The best things to do in London this May
ROADBOOK’s pick of the best things to do in London this May, from landmark exhibitions and cultural events to bank holiday festivities
May is one of our favourite months to be in London: leaves are firmly back on the trees, festival season begins in earnest, and for 2023, there are not two but three bank holidays to take advantage of and enjoy all the capital has to offer. Throw in exciting new restaurants and outdoor terraces, as well as a packed calendar of cultural events, including London Craft Week and the Chelsea Flower Show and May is shaping up to be one of the best months of the year. Let’s just hope the sun shines.
Without further ado, here are the best things to do in London this May.
Chelsea Flower Show and Chelsea in Bloom
When: 23-27 May
Where: Royal Hospital Chelsea, Royal Hospital Road, London, SW3 4SR
How much: Tickets from 48.85 GBP
157,000 people visit the Royal Hospital Chelsea grounds each year for the Chelsea Flower Show, held over five days at the end of May (the first two days are for members of the Royal Horticultural Society only). This year, expect more cutting edge garden design in the show gardens, boasting the creations of designers from all over the world, from Japan to the US, as well as new plants from specialist nurseries. It’s not all gardens either – the trade stands have various brands launching new lines too, and chef Skye Gyngell is behind Spring Garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which includes all-day dining, live entertainment and foraging experiences.
In addition to the main event, Chelsea in Bloom transforms the surrounding neighbourhood with uplifting installations. This year’s theme is ‘flowers on film’, so expect to see some of your favourite cinematic moments translated in floral form.
The best gigs and festivals happening in London
Jai Paul’s first ever headline London shows
When: 9 & 10 May
Where: HERE at Outernet, Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 8LH
Jai Paul is perhaps London’s most enigmatic and influential producer. With only two singles out, released over a decade ago, he influenced the sonic landscape dramatically, with artists such as Nao and Jungle citing his signature production methods as a major reference point, and both Beyonce and Drake sampling one of his singles. His unfinished debut album was leaked online in 2013, prompting Paul to disappear for a long hiatus. The long break ended suddenly in April 2023 with Paul’s first ever live performance at Coachella in California. Following the gig, Paul has announced his first ever headline shows in London this month at new underground venue HERE at Outernet in Soho. His brother A.K. Paul is joining on guitar, with Fabiana Palladino on keys and backing vocals, Rocco Palladino on bass, and Isaac Kizito on drums. The two gigs are set to be a momentous occasion.
Cross the Tracks
When: 28 May
Where: Brockwell Park, Brockwell Park Gardens, Herne Hill, London, SE24 0NG
How much: General admission from 70.95 GBP
Our favourite London day festival Cross The Tracks is returning to Brockwell Park this bank holiday Sunday with another banger of a line-up combining the best in UK and international soul, funk and jazz. Producer and singer duo NxWorries, made up of KNXWLEDGE and Anderson .Paak, are headlining for their first show in the UK together, along with Kelis, Masego, and the best of London’s jazz scene, with pianist Alfa Mist, and dancy afrobeat-leaning jazz quintet Ezra Collective. There’s a great mix of live acts and DJs, with Gilles Peterson, Nightmares on Wax and many others appearing on the decks. We’re especially excited for Sam Gellaitry’s live show, and Bristol’s expansive jazzers Ishmael Ensemble taking the stage.
The best design and art exhibitions to see in London
London Craft Week
When: 8-14 May
Where: Across London
How much: Various, some free
London Craft Week returns with its ninth edition this year, with a curated series of events, workshops and exhibitions across the city. Building on last year’s edition, there is a programme of international pavilions from South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Austria. The whole programme brings together the work of celebrated and emerging designers, makers and artists, including the first UK showcase of Loewe Craft Prize winner Dahye Jeong at Cromwell Place, and a display of Vivienne Westwood’s archive corsets and runway looks. Check the website for the full programme.
‘Making Sense’ by Ai Weiwei at the Design Museum
When: Until 30 July
Where: Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High Street, London W8 6AG
How much: 15 GBP
Artist and activist Ai Weiwei does not differentiate between disciplines: his practice glides across art, architecture, design, film, collecting and curating. One of the best new things to do in London this April, Making Sense is the first exhibition to showcase Ai’s ouvre in the context of design, presenting his work in conversation with historical Chinese artefacts, and other objects and commissions made especially for the show. The dialogue will explore the relationships between traditional craftsmanship and modern urban development, and question what we place value in today.
Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life at Tate Modern
When: Until 3 September
Where: Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG
How much: 20 GBP
Swedish painter and mystic Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) has been causing quite a stir in recent years. Obscure and uncelebrated for much of her lifetime, her work has since been recognised as some of the earliest abstract paintings in Western art history, many of them predating those by other more celebrated abstract artists of the 20th century. One such artist is Dutch painter Piet Mondrian who, independently of Klint, also developed a unique language of abstraction based on natural forms. Forms of Life is a new exhibition at Tate Modern that explores the work of both artists in tandem, comparing how the two both began as landscape painters, and how both were inspired by new ideas of spirituality and scientific discovery. On show will be af Klint’s large-scale, otherworldly masterpieces that she believed were commissioned from higher powers (she was also a medium).
‘The Point 0’ by Mohammed Sami at Camden Art Centre
When: Until 28 May
Where: Camden Art Centre, Arkwright Road, Hampstead, London, NW3 6DG
How much: Free
Camden Art Centre is currently hosting the Baghdad-born artist Mohammed Sami’s first institutional solo show in the UK, titled The Point 0. Sami, who lives in London, creates large-scale paintings that explore memory in relation to time and conflict, drawing on his own experiences living under Saddam Hussein’s regime, and his flight to Sweden as a refugee. Abandoned interiors, claustrophobic cityscapes and uncanny depictions of everyday objects all appear frequently in his work, as well as the haunting absence of people.
‘Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance’ at the V&A
When: Until 11 June
Where: Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL
How much: 20 GBP
The V&A is hosting the UK’s first major exhibition to explore the talents of Renaissance master Donatello (1386-1466) – arguably the greatest sculptor of his time – with more than 50 artworks never shown before in the UK. The show looks at Donatello’s innovations, collaborations and inspirations, in the context of 15-century Italy. The pieces on display include his works in marble, bronze, wood, terracotta and stucco, made for the church and state, as well as for his patrons, the Medici family. With some 130 objects on display, the show also draws on the V&A’s own collection of Italian renaissance sculpture – the largest of its kind outside of Italy.
‘KUMIHIMO: Japanese Silk Braiding by DOMYO’ at Japan House
When: Until 11 June
Where: 101-111 Kensington High Street, London W8 5SA
How Much: Free (bookable entry times are available)
For Japan House’s latest exhibition, tenth-generation company Domyo is showcasing the art of Kumihimo – a Japanese braiding technique that dates back to the sixth century, which was often used to detail samurai armour and swords. Experience the evolution of the craft in three sections: the history, the structure, and the future of Kumihimo braiding, shown with floor-to-ceiling installations, video displays, and equipment, tools, and more than 50 examples of braids.
‘Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70’ at Whitechapel Gallery
When: Until 7 May
Where: 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX
How much: 16.50 GBP
The first week of May is the last chance to see the major exhibition of 150 paintings from 81 international women artists working in abstract expressionism from the aftermath of the second world war to the 1970s at Whitechapel Gallery. Countering the dominant narrative that abstract expressionism began in the US by predominantly white and male painters, this show celebrates gestural, abstract paintings from across South America, East Asia, Eastern Europe. More than half the paintings have never been on public display in the UK, and features some better known American artists like Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler alongside lesser-known figures including Mozambican-Italian artist Bertina Lopes and Korean artist Wook-kyung Choi.
David Hockney ‘Bigger and Closer’ at Lightroom
When: Until 4 June
Where: 12, Lewis Cubitt Square, London, N1C 4DY
How much: from 25 GBP
Kicking off the programming for Lightroom, a new exhibition space in Lewis Cubitt Square in Kings Cross, is David Hockney’s Bigger and Closer (not smaller & further away) – a show that uses large-scale projection to immerse the audience in 60 years of Hockney’s paintings. Works will be projected across the floor and three walls of the voluminous space, accompanied by sound design and original music. A unique way to experience the work of a beloved artist.
