Dominating the UK for culture, London is the place to visit for arts, fashion, science, and design, with a collection of museums to rival any city in the world.
From iconic institutions like the Tate to literary sights like the Sherlock Holmes Museum, gatekeepers of history like the Sir John Soane Museum to obscure collectors of arbitrary hidden treasures like the Fan Museum—yes, really—whatever your cultural tastes, if it can be displayed, you’ll probably find it somewhere in London. And if the sheer quality and range of London’s museums don’t convince you that this is one of the world’s best cities for culture, then how about the fact that a huge proportion of London museums are free? Museums are one of the best things to do in London and here’s our pick of the best of them in a city where culture is for the people.
The British Museum
The biggest museum in London, the British Museum is also the most popular thanks to its eclectic collection of art, curiosities, and artifacts from around the world. Covering nearly 19 acres, the space in Bloomsbury contains everything from the riches of the Roman Empire to the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Egypt—and yes, that includes a 5,000-year-old mummy. Equally as impressive as the museum’s collection is the Foster and Partners-designed inner courtyard, whose sun-flooded atrium is the inspiration behind a million Instagram shots.
The Natural History Museum
Undoubtedly the museum to have inspired more future paleontologists than any other, the Natural History Museum is the spiritual home of dinosaurs in London. The star attractions among the dino collection include a full fossil of a tyrannosaurus rex and the skull of a triceratops. Housed within a vast Victorian building that dates back to 1881, the museum and its ornate structure is as much an artifact of historical importance as the artifacts inside. Split into sections that explore themes ranging from the oceans to space, human evolution to the mysteries of extinction, it’s basically the ultimate place for any curious mind—young or old.
INSIDER TIPBook a behind-the-scenes tour to see the Spirit Collection, which includes the chance to meet Archie, the 8.5-meter-long giant squid. The museum’s Tropical Butterfly House is open March through September 2018.
The Horniman Museum
Among the smallest of London’s museums of natural history, the Horniman Museum is nonetheless a cult favorite thanks to the combination of its eclectic collection of artifacts, amazing park gardens with views over the London skyline, and neat aquarium. And that’s without even mentioning its famous mascot, a huge, grotesquely overstuffed (but still cute) walrus which was the result of some creative handiwork by an ill-informed Victorian taxidermist.
INSIDER TIPThe Horniman Museum is located in Forest Hill, around 20-minutes by rail from central London, so make the most of the journey with a picnic in the excellent gardens. Oh, and there’s a small city farm with llamas, goats, and rabbits.
The Fashion and Textile Museum
Tucked away in Bermondsey a short walk from London Bridge, it’s hard to miss the Fashion and Textile Museum thanks to its bright pink and yellow façade—whether you’d call it dazzlingly on trend or a fashion faux pas, either way, it stands out. Exploring everything from printing techniques to typography in t-shirts, the secret life of scissors to the role of clothes in subversive politics, there’s more to the museum than clothing.
INSIDER TIPThe museum hosts regular workshops and talks and stays open late on Thursday evenings. It is closed on Mondays.
Housed in a vast former power station on the south bank of the Thames, the towering structure of Tate Modern dominates its particular section of riverfront real estate and the building alone is worth visiting. On top of the impressive collection of modern and contemporary artists—like Picasso, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, and Duchamp—on display in the main gallery and the new Herzog & de Meuron-designed Switch House, there’s the grand Turbine Hall to explore. Measuring 445 feet long and 115 feet high, the cavernous space is the place to discover interactive installations—past projects include Ai Wei Wei’s sunflower seeds.
INSIDER TIPThe Tate Terrace Bar is the swankiest way to end (or begin) your trip to the gallery. Panoramic views from the terrace bar take in the river and north bank skyline, including St Pauls Cathedral.
All regal grandeur and impressive portico architecture, the classy—not to mention super old—Tate Britain was opened in 1897 and owns a collection spanning 500 years, with some works dating back to 1500. The home of British art, Tate Britain is the best place to see paintings by Turner, Constable, Freud, Gillian Wearing, and William Blake. Don’t miss John Everett Millais’s ‘Ophelia’ or Francis Bacon’s famous triptych, ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’.
