44 Great Russell St, WC1B 3DG (020 7323 8000, bookings 08445 791940). Holborn or Russell Square tube.
Great for a restorative and educational lunch break or a longer stay. See world-historical behemoths like the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon Marbles and the Lewis Chessmen, or take a free half-hour tour introducing a specific area of this mighty museum. Afterwards, head straight to the Great Court for lunch at the self-service café. This enormous glass-canopied space is almost as inspiring as the museum’s exhibits.
See our guide to making the most of an hour in the British Museum
96 Euston Rd, NW1 2DB (0870 444 1500/01937 546060). King's Cross St Pancras rail/tube.
Get intimate with some rare texts and ancient maps at the British Library. Its architecture, is truly inspiring both inside and out. The huge central hall gives way to hushed study rooms (you need to become a member to get inside these) and a lovely Peyton and Byrne café at the rear. Temporary exhibitions are held in the Paccar Gallery, and there are often free events in the mezzanine foyer.
Read more about the British Library
Junction of Church Lane & Lordship Lane, N17 8NU (020 8808 8772). White Hart Lane rail.
The history of Alexandra Palace (including the origins of TV broadcasting) is just one exhibit at this museum dedicated to Haringey and its residents – the list includes madcap illustrator William Heath Robinson and Rowland Hill, inventor of the Penny Post. The building is a splendid sixteenth-century mansion set in 20 acres of very pleasant parkland.
Read more about Bruce Castle Museum
48 Doughty St, WC1N 2LX (020 7405 2127). Russell Square tube.
The Charles Dickens Museum houses the library and headquarters of the Dickens Fellowship – and the home in which Charles Dickens lived from 1837 to 1839. Some rooms are arranged as they might have been when he lived here; others deal with different aspects of his life, whether as a struggling hack writer or world-famous performer of his stories. The top floor has a new exhibit about vicious Victorian country schooling.
Read more about the Charles Dickens Museum
18 Folgate St, E1 6BX (020 7247 4013). Liverpool St tube/rail.
Dennis Severs' House is a time-capsule attraction in which visitors are immersed in a unique form of theatre. From cellar to kitchen, and on to the formal entertaining rooms above, visitors hear whispers and footsteps and see the remains of food just eaten. Each of the ten rooms is the scene of a drama set between 1724 and 1914, telling the story of a fictional Huguenot family as they make their fortunes in London’s East End. The Dennis Severs’ House tour is unsuitable for children as tours are conducted in silence.
Read more about Dennis Severs' House
London’s major art galleries are stunning, but look carefully, and you’ll find the work of up-and-coming artists in secret galleries all over town. Try the Tank Gallery, a space in an old carriage house round the back of south London’s Ladywell Tavern pub, the Crypt Gallery underneath St Pancras Church or the Old Police Station in Deptford where bustling artists’ studios sit next to unusual gallery spaces inside old cells and latrines.
Read our guide to London's secret galleries
Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1P 4RG (020 7887 8888). Pimlico tube. | Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 9TG (020 7887 8888). St Paul’s tube.
One is on the North Bank, one is on the South; one is establishment, the other is cutting-edge. The two Tate galleries have distinctive characters, but both make for an exciting trip. Tate Britain is the best place to see British Art outside the National Gallery, while Tate Modern grabs headlines with its iconic power-station premises and memorable super-sized Turbine Hall installations. See both in one day by using the distinctive spotty Tate-to-Tate boat. Also suggested by: This Strange City
See what's on at the Tate galleries
Okay, so you could easily spend a whole day in each of the magnificent museums in South Kensington: the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the V&A. But thanks to Queen Victoria’s consort, Albert, who suggested the Royal Commission buy a huge swathe of land for educational and cultural use, you could also dash between all three in an afternoon. Dinosaurs? Check. Grayson Perry vase? Check. Full-size replica of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s Eagle lunar lander? Check – and touchdown.
See what's on at the Science Museum, Natural History and V&A
41 Covent Garden Piazza, WC2E 8RF (020 7836 9136). Covent Garden tube.
Get out the taffeta and the tails. Pop the Champagne corks. Go and enjoy world-class opera (and ballet) at the Royal Opera House in opulent surroundings. On Covent Garden’s Piazza, the building itself is quite something, and just strolling around the Floral Hall makes you feel like bursting into song. Can’t speak Italian? Don’t worry, there are surtitles projected on to a screen above the proscenium.