Mike Nelson ‘Extinction Beckons’ at Hayward Gallery
When: Until 7 May
Where: Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Rd, London SE1 8XX
How much: 15 GBP
Artist Mike Nelson, who represented Britain in the 2011 Venice Biennale, is holding the first major survey of his large-scale installations and sculptures at the Hayward Gallery. His immersive structures are often psychologically charged and atmospheric, taking viewers on labytinthine journeys through fictional, uncanny worlds. His work is constructed with scavenged materials from salvage yards, junk shops and flea markets, and only ever exists for the time period of the exhibition. Expect the interiors of the Hayward Gallery to be radically transformed during the show’s run.
New restaurant openings in London
Lasdun at the National Theatre
When: 11 May
Where: National Theatre, London SE1 9PX
Brutalist icon the National Theatre is opening a brand new restaurant this May, from the team behind the Marksman on Hackney Road. The restaurant is named after the Theatre’s architect, Denys Lasdun, and will serve seasonal, locally sourced British fair, including pies, tarts, buns, grilled chops, and baked whole fish. British seafood is particularly emphasised with an oyster bar, and smoked salmon and eel in a display fridge. We can’t think of a better way to enjoy a meal before a show.
When: 19 May
Where: 80 City Road, London, EC1Y 2BJ
Chef and restaurateur Eyal Shani is adding to his 40 something restaurants with the opening of Lilienblum in east London, so-called after the street where one of his first restaurants was based in Tel Aviv. This London base will be celebrating all things Tel Aviv, and will be fronted by Tel Avivian chef Oren King. The menu is organised by ingredients, and demonstrates some inventive plating, featuring: ‘green asparagus perfectly arranged in a paper envelope’, ‘a slice of cabbage cake that melts into itself’, and ‘seafood pan roasted in tomato ovaries’.
When: 12 May
Where: 77-78 Marylebone High Street, London W1U 5JX
Having just opened Jacuzzi in Kensington, Big Mamma group is carrying its momentum with a new opening in Marylebone: the more intimately sized Carlotta, with a focus on Neapolitan and Sicilian classics. Like other restaurants from Big Mamma group, each part of the restaurant is distinctly designed with a glossy dose of retro flair, with the basement described as an ’80s midnight blue velvet paradise’. Chef Amondo from Napoli has designed a retro menu based on his nonna’s 1950s restaurant, and includes rosé veal tartare, tempura shrimp cocktail and penne alla vodka.
A Bar with Shapes for a Name is expanding
When: 12 May
Where: 232 Kingsland Road, Whitmore Estate, London, E2 8AX
How much: Cocktails 9.50 GBP
The brilliant Bauhaus-inspired cocktail bar A Bar with Shapes for a Name in Hackney is expanding into the basement this May. The team is using this new space as an ice workshop and additional seating area. As most of the time there’s a queue to get in here, this is welcome news. Head over to check out the revamp and the always excellent cocktail menu.
Where: 64 Eastcastle St, London W1W 8NQ
How much: Cocktails from 14 GBP
Fitzrovia paella restaurant Arros QD is launching a sister bar this May in the same building called Albufera. The bar is inspired by the coastal region of Valencia, and offers snacks by eight Michellin starred chef Quique Dacosta. Creative cocktails include a Bonavida aperitivo with gin, vermouth and orange peel, and a Resposado, with Patron, melon, lime and salt.
Where: 322 Andrews Road, London, E8 4RP
How much: TBC
The team behind Ombar has opened an all-day bakery and Italian deli called Forno, just across from their restaurant on the other side of Regents Canal in Hackney. The deli serves filled, short and stuffed pasta, fresh sauces, cold cuts, Italian cheeses, freshly baked breads and wines to take away, with ten seats inside and 20 outside for a breakfast of freshly baked cornetti, maritozzi and sfogliatelle served with strong Italian coffee, followed by lunch of stuffed focaccia sandwiches and daily changing soups. On occasional evenings, Forno will open the shutters for Roman pizza and pasta making with wines and negronis.
Continue your cultural tour of London with our insider guide to the city’s greatest galleries and museums.