What to See at the 10 Best London Museums

London has many attractions, but almost all visitors to the city will carve out time for its world-class museums. Many of London’s museums, spanning history, art, science, and more, contain some of the largest collections in their field, as well as many historical and priceless pieces. Other museums are smaller and more intimate, showing individual stories of Londoners through the ages.

This guide explores the ten best museums in London. It’s organized into history museums, art museums, as well as off-the-beaten-track museums. In addition to describing the museum’s collections and standout pieces, the descriptions include each museum’s hours, costs (most of the museums on this list are free!), and the closest tube station to help you get around.

London truly has a museum for all types, and this list contains museums that will appeal to history buffs, art aficionados, science geeks, garden lovers, and more.

 

The Best London History Museums

London has one of the richest histories of any city. The collections of these museums span prehistory to the modern age, and they showcase artifacts from London, the whole of the United Kingdom, and places, past and present, around the world.

 

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Entrance to the Natural History Museum

 

The British Museum

Hours: Open daily from 10AM-5:30PM and until 8:30PM on Fridays
Cost: Free (Some temporary exhibitions charge a fee)
Closest Tube Stations: Tottenham Court Road and Holborn

If you can only visit one museum in London, make it the British Museum, the most visited museum in the city and one of the world’s great museums. With roughly 8 million pieces, the British Museum’s massive collection includes works from Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Oceania, and the Americas. The British Museum specializes in ancient history and has some of the world’s most extensive collections from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Assyria, and Mesopotamia.

Two of the museum’s most famous pieces are from their ancient history collections. The first is the Rosetta Stone, used to decipher the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic language, a huge moment in the historical world. The second is the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles because they were brought from Greece by the Earl of Elgin. These marbles once adorned buildings on Athen’s Acropolis such as the Parthenon, and there is a longstanding debate on whether they should be returned to Greece. Despite the controversy, the huge marble friezes, adorned with classical Greek sculptures, are beautiful to see.

This large museum spans three floors and contains nearly 100 galleries. There are maps inside, but it can be helpful, especially if you’re short on time, to review floor plans of the museum so you know where to go and what to see once you arrive.

The British Museum was established in 1753, and in many ways it’s an old-school museum. There are not many interactive exhibits, and most pieces are exhibited in standard glass cases with labels describing their history and importance. This can cause children and non-museum people to get bored after awhile. However, many of the museum’s pieces are so historically important and beautiful to see that every visitor to London should at least stop by for an hour or so to marvel at pieces from all over the world.

Additionally, entrance to the museum is free, although some temporary British Museum exhibitions do charge a fee; you can book tickets for these online. Also, the British Museum’s hours are extended on Fridays if you’re looking for something to do in the evening. If you’d like help navigating the museum, there are regular tours held throughout the day focusing on different parts of the collection. Some of these tours are free while others you have to pay for and book online ahead of time. The British Museum’s website has information on all tour times and prices.

 

Museum of London

Hours: Open daily from 10AM-6PM
Cost: Free (Some temporary exhibitions charge a fee)
Closest Tube Stations: Barbican and St. Paul’s

For those who want their museum to have a narrower focus, the Museum of London does an excellent job of chronicling the history of the city from the prehistoric age to modern day. The museum has a large collection, with over 6 million objects, but because it only focuses on the history of London, as opposed to the history of many world regions, it can feel more straightforward and less overwhelming to visit.

There is only one route through the galleries which take you in chronological order through London’s history. The exhibitions start with prehistoric London and include part of a 200,000-year-old mammoth jaw, a 6,000-year-old axehead made from jadeite, and an Iron Age chariot decorated with intricate Celtic-style designs. The galleries then continue through the history of London, covering the Roman era, Medieval London, the Black Plague, the Great Fire of London, the Victorian era, the Industrial Age, modern London, and more.

Each gallery contains numerous artifacts from the time period it covers. In fact, the Museum of London contains the world’s largest urban history collection. Some highlights of the museum include a large collection of Medieval jewelry, the death mask of Oliver Cromwell, and the Lord Mayor’s State Coach from the 18th century.