If the old masters are too staid for your liking, White Cube Bermondsey is the place to go, with its focus on young, up-and-coming artists alongside superstars of contemporary British art like Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, and Gilbert & George. Located in Bermondsey, close to Borough Market and Tower Bridge, the gallery boasts a minimalist design that’s almost as appealing as its eclectic collection, the sleek space seducing anyone with a penchant for polished concrete.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
A cult institution that has gained mainstream popularity in recent years, the Sir John Soane’s Museum is a museum with a difference, in that it’s a loving memorial to the late great British architect in the shape of the perfect preservation of his former home in the heart of Holborn. A four-story townhouse, the home has been left untouched in accordance with the wishes of Sir John Soane upon his death in 1837. Part museum, part gallery, part historic London estate, it’s a beautiful time capsule of design. For those interested in history, London’s offers an incredible selection of historic hotels.
INSIDER TIPEvery month Soane Lates give visitors the opportunity to tour the townhouse museum in candlelight. As if the place needed any help accentuating the historic charm, the candles do it.
Hipper than the average museum thanks to its varied subject matter and a sweet Soho location, the Photographer’s Gallery focuses on—you guessed it—photography, alternating between exhibiting the best in new and established photographers from Wim Wenders to William Eggleston. Founded in 1971, the gallery has played its own part in elevating photography into a bona fide art form in the minds of its visitors. Five floors of gallery space display a continuous rotation of exhibitions from group shows to retrospectives. Looking for cheap things to do in London? Entry to the Photographer’s Gallery is free before 12 pm every day.
INSIDER TIPSupport the institution by dropping some cash in the excellent shop, where artists’ monographs and a selection of Polaroids and Holga cameras are the star attractions.
Opened in 1901, the Whitechapel Gallery has been ruling the roost in East London for over a century when it comes to cutting-edge, contemporary art. Known for showcasing superstars before they blow up, the gallery has helped to break the likes of David Hockney and Gilbert & George in the past. With a diverse roster, you’re always likely to find work here that breaks from the norm, from video art to immersive installations, like Mark Dion’s most recent show, Theatre of the Natural World. Located on a frenetic stretch of street on Whitechapel Road, the gallery’s spot amidst the chaos of its surroundings is another reason to appreciate it.
INSIDER TIPThe gallery is located minutes from Brick Lane, where visitors can walk the streets on an informal tour of the area’s huge array of street art.
Between learning about the amazing intricacies of super viruses, embarking on a journey into space via VR, and tracing back the history of flight, there’s not a lot left uncovered by the Science Museum. With a mission to educate and entertain, the Science Museum is one of those places where adults and children can both get their kicks. Located in South Kensington’s Museum Quarter, it makes a great double bill with the Natural History Museum, which you’ll find right next door. Oh, and don’t leave without visiting the museum’s famous earthquake simulator—the only way to experience the tremors of 1995’s Kobe earthquake in the heart of London.
INSIDER TIPThe Science Museum has its own IMAX cinema, which screens a range of features from immersive underwater adventures to sci-fi leaning blockbusters like Star Wars and Interstellar.
The V&A Museum
Being the largest museum of art and design in the world, it’s only right that the V&A Museum should inhabit a building that does justice to its collection. Towering over the roadside, the beautiful façade of the Victorian structure is just the start of the architectural treats on offer here, where inside you’ll find intricate ceramic staircases, marble vaulted ceilings, and frescoed walls before you even begin thinking about the museum’s collection of decorative arts. Arranged over two main levels, individual rooms feature contemporary fashion, fine art, ceramics, textiles, silver, and gold. The new courtyard—complete with a water feature ideal for paddling in—is the place to be during summer, when there are few places better in London to relax with an ice cream.
INSIDER TIPTake lunch in the V&A refreshment rooms, where the breathtaking ornamental design of the café and its William Morris Room will give you some serious interior design envy.
The National Gallery
Instantly recognizable by its portico pillars overlooking Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery is probably the square’s second most popular cultural attraction—placing close behind posing with the lions, of course. A grand gallery that shuns contemporary art in favor of masterpieces dating from the 1300s to the 1900s, the museum’s permanent collection includes paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Titian, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Van Gogh. Arranged by century, a walk through the regal interior of the museum is a tour through art history from the Renaissance to Impressionism.
INSIDER TIPEat at the museum’s restaurant, the National Dining Rooms, where the food is as great as the views over Trafalgar Square.
The National Portrait Gallery
It may reside in the physical shadow of the larger National Gallery just around the corner, but the National Portrait Gallery is no less of a draw. In the age of selfies, we can all gain some vital insight into the way people have posed for headshots over the years. Start in the Tudor and Stewart rooms, where you’ll find a line-up of all the kings and queens of England and Scotland that have ever been. Don’t miss Graham Sutherland’s Churchill, the Darnley portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, or the only portrait of Shakespeare ever painted from life.
