of Wales. It was opened by Her Majesty the Queen on 6th July 2004.
The fountain is made of 545 pieces of connected Cornish granite and aims to reflect Diana’s life.
On the north-east edge of Hyde Park, closest to Marble Arch and Oxford Street you will come across Speakers’ Corner. It’s a place where individuals can freely present their own ideas to an audience. Other sites around London have been used as Speakers’ Corners but the one in Hyde Park has always been the best-known.
From 1906 to 1914 women from the Suffragette movement held regular meetings, as part of their campaign to win votes for women. Even today, on Sundays, you can often find speakers enthusiastically passing on their opinions.
Kensington Palace has been a residence of members of the British royal family since the 17th century. Princess Victoria was born at Kensington Palace and became Queen at the age of 18, reigning for 63 years.
Today royals at the Palace include the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Kate and Wills), as well as Princess Eugenie and her husband, and a couple of the Queen’s cousins.
There are daily tours around the Palace where you can walk through the opulence of the King’s State apartments, and the beautiful rooms of the Queen’s state apartments, where Mary II once ate and relaxed.
There is also a permanent exhibition explaining Queen Victoria’s early life and her ascent to the Crown, as well as a tour of the rooms where she was born and brought up.
South Kensington Books
Despite being on the small side, South Kensington Books has become something of an institution since its opening in 2010. The bookshop is independent and has wide-ranging titles covering topics from Art, History, Fashion, and the Sciences.
The bookshop owners aim to reflect the subject matter of the nearby museums, as well as having an extensive range of fiction and children’s books. If you have some spare time to browse your bound to find something of interest in South Kensington Books and it’s right next door to the tube station too!
Royal Albert Hall
Queen Victoria named the Royal Albert Hall at its opening in 1871, after her late husband, who was always a fan of the arts. It has become one of Britain’s most treasured and distinctive buildings. It is operated as a charity and is fully self-funding with no help from the government.
It is best known for its Proms concerts, which started in 1941 and carried through the war until the present day. The main auditorium is used for numerous events, including classical concerts, rock and pop concerts, ballet, opera, film screenings with live orchestral accompaniment, sports, and awards ceremonies.
Take one of the guided tours and you will see the royal areas of the Hall, the vast auditorium, and the stage, which has hosted names such as Muhammad Ali, Winston Churchill, Beyonce, Albert Einstein, and Ed Sheeran. If that leaves you feeling exhausted, try one of the Royal Albert Hall’s legendary afternoon teas.
Hire a Boat on The Serpentine
If your feet have taken a pounding with all the sightseeing, take some time out and visit the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park. Here you’ll find small paddle boats for up to 4 people, where you can relax, cool down and listen to the water lapping against the hull of the boat. Boat hire is open from April to October at 12.00 each day.
Commemorating the death of Prince Albert from typhoid in 1861, the Albert Memorial is a particularly ornate monument. It underwent a decade-long restoration during which Prince Albert was regilded before being unveiled to much acclaim in 1998.
The memorial shows Prince Albert holding the catalogue of the Great Exhibition, held in Hyde Park in 1851, which he inspired and helped to organise. The memorial is incredibly intricate with marble figures and a frieze with187 individually carved figures.
Leighton House Museum
If you’ve ever wondered about life during Victorian times take a stroll to visit Leighton House, which has been frozen in time to reflect the taste of the leading Victorian artist.
Leighton House is the former home and studio of the leading Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton, who lived from 1830-1896. He created the ideas for a lot of the interior decoration himself with extensive use of coloured tiling and columns.
He spent a great deal of time, money, and effort to create the finished look of the house. The house combined living and working space, as well as space to display his own collection of work.
In its heyday the house was regularly featured in newspapers, where people could see his vision of how the great artists should live.
Hyde Park Pet Cemetery
While in South Kensington, if you happen to be passing the corner of Bayswater Road and Victoria Gate, take a look through the iron railings and you will be looking at the tiny graves of Hyde Park Pet Cemetary.
It was established in 1881 in the garden of Victoria Lodge, which was the home of one of the park keepers. About 1,000 burials were carried out, mostly with dogs, although there were some cats, monkeys, and birds. The cemetery was closed in 1903.
Brompton Cemetery, at first glance, might not appear to be your typical fun day out however, scan through the rollcall of famous names through the generations who have made it their final resting place and you will see the appeal.
It’s been a working cemetery since the 1840s and is now home to more than 35,000 gravestones and monuments. The trades of the buried are very varied, including artists, actors, activists, industrialists, soldiers, scientists, sportspeople, and socialites.
However, this being central London you can be sure there will be more than a fair share of famous names. Some of these include Emmeline Pankhurst, Sir Samuel Cunard, and Bernard Levin.
South Kensington may be posh, but its richness goes well beyond any veneer of money. Its long-standing cultural richness has helped to attract some of the best thinkers and most creative minds in the country.
Take time to enjoy the area because it will take more than one day to soak up what it has to offer.