In London you’re never far from a museum. The city is full of cultural institutions. We’ve got national museums, free museums, weird museums, museums specialising in cartoons, advertising, medicine, toys and Freud. There are more than 170 of them, including some of the world’s finest. Here’s Time Out’s top ten, the museums and galleries with ace exhibitions, brilliant events and vast permanent collections that you absolutely shouldn’t miss in London. Most of them are also free to enter, so what are you waiting for?
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The best museums in London
From ’60s mini-skirts to sixteenth-century crossbows, the V&A, situated on South Kensington’s grand museum stretch, is a cathedral to creativity. It’s one of the world’s greatest collections of decorative art and design, and houses impressive displays of fashion, textiles, furniture, ceramics, photography, jewellery, photography and fine art. Wander away from the more popular rooms and you can easily find yourself alone in one of the V&A’s exceptional halls, even on a busy weekend. Some of the exhibitions require tickets, but the majority of the displays are free to view. Oh, and it’s also got a suntrap of an internal courtyard and an insanely beautiful café, which does ace tea and cake.
Insider’s tip: The V&A is also home to a mini pet cemetery remembering the deceased dogs that once belonged to Sir Henry Cole, the museum’s first director. Find it in the John Madejski garden.
When the British Museum opened in 1759 it was the first of its kind: the only national museum open to the public in the world. It was – and still is – free to visit so any ‘studious and curious persons’ can go in and marvel at the weird and wonderful objects on display. Nowadays, the British Museum is home to the most significant finds made by British explorers, like the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon sculpture from the Acropolis in Athens. The extensive galleries are organised by location and time period: Ancient Iran, Greece, China from 5000 BC onwards, Roman Britain and so on. Overwhelmed? Follow a free eye-opener tour or book onto the Around the World in 90 Minutes guide.
Insider’s tip: Don’t use the loos in the basement – they’re always full and you’ll end up spending valuable exploring time standing in a queue. Instead, head to the facilities near the Asian galleries. Nobody seems to know about them!
The Tate was founded in 1897, but this museum dedicated to modern art is younger, opening on the South Bank in 2000. This imposing industrial building, the former Bankside Power Station, is the perfect site for the Tate Modern, providing interesting spaces for the art to exist in. Last year’s Switch House extension provided 60 percent more exhibition space too for more edgy exhibitions. The original Turbine Hall, home to large-scale installations, is the star of the show. Beyond it lies the free permanent collection, with works from Warhol, Hockney, Dalí and more, as well as bold temporary exhibitions that’ll amaze, inspire and make you question your preconceptions.
Insider’s tip: The members’ bar boasts epic views across the Thames of London’s skyline. If you can’t wangle entry, finish your trip with a stroll along the South Bank and a drink by the side of the river.
This tribute to all things nautical is part of Royal Museums Greenwich, which also features the Queen’s House, Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory. For years, the area was the heart of maritime Britain, and so the museum has become a treasure trove of artefacts, maps, art and memorabilia. There’s something for everyone, from models of famous ships for those interested in mechanics, to activities and games in the Ahoy! gallery for restless kids. And of course, London couldn’t have a sea-themed museum without mention of the hero that is Admiral Lord Nelson. Exhibits include the uniform he was wearing during the Battle of Trafalgar, when he was fatally wounded – confirming the fact that he was a big hero, but a pretty little guy.
Insider’s tip: Drink like a sailor with a pint of local Meantime ale, brewed in Greenwich, at the Gipsy Moth. If you happen to go on a Sunday, they do a tremendously hearty roast dinner, too.
London’s handsome Natural History Museum is home to 80 million plant, animal, fossil, rock and mineral specimens. Visitors to the institution, which is also a thriving research centre, can expect to come face to face with animatronic dinosaurs, a man-sized model of a foetus, an extinct dodo, a Giant Sequoia tree, an earthquake simulator, glow-in-the-dark crystals and much more. It had also been home to London’s most beloved dinosaur, Dippy, since 1905 but the 26-metre-long plaster-cast replica of a diplodocus skeleton is currently on a nationwide tour. A diving blue whale skeleton named Hope has taken up his spot in Hintze Hall – and she’s made quite the splash.
