Port Eliot Festival Port Eliot Festival © Bill Bradshaw

London for intellectuals: the best lectures, seminars and schools

All hail the new salons: how mind-expanding pursuits have taken over the capital.


London Editor

From salons to societies and seminars, London's longstanding stranglehold of intellectual pursuits has, quite literally, gone to its habitués' heads. As night owls party, gourmands dine and fitness fanatics finesse, the curious attend talks on everything from astrology to the arts, zoology to Zoroastrianism at members' establishments such as The Arts Club, Home House and The Groucho Club; jewellery handling workshops at Christie's and literary luncheons and suppers at Simpsons-on-the-Strand, The Savoy and Hardy's.

Of course intellectual furtherance is a dominant genome in the DNA of the city that gave birth to Shakespeare, feminism and the World Wide Web, and the capital is currently in the renewed throes of the cult of the cerebral. The renaissance really started with the School of Life in 2008 – philosopher and author Alain de Botton's hub for the incurably curious, where seminars, courses and workshops address person-centred subjects ranging from 'Truth and Lies in Business' to 'Philosophy as Therapy.'

Bespoke services include bibliotherapists to refine your reading list and there are 'intensive' one week courses incorporating dinner parties and excursions drawing people from around the world. Such is The School of Life's success that it's spread all over the stratosphere with schools opening in Melbourne, Rio, São Paulo, Paris, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Belgrade and Antwerp. Recently, The Idler Academy launched in Westbourne Grove, offering classes on everything from public speaking to punctuation and philosophy, while festivals such as Port Eliot and Festival Number 6 curate the world's leading thinkers for an intellectually-orientated audience.


The November unveiling of the Wellcome Collection's new gallery extensions, followed by the launch of "Henry's" – the by-invitation-only club room for the exchange of ideas and conversation surrounding science and art – further enhances London's 'Museum Mile' where The British Museum, British Library and School of Life (natch) among many other heavyweight institutions are found. It's the intellectual heartland of London, where the Bloomsbury Set – whose members included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and EM Forster among its ranks – progressed 19th century thinking.

Today, you can attend salon suppers at The Wellcome Collection – which opened in 2007 as a hub for the 'incurably curious' and has grown organically and exponentially since – TED Talks at the Courtauld Institute and UCL, and a book club with authors as wide-ranging as Germaine Greer, Michael Frayn and Carlos Acosta at the Bloomsbury Institute within the venerable environs of the charming Georgian townhouse home to the publishers' headquarters. If Knightsbridge is the luxury core of the capital and the East End the heart of art, then Bloomsbury is the thinkers' terrain.


As perfectly crafted heels clatter down Bond Street, a jewel-like amphitheatre hosts talks on everything from Antarctic expeditions to the Science of Sport. Since the 'Friday Night Discourses' began in 1825, most major scientific figures have presented talks at The Royal Institution – this establishment, along with the Royal Geographical Society, The Royal Society and RIBA, has presented pioneers and philosophies to the interested public for hundreds of years and each comes bestowed with a lifetime Royal Charter.

Royal Institution

The modern-day evolution of such forums comes in the form of wildly popular events such as 5x15 – in which five public figures are given fifteen minutes each to ad-lib on their lives, passions and inspirations – and the religiously followed Intelligence Squared debates, which cover everything from monogamy to Vermeer.

Miracle and Charms Exhibition at the Wellcome Collection

Of course what you take home from such events isn't just a wider understanding of yourself, the world and enough inspiration and dinner party conversation to see you through the coming year. Often, you'll make new friends, too. The intrinsically interactive nature of these contemporary salons guarantees discourse both in and outside the events, and there's always common ground to agree (or debate) upon. Hell, you might even collect enough likeminded individuals to start your own salon soon.

1 The School of Life
2 Royal Geographical Society
3 The Wellcome Collection
4 The Royal Institution

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