As cities go, London has something for everyone. From history to culture to great food and incredible arts, I haven’t yet found someone who hasn’t found something they enjoy in this big, bustling city. But if you ask for recommendations on what to do in London, almost everyone will suggest visiting one (or more) of London’s museums.
I never considered myself a museum person until I started visiting museums in London – then I discovered that when they didn’t charge exorbitant admission fees and had collections I truly enjoyed, I actually do like museums! London’s museums changed my mind about what I enjoy while traveling, and I regularly recommend visiting various museums in my London itineraries.
In this post, I’m sharing a list of my favorite museums in London. This isn’t a comprehensive list of every museum in London – it’s a list of the best, the most popular, and a couple of obscure ones that I think you might find fascinating. As you’re planning your trip to London (whether your first trip or your fifth), consider visiting a museum you’ve never been to before. You’ll undoubtedly discover something new and fascinating!
1. Museum of London
London wasn’t always the cosmopolitan city it is today. There was a time when its cobbled streets and neighborhoods were home to the most turbulent episodes. The Museum of London is one of the (if not the) best London museums to discover the evolution of this breathtaking city.
You’ll learn all about the history of London, from prehistoric times, through the Middle Ages and the Victorian era, up to the present day in nine galleries. Each exhibition is fascinating and uncovers excellent stories from the city. A visit to the museum is a highly interactive experience as the staff has reconstructed interiors and street scenes to depict relevant moments of history. They’ve even preserved an old Roman wall!
You can also explore artifacts the museum found during archaeological digs in the city. Besides the excellent exhibitions, the Museum of London is near St Paul’s and Barbican. So, a visit to the museum is a wonderful opportunity to hang out in this remarkable area.
The museum doesn’t charge an entrance fee; however, try to make the £5 donation to help them stay open.
2. The British Museum
We all go to museums to explore different traces of history. In this case, the British Museum itself is part of history. The British Museum has a heritage of being the first national museum open to the public – it’s older than the United States. Let’s not forget the building’s exquisite Greek Revival architecture.
So, yes, without a doubt, The British Museum is one of the best London museums to explore on your trip to the city. One visit isn’t enough to explore the eight million objects the British Museum has on display (another reason to plan a new London trip!). If you arrive early, you might catch at least 50,000 of them. Their permanent collection has invaluable historical pieces like the Rosetta Stone and Parthenon sculptures. They also curate exhibitions of different artists throughout the year. Currently, you can explore Katsushika Hokusai’s art, one of the most celebrated Japanese artists from the Edo period.
The British Museum’s main galleries are free.
3. Tate Modern
A sister gallery to Tate Britain, the Tate Modern houses the best modern and contemporary art collections. Long before it was an edgy museum, the building used to be a power station. In 1992, the Tate Trustees announced building a separate gallery to showcase London’s international modern and contemporary art. That’s how the former Bankside Power Station became the beloved Tate Modern in 2000.
Since then, locals and travelers haven’t stopped visiting the millennial museum, making it a London landmark. Though it houses headline-grabbing artworks, the building’s fantastic architecture is well worth exploring all on its own. The architects retained many of the station’s original features, with the Turbine Hall being the most famous.
Their collections are home to masterpieces from the 20th century to the present day by artists such as Hockney, Bacon, Turner, Riley, Lowry, and Moore. Don’t forget to grab a cup of coffee at the gallery’s café with a stunning view of the river.
4. Tate Britain
They sound almost the same, but they aren’t. The Tate Britain is a sister gallery to the Tate Museum; however, it has been in the art scene for much longer, 103 years longer than Tate Modern, to be precise. Unlike its younger sister, the Tate British houses the most extensive collection of British art dating from 1500 to today. You’ll discover artwork by the likes of Gainsborough, Whistler, and Bacon. The museum also houses the world’s most extensive collection of works by JMW Turner.
The Walk Through British Art is the best way to explore the artwork. Instead of arranging the collection by themes, the museum has arranged each room chronologically to better see British art evolution in time. There are fourteen rooms in total, so plan a more extended stay if you want to cover them all.
Entrance is free for all visitors, except for a few collections. While the museum welcomes walk-ins, they advise booking a ticket in advance for current exhibitions on their website.
5. Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum
The Victoria & Albert Museum is one of the best museums in London and worldwide to discover the applied arts. Founded in 1852, the V&A is the world’s largest art, design, and performance museum. Their collections house objects from all over the world, retracing the evolution of creativity through history. You’ll find fashion items, quirky furniture, powerful photographs, and poignant poetry.
The jewelry section is extraordinary, with 3500 pieces on display. As you enter the section, the Townsend Collection of Jewels is the first thing that catches your eye. This magnificent spiral of rings shows the intrinsic beauty of colored stones and the wide variety that exists within colored stones.
The museum also hosts diverse exhibitions and events, sometimes with world issues as the central theme. Currently, they are holding the Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics. Inspired by Islamic tradition, the event is accessible to all people and offers tours in sign language, for the visually impaired, and with subtitles.
6. Natural History Museum
If you have any interest in taxonomy, then visit the National History Museum. Initially, the specimens you find at the Natural History Museum belonged to the British Museum’s natural history collection. By 1880, there wasn’t enough space for the growing collection, and the specimens received a new home, the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.
Today, the National History Museum is home to around 80 million plants, animal, fossil, rock, and mineral specimens. An old institution, several of the museum’s collections include objects of great historical and scientific value, such as specimens that Charles Darwin himself collected!
The museum’s highlights are its exhibition of dinosaur skeletons and its architecture. In the 19th C, Alfred Waterhouse was the architect who evoked nature through every room and detail of the building. So much so that Londoners dubbed the museum the cathedral of nature. Everything pays homage to the abundance of life on Earth, from the gargoyles to the tiles and bricks.
7. National Gallery
No museum unfolds the story of European art as delightfully as the National Gallery. Founded in 1824, the National Gallery is one of the best London museums to look at world-renowned western European artists. Their collections hold more than 2,000 paintings from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century and offer a delightful experience to observe how art evolved in time.
You can see artworks by European masters of painting such as Da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio, and Van Gogh. Located next to Trafalgar Square, the gallery offers three different routes, ranging from 25-35 minutes, to explore the diverse artwork. Either at the start and end of your visit, pay a visit to their gift shop. There’s everything from postcards to Christmas baubles to journals and a small selection of art supplies. The primary offering is a fantastic variety of art-related books for all ages.
8. National Portrait Gallery
Again, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery aren’t the same venues. Opened in 1856, the National Portrait Gallery was the first portrait gallery globally and features portraits of historically significant and famous British people. The museum offers the opportunity to explore Britain’s history from a different perspective by putting a face to the men and women who shaped the nation.
Each artwork tells fascinating stories to the visitors explaining why the person gained a spot in British history, either for good or bad reasons. It has over 3,000 portraits, among which you’ll find the faces of famous kings and queens, courtesans, politicians, soldiers and scientists, philosophers, writers, artists, and film stars. Some of the most recognizable are the faces of Elizabeth I, David Bowie, Shakespeare, and J.K. Rowling.
The National Portrait Gallery won’t open until 2023, following a significant redevelopment project.
9. National Maritime Museum
Photo credit: Elliott Brown (L) via Flickr
Britain had a solid naval past. By the 18th century, it had established a maritime hegemony that remained unshaken until the 1920s. The National Maritime Museum is the perfect place to trace the epic adventures and conquests the British navy ventured in throughout history. Its staff has done a terrific job curating the exhibitions, with the museum having one of the best layouts. You can find 2.5 million historical items, including watery artifacts, maps, art, and memorabilia.
The exhibition on the expeditions made to Antarctica is mind-blowing. Still, their most famous exhibition is the Nelson Room. You can see the iconic uniform Admiral Nelson was wearing when a French sharpshooter fatally wounded him at the Battle of Trafalgar. The cannonball that struck HMS Victory in the same battle is also there.
The National Maritime Museum is an excellent place for children, too. Here are plenty of exhibits younger visitors can enjoy, including the interactive experience of the Great Map and the Ship Simulator.
10. Churchill War Rooms
Learn all about the men who led Britain through World War II at the Churchill War Rooms. Churchill War Rooms is a must for any history buff. The museum houses the underground secret headquarters where Winston Churchill and fellow politicians mapped out Britain’s strategies to victory.
The guided tour does a great job of portraying what life was like during the Second World War. You can walk the same top-secret corridor Churchill did as the staff has left everything exactly as it was then. The museum also gives you further insight into Churchill’s life and has a large display area with historical facts and memorabilia.
