A global powerhouse for pop and musical theater, London has an equally diverse and energetic classical sector. With five major symphony orchestras, two opera houses, and a fast-moving fringe scene, there’s always something new to hear.Less
A concrete masterpiece of brutalist architecture, The Barbican is home to the London Symphony Orchestra which performs more than 70 concerts a year here. It’s also the London base for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the contemporary-leaning Britten Sinfonia, and the period instrument Academy of Ancient Music, as well as a program of visiting international soloists and ensembles. Grab a pre-show martini at the first-floor Martini Bar.
A true Victorian marvel, this colossal South Kensington landmark first opened its doors in 1871 directly opposite Hyde Park’s spectacular gilded monument to its namesake, Prince Albert. Best known as the summer home of the BBC Proms—two months of nightly classical concerts with a relaxed vibe and affordable tickets—it also hosts massive gala concerts and operatic arena spectaculars, making full use of its huge, circular main hall.
Just north of Oxford Street, tucked away amid upscale restaurants and shops, is London’s premier venue for chamber music, piano recitals, and classical song. Cherished for its intimate acoustic and exquisite Art Nouveau interiors, the world’s leading string quartets and lieder singers all appear regularly on the Wigmore’s pocket-sized stage, along with countless rising stars. It has a passionately loyal regular audience, and the downstairs restaurant is stylish without being fussy.
This lively riverside arts center on the south side of the Thames, next to the National Theatre and British Film Institute, is home to three major classical venues: the majestic Royal Festival Hall, brutalist Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the more relaxed Purcell Room with its program of chamber ensembles, jazz, comedy, and world music. The distinguished London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, and the London Sinfonietta are three of the Southbank Centre’s six resident orchestras.
This palatial theater is home to the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet, presenting lavishly staged classics in both art forms. One of the world’s great opera houses, the ROH is the place in London to see big international stars; Jonas Kaufmann, Joyce DiDonato, and Bryn Terfel appear regularly, and King Charles III (a serious music-lover) has a permanent Royal Box. The basement Linbury Theatre presents cutting-edge chamber opera and has the same world-class production values.
Located in a hip redevelopment zone near the St. Pancras Eurostar terminal, this modern multi-use arts center boasts a lively small-to-medium scale classical program with an emphasis on informal and innovative presentation styles and regular festivals of experimental and world music. The largest space, Hall One, might just have the best acoustic of London’s newer venues; it’s built on rubber pads to minimize noise from the nearby rail terminals.
Right in the heart of the West End, this opulent Edwardian music hall is home to English National Opera and English National Ballet. Very much the sassy, youthful alternative to the nearby Royal Opera, ENO courts an altogether funkier crowd with its edgy production style, discounted tickets (free to anyone under 21), opera-themed cocktails, and policy of presenting classic operas in English. Blockbuster musicals fill the Coliseum’s (huge) stage in the off-season.
Minutes from the boutiques of the King’s Road, this Chelsea venue used to be a church and still has its bell tower and Tiffany-style stained-glass windows. But after an extensive renovation, it reopened in 2004 as a music venue and now hosts a regular concert series with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, alongside a mixture of touring orchestras, chamber music, and family sing-along concerts during the Holiday season.
An elegant 18th-century church in one of the only squares in London that’s still lit with gas, St. John’s has reinvented itself as a concert hall, with regular lunchtime concerts and performances from resident orchestra, the young musician collective Southbank Sinfonia. Understandably, it’s a mecca for baroque and early music, and there’s jazz in the crypt too: spooky, sure, but also equipped with Wi-Fi and a full bar.
The graceful 18th-century church on Trafalgar Square is the very definition of a London landmark. It’s actually a surprisingly friendly venue for a program of choral, chamber, and orchestral music, making good use of its atmospheric acoustic and its spacious crypt café, where you can sip coffee on the gravestones of Georgian Londoners. After many years’ absence, Joshua Bell’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has recently resumed giving concerts here, too.