Free museums in London
Culture needn't cost the earth. Here's our guide to free-entry museums in the capital
You need not worry if you're sightseeing on a budget as plenty of London's top museums are free to explore. Head to the British Museum for some free art and culture, the Natural History Museum for amazing artefacts, learn something new at the Science Museum or discover art and design at the V&A all free of charge.
Here's our guide to the best free museums in London and you can find them all on our map below.
London's major museums are free!
Free museums in central London
Officially the country's most popular tourist attraction, the British Museum opened to the public in 1759 in Montagu House, which then occupied this site. The current building is a neoclassical marvel built in 1847 by Robert Smirke, one of the pioneers of the Greek Revival style. The most high profile addition since then was Lord Foster's popular glass-roofed Great Court, open since 2000 and now claimed to be 'the largest covered public square in Europe'.
- 44 Great Russell St, WC1B 3DG
The Grant Museum of animal skeletons, taxidermy specimens and creatures preserved in fluid retains the air of the house of an avid Victorian collector while posing questions about issues in life sciences today. The collection includes remains of many rare and extinct animals, such as a dodo and the skeleton of the zebra-like quagga, which was hunted out of existence in the 1880s.
- Rockefeller Building, University College London, WC1E 6DE
Freemasons' Hall, the eye-catchingly bombastic stone building where Long Acre becomes Great Queen Street, is the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England and the principal meeting place for Masonic Lodges in London. It was built between 1927 and 1932 as a memorial to the Freemasons who died in WWI. In addition to the Grand Temple, there is a library and museum, committee rooms and administrative offices. The library and museum houses a collection of Masonic material, accessible to the general public.
- Freemasons Hall, 60 Great Queen St, WC2B 5AZ
There are masterpieces from virtually every European school of art. The modern Sainsbury Wing extension contains the gallery’s earliest works: Italian paintings by early masters like Giotto and Piero della Francesca. In the West Wing are Italian Renaissance masterpieces by Correggio, Titian and Raphael; in the North Wing, seventeenth-century Dutch, Flemish, Italian and Spanish Old Masters. In the East Wing are some of the gallery’s most popular paintings: works by the French Impressionists and post-Impressionists.
- Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN
Designed by George Grey Wornum, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) building is a fine example of 1930s architecture. The Grade II-listed building hosts regular talks and exhibitions. There's also a shop and a café with an outdoor terrace, in addition to one of the finest architectural libraries in the world, which contains around four million items and is open to non-members who bring along photo ID.
- 66 Portland Place, W1B 1AD
Designed by architect Sir John Soane to house his own collection of paintings and architectural salvage, the museum is a tranquil place full of unexpected treasures, with a wealth of intriguing natural lighting effects best viewed on a bright day. On the first Tuesday of each month, Sir John Soane's Museum stays opens late and some parts are lit by candlelight.
- 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP
Tate Modern gets all the attention, but the original Tate Gallery, founded by sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate, has a broader and more inclusive brief. Housed in a stately Portland stone building on the riverside, Tate Britain is second only to the National Gallery when it comes to British art. The historical collection includes work by Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Constable (who gets three rooms to himself) and Turner (whose works are displayed in the grand Clore Gallery).
- Millbank, SW1P 4RG
Built in 1776, this handsome house contains an exceptional collection of 18th-century French furniture, painting and objets d'art, as well as an amazing array of medieval armour and weaponry. It all belonged to Sir Richard Wallace, who, as the illegitimate offspring of the fourth Marquess of Hertford, inherited in 1870 the treasures his father had amassed in the last 30 years of his life.
- Hertford House, Manchester Square, W1U 3BN
Free museums in north London
'One of the ugliest buildings in the world,' opined a Parliamentary committee on the opening of the new British Library in 1997. But don't judge a book by its cover: the interior is a model of cool, spacious functionality, the collection is unmatched (150 million items and counting), and the reading rooms (open only to cardholders) are so popular that regular users are now complaining that they can't find a seat.
- 96 Euston Rd, NW1 2DB
This seventeenth-century building, which used to belong to the daughter of Rudyard Kipling, now houses the Hampstead Museum and a licensed buttery.
- New End Square, Hampstead, NW3 1LT
Attractions at the Royal Air Force Museum include 80 aircraft on display, an interactive area, a simulator ride and 'Our Finest Hour', a multi-media account of the Battle of Britain. In the interactive Aeronauts Gallery visitors can take a pilot aptitude test to discover whether they are the 'right stuff'.
- Grahame Park Way, NW9 5LL
Founder Sir Henry Wellcome, a pioneering 19th-century pharmacist and entrepreneur, amassed a vast and idiosyncratic collection of implements and curios relating to the medical trade, now displayed in this swanky little museum. The Wellcome Collection’s temporary exhibitions are usually wonderfully interesting, and in the past have tackled such subjects as sleep and dreaming, and the relationship between madness and art.
- 183 Euston Rd, NW1 2BE
Free museums in south London
South-east London's premier free family attraction, the Horniman was once the home of tea trader Frederick J Horniman, it's an eccentric-looking art nouveau building (check out the clocktower, which starts as a circle and ends as a square), with a main entrance that gives out on to extensive gardens.