The Map Room is one of the highlights of the museum. During WWII, it became the beating heart of the secret headquarters as it was here that officers and informants passed vital information to Churchill, King George VI, and the armed forces, which explains the insane amount of phones installed in the room!
11. Science Museum
An ode to all the scientific achievements humankind has made, the Science Museum is a great venue to experience science first-hand. Before you tell us you’re not a physics or chemistry geek, the Science Museum isn’t about complex math formulas– quite the opposite.
Founded in 1857, the museum has seven floors showcasing the craziest inventions. With over 15,000 objects, you can explore the technological advances of different fields. The Soyuz TMA-19M descent module, for example, is the spacecraft that brought astronaut Tim Peake back to Earth from the International Space Station.
It’s also an excellent place to discover the hidden complexity of everyday objects. You can check the Le Corbusier Chair, whose designers used it for explaining how manufactured products should follow mathematical rules of proportions to be in harmony with the human body.
For a more recent event, head out to the ‘Information Age’ exhibition, which is also where Queen Elizabeth sent her first tweet!
12. Grant Museum of Zoology
Photo credits: Andrea Vail (L) & Kevan (R) via Flickr
Explore the evolution of the animal kingdom at the Grant Museum of Zoology. Established in 1827, the Grant Museum of Zoology is a tiny place, yet it is packed to the brim, with over 68,000 animals, from rare and extinct dodo specimens, a bizarre glass jar of moles to one of only seven quagga skeletons in the world. The museum is popular with children who feel like they were in some crazy scientist’s lab – probably due to the Victorian-style glass cases where the museum preserves the animals.
Besides the natural wonders, the museum has a strong social commitment. Their exhibitions are thought-provoking and often put under the microscope complex topics. From November 2020 through June 2021, the museum held the exhibit Displays of Power: A Natural History of Empire. This popular exhibition acknowledged the painful origins of much of the museum’s collection, making profound reflections about colonialism and scientific racism and how it has shaped our way of thinking.
13. Sherlock Holmes Museum
Arguably the most famous detective in literary fiction, Sherlock Holmes has his museum in London. Located in 221B Baker Street, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stated the detective and Watson lived, the Sherlock Holmes Museum tells you all about the famous detective through a recreation of his apartment. The three-story building is a Georgian house and features the same style as described in the different novels. All furniture and decor are a nod to the Victorian era. There are life-size waxworks that bring to life iconic moments.
While we recommend you visit the house if you’re a Holmes fan, lovers of mystery will also have a blast. There is a gift shop next door with lovely souvenirs, including trinket music boxes that you wind by hand, detective puzzles and books, postcards, pens, and deerstalker hats.
14. Horniman Museum and Gardens
Horniman Museum and Gardens is a far-out location – literally –, almost an hour away from central London. Its time-consuming location only means that you won’t find a sea of people roaming through the museum’s rooms. When it comes to the collection, though, you’ll be happy you made that trip. The building houses extensive collections of natural history and anthropology, with the stuffed walrus as the most famous piece – it’s the size of a small car! There’s also an aquarium with the wildest and craziest marine species and a Victorian conservatory.
A visit to the Horniman is an excellent way to admire the Arts & Crafts movement, an architectural movement that originated in Britain in the latter half of the 19th Century. Soft Doulting Stone and intricate carvings make the museum’s facade along with the looming clocktower. The surroundings are delightful, with over 16 acres of manicured gardens, an area great for taking a pause and wandering through the nature trails.
15. London Transport Museum
Photo credit: Hugh Llewelyn (R) via Flickr
Yes, learning about transportation doesn’t sound appealing in any sense. However, you can’t deny that London’s means of transport are eye-catching, with the double-decker buses, black taxis, and Underground being attractions on their own. Located in the heart of Covent Garden, The London Transport Museum covers the city’s transport history. The displays showcase historic vehicles, such as the first steam-powered underground engine and a horse-drawn bus.
You can also see the beautiful signs and uniforms and an array of artwork, photographs, and posters capturing London from 1860 to the present day. The museum also gives excellent insight to understand the city’s growth as the transport’s evolution has mirrored London.
Oh, you can also see photographs of the British Museum’s former tube station. Yes, the museum had its underground station for over thirty years until 1933!
Which of these London museums is your favorite – or do you love a different museum in London? Let me know in the comments!