Gatekeeper to centuries of history, South Kensington is the place to explore new things and admire humankind's achievements. Here's my guide to its museums
Living in London and working in a museum myself, I've had years of experience and behind-the-scenes knowledge to really get to know what's on offer. Old and new, well-known and hidden away, these are the best places to boost those brain cells and seek therapy in beautiful things. And the best thing is: most of them are totally free!
Bear in mind that most of the big museums in the South Kensington area get busy. The best time to hit them is outside of school holiday periods (winter half terms are usually the busiest). Also, try and get there for opening time at 10am to avoid the crowds – although most places don't get too busy before lunch time.
Sometime in 2010, this area should become even more visitor friendly with the introduction of a pedestrianised zone running from the tube all the way up to Kensington Gardens. This is a beautiful part of London and, after a few hours in the museums, you could stretch your legs with a wander up to Kensington Gardens and Palace, or into Hyde Park and around the Serpentine. Or take your cultural hat off and walk up the road to Harrods and the shops of Knightsbridge.
The Science Museum
The Science Museum and its neighbouring national institution the Natural History Museum are the undisputed champions of science. Both are free to get into (some temporary exhibitions charge), and these behemoths of the museum world attract many millions of visitors a year and the best bits of both can be tackled in a day trip. Although that isn't to say that you couldn't spend weeks in each!
Highlights: It's easy to get lost in this museum – don't be afraid of asking a member of staff what to see and spend some time figuring out what you want to see before you head off. If you're with kids don't miss the amazing hands-on Launchpad gallery (but get there early in the day) and be sure to wander through the space gallery.
Top tips: The common perception is that these places are best for kids, but that's just not the case. For adults-only fun, visit the museum on the evening of the third Wednesday of the month. On these Lates evenings, it's over 18s only for an evening of science-themed events, talks, games and a silent disco, with alcohol and food being served.
Natural History Museum
For me, this is the most beautiful building in London – a cathedral for the natural world. No one ever forgets walking into the main entrance and gazing up at the Diplodocus skeleton. The great thing about this museum is that you will never leave without having seen something brand new. And, go in the winter months, and you can ice-skate in the grounds surrounded by fairy-lit trees.
Highlights: Children never forget visiting this museum. Although be warned – it will spark a dinosaur obsession. Don't miss the animatronic T-Rex! There are great audio tours and events for adults and the new Darwin Centres are worth setting aside a couple of hours for. Book in advance to visit these and see such behind-the-scenes wonders as a giant squid and the bones of the Thames whale.
Top tips: Both this and the Science Museum have fantastic shops where you can pick up some really unique items that you wouldn't find anywhere else - great for gifts, especially for kids. Both museums also run sleepovers for children and families. A perfect balance between learning and fun, this is a true 'Night at the Museum' experience.
Victoria & Albert Museum
Fondly known as the V&A, this grand building just across the road from the science museums still bears the scars of World War II bombings. Its newly refurbished Medieval and Renaissance galleries are stunning and it is full of beautiful things just waiting to be discovered. This museum is certainly more geared towards an adult audience but you will be surprised how much there is to intrigue and captivate children for an hour or two.
Highlights: The British Galleries are reasonably new and a triumph in the museum world. Not just about standing and staring, there are hands-on activities to take part in - put on some costumes or try your hand at braiding.
Top tips: The café is incredibly stylish and serves delicious food – a perfect place to refuel at lunchtime. My personal recommendations are the doorstop sandwiches and freshly made pies.
Where to eat in South Kensington
Supposedly an expensive area of London, there are actually plenty of good value destinations in South Kensington. For breakfast and light lunches or snacks, head to Greenfields (13 Exhibition Road, South Kensington) near South Kensington tube. A cosy café with a great selection of freshly prepared treats, this is perfect for a quick sandwich.
All locals in the know head to Café Floris (5 Harrington Road, South Kensington) for their breakfast fry-up. Cheap and cheerful, this formica cafe isn't gourmet, but it does the job.
Don't leave South Kensington without visiting the Hummingbird Bakery (47 Old Brompton Road, South Kensington; www.hummingbirdbakery.com/flash.html). This new American import serves glorious cupcakes or all shapes and sizes. My favourite is the signature red velvet cupcake to take away and guzzle at home.
If you fancy a bit more of a walk, take a constitutional around the Serpentine and then stop for a hot chocolate or a meal at the café (Serpentine Bar & Kitchen, Hyde Park; www.serpentinebarandkitchen.com) . A romantic setting, this is perfect for a weekend afternoon and serves up some great fare.
Most of the museums mentioned are in the central, most expensive areas of town. But that doesn't always mean you have to spend a fortune to stay nearby. To hit the big three museums of posh South Kensington, just book into the easyHotel South Kensington down the road. From around £30 a night per room, it's basic, but you can spend your day in some of the capital's greatest buildings and be sure to skip the queues in the morning.
If you can afford a bit more, there are plenty of hotels within walking distance that will set you back under £100 for room and breakfast, including the very respectable The Regency on Queens Gate, a few minutes' walk from the nearby museums and shops of Knightsbridge.