Read more about the Royal Opera House
Rockefeller Building, University College London, University St, WC1E 6DE (020 3106 2052). Euston tube/rail or Goodge St tube.
The Dodo isn’t exactly live and well, but you can see one – or a dismembered skeleton of one – in the recently relocated Grant Museum. There are 67,000 bone and flesh exhibits here (the collection was put together for zoological study), but one of our favourites is the collection of glass animal models in fine detail made by Czech father and son Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.
Read more about the Grant Museum of Zoology
23 & 25 Brook St (entrance in Lancashire Court), W1K 4HB (020 7495 1685). Bond St or Oxford Circus tube.
In 1723 German composer George Frideric Handel moved into 25 Brook Street in London in 1723 – and 245 years later, Jimi Hendrix moved in next door. The upper floors of both houses now form the Handel House Museum, which has some great photos of Hendrix in his prime as well as lots of Handel memorabilia and musical scores.
Read more about the Handel House Museum
100 London Rd, SE23 3PQ (020 8699 1872, bookings 08445 791940). Forest Hill rail.
The overstuffed walrus in the Natural History Gallery here at the Horniman is, eccentrically perhaps, cited in many Londoners’ favourite-things lists. The Victorian taxidermist responsible hadn’t ever seen a walrus so didn’t know that it’s neck should have flappy folds of skin. When you’ve finished gawping at the rest of this fabulously eclectic museum – including anatomical specimens, anthropological ephemera and a vast array of musical instruments – don’t miss the views over London from the picnic spot in the grounds.
Read more about the Horniman Museum
35-43 Lincoln's Inn Fields, WC2A 3PE (020 7869 6560). Holborn tube.
Quite possibly the weirdest museum in London, the Hunterian is a huge specimen jar full of curios culled from the outer reaches of science. Hunt for the skeleton of a giant, and the brain of mathematician Charles Babbage, who invented the difference engine, precursor to the modern computer. For the grisly minded, there are hundreds of exhibits of human and animal remains in various states of disease and dissection.
Read more about the Hunterian Museum
Lambeth Rd, SE1 6HZ (020 7416 5320). Lambeth North tube.
Find out what it was like in a World War I trench at this excellent museum dedicated to the theatre of war. The walk-through trench is in the First World War Galleries, along with inspiring work by poets and painters of the time and other displays on the origins of the conflict. Save time for the Second World War Galleries, which explore the Blitzkrieg, the Battle of Britain and what things were like on the Home Front.
Read more about the Imperial War Museum
Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN (020 7747 2885). Leicester Square tube or Charing Cross tube/rail.
Families are always leaving London for more space, but what about the cultural input they’ll miss? Try the National Gallery’s two-hour art workshops for children aged five to 11 on Sundays (11am-1pm and 2-4pm), or the gallery’s imaginative family workshops, for those with children aged six to 12, on Saturdays (2-3.30pm).
Find more museum and art workshops for kids
Covent Garden Piazza, WC2E 7BB (020 7379 6344/ 020 7565 7299). Covent Garden tube.
See the new, reimagined version of London’s iconic Routemaster bus at this appealing ode to transport in Covent Garden Piazza. Disappointingly, the rear platform of the Boris Bus has doors across it, making a mockery of the genuine article. Still, you can cheer yourself up by climbing in the model of a bus driver’s cab around the corner. Sit in the driver’s seat and appreciate the hefty span of that steering wheel.
Read more about the London Transport Museum
150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN (020 7001 9844). St Paul's/ Barbican tube.
Formerly leaning heavily on the Roman end of the city’s 2,000-year history, the Museum of London has recently had an impressive glossy update: its Galleries of Modern London opened in 2010 and offer a brilliant day out for all ages. The incredibly imaginative displays set objects under your feet, or in little cubbyholes in the walls and sometimes on the ceiling, while touchscreens offer intriguing personal tales of historical characters. Our favourite displays are Charles Booth’s Poverty Maps, the walk-through Victorian pleasure garden and the model of Hackney’s Ellingfort Road by artists Tom Hunter and James McKinnon. Also suggested by: London Is Cool
Read more about the Museum of London
9a St Thomas St, SE1 9RY (020 7188 2679). London Bridge tube/rail.
