There is no denying that London is a great city for museum lovers. You’ll find plenty of art and history to geek about here, but that’s not all. London museums cater to many interests where you can immerse yourself in your passions. From science, fashion and design to transportation, medicine and the obscure. With over 170 museums in London, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
One of my favourite things about museums in London is that many of them are free. You can walk in and spend an hour, or a day, checking out priceless art and treasures from around the world without having to pay a hefty admission fee. As a museum enthusiast, I think that this is an incredible treat. While not all museums are free, many of the largest and most well-known are. This goes a long way in a city like London, where things are on the pricey side.
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10 Museums in London not to be missed
While there are many great museums in London, I can’t possibly cover them all in this post. Instead, I’m going to list the ones that I think any culture, history and art lover would appreciate—especially those coming here for the first time.
As much as I love the museums here, I think it’s worth noting that many of them are located in absolutely stunning buildings. It’s a win-win for art and architecture. Always make sure to check the official museum site for admission info before planning your visit.
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The British Museum
? Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG
Before I even came to London, I knew that I wanted to visit the British Museum. Famous for its collections and the controversies surrounding many acquisitions, this is a great place to start your exploration of museums in London.
The museum opened in 1759 as the first free national museum to cover all fields of human knowledge. While the museum was open to all visitors, it had limited hours, and visitors had to apply for tickets ahead of time. This, unsurprisingly, meant that admission was restricted to the well-connected who got special treatment from the curators and trustees. It wasn’t until the changes in regulation in the 1830s that the museum became freely accessible and open to the public. Today, the British Museum welcomes over 6 million visitors annually.
While the museum houses over 8 million objects, only about 80,000 are displayed in the numerous halls and galleries. Here you’ll find the Rosetta Stone from 196 B.C. that played a crucial role in our ability to decipher Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Not to be missed are the controversial Parthenon sculptures, brought from Greece by Lord Elgin, ancient Lewis Chessmen chess pieces carved from walrus ivory, and significant Egyptian and Chinese collections.
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Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum
? Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL
I didn’t expect V&A to be such a vast place. As the world’s leading museum of art and design, there is plenty to explore. The museum’s permanent collection includes over 2.3 million objects that span over 5,000 years of human creativity. You can see many of the objects displayed over seven floors in more than 150 galleries.
The museum opened in 1852, after the success of the Grand Exhibition of 1851, as the Museum of Manufactures. It was housed in several semi-permanent buildings with new ones being constantly added. In 1890, the museum’s board decided to launch a competition for a new façade that would bring cohesion to the overall architectural design. Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone in 1899 to what became the museum we know today.
Here you’ll find one of the most significant collections of decorative arts, design, fashion and textiles. You can also admire furniture, jewellery, glass and ceramics, sculptures, metalwork and paintings. It’s like the museum is all about the beautiful and precious objects that span across various cultures and ages, collected for pure admiration.
Natural History Museum
? Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London SW7 5BD
I’m not going to lie. I think I loved the Natural History Museum building even more than its exhibits. There are no artworks by renowned painters here or sculptures from antiquity. Yet, as far as museums in London go, this one might be my favourite. It’s also free, which made me happier than a kid in a candy store.
The outside of the museum is an ode to Victorian architecture. The inside is just as impressive. In fact, the Natural History Museum looks more like a cathedral or a fancy palace, build with great imagination and loads of money. The interior is an awe-inspiring blend of staircases, carved pillars, animal reliefs, windows arches, and fauna and flora sculptures.
The original collection of specimens was part of the British Museum’s natural department. As it grew out of its space, a competition was held in 1864 to design a new museum building. The work was completed in 1880 and the new museums opened to the public in 1881.
The building itself is magnificent, and just when you get past its stunning exterior and the entrance, you’re greeted by a skeleton of a 22.2-metre (over 72 feet) blue whale suspended from the ceiling. It is incredible. Inside, the museum holds about 80-million specimens of dinosaur bones and fossils, living and extinct species, as well as Charles Darwin’s first edition of On the Origin of Species and casts from Pompeii.
Churchill War Rooms
? Clive Steps, King Charles Street, London SW1A 2AQ
The Churchill War Rooms are exactly what you think they are. The former underground military HQ is where Winston Churchill coordinated the Allied resistance against Nazi Germany during WWII. Much of the space is exactly as it was left after the war.
Today, it’s hard to imagine just how much activity took place just below the streets of London. Through the displays and objects from that time, you can learn about the men and women who worked and often slept here. The rooms and furnishing give you an idea of what this space looked like, while the recordings of the staff who worked here give you a more intimate insight into the daily operations. It’s quite surreal to hear them describe their routines and jobs and work with Winston Churchill while bombs were falling above ground.
There is also an extensive display dedicated to the life of Winston Churchill, where you can learn more about the man himself. Here you’ll find many personal objects, including letters to his wife, military uniforms, paintings and even alcohol expenses. If that wasn’t enough, you can listen to the extracts from his wartime speeches to get a full picture of who he was.
? Bankside, London SE1 9TG
Housed in what was once the Bankside Power Station, the Tate Modern museum houses a collection of British art from the 16th century to the present as well as international modern and contemporary art. The museum opened in 2000 and has since been attracting millions of visitors annually. Artworks are organized thematically and include works by Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol.
