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Natural History Museum
© Tim Grist

Free art galleries and museums in London

Find out which of London’s magnificent museums are completely free to visit

Sarah Cohen
Written by
Time Out London editors
&
Sarah Cohen
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One of the most wonderful things about London is that most of its major museums – and many of its smaller institutions – don’t charge an entrance fee, so you can see world-class art and artefacts without getting out your wallet. But nowadays, booking in advance is essential, so you need to get organised and make sure you have tickets even if they are free.

Our list of brilliant, and totally free, art galleries and museums in London covers the four corners and centre of the city, so wherever you live, there’s a gratis cultural experience near you. Go forth and enjoy, and save your pennies for something else.

RECOMMENDED: The best free things to do in London.

Free museums in London: central

  • Museums
  • History
  • Bloomsbury

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'.

Grant Museum of Zoology
  • Museums
  • Natural history
  • Bloomsbury

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.

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The Library and Museum of Freemasonry
  • Museums
  • Libraries, archives and foundations
  • Covent Garden

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.

  • Art
  • Galleries
  • Trafalgar Square

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.

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  • Things to do
  • Classes and workshops
  • Fitzrovia

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.

  • Museums
  • History
  • Holborn

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.

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  • Art
  • Sculpture
  • Millbank

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).

  • Museums
  • History
  • Marylebone

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.

Free museums in London: north

  • Attractions
  • Libraries, archives and foundations
  • King’s Cross

‘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.

  • Museums
  • History
  • Hendon

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 made of the ‘right stuff’.

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  • Museums
  • Science and technology
  • Euston

Founder Sir Henry Wellcome, a pioneering nineteenth-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.

Free museums in London: east

Bank of England Museum
  • Museums
  • History
  • Bank

CURRENTLY CLOSED. DUE TO REOPEN IN 2022

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.

  • Museums
  • History
  • Hoxton

Housed in a set of eighteenth-century almshouses, the Museum of the Home offers a vivid physical history of 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 day. 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, too.

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  • Museums
  • History
  • Barbican

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.

  • Museums
  • Isle of Dogs

Housed in a nineteenth-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.

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  • Museums
  • Childhood
  • Bethnal Green

CURRENTLY CLOSED FOR REFURBISHMENT

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 V&A museum, the MoC 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.

Free museums in London: south

  • Things to do
  • Forest Hill

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. If nothing else, the Horniman is worth visiting to see the fat Victorian walrus, which was overstuffed in the 1880s as its taxidermists had no idea what a walrus was supposed to look like.

  • Museums
  • Military and maritime
  • Lambeth

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.

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  • Museums
  • Military and maritime
  • Greenwich
The most important of the group of attractions known (since the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012) as the Royal Museums Greenwich, the National Maritime Museum is the world's largest maritime museum, a huge store of creatively organised maritime art, cartography, models, interactives and regalia. It was greatly enhanced in 2011 by the addition of the Sammy Ofer Wing, which provides a new entrance from Greenwich Park, presided over by Yinka Shonibare's Fourth Plinth sculpture 'Nelson's Ship in a Bottle'.
Tate Modern
  • Art
  • Galleries
  • Bankside

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.

Free museums in London: west

Design Museum
  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Kensington

The Design Museum is looking flash these days. Now located in the Grade II-listed former Commonwealth Institute building on Kensington High Street, it boasts three times the space it used to and has an archive, library, ace restaurant and a permanent collection. Plus, check out its incredible curved ceiling. It’s a design feat in its own right. 

National Army Museum
  • Museums
  • Military and maritime
  • Chelsea

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.

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  • Museums
  • Natural history
  • South Kensington

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.

  • Museums
  • Science and technology
  • South Kensington

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.

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  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • South Kensington

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.

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