This post was most recently updated on March 6th, 2017
Visiting London? Hungry to learn about the history and culture of this great capital? Look no further than these ten magnificent museums based right in the heart of the city, most of them completely free, and all considered some of the best in the world.
10 London Museums and Galleries
1. The British Museum
One of the oldest, largest, and most iconic museums in Europe, the British Museum hosts a vast collection of artifacts, which tell the story of human life from the shadowy depths of history to the present day. Founded in 1753, the museum began its collection with the findings of physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane, becoming the first national museum open to all curious visitors. From that point forward, it has become home to some of the best discoveries made by many British explorers, including the famous Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon sculpture, and Egyptian mummies. The museum is quite popular, drawing millions of visitors every year, but offers free admittance and tours every Friday.
2. The Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum is often abbreviated as V&A and is one of the largest and best museums of decorative art and design in the world. It is named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and the Queen herself laid the museum’s foundation stone in 1899. The museum houses various types of global art in its seven enormous levels, including art from more unexpected categories such as furniture, fashion, and architecture. Although it was opened in 1852, museum admission did not become free until 2001.
3. The National Gallery
Founded in 1824, the National Gallery hosts more than 2,300 Western European paintings and is ranked as the fourth most popular art museum in the world. It exhibits paintings created in 1250 to 1900, including work by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, and van Gogh. In 1838, a new location was opened in Trafalgar Square in order to move the museum closer to the center of the city and to make the gallery accessible to all. General admission is free, including daily talks on assorted topics and interactive classes for children on Sundays.
4. The Natural History Museum
Founded in 1881, the Natural History Museum is one of the most fascinating and prestigious science museums in the world. Exhibits can be seen that explore aspects of botany, entomology, mineralogy, paleontology, and zoology. The museum is famous for its dinosaur collection, especially the Diplodocus skeleton, and the animatronic T-rex is a favorite as well. In addition to its large section devoted to mammals including a fantastic model blue whale, the museum boasts the enormous Darwin Centre, which hosts over 22 million species of insects and plants. In addition, visitors can peek into laboratories and watch real scientists at work and engage in many interactive exhibits all without paying a single cent.
5. The Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum not only houses guns, tanks, and aircraft that have survived wars spanning from World War I to the present day, but also stories of darkness, courage, and the hope of people whose lives have been deeply affected by the ravages of war. This museum documents what life was like in wartime for both civilians and soldiers and people at home and overseas. There are special exhibits dedicated to the Holocaust and courageous tales of ordinary heroes, but the museum focuses greatly on the consequences of modern warfare. It is free and open to the public.
6. The National Portrait Gallery
Founded in 1856, the National Portrait Gallery is the first portrait gallery in the world and also the largest portrait collection. The works feature famous British faces from the latter end of the Middle Ages to the present day, including paintings, sculptures, pictures, and videos. Perhaps most well-known is the famous painting of William Shakespeare by Chandos. The gallery also features a beautiful rooftop restaurant.
7. The Science Museum
A whimsical world of discovery and awe, the Science Museum opens up an incredible new realm of exploration and research. Many of the displays, such as the flight simulator, are interactive, and the museum houses many famous artifacts, including the Apollo 10 command capsule. Its seven floors present endless opportunities to delve deeper into the wonders of space, medicine, and even lesser known sciences like clock making. In fact, the Clockmaker’s Collection, the oldest collection of clocks and watches in the world, recently relocated to the museum in 2015. Come experience the power of science through over fifteen thousand items available to peruse for no entry fee whatsoever.
8. The Museum of London
Stepping inside the Museum of London is perhaps the closest you can get to time traveling, and what a wonderful and astounding journey it is. This museum takes you back to prehistoric London and allows you to watch the great city evolve through the centuries. Guests can learn about London during the times of the Romans and Saxons, during the medieval period, and through civil wars, plagues, and fires. Further along the timeline, you can walk through the streets of Victorian London and visit reconstructed pleasure gardens. This museum offers an entirely free and unforgettable multisensory experience that you will not want to miss.
9. The Royal Air Force Museum
The Royal Air Force Museum, or the RAF Museum, as some call it, is home to over one hundred aircraft, including one of the two remaining Vickers Wellingtons and the famous veteran Avro Lancaster S-Sugar. There are five exhibition sections, titled Milestones of Flight, The Battle of Britain Hall, Bomber Hall, Historia Hangard, and the Grahame-White Factory. Aircraft hang from the ceiling of the entrance hall, creating a feeling of grandeur and power. This exploration of the airborne might of the British military is a treat all visitors to London should experience.
10. The London Transport Museum
The London Transport Museum artfully tells the story of the history and culture of London’s transportation and how its evolution affected the growth of the entire city. The first registered item of public transportation was the sedan chair, and an example artifact is housed in the museum along with more famous inventions, like the first electric underground train, the horse-drawn omnibus built in 1805, and the iconic red, double-decker London bus. Also available to investigate is the Design for Travel section, which exhibits posters and artwork advertising various types of transportation. In addition to the museum itself, the building includes an inventive play area for children which involves miniaturized versions of the vehicles shown in the rest of the museum.
These ten museums will not only catapult you into the rich history and culture of London but also lead you on an incredible, multi-sensory, budget-friendly adventure through time, space and memory. Their treasures are simply waiting to be discovered by the inquisitive and adventurous traveler. Dare to explore, and enjoy the ride!