Getting Up to Snuff in London: The V&A and Harrods

As a peek at a bygone culture, this snuffbox is nothing to sneeze at.
Complimentary magnifying glasses make the Gilbert Collection's tiny treasures hugely impressive.
The Di and Dodi memorial at Harrods
By Rick Steves

Visiting the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, I fantasized about the most exquisite experiences in Europe. Sir Arthur Gilbert's collection of hundreds of micro-mosaics and ornate snuff boxes would be right up there with the best of them.

The micro-mosaics look like paintings at first. But squint through the magnifying glasses the museum provides, and you'll see a sea of pinhead-sized glazed and semiprecious cobbles, carefully placed to give shadow and texture. Many feature classic art treasures, including Venuses, the Three Graces, and multiple Madonnas and Children. These were souvenirs that 18th century English aristocrats took home after their "Grand Tours" of the Continent.

After examining these tiny treasures, sniff out the snuff boxes. The brilliantly jeweled and gilded snuff boxes were popular gifts in the 18th century. The sniffing of powdered and scented tobacco was such an elaborate social ritual in the 18th century that high-fashioned aristocrats had a snuff box for every occasion. The highlight of the collection is Frederick the Great's set of five incredibly ornate snuff boxes, considered part of the crown jewels of Prussia. Frederick's are so diamond-encrusted that, floating in darkness but outlined by spotlight, they overexpose when photographed.

Victoria and Albert Museum

For more of the exquisite, explore the rest of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The museum, a sightseer's time tunnel ride back to London's Victorian age, is named for Queen Victoria and the husband she adored, Albert (the only one who called her Vickie). They were a power couple on the grandest scale. While she steered Britain through its glory days, Albert worked on his special project: the first great world's fair, London's Great Exhibition of 1851.

The nearby Albert Memorial, in Hyde Park, was restored in 1998 with three layers of gold leaf. Albert (who died of typhoid fever in 1861 at just 42, leaving Victoria a widow for 40 years) is shown holding a book, which many assume is the Bible. It is actually the catalog of the Great Exhibition, the first modern "world's fair." When Queen Victoria opened the fair, she declared, "Today is the happiest and proudest day of my life." Six million attended in six months (in comparison, the Millennium Dome drew the same crowds in 2000, but took 12 months to do it).

The substantial profit made from the Great Exhibition of 1851 was used to buy up land and establish the complex of museums in South Kensington. The greatest of these is the much-loved Victoria and Albert Museum, known as the V&A.

This vast warehouse of a museum has plenty of plunder from the Empire's vast reach. In addition to seeing the Gilbert Collection, you can visit the Raphael cartoons of Renaissance Italy, priceless vases of China's Ming dynasty, or lumbering tusks carved for the Indian Raj. If you like your history lesson in chronological order, start at the entrance (the Medieval and Renaissance era) and work your way through the good old days (Europe 1100–1450) to the modern era.

For me, the V&A's British Galleries are a must. Even if you're not the sort to get excited about a tapestry, it's easy to appreciate the museum's excellent exhibitions. Five-hundred year old portrait-sitters gaze out at you, with a display nearby containing the actual clothes they wore while posing. It's impressive. Spend a day at the V&A, with the Gilbert Collection's tobacco curios and other kingly knicknacks. These revered emblems of the upper crust are captivating, giving us an intimate look at the old regime from modern London.

Lunching at Harrods

If the finery of the V&A Museum puts you in a material mood, walk down the street to Harrods, London's most venerable department store. People complain that it's unfriendly and too expensive. Maybe so, but it's great for gawking. The free store guidebooklet (at any info post) sorts out Harrods' 300 departments and million square feet of display space on seven floors, directing you to whatever you want: that $23,000 kid-size, yet drivable Hummer — or maybe just a warmer sweater. If old Frederick the Great needed a new snuff box today, he'd head to Harrods.

To hit Harrods' high points, start at the ground floor Food Halls with their Edwardian tiled walls, creative and exuberant displays, and staff in period costumes — not quite like your supermarket back home.

Iin the center of the store, ride the Egyptian Escalator — lined with pharaoh-headed sconces, papyrus-plant lamps, and hieroglyphic balconies — to the fourth floor. From the escalator, make a U-turn left and hop and skip through toy land to The Georgian Restaurant. In the late afternoon a fancy afternoon tea is served, with a three-tiered serving tray stacked with finger sandwiches, scones, pastries, and a big, steamy pot of tea. Relax as a pianist tickles the keys of a long, long Bösendorfer, the world's most expensive piano. For non-tea drinkers, a wide array of other eateries are scattered throughout the store, including a sushi bar, kosher deli, pizzeria, classic pub, and — for the truly homesick — an American diner.

Or for an exquisite lunch on the cheap, I buy an over-the-top picnic from Harrods' deli section (caviar, sushi or a fruit plate to go) and munch in nearby Hyde Park's Rose Garden. From there, I can ponder how big shots and little shots alike can enjoy so many layers of one of the world's great cities.