Follow the rickety wooden spiral staircase through a doorway around the corner from London Bridge. First you’ll find yourself in the Herb Garret, where pungent displays explore historical herbal medicine. Next, walk through a narrow hall, and you’ll discover Europe’s oldest operating theatre, perched rather incredibly in the roof of St Thomas’s Church. If you’ve got a strong stomach, watch a gory re-enactment of a pre-anaesthesia operation at 2pm every Saturday.
Read more about the Old Operating Theatre Museum
1 Scala St, W1T 2HL (020 7636 3452). Goodge St tube.
Get nostalgic for a simpler age at this tribute to the world of play in Fitzrovia. The warren of creaky and atmospheric rooms and staircases houses treasures from all over the world. China dolls, mechanical toys, miniature theatres, lead soldiers and model cars sit side by side with teddy bears, dolls’ houses and puppets. We can’t imagine it’ll be as much fun for future generations to stare through a glass cabinet at a Wii.
Read more about Pollock's Toy Museum
Duke of York's HQ, King's Rd, SW3 4SQ (020 7811 3070). Sloane Square tube.
See innovative up-and-coming artists in large-scale temporary exhibitions at Charles Saatchi’s gallery, just around the corner from Sloane Square. Afterwards, head for the charming Gallery Mess, a top-rated brasserie set beneath gorgeous vaulted ceilings with a large outdoor terrace overlooking Duke of York Square. The menu runs from breakfast through lunch and a set afternoon tea, to evening cocktails and early suppers.
Read more about the Saatchi Gallery
Tour London’s public sculpture masterpieces
The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square has pushed public sculpture into the headlines. There are hundreds of great sculptures in London, but some of our favourites are the Henry Moore and the Barbara Hepworth in the grounds of Kenwood House; Michael Ayrton’s bronze Minotaur on the Barbican Highwalks; David Wynne’s gravity-defying 'Boy with a Dolphin’ by Albert Bridge; and the giant plug socket at Ganton Street in Soho.
Tower Hill, EC3N 4AB (0844 482 7777, bookings 020 7907 7071). Tower Hill tube.
The central structure in this Unesco World Heritage castle, the White Tower, is London’s oldest intact building, dating from 1101. Inside it, a suit of Henry VIII’s full battle armour sits astride an equally well-protected horse in the Fit for a King exhibition; you can tell from the girth and the decoration (Tudor roses and pomegranates of Aragon to celebrate his marriage to Katherine) that this suit was made for a youthful Henry. Elsewhere within the Tower walls, the Crown Jewels are a stunning display of power and wealth – while Traitor’s Gate and the torture-device exhibition are reminders of the darker side of Britain’s dynastic history.
Read more about the Tower of London
21 New Globe Walk, SE1 9DT (020 7401 9919 bookings 020 7907 7071). London Bridge tube/rail.
This faithful reconstruction of the Bard’s own theatre is one of Bankside’s most iconic buildings. You may think standing up for an entire play is a bit much, but seeing any Shakespeare performance as a groundling is an involving and doubly dramatic experience. Tours of the building include exhibitions all about Elizabethan theatre and Shakespearean London.
Read more about Shakespeare's Globe
Fancy spending the night with a diplodocus? The Natural History Museum offers sleepovers for kids and their parents which involve torch-lit puzzle trails, a show by leading naturalists and a microscope session. We weren’t kidding about the diplodocus – you bunk down in the Central Hall. Other memorable sleepovers take place at the Science Museum, British Museum and on the replica of Francis Drake’s ship, The Golden Hinde, in Southwark.
Read our guide to museum sleepovers
183 Euston Rd, NW1 2BE (020 7611 2222). Euston tube/rail or Euston Square tube.
This unique attraction on the Euston Road fluidly melds the worlds of science, history and art – and looks like a giant Damien Hirst installation. The eye-popping curios collected by nineteenth-century pharmacist and entrepreneur Sir Henry Wellcome are displayed in airy modern galleries. See the bladed torture chair, the Japanese sex aids, Napoleon’s toothbrush and a mummified body from Peru before heading for a pitstop at the Peyton & Byrne Café. Take a browse in the excellent bookshop before you leave.
Read more about the Wellcome Collection