The original Tate museum opened in 1897 with a small collection of British artworks. It was largely funded by the industrialist Henry Tate, who donated his collection of British nineteenth-century art to the nation. Today, Tate’s collection includes 70,000 works in four different locations. The original is known as Tate Britain.
I didn’t spend as much time at the Tate Modern as I did at the other museums in London. It’s definitely one I plan on revisiting next time I’m there, especially for the views from the free viewing platform on top of the Blavatnik Building, an extension named after the billionaire oligarch Len Blavatnik who donated money to the museum.
Museum of London
? 150 London Wall, London EC2Y 5HN
The Museum of London is the perfect place for history lovers. Covering London’s various incarnations from Roman Londinium to the present-day metropolis, it takes visitors on a walk through time.
Here you learn about the city under the Roman and the Saxons and the history of the Thames. For an insight into London’s dark past, you can walk the streets of Victorian London and examine how civil wars, plagues and fires ravaged the city. You can also learn about the suffragettes and relive the civil- and gay-rights movements.
This is probably one of London’s most fascinating museums that will provide insight into the city and how it’s changed over the centuries. There is a lot of darkness, but it’s not all doom and gloom. My favourite part was the Vauxhall Pleasure Garden, a staple in many historical romance novels.
It was a place where the glittering world of wealth, fashion and high culture showed off its seedy underside; where princes partied with prostitutes, and the middle classes went to be shocked and titillated by the excess on display. Simultaneously an art gallery, a restaurant, a brothel, a concert hall and a park, the pleasure garden was the place where Londoners confronted their very best, and very worst, selves. When Vauxhall finally closed in 1859, it was the end of an era, never to be repeated.Danielle Thom, Curator
Sir John Soane’s Museum
? 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Holborn, London WC2A 3BP
Sir John Soane was an 18th-century architect and an avid collector. Over time, he purchased three adjoining properties and turned them into his own personal museum. Upon his death in 1832, his house and its entire collection were passed on to a board of trustees to preserve it in perpetuity for inspiration and education. The trustees continue to do so today.
Being an architect worked out well for Sir John, who was born as the fourth son of a bricklayer. Through his father’s connection and his own talent, he went on to have a very successful career as an architect. While taking the Grand Tour of Europe, he was inspired by the ancient ruin of Rome, Paestum and Pompeii which inspired his interest in classical art and architecture.
Here you’ll find many spectacular items, from the sarcophagus of the Egyptian pharaoh, Seti I, stained glass from the medieval Palace of Westminster, Greek vases and Roman bronzes to furniture, paintings and his own miniatures. Everything is arranged how Soane envisioned it, and he was known for rearranging his collections to incorporate new acquisitions.
This is one of the museums in London with limited access so make sure to inquire ahead of time for available spots on the museum’s official website.
Tower of London
? St Katharine’s & Wapping, London EC3N 4AB,
The Tower of London is not like the other museums in London, yet it should definitely be on your list. It was built by William the Conqueror in 1066 and has stood watch over London ever since. The Tower is famous for its Beefeaters, the collection of Crown Jewels, and as a notorious execution site where many have lost their heads.
The Tower has played an important part in the history of London. It was a defence fort, military barracks, an armoury and the royal mint. It also housed a menagerie of wild animals, royal records and served as a royal residence for England’s kings and queens.
I spent about three hours touring the tower grounds. It was an incredible experience made even more interesting because it was led by one of the Yeoman Wardens, known as the Beefeaters. The tour is included with your admission and makes the experience a lot more immersive. I totally recommend it!
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? Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London, SW7 2DD
With seven floors of interactive displays and educational exhibits, this London museum is fun for everyone. From exhibits about early technology to space travel, you’re not likely to be bored. Here you can learn and explore everything about planes, trains, cars, locomotives, space ships and other inventions.
Collections at the Science Museum also include an extensive look at the contributions of women in science from the mid-1800s onwards. From Ada Lovelace’s work in computing during the 1840s through to Beatrice Shilling’s work in aviation during the Second World War and many others.
There is also Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries, with more than 3,000 medical artifacts, striking artworks, interactive games and immersive experiences. If that doesn’t grab your interest, there are several others that focus on everyday items from light bulbs, cooking appliances and roadworks to menstruation items over the centuries and vacuum cleaners. Who said museums were boring?
? 224-238 Kensington High Street, Kensington, London W8 6AG
When it comes to museums in London, this one is pretty straightforward. It is about celebrating all aspects of design across many media, including products, industrial graphics, fashion and architectural design.
The museum houses permanent and temporary exhibitions and offers learning facilities, event space and studios for designers in residence. There is also a large auditorium, a library and archives. The Design Museum won the European Museum of the Year Award in 2018.
Final thoughts about museums in London
I will always love the museums in London. With such a variety, there is something for everyone to enjoy. It also proves that museums can be fun, educational and visually appealing. It helps that many of them are free, which means you can frequently visit without rushing through and trying to see everything all at once.
As London has been home to many wealthy people, its museums are filled with priceless objects collected worldwide. While I love the fact that we can see these things today, sometimes you have to question how they got there. It’s another great talking point that makes museums so fascinating. Are you a London museum enthusiast?
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