The storied Royal Academy of Arts in London has brought us such artists as David Hockney, Anish Kapoor, and Zaha Hadid. With prolific programming and top-rated eatieries, here's how the spend your best day at the museum.

By Bridget Arsenault
August 14, 2015
Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts

What to Know

The origins of London’s Royal Academy of Arts practically start with “once upon a time.” Founded in 1768 by Sir William Chambers, who sought to “establish a society promoting art and design,” he approached King George III with a petition signed by 36 artists and architects (himself included), and was given a 30-foot-long gallery space in Pall Mall as a result.

The mission statement is to promote art and artists through exhibitions, education and debate, and the academy is the site of the country’s first-ever art school—now one of the only remaining free art schools in Europe, undeniably one of the most prestigious. The three-year course has trained the likes of William Blake and 2013 Turner Prize-nominee Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

The current list of Royal Academicians never swells beyond 80, and it always includes a mix: painters; engravers, printmakers and draughtsmen; sculptors and architects; and the likes of Norman Foster, David Hockney, Anish Kapoor and Zaha Hadid.

From 2010 to 2013, five of the world’s top 10, best-attended exhibitions were housed at the RA. The annual schedule is framed around the Summer Exhibition, which opens each year with a parade down Piccadilly. It remains the largest open-entry exhibition on earth, with artists from all corners submitting works in the hope of being one of the 1,000-ish chosen for the show.

How to Start

It’s easy to while away a day here, so keep the Grand Café on the ground floor in mind, either as the perfect first port for a coffee, or for a break for an enticing open-faced sandwich—try the one with buffalo mozzarella, chargrilled peppers and courgette, red onion and pesto. The room is elegant, and the food light and fresh.

What to See

Before it ends August 23, catch Eileen Cooper RA’s exhibition of drawings, Hide and Seek—a window into her near-40-year career. Keep your eyes peeled, and you might see Cooper herself sashaying through the galleries, as she is the elected Keeper of the RA and has a studio in the building. (She’s also the first woman to ever hold the position.)

Right now, Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust (through September 27) has never before shown outside the U.S. (because of the sheer complication of moving the intricate pieces), and displays 80 of the artist’s delightful boxes, collages and films assembled in one remarkable space.

Looking ahead, buy tickets for Ai WeiWei (September 19 through December 13); it’s the blockbuster exhibition of the fall. The big news is that the Chinese dissident artist has finally got his passport (it was unduly confiscated in 2011), and it looks as if he will be travelling to the U.K. for the show.

You can kick off 2016 with Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse (January 30 through April 20, 2016). It will bring together breathtakingly beautiful work by Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Manet, Sargent, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Matisse, Klimt and Klee.

Beyond the Exhibits

Once edified on art, the ideal way to end the day is at the Shenkman Bar. If you’re lucky, you might spot David Hockney sipping a cocktail in the corner. The talented barmen try to create and theme cocktails around the art on show—as the fall Ai Weiwei exhibition approaches, expect a menu rife with Chinese influences. While the weather holds, there’s a small leafy garden terrace off the bar. It’s worth a visit even if you don’t stop to see an exhibition.

If you’re famished, walk but a few steps and take a seat at the Keeper’s House for white tablecloths and seasonal produce—it’s a more formal, multi-course dining experience. The menu changes almost daily, but expect offerings such as octopus carpaccio with garlic oil and pickled radish, or toasted fregola with wild mushrooms and parmesan shavings.

Beyond the exhibitions, the RA hosts a robust calendar of events, lectures and debates; they are not to be overlooked. From nighttime film screenings in the courtyard to life-drawing classes and artist Q&As, the museum has everything you could want of London, all in one place.        

Bridget Arsenault is the associate editor, print and digital at Vanity Fair UK. and the co-director of the Bright Young Things Film Club. She covers the U.K. beat for Travel + Leisure; follow her on Twitter at @bridget_ruth.