Known to all as the V&A, this huge museum is devoted to the applied arts of all disciplines, all periods, and all nationalities. First opened as the South Kensington Museum in 1857, it was renamed in 1899 in honor of Queen Victoria's late husband and has since grown to become one of the country's best-loved cultural institutions, with high-profile temporary exhibitions alongside its stunning permanent collections.
Many collections at the V&A are presented not by period but by category—textiles, sculpture, jewelry, and so on (it's a tricky building to navigate, so be sure to use the free map). Nowhere is the benefit of the categorization more apparent than in the Fashion Gallery (Room 40), where formal 18th-century court dresses are displayed alongside the haute couture styles of contemporary designers. The Fashion Gallery has become known for high-profile temporary exhibitions devoted to icons such as David Bowie and Alexander McQueen.
The British Galleries (Rooms
52–58 and 118–125), devoted to art and design from 1500 to 1900, are full of beautiful diversions—among them the Great Bed of Ware (immortalized in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night). Here, a series of actual rooms have been painstakingly reconstructed piece by piece. These include an ornate music room and the Henrietta St. Room, a breathtakingly serene parlor dating to 1722.
The Asian Galleries (Rooms 44–47) are full of treasures, but among the most striking items on display is a remarkable collection of ornate samurai armor in the Japanese Gallery (Room 44). There are also galleries devoted to China, Korea, and the Islamic Middle East. More recent installations include the Ceramics gallery and the Medieval and Renaissance galleries, which have the largest collection of works from the period outside of Italy. The Europe Gallery (Rooms 1–7), opened after an extensive refurbishment, brings together more than 1,100 objects from 1600 to 1815. And after extensive renovations, an enhanced entrance off Exhibition Road offering access through a new public courtyard, as well as new underground galleries, is expected to open in spring 2017.
As a whirlwind introduction, you could take a free one-hour tour (at 10:30, 11:30, 12:30, 1:30, or 3:30). There is also a free tour devoted just to the British Galleries at 2:30 and a one-hour tour of the Theatre and Performance collections (including costumes from The Lion King) at 2. Occasional public lectures during the week are delivered by visiting bigwigs from the art and fashion worlds. There are free lectures throughout the week given by museum staff, who give an additional Introductory tour of the collection on Friday night at 7. Whatever time you visit, the spectacular sculpture hall will be filled with artists, both amateur and professional, sketching the myriad artworks on display there. Don't be shy; bring a pad and join in.