European cities are renowned for being the ultimate meccas of the museum-obsessed traveller and London is certainly no exception. What is rather exceptional, however, is the fact that the British capital showcases its most prized possessions, most valued artefacts and most insightful history almost completely free of charge. Following the credo that museums should be a means to educate and enlighten us common folks, and that mankind’s most admirable art should be free for all to admire, some of the city’s most prominent museums will cost you nay a cent to visit. Considering that a museum tour-de-force in some other cities can end up costing one a small fortune, this is no small windfall for the budget conscious wanderer.
London is home to over 300 superlative museums and galleries, so figuring out where to start may seem a bit of a challenge. To this end, we’ve compiled a guide to the ten best museums in London to help make your holiday even more enjoyable. Grab yourself a London Pass as soon as you arrive and head forth on a cultural discovery par excellence.
Here’s our pick of the top of the crop:
The British Museum
The British Museum would have to rate as one of the world’s most colossal show-offs. Not only is the space absurdly vast, but the collection of priceless art and artefacts (from every inch of this planet) is so comprehensive it is often said that one could take a trip through mankind’s evolution by visiting this museum alone. Granted, 13 million objects would be quite a lot to go through, yet one could always start with the two million exhibits which are catalogued and photographed on the museum’s website!
Renowned as the home of the Rosetta Stone, the Lindow Man and the largest collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts outside of Cairo, the British Museum is a world-treasure haveing the likes of which you won’t find anywhere else. A truly world-class establishment, the British Museum is rated as the world’s best anthropological museum, so unless you hail from another planet you may well find plenty here to blow your mind.
The National Gallery
It’s quite amazing to discover that when London’s National Gallery first opened in 1824, its collection consisted of just 36 paintings. Fast forward nearly two centuries and what you have is one of the world’s most ample collections of Western European paintings, comprising nearly 2,000 works of art from classical masters. Divided into four separate wings, the displays cover the gamut from French Impressionists to Italian Renaissance as well as 17th century Dutch and Flemish masterpieces.
This particular museum may not be as gargantuan as some others in its league around the world, yet don’t be fooled into thinking that you’ll be able to see it all in just a single visit. Grab an audio guide on your way, do a quick recon route using the interactive map at the entrance and plan your visit according to your most fervent must-see wishes.
The Museum of London
Everything you ever wanted to know about London and its history you’ll find wonderfully displayed at the aptly named London Museum, just a block away from St. Paul’s Cathedral. Retracing the steps and turbulent times of Londoners is the main focus of this exceptional museum; the displays organized in a concise chronological order starting from about 40,000 BC right up to the present day.
Here, you won’t just get a chance to see some really cool stuff, but you’ll actually be able to travel through London’s most significant milestones, its trials and tribulations as it suffered and recovered from the ravages of wars, famines, plagues and catastrophic fires. Interactive and engaging, this museum should be considered an absolute must for all who are visiting London for the first time.
The Natural History Museum
The collections of the Natural History Museum are one of London’s most exciting exhibits and, whilst the dinosaur skeletons and massive mammals keep the little ones enthralled, we think it’s the in-depth look at our planet’s forces of nature and our supposed effect on those, which impress adult visitors and keep them hostage here for hours on end.
Come here to meet Guy, a Western Lowland Gorilla who used to reside in the London zoo in the 50s and 60s. He’s since been stuffed and mounted and displayed at the Natural History Museum and seems to attract as many visitors nowadays as he did when he was still alive!
The Tate Modern
For a complete change of pace, and sensory input, head to the Tate Modern and take in one of its colossal modern art displays. London’s take on New York’s MoMa has been as awe-inspiring and controversial, but as per usual with the world of contemporary art it would help if you are a connoisseur (or at the very least an appreciateur). Both the Tate’s permanent and continuously evolving temporary displays have won it much praise over the years and the rooftop restaurant (which offers amazing views of London and the Thames) is rated as one of the best coffee spot in town, so if you really can’t make sense of the art instalments head to the 7th floor and restore your spirits with the best views in town instead.
The Science Museum
London’s most child-friendly museum boasts an array of interactive displays based on science and technology and, if you think it’s all just for kiddies, you may be in for a pleasant surprise. Take a spin in the Apollo 10 module or investigate the inner workings of planes, trains, bikes and cars and you may well discover (to your utter amazement) that you’ve never really grown up. Yes, this place can get insanely busy with screaming kids and yes it can get a bit much, but head here first thing in the morning and deal with the crowds because this fantastic museum is full of awesomeness’s you’ll have a lot of fun with.
The Churchill War Rooms
This museum is housed in the underground bunkers which served as the headquarters of British intelligence during the Second World War and rates as one of the most unique attractions in London. Contrary to what you may think, this museum is not just aimed at history buffs; the details of the events, preparations, decisions made and day to day running of the war effort have a way of sucking in even those who’ve previously not shown any interest whatsoever in history.
Totally engrossing, educative and atmospheric, the Churchill War Rooms may be orgasmic for history fanatics but we think anyone who visits will find them immensely interesting.
The Courtauld Gallery
The Courtauld is a private art gallery hence it’s one of the few museums in London which charges an entry fee. If you’re a fan of impressionist and post-impressionist works, however, you’ll find the small fee money well spent. The Courtauld boasts some of the most famous works by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Renoir, Michelangelo and Gauguin and is an intimate and wonderfully arranged show space which gets less attention than it truly deserves. On the other hand, this also tends to be a rather nice incentive for art lovers: seeing some of the world’s most splendid works in peace and quiet, and paying only £6 for the privilege, is quite a feat.
The Victoria & Albert Museum
The V&A is said to house the ‘world’s greatest collections of decorative arts’ and after spending a few hours sighing over the opulent period costumes, eye-popping jewels, ceramics and fabulous sculptures and statues you may be inclined to agree. The incredible part about this museum is that not only does it cover the absolute range of British history (as far as ‘decorations’ are concerned) but it also showcases some rather amazing international gems too. Ogle at the treasures of ancient Russia, China and the Middle East and even Queen Victoria’s charms will seem subtle in comparison.
The National Maritime Museum
If you’re interested in learning more about London’s maritime exploits, head down to Greenwich Park and visit the National Maritime Museum. Initially found by Charles II in the mid-1600s, the museum (along with the Royal Observatory next door) retraces the steps of British seafaring explorers via incredible photo exhibitions, videos and interactive displays. Whilst the exhibits concentrate mainly on the British side of world navigation history, the fact that most of the world’s history is entwined makes this museum ideal for anyone interested in learning more about how we discovered, conquered and colonized the rest of the planet.
If you’ve had enough of the classic museum day out, yet are still thirsty for more insights, don’t miss visiting some of London’s weirdest museums, which can be as enticing and unforgettable as some of the city’s most prized. Find out all about them right here.
The British Museum’s Rosetta Stone
Lord Mayor State Coach at the Museum of London
T-Rex at the Natural History Museum
The Turbine Hall @ the Tate Modern
East Hall @ Science Museum
The Map Room @ Churchill War Rooms
Spanish Jewels @ the V&A Museum