Insider’s tip: The area around Exhibition Road, populated with museums, halls and colleges, was once known as Albertropolis. It was named after Prince Albert, who played an instrumental role in the area's creation.
You can’t miss this artistic institution in the heart of Trafalgar Square. To temporarily escape the bustle of central London, swerve the pigeons and the performers, and you can see some of the world’s finest works of art for free. Founded in 1824 to display a collection of just 36 paintings, today the National Gallery is home to over 2,000 works from artists such as da Vinci, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Turner, Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne. The National Gallery hosts free events and museum lates if you want to learn more about these acclaimed artworks over a glass of wine. Who’d blame you?
Insider’s tip: Swap that cameraphone for a pad of paper. Visitors are encouraged to sketch in the galleries, so get scribbling if you feel inspired while gazing at all those masterpieces.
After 27 years in its former Tower Bridge location, London’s Design Museum has relocated to Kensington High Street. Its new, more spacious home in a Grade II-listed ’60s landmark opened in 2016. The space, a design feat in its own right, really does the museum’s fascinating exhibits justice. Visitors can peruse the permanent collection – starting with Designer Maker User, an introduction to the history of contemporary design – wander around the mix of free temporary exhibitions, pop-ups and bookable displays or just get distracted taking snaps of the museum’s incredible curved ceiling. #culturevulture
Insider’s tip: Take a detour to Holland Park’s Kyoto Garden afterwards. The peaceful green space is a pretty tribute to Japanese horticulture.
One of London’s favourite hands-on museums, the Science Museum features seven floors of entertaining and educational exhibits, including the Apollo 10 command module, a virtual reality space-descent experience, old Nokia mobiles and a sixteenth-century artificial arm. The Medical History Gallery, which closed last year, is being replaced by the bigger Medicine Gallery in 2019. Until then, you can get your biology fix in The Wellcome Wing, which showcases developments in contemporary science, medicine and tech. If you’re going with little ones, head to Pattern Pod or The Garden, where children can explore basic scientific principles with sound and water.
Insider’s tip: The Queen sent her first ever tweet from inside the Science Museum. It was sent from @BritishMonarchy (which doesn’t exist now) and read: ‘It is a pleasure to open the Information Age exhibition today at the @Science Museum and I hope people will enjoy visiting. Elizabeth R.’
You’ll need to jump off the tube at Covent Garden for a trip to the London Transport Museum. It’s home to vintage red routemaster buses and early examples of tube trains, maps, transport signs and uniforms. Not to mention posters, artwork and eye-grabbing graphic design, plus photographs capturing London from 1860 to today. Kids go free and will enjoy clambering on the exhibits and taking part in interactive workshops, while even the weariest of grown-up commuters will leave seeing London’s pioneering transport network in a new light.
Insider’s tip: The London Transport Museum is only free for kids, but your adult ticket gets you repeat entry within a year, so there’s no need to rush around to see it all in one go. It’s also worth looking out for open days at their Acton depot, too.
Set in an incredible building (formerly home to Bethlem Royal Hospital) a few minutes’ walk from Waterloo station, the Imperial War Museum shines a light on people’s experiences of conflict from World War I to the modern day. The extensive and impressive collections range from interactive experiences, entire aircrafts and official war communications to personal letters, diaries and keepsakes. The museum is made up of permanent galleries, like the ace WWI and Curiosities of War exhibits, and temporary displays, exploring recent conflicts and terrorist attacks.
Insider’s tip: The permanent Holocaust Exhibition is an especially upsetting gallery. Make sure you allow time to take it at your own pace and note that it’s not recommended for the under 14s.