The Museum of London is highly interactive with quizzes, touchscreens, props to try on, and recreations of Victorian streets and pleasure gardens that visitors can walk through. Appropriately, the museum is located within one of the oldest parts of the city, a few blocks from St. Paul’s Cathedral. The building (which has plans to move within the next few years) is flanked by the remains of a Roman wall, so you’ll be looking at historical objects before you even set foot in the door.

 

Imperial War Museum

Hours: Open daily from 10AM-6PM
Cost: Free (Some temporary exhibitions charge a fee)
Closest Tube Stations: Waterloo and Elephant & Castle

Spanning the start of World War I to present day, London’s Imperial War Museum puts a human face on the impacts of war and armed conflicts. Though the museum now has exhibits on all modern armed conflicts Britain and the Commonwealth have been involved in, it originally only covered World War I, and this period is still a major focus of the museum.

When you enter the museum, you’ll be greeted by multiple large military artifacts, including tanks, guns, and aircraft hanging from the ceiling. The most extensive galleries in the museum, on the first and second floors, cover World War I and World War II. To show the effect war had on individuals and to make its impact more personal and relatable, the museum presents stories and artifacts from individual people instead of focusing primarily on strings of numbers or lists of battles. Individual stories from both the front lines and the home front are included.

The collection includes letters written to and by soldiers, trench art, souvenirs brought home from battles, and historical photographs, as well as large collections of badges, weapons, and uniforms. Highlights include a rifle owned by Lawrence of Arabia, a pistol of Winston Churchill’s, and a Union Flag recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Towers.

As you move to the upper floors, the tone gets noticeably darker. Galleries cover atrocities of the Holocaust, the history of antisemitism in Europe, and modern warfare and ethnic violence. This is not a museum for children (the Holocaust exhibition is restricted to visitors ages 14 and older), nor is it a museum for people looking for a light and cheery way to spend an afternoon. However, the Imperial War Museum does an extremely moving job of covering some of the most important periods in world history.

 

Natural History Museum

Hours: Open daily from 10AM-5:30PM
Cost: Free (Some temporary exhibitions charge a fee)
Closest Tube Station: South Kensington

It’s famous for its dinosaurs, but the Natural History Museum covers nearly the entire breadth of the world of science. It has over 70 million specimens organized into five main collections: botany, entomology, mineralogy, paleontology, and zoology. The Natural History Museum is one of the most eminent science museums in the world, and its collections include specimens collected by Charles Darwin, exhibitions of dinosaur fossils, and a life-size model of a blue whale.

Within the museum’s 36 galleries, visitors can view thousands of specimens, learn about the human body, study geologic forces that shape the Earth, and marvel at dinosaur fossils and full-size models. The Darwin Centre Cocoon, where guests can watch scientists at work in the labs, is also a popular spot to visit.

The museum is housed in a large, ornate building dating back to the mid-1800s; some visitors simply drop by to marvel at the architecture. With such an expansive collection spanning several centuries, the Natural History Museum can provide a bit of an inconsistent experience. Some of the older exhibits, like some of the taxidermy and animal models, have a slightly dated look. Newer exhibits, particularly those on dinosaurs, human biology, and volcanoes and earthquakes, are much more modern and interactive.

In general, though, the Natural History Museum is a favorite among visitors to London. If you’re tired of reading labels, it’s easy to simply walk through the galleries and admire the specimens. Kids in particular are always impressed by the large models of animals that are a standout attraction at the museum.

 

The Best London Art Museums

London’s museums are a mecca for art lovers. These three art museums each have some of the largest and most prestigious art collections in the world. From traditional galleries lined with paintings to avant-garde fashion exhibitions, these museums have it all.

