Introduction to London Museums

London’s museums are one of the capital’s crown jewels, and many have free entry.

Major Galleries

Giddy art lovers will target the big four—the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, and Tate Modern. The National Gallery has more than 2,300 masterpieces dating 1250–1900, and wows with once-in-a-generation blockbuster shows like Goya: The Portraits, while the world’s largest collection of portraits is next door at the National Portrait Gallery which captures greats from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I . Tate Britain takes you on a chronological walk through 500 years of British art and Tate Modern showcases contemporary art and installations.

Academies and Galleries

Must-visits include the 1768 Royal Academy of Arts for its sell-out exhibitions on artists like Monet and the diminutive Courtauld Institute at Somerset House, which has a classy capsule collection from the early medieval period to the postimpressionists. The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace showcases the Royal Collection and hosts blockbusters on world-class greats like Leonardo da Vinci. The historic and brilliant Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibits exquisite European Old Masters from 1600 to the 1700s and the Guildhall Art Gallery has awesome Pre-Raphaelites.

House Museums

London’s historic house museums are treats within treats: the art and the house itself. One of the finest is the private Wallace Collection at the majestic damask-filled 1788 Hertford House on Manchester Square in Marylebone, which hosts a 5,500-strong collection of European Old Masters and fine French decorative arts. Other historic humdingers with grand Old Masters and sumptuous antique-strewn interiors include Apsley House, Kenwood House, and Leighton House in Holland Park.

Contemporary Art

With London now a top-two global art hub, you’ll find many excellent contemporary art galleries. The Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park may be small but packs a mean modern art punch, with its summer exhibition a major cultural highlight. The Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre concentrates on bleeding-edge exhibitions—from early photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue to Tracy Emin—while the Whitechapel Gallery kindles the smoldering East London art scene. Flush private galleries like the Saatchi Gallery, Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian, Newport Street Gallery, Herald Street, and Maureen Paley push a mix of up-and-comers and unknowns.

Major Museums

The British Museum was the world’s first national public museum in 1753 and still captivates with its vast collection of artifacts from the Rosetta Stone to Ramesses the Great. A 105-foot Diplodocus greets you at the Natural History Museum with its trove of 70 million artifacts spanning 4½ billion years while the Science Museum has a collection of 300,000 items showcased in 12 galleries. The V&A Museum is stuffed with magnificent jewelry and design exhibits. At St. Pancras, the permanent exhibition at the British Library has manuscripts like Magna Carta, a Gutenberg Bible, and Shakespeare’s First Folio from 1623.

British History

The Museum of London explores London since way before Roman times while the Museum of London Docklands tells the 2,000-year story of the port of London and captivates with a diorama on the 1666 Great Fire of London. The Royal Observatory in Greenwich tells of Britain’s role in the story of navigation and astronomy, and is the home of the Prime Meridian while the National Maritime Museum charts British naval ascendancy and shows star exhibits like Admiral Lord Nelson's battle-scarred navy blue uniform worn at the Battle of Trafalgar. The National Army Museum, IWM London, and Household Cavalry Museum venerate Britain’s military history, while the Royal Air Force Museum houses Spitfires and a Lancaster bomber. You’ll find all the clocks have stopped at 4:58 pm at the Churchill War Rooms, which preserves the bunkered World War II Cabinet War Rooms, and you can operate a "dead man’s handle" on a 1930s Underground train at the London Transport Museum. Shakespeare's Globe and its indoor candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse theaters are enthralling replicas of the Elizabethan originals.

Royal Palaces

London’s a royal wonderland, with palaces doubling down as de facto museums. You can get into Buckingham Palace August 1–late September and tour 19 impossibly grand State Rooms, including the Queen’s Throne Room. Kensington Palace is home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and you can glide through former King William III and Queen Mary II’s closet and oak-paneled Eating Room. The Tudor turrets, tapestries, and historic kitchens fascinate all comers at Hampton Court Palace, as do the sparkling 23,587-gem Crown Jewels regalia at the Royal Palace and Fortress at the Tower of London. Pocket-size Kew Palace and Eltham Palace are two other prize royal retreats.

Best for Kids

Kids adore the gory Black Death scenes and gruesome Jack the Ripper scenes at the London Dungeon and are always intrigued by the waxwork models of celebs at Madame Tussauds. The eclectic Horniman Museum has 350,000 quirky objects amassed by a Victorian tea trader and there are scientific, medical, and surgical specimens galore at the Wellcome Collection, the Royal Institution, and Hunterian Museum. The London Fire Brigade Museum, tiny Pollock’s Toy Museum Trust, and the Guards Museum on Birdcage Walk all cater brilliantly to the whims of kids of all ages.

One-Man Shows

London is fab at preserving the homes of illustrious native sons and daughters, with the best including the Charles Dickens Museum, Florence Nightingale Museum, Freud Museum, Handel House Museum, plus artist William Hogarth’s House and essayist Thomas Carlyle’s House on Cheyne Row. Candlelit tours at Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields chart the tale of a 17th-century French Huguenot silk merchants’ family, and the Sir John Soane's Museum is crammed with a magpie collection of antiquities from the namesake neoclassical architect and collector.

Previous Experience

How to See the Queen

Next Experience

London in 1 Day

Find a Hotel


Fodor's London 2024

View Details