- 100 London Road, SE23 3PQ
Located in the stately 1815 building that once housed the Bethlem Royal Hospital for the insane (aka Bedlam), the museum holds an important collection of art, much of it commissioned during WWI and WWII, in addition to examples of the machinery of war, official communications, manuscripts of war literature and other, more personal artefacts from various conflicts. Please note: the museum will be closed until July 2013 to allow for the transformation of its WWI galleries in time for the centenary of the Great War in 2014.
- Lambeth Rd, SE1 6HZ
The world's largest maritime museum contains a huge store of creatively organised maritime art, cartography, models and regalia. Ground-level galleries include Explorers, which covers great sea expeditions back to medieval times, and Maritime London, which concentrates on the city as a port and currently contains Nelson's uniform, complete with fatal bullet-hole; it will move to the new Sammy Ofer Wing on completion in 2013.
- Romney Rd, SE10 9NF
This powerhouse of modern art is awe-inspiring even before you enter, thanks to its industrial architecture. Inside, the original cavernous turbine hall is used to jaw-dropping effect as the home of large-scale, temporary installations. The permanent collection features heavy-hitters such as Matisse, Rothko, Bacon, Twombly and Beuys. Tate Modern does weekend after-hours gallery-going extremely well, opening until 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
- Bankside, SE1 9TG
Free museums in east London
Housed inside the former Stock Offices of the Bank of England, this engaging and surprisingly lively museum explores the history of the national bank. As well as ancient coins and original artwork for British banknotes, the museum offers a rare chance to lift nearly 30lbs of gold bar (you reach into a secure box, closely monitored by CCTV). One exhibit looks at the life of Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows and a long-term employee of the bank. Child-friendly temporary exhibitions take place in the museum lobby.
- Threadneedle St (entrance in Bartholomew Lane), EC2R 8AH
Housed in a set of 18th-century almshouses, the Geffrye Museum offers a vivid physical history of the English interior. Displaying original furniture, paintings, textiles and decorative arts, the museum recreates a sequence of typical middle-class living rooms from 1600 to the present. It's an oddly interesting way to take in domestic history, with any number of intriguing details to catch your eye - from a bell jar of stuffed birds to a particular decorative flourish on a chair. There's an airy restaurant overlooking the lovely gardens.
- Kingsland Rd, E2 8EA
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.
- 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN
Housed in a 19th-century warehouse (itself a Grade I-listed building), this huge museum explores the complex history of London's docklands and the river over two millennia. Displays spreading over three storeys take you from the arrival of the Romans all the way to the docks' 1980s closure and the area's subsequent redevelopment.
- Hertsmere Rd, West India Quay, E14 4AL
Home to one of the world's finest collections of children's toys, dolls' houses, games and costumes, the Museum of Childhood shines brighter than ever after extensive refurbishment. Part of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the museum has been amassing childhood-related objects since 1872 and continues to do so, with Incredibles figures complementing bonkers 1970s puppets, Barbie Dolls and Victorian praxinoscopes. The museum has lots of hands-on stuff for kids dotted about the many cases of historic artefacts.
- Cambridge Heath Rd, E2 9PA
Free museums in west London
More entertaining than its modern exterior suggests, this museum dedicated to the history of the British Army kicks off with 'Redcoats', a gallery that starts at Agincourt in 1415 and ends with the American War of Independence. Upstairs, 'The Road to Waterloo' marches through 20 years of struggle against the French, featuring 70,000 model soldiers. Also on display is the kit of Olympic medal winner Dame Kelly Holmes (an ex-army athlete), while Major Michael 'Bronco' Lane, conqueror of Everest, has donated his frostbitten fingertips.
- Royal Hospital Rd, SW3 4HT
Both a research institution and a fabulous museum, the NHM opened in Alfred Waterhouse's purpose-built, Romanesque palazzo on the Cromwell Road in 1881. Now joined by the splendid Darwin Centre extension, the original building still looks quite magnificent. The pale blue and terracotta façade just about prepares you for the natural wonders within.
- Cromwell Rd, SW7 5BD
Only marginally less popular with kids than its natural historical neighbour, the Science Museum is a celebration of the wonders of technology in the service of our daily lives. In 'Exploring Space', rocket science and the lunar landings are illustrated by dramatically lit mock-ups and models, before the museum gears up for its core collection in 'Making the Modern World'. Located here are the Apollo 10 command module, classic cars and an absorbing collection of everyday technological marvels from 1750 to the present.
- Exhibition Rd, SW7 2DD
The V&A is one of the world's most magnificent museums, its foundation stone laid on this site by Queen Victoria in her last official public engagement in 1899. It is a superb showcase for applied arts from around the world, appreciably calmer than its tearaway cousins on the other side of Exhibition Road. Some 150 grand galleries on seven floors contain countless pieces of furniture, ceramics, sculpture, paintings, posters, jewellery, metalwork, glass, textiles and dress, spanning several centuries.
- Cromwell Rd, SW7 2RL