 

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Ophelia by John Everett Millais, on display in the Tate Modern

 

The National Gallery in London

Hours: Open daily from 10AM-6PM and until 9PM on Fridays
Cost: Free (Some temporary exhibitions charge a fee)
Closest Tube Stations: Charing Cross and Leicester Square

Housed in a large Classical building that dominates Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery of London is the city’s most-visited art museum. The museum displays over 2,300 Western European paintings dating from the 1200s to 1900. The collection includes masterpieces from numerous periods including the late Medieval period, Renaissance Italy, and French Impressionism. Museum highlights include Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh, The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci, and The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. There are also pieces by Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Goya, Monet, and Renoir, among many others.

The National Gallery follows standard art museum conventions: priceless paintings displayed attractively in different galleries without a lot of extra frills.  Art enthusiasts will love the variety and quality of the works displayed and could happily spend a week viewing the collection, and even people not normally interested in art should stop by to check out the highlights. This museum contains London’s (and one of the world’s) most prestigious collections of art.

However, if the thought of spending hours looking at centuries-old paintings doesn’t inspire much excitement, you may want to keep your visit short and move onto other activities after you’ve viewed the most important pieces. The National Gallery also hosts regular lectures, holiday events, and concerts, as well as guided tours (most of these charge an admission fee).

 

Victoria and Albert Museum

Hours: Open daily from 10AM-5:45PM and until 10PM on Fridays
Cost: Free (Some temporary exhibitions charge a fee)
Closest Tube Station: South Kensington

If the National Gallery represents the apex of what a traditional art gallery can achieve, the newly refurbished Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A) is a much more modern take on an art museum. The V&A is dedicated to decorative arts and design, and its collection spans seven floors and 150 galleries. Works include paintings, photographs, textiles, jewelry, architecture, ceramics, and glass. The museum includes pieces spanning 3,000 years and multiple continents.

There’s a huge breadth of pieces here, and you may find yourself wandering past Japanese suits of armor, 16th-century Persian rugs, gilded German writing cabinets, newly created glass pieces commemorating the British Antarctic expedition, and a collection of over 2,000 miniature paintings, to name a few.

The V&A is a great museum to visit if you’re not interested in the traditional oil painting-filled art galleries. Its diverse collection means each gallery has something different, and the museum’s extensive renovations have given it a clean, modern look. In addition to the works in the galleries, other pieces of interest include a massive glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling in the entrance and a courtyard with a fountain and wading pool.

If you have an entire day (or week) to spend at the museum, you may be content to wander the galleries and see what you discover, but many visitors may want to scan an overview of the museum’s collections beforehand so they know what they want to see when they arrive.

 

Tate Modern

Hours: Open daily from 10AM-6PM and until 10PM on Fridays and Saturdays
Cost: Free (Some temporary exhibitions charge a fee)
Closest Tube Stations: Southwark and Blackfriars

The Tate Modern is London’s standout gallery for modern and contemporary art. Situated along the bank of the Thames, the Tate Modern picks up where the National Gallery leaves off, showcasing works of art from 1900 to the present day. Unlike the National Gallery; however, the Tate Modern doesn’t only contain paintings. There are also photographs, sculptures, videos, mixed media, and architectural pieces. Some of the most popular pieces include a looming spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, Ophelia, a painting by Sir John Everett Millais, and works by Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, and Georgia O’Keefe.

The museum is housed in a former power station, and the building retains much of its original industrial feel. In stark contrast to the Classical buildings of many other London museums, in the Tate Modern visitors will make their way past massive former oil tanks and a soaring turbine hall. While admission to the permanent galleries of the museum is free, the Tate Modern also has frequent temporary exhibitions and performances which do require an admission fee.

Visitors who aren’t particularly fond of modern art may find some of the Tate’s pieces confusing or boring. However, come with an open mind and this is one of the best museums in the world to get a taste of the breadth and quality of what modern and contemporary art can offer. You may leave a newly-converted modern art lover.

 

Best Off-the-Beaten-Track Museums in London

These are less-known, typically small museums that provide a very different experience than the most famous London museums.  They generally focus on how individuals lived in London and, unlike the above museums, some of them charge admission fees.

