London’s so flipping cultural – we’ve got world-class museums coming out of our ears. Here are ten of the best
Most of London’s major museums and galleries are now open, but check their sites before visiting, as you may have to book a timed slot.
London is the best. Obviously we’re biased, but come on: it has something to offer everyone. Want to explore the history of cartoons? We’ve got a museum for that. Rather learn about fans (the cooling type, not the screaming ones)? We’ve got a museum for that too. History? Check. Science? Check. Wax models, grotesque artifacts and advertising? Check, check, check! There are more than 170 museums in the capital and many of them are free. Whether you’re teaming up with like-minded friends or going it alone, London’s museums are great places to spend a bit of time.
What is it? One of the greatest collections of decorative art, design, fashion and textiles in the world. The permanent exhibits in this South Ken cathedral to creativity are free to visit and include a mini pet cemetery (hello Stephen King fans).
Why go? To check out some amazing design and eat cake in the sunny Italianate courtyard. Bliss.
What is it? Only the first ever national museum open to the public. No biggie. Given its epic heritage, it’s no surprise that the British Museum’s displays have been unapralleled since it opened in 1759. Start exploring and find artefacts ranging from the Rosetta Stone to the Parthenon sculptures.
Why go? Value for money. The main galleries are free, so if you like a bargain, start early and take in as many of the 50,000 objects they have on display – just a fraction of their entire eight-million-strong collection. Woah.
3. Natural History Museum
What is it? Full of more nature-based information than David Attenborough, this is the magnificent South Kensington home of around 80 million plant, animal, fossil, rock and mineral specimens.
Why go? To come face-to-face with animatronic dinosaurs, a man-sized model of a foetus, a dodo, a giant sequoia tree, an earthquake simulator, glow-in-the-dark crystals and much more. Plus, it’s also a world-class research institution.
4. Imperial War Museum
What is it? A powerful museum shining a light on people’s experiences of conflict from the First World War to today. A few minutes’ walk from Waterloo, IWM is made up of permanent galleries, such as the ace Curiosities of War exhibit, and temporary displays, exploring recent conflicts and terrorist attacks.
Why go? For impressive and extensive collections, including the profoundly moving and troubling permanent Holocaust gallery (not recommended for under-14s).
5. National Maritime Museum
What is it? Hello, sailor! An ode to all things nautical and a treasure trove of watery artefacts, maps, art and memorabilia. The museum is part of the Royal Museums, Greenwich, which also features the Queen’s House gallery, the Cutty Sark clipper ship and the Royal Observatory.
Why go? To be wowed by almost 2.5 million historical items, such as Admiral Nelson’s uniform from the battle of Trafalgar.
6. Science Museum
What is it? You don’t have to be a physics or chemistry nerd to have an incredible time at the Science Museum. Founded in 1857, all seven floors of the building house hands-on exhibits, mad-looking inventions from throughout history and shiny machines. Highlights include a sixteenth-century artificial arm and a cross-section of a real-life Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet.
Why go? To discover the incredible ‘Information Age’ exhibition – which is where the Queen sent her first tweet, signed ‘Elizabeth R’.
7. Design Museum
What is it? A fascinating museum that explores contemporary design and architecture. The Design Museum is bursting with free temporary exhibitions, pop-ups and bookable displays.
Why go? The museum’s newish home in Kensington is an absolute design feat and, when you’ve finished your walkabout, take a detour to the nearby Holland Park Kyoto Garden for some rest and recuperation.
8. London Transport Museum
What is it? Step one foot inside Covent Garden’s hub of transport history and you’ll leave a bonafide trainspotter. Alright, maybe you won’t be lingering trackside, notepad in hand, in a hurry, but you’ll be amazed by the wonders that are the vintage red Routemasters, early tube trains, maps, transport signs and uniforms. Plus there’s a beautiful array of posters, artwork and photographs capturing London from 1860 to the present day.
Why go? Besides the top class exhibits, one ticket grants you entry on multiple visits for an entire year. What’s not to like?
9. Sir John Soane’s Museum
What is it? The London home of architect Sir John Soane, who designed the Bank of England, Dulwich Picture Gallery and numerous other significant buildings. Soane (1753-1837) obsessively collected art, furniture and architectural ornamentation. In the nineteenth century, he turned his house into a museum, to which he said ‘amateurs and students’ should have access. The result is this perfectly amazing place.
Why go? See above. There’s nowhere like it in London. In the world, probably. Quite apart from the collection, the decoration of Soane’s home is extraordinary. Mirrors and light wells channel and direct daylight, walls open out like cabinets to display paintings (Canaletto, Turner, Hogarth). The Monument Court contains an alabaster sarcophagus so fine it’s almost translucent, carved for the pharaoh Seti I (1291-78 BC).
10. Museum of London
What is it? The history of London, from prehistoric times to the present is told in the Museum of London through reconstructed interiors and street scenes, alongside displays of original artefacts found during the museum’s archaeological digs across the city.
Why go? It’s a strange throwback to when museum-going in the capital was a less spangly activity. You can sense the principles on which the collection had been put together and the underlying desire to represent the capital’s history in every walk of life. Plus, it’s next to the Barbican, which is always a fun place to roam around. The Museum of London Docklands offshoot is also fascinating, with a terrific permanent gallery about London and the slave trade.