One of the world's great repositories of human civilization, the British Museum is the premier visitor attraction in the whole of the United Kingdom—and there are no prizes for guessing why. It is hard to overstate the scale and importance of the treasures on display (which are but a fraction of the 8 million items in the museum's catalog). Within yards of each other you'll find the Rosetta Stone, whose inscriptions were key to deciphering hieroglyphics (Room 4); the controversial but exquisite Elgin Marbles (aka the Parthenon Sculptures) that once stood on the Acropolis in Athens (Room 18); and stunning fragments and friezes from the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos (aka one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; Room 21). And that's just the ground floor!
Established in 1753 and initially based on the library and "cabinet of curiosities" of the Royal Physician Sir Hans Sloane, the collection grew exponentially over the following decades, partly due to bequests and acquisitions,
and partly as a result of the burgeoning British Empire where priceless valuables were often plundered and shipped back home to Blighty. Whatever their provenance, there's no doubting the sheer majesty of what's on display.
The rear entrance to the museum in Montague Place may be less busy, but nothing quite beats the main Great Russell Street entrance, which shows off the neoclassical architecture of the exterior in all its pomp and grandeur. Highlights of the ground floor galleries (apart from those cited above) include the colossal Statue of Ramesses II, dating to circa 1270 BC and weighing in at just over 7 tons (Room 4), and the fascinating Living and Dying displays in Room 24, which explore how humanity has dealt with the harsh realities of life over the centuries.
Upstairs are some of the most popular galleries. Rooms 62–63 are where the Egyptian mummies live. Farther along is the glittering 4th-century Mildenhall Treasure and the equally splendid 8th-century Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo Treasure with magnificent helmets and jewelry aplenty (Room 41). Next along is the Lindow Man, a ritually slain chap from the 1st century who lay perfectly pickled in a Cheshire bog until he was unearthed by archaeologists in 1984.
Leave time for exploring the glass-covered Great Court designed by celebrated architect Norman Foster at the turn of the present millennium—it has become a focal point of the museum. Likewise, don't miss the revered circular Reading Room where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital under the room's beautiful blue-and-gold papier-mache dome. If pushed for time, consider one of the excellent museum tours. Eye-opener tours (free; 30–40 minutes) focus on 15 individual galleries each day, while the 90-minute Highlights Tour covers all the major exhibits plus a few lesser-known ones, and begins at 11:30 am and 2 pm on Friday and weekends (£12; book online or at the information desk in the Great Court). Alternatively, Multimedia Guides can be rented from the information desk for £5.