The Design Museum
Uprooted from its home in Shad Thames, the Design Museum was transported to a glitzier space inside the remodeled remnants of a 1960s Grade II (meaning it’s historically significant) listed building in Kensington High Street in 2016. The successful relocation means that an already excellent museum is bigger and better than ever, inhabiting a building that’s an architectural showcase in itself. Focusing on the full gamut of design, the museum features everything from Anglepoise lamps to Penguin books, Eames chairs to the mighty Concorde.
INSIDER TIPHolland Park is a stone’s throw from the museum and makes for a picturesque picnic spot. Explore the woodland walks, manicured shrubbery, and the beautiful Kyoto Garden.
Possessing the most picturesque location of any London museum, the Serpentine Galleries lie in Kensington Gardens in the heart of Hyde Park, which means that not only does a trip here end with a viewing of the museum’s excellent collection of established and up-and-coming contemporary artists, but the journey there is a literal walk in the park. Opened in 1970, the Serpentine Galleries have always championed the work of new artists with previous shows having featured the likes of Grayson Perry, Ai Wei Wei, and Zaha Hadid. As with most London museums, admission is free.
INSIDER TIPThe annual Serpentine Pavilion is a temporary pop-up structure designed by a different artist every year. From a wooden Frank Gehry superstructure in 2008 to Yona Friedman’s austere, modular structure in 2016, big or small, the work is always bold and especially striking, given the park gardens that surround it.
The Fan Museum
Not only is it the best museum to visit on a hot day—boom tish!— the Fan Museum in Greenwich is a genuinely enlightening experience on the subject of fans. Truly. If you’re a fan, ahem, of the quirkier, more obscure museums, then this is the place to come—where else could you discover the storied history of the hand fan? Discover objects from all over the world in a permanent collection that features the earliest example of hand printed fans, art deco fans, folding fans, and Brisé fans. What the Fan Museum doesn’t know about fans, probably isn’t worth knowing.
INSIDER TIPThe museum’s delightful cafe, The Orangery, looks out over its manicured garden, making it the perfect place to enjoy a traditional afternoon tea. After tea, visit the nearby Royal Observatory.
Royal Museums Greenwich
A kind of four for the price of one experience, the Royal Museums Greenwich includes the Royal Observatory Greenwich, the National Maritime Museum, the Cutty Sark and the Queen’s House Gallery beneath its umbrella of attractions, which makes taking the trip to Greenwich a no-brainer. While the National Maritime Museum is an interesting place to brush up on the history of British sea power, the Cutty Sark is the real star attraction, providing the chance to see the iconic sailing ship in all its glory.
After strolling about below the hull and catching your sea legs on board the ship, make your way to the Queen’s House Gallery, where you’ll find the famous Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I as well as work by the likes of Lowry, Canaletto, and John Russell—much of it with a maritime theme. Completing the Greenwich set, the Royal Observatory awaits at the top of a hill at the end of a picturesque stroll through Greenwich Park. Here you can catch a cheesy (yet informative) show in the planetarium and build yourself up to the one photo everyone should take on a visit to Greenwich—a shot standing astride the Prime Meridian Line of the world, the historic line where east meets west.
INSIDER TIPThe grounds of Greenwich Park are perfect picnic terrain, so pack a lunch and spread out under a tree at the top of the hill, where you can gaze at a view that takes in the high-rise towers of the Docklands and beyond. Open seven days a week, Greenwich Market is a good place to explore if you have the time.
Sherlock Holmes Museum
He may have been a fictional character who never lived beyond the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, but that hasn’t stopped fans from embracing Sherlock Holmes as a man very much of our world. Such is the international renown of the literary sleuth that it’s only natural he should have his own museum to celebrate his (fictional) life and times. Located at 221B Baker Street, in the very house the detective called home, the Sherlock Holmes Museum is dedicated to every aspect of the world’s most famous consulting detective. From the study where he worked on his toughest cases, to the sitting room where he played his fiddle, everything is just as it might have been in the Victorian era of Holmes—had he jumped from the pages of Conan Doyle’s books. Unlike most London museums, admission is not free.
V&A Museum of Childhood
The sister museum to the V&A Museum in South Kensington, the V&A Museum of Childhood in East London is one of the best museums in London for kids, so expect plenty of exhibits, screenings, and workshops geared towards youngsters. That’s not to say that adults can’t enjoy the museum too, with shows like Century of the Child: Nordic Design for Children 1900 to Today designed to engage both the young and not young. Expect to find toys, dolls houses, clothing, furniture, and games in the permanent collection. Entry is free, and the museum is open every day.