London’s Museums and Markets

Tower Bridge at Night

February 9 – 13, 2013

Photo set on Flickr

London in Winter?

Under normal circumstances I would either choose to stay home or travel to a warm destination during the Chinese New Year break, but this year my wife and I took a 12-hour flight to the coldest place we had been to since leaving Vancouver in 2008. We stayed in London for five days to visit some family and friends, then squeezed in three days for Amsterdam, a longtime fixture on my wish list.

Prohibitively expensive and consistently gloomy were my impression of London from my previous visits. But I was ready to wipe the slate clean to find out firsthand what the hype surrounding London was all about. If 2012 has a “City of the Year”, no doubt London would top the list. Between the successful Olympics and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, London has transcended beyond Britain’s underwhelming economic performance and volatile social unrest.

Unlike my past visits, I really enjoyed London this time around. If there is a city that best represents globalization, it has to be either London or New York. The need to visit friends on several occasions caused us to scramble across town and left us with a chaotic schedule. That said, we still managed to see a fair bit of London despite the familiar dreary weather.

Quick thoughts on some of the city’s museums and markets, two areas that consumed quite a bit of our time:

Museums

Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum

Because most museums in London are free, I ended up visiting five museums, though none as thorough as I would like. Coming back to London after seeing more places over the past few years, I have come to realize how little credit I had given London for its museums. Even without taking into account the absence of admission fee, London still boasts the best collection of museums anywhere on earth, with apologies to Berlin, Paris and New York.

Want to catch a glimpse of the British Empire at its apex? Go visit the British Museum and be in awe by all the looted treasures from every corner of the world (Read full entry here).

National Gallery

The National Gallery might not have the coherent focus of a d’Orsay or Uffizi, but with the possible exception of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC (never been), I can’t think of another place that offers more insight on the development of European paintings from the Middle Ages up to Cubism. The experience is similar to visiting a Hall of Fame.

Tate Modern fully deserves its status as a pioneer on how to successfully reuse abandoned industrial buildings. Too bad its underwhelming permanent exhibition was quite a letdown. I can confidently argue Tate Modern’s status as the most visited art gallery in the world (4.7 million visitors per year) has more to do with its location and free admission than its art collection.

European Gallery, V&A Museum

One of the advertisement I saw the most in London was the opening of the Victoria and Albert Museum‘s Furniture Gallery. Unfortunately I slotted only two hours for the museum, which allowed me to see only the first floor. I should have went straight to the sixth floor where the Furniture Gallery was and made my way down. Still, I enjoyed the museum’s collections on East Asia, the Middle East and European sculpture.

The Tulip Stairs, the Queen’s House

There are no lacking of good reasons to pay Greenwich a visit. This London suburb’s quaint appearance belies the great contributions it has once made in the fields of navigation and astronomy. Take a look at a world map – at the centre of the earth is the Prime Meridian, based at Greenwich’s Royal Observatory. Ever wonder why your time zone comes with a +/- sign? That’s because all time zones are benchmark against the Greenwich Mean Time. To top it all off UNESCO has awarded the World Heritage Site status to Greenwich since 1997.

Time, as always, was in limited supply. Three hours was what we had before we had to rush back to Old Spitalfields Market for lunch with some relatives. Winter is not an ideal time to visit Greenwich – the town felt even gloomier than the rest of London. We breezed by the Old Royal Naval College (designed by Christopher Wren), the Cutty Sark (a refurbished tea clipper) and the Royal Observatory (as noted above, the location of the Prime Meridian).

Instead of scattering our scarce time all over the place, we focused on the Queen’s House. The former royal residence was designed by Inigo Jones, who introduced Palladian architecture style from Italy. The house’s main draw, the Tulip Stairs, is the first geometric self-supporting spiral stair in Britain. Also worth a look is its substantial collection of maritime-themed paintings.

Food Markets

Britain has always been the butt of jokes among the continental Europeans. British signature dishes like fish and chips, Yorkshire pudding and meat pie are as depressing as the island’s dreary weather. But thanks to a myriad of reasons, the country’s food scene has undergone a dramatic change over the past decade.

What we saved on museums we binged on food and drinks. We had quality Italian and grass-fed steak, as well as acceptable Chinese. Not every meal in London has to be expensive though, and we found eating at food markets to be relatively reasonable (London will never be cheap).

Borough Market

Boston Sausage, Borough Market

It is touristy. It is crowded. It is comparatively expensive. But there is no disputing Borough’s status as the granddaddy of London’s food markets. The selection of ingredient and cooked food is certainly impressive. You can find a list of the market’s traders here.

Many stalls proudly called their product “gourmet food”, quite an overused term nowadays. So what does gourmet food that’s served on paper plate look like?

I ordered a pork burger at a stall called Boston Sausage. The burger didn’t look all that different. What stood out was my knowledge of which locally-sourced ingredients were used for my burger from the blackboard on the counter and that the pork patties were lifted from the grill once they reached 76°C.

Such information was intetesting even though it felt like a bit of a show-off. More than the food itself (which was good), I think the term “gourmet” highlights the retailers’ high level of attentiveness and showmanship towards their craft.

Maltby Street

St John’s Bakery, Maltby Street

We didn’t go all in at Borough (the paella looked so delicious!) because we had to reserve some space for our next stop, Maltby Street. This small market is said by some to be a more down to earth alternative to Borough Market’s overt commercialism.

Maltby Street, located in the southeast district of Bermondsey, is quite out-of-the-way; our walk from Borough Market took about 40 minutes. Most of the action concentrates at Ropewalk, a pedestrian-only section of Maltby Street where vendors do business under railway arches.

Already half-full, we had to be diligent with our choices. We began with one of St John’s Bakery’s famous custard donuts. The custard was fluffy and creamy and extremely filling. Our capacity for more food had just been substantially decreased.

40 Maltby Street

We sat down for a proper lunch at 40 Maltby Street, a small diner that operates out of the warehouse of a wine importer. The seasonal menu was all over the place, with hints of influence from Britain, Continental Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. We ordered green salad, hummus and lamb stew in clear broth. The dishes ranged from £6 – £9.5. I wish we have food this unpretentious and good in Hong Kong.

Old Truman Brewery

Boiler House Food Hall

We stumbled upon the Boiler House Food Hall while checking out the Sunday markets at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane. The food didn’t look too enticing; most were stew served on rice or bread. What Boiler House Food Hall lacks in flair, it makes up for in places of origin. The usuals like Italy, Spain, China, Japan and Korea were represented, as well as Morocco, Ethiopia and even Tibet.

I went with the familiar and ordered a plate of Malaysian curry with fried noodle; it tasted like coconut syrup.

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