 

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The entrance to the Geffrye Museum

 

Leighton House Museum and Art Gallery

Hours: Open Wednesday-Monday from 10AM-5:30PM. Closed Tuesdays
Cost: £7 for adults, £5 for concessions (discounts)
Closest Tube Stations: High Street Kensington and Kensington (Olympia)

It’ll be hard to get an audience with the queen while you’re in London, but anyone can get a glimpse of one of the city’s most opulent interiors if they visit Leighton House. The building was once of the home and studio of Victorian artist Lord Frederic Leighton, who filled the house with his own pieces and works of art he gathered during his travels. Though it looks fairly ordinary from the outside, the interior of the house is so sumptuous it’s like walking around a jewelry box.

While there are Victorian elements such as gilded and carved columns, antique wooden furniture, and marble work, the highlight of the house is its bold Middle Eastern decorative style. The house’s showpiece is the Arab Hall, a two-story extension decorated with glittering Middle Eastern tiles collected by Leighton. The house also contains stained-glass windows, an extensive collection of paintings and sculptures, elaborate paintwork, a gilt-painted dome, and, to top it all off, a fountain in the middle of the house.

If you’re tired of seeing art displayed individually in plain glass cases, this is a great museum to see how one of London’s elite incorporated works of art into his home.

 

Geffrye Museum

Hours: Open Tuesday-Sunday from 10AM-5PM. Closed Mondays.
Cost: Free
Closest Tube Stations: Hoxton Station (London Overground)

Located in Shoreditch, London, and easily reached by taking the Overground (as opposed to the tube), the Geffrye Museum is housed in a series of attractive 18th-century almshouses. Like the Leighton House, it’s a former home converted into a museum, however; instead of focusing on one man’s expensive tastes, the Geffrye Museum explores the history of typical middle-class homes from 1600 to present day. The rooms go in chronological order so visitors can see how houses have been decorated throughout the centuries.

However, the highlight of the museum is outside. The grounds of the museum are surrounded by period gardens that showcase the changes lawns have undergone during the same time period the museum’s rooms cover. There are also herb gardens and walled gardens to see. Scattered throughout the gardens are benches and chairs for visitors to relax in, as well as an onsite cafe.

Unlike many museums, the Geffrye Museum doesn’t have a “must-see” piece. Instead, take in the homey experience the entire museum offers. The gardens are best from April to October and, during this time, the Geffrye Museum is a great place to enjoy a rare sunny day in London and take a break from spending time indoors.

 

Foundling Museum

Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday from 10AM-5PM and Sunday 11am-5PM. Closed Mondays.
Cost: £8.25 for adults, £5.50 for concessions (discounts)
Closest Tube Station: Russell Square

For an in-depth look at one of the more unique and poignant sides of London’s history, check out the Foundling Museum. This museum tells the history of the Foundling Hospital, which was founded in 1739 as England’s first hospital for abandoned children. It covers the founding of the museum, the circumstances of mothers who had to abandon their children, how they handing-over process worked (each mother left their infant with a token, such as a button or piece of cloth, to later identify the child if she ever returned), how the children were cared for, and the museum’s current charity work.

Visitors to the museum will see record books used to record children who came into the hospital, notes on which mothers were deemed “acceptable” to leave their children there, schoolbooks and uniforms used by the children, and tokens left behind by children whose mothers never returned.

The museum also contains a diverse art collection, with numerous paintings and sculptures lining the rooms and hallways. Most of these were done by 18th-century artists who donated the works themselves to help support the hospital. Visitors can also see the preserved 18th-century interiors from the original hospital, period furniture, and a collection of Handel memorabilia (Handel was a prominent fundraiser for the hospital during his lifetime). Additionally, the museum frequently has temporary exhibitions that show art related to women and children.

The Foundling Museum movingly tells the story of one of the less-discussed parts of London’s history, and it’s an excellent place to visit for people interested in learning about both art and history. This is a small museum that can be visited in an hour or two. However, there is a lot of text to read within the rooms if you want to get the complete history of the hospital, so if you’re looking for an easy stroll through exhibits, it may not be the best choice.

 

About Christine Sarikas 8 Articles
Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

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