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Woman walking down street at Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh, County Tyrone
Photograph: Albert Mi / Shutterstock

9 immersive living museums you should visit in the UK

The best immersive living museums across the UK let you see, touch, hear, smell and even taste the past

Rosie Hewitson
Written by
Rosie Hewitson
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Our charming country gets a lot of things right (it gets plenty wrong, we can also admit that), but the best immersive living museums in the UK are right up there at the top of the table. The United Kingdom is no stranger to brilliant museums, and there is something special about these mesmeric attractions, transporting visitors to different eras through tasteful exhibits and fantastic role-playing. Throw in demonstrations, classes, reenactments and wandering actors, and you’ve got yourself the experience of a lifetime.

These excellent museums are spread across the country, from Wales to Northern Ireland via England and Scotland, from Saxon settlements in Suffolk to Victorian villages in Shropshire. The stuff dreams are made of? Absolutely.

Best living museums in the UK

St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff
Photograph: Philip Bird / Shutterstock

St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

This free-entry museum near Cardiff comprises more than 40 historical buildings from across Wales, re-erected on the grounds of Elizabethan manor house St Fagans Castle.

Stroll around the 100-acre site, and you’ll find buildings ranging from an Iron Age roundhouse to a Tudor merchant’s house, a Victorian school and an early-twentieth-century Workman’s Institute – all providing a fascinating insight into Welsh life through the centuries. Add in a swanky £30 million revamp, and it’s no wonder this place was named Art Fund Museum of the Year in 2019.

Want to find out about the pivotal role that the Black Country’s industrial sector played in shaping modern British life? Then head to this 26-acre living museum featuring more than 40 well-preserved buildings.

Visitors can attend a school lesson in 1912, observe demonstrations including chain- and nail-making, watch a film in a 1920s cinema, and sample historic treats from a bakery, sweet shop or 1930s fish and chip shop.

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Just on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park, the UK’s first open-air museum was founded in the 1940s to preserve the disappearing traditions of the Scottish Highlands. Today it features more than 30 furnished buildings illustrating rural Scottish life between 1700 and the 1950s.

Visitors can explore a 1930s farm and a varied group of relocated Highland buildings that have been saved from demolition. Head to its vast archive building, and you can explore a collection of around 10,000 artefacts, ranging from agricultural machinery to sports equipment. And if you want a live-action flavour of what life here was like back in the day, you can also watch demonstrations of traditional skills, including wood-turning, spinning and weaving.

Nestled in the scenic village of Hutton-le-Hole in the North York Moors National Park, Ryedale Folk Museum boasts buildings ranging from the Iron Age to the 1950s, including a medieval crofter’s cottage, Elizabethan Manor House, Victorian thatched cottage, Edwardian photography studio and an array of horse-drawn vehicles.

The museum is also home to The Harrison Collection, an assortment of antiques and rare curiosities from British history, ranging from cooking utensils to brain surgery tools, around half of which are on display in a purpose-built exhibition space.

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Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire
Photograph: James Clarke / Shutterstock

Blists Hill Victorian Town, Shropshire

One of ten museums and attractions within the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site, Blists Hill recreates the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of Victorian Shropshire, with exhibits including a doctor’s surgery, cobbler’s shop, ironworks, stables and grocery.

As they enter the museum, visitors are invited to change their money into Victorian coinage, which can be used to purchase treats from the bakery, butcher’s, pub and traditional fried fish dealer. There are also weekly demonstrations of iron casting in the foundry, and a Victorian fairground visits the town seasonally.

This open-air museum on the edge of the idyllic Chiltern hills features more than 30 vernacular buildings that have been saved from demolition, including a granary, wellhead, furniture factory, vicarage and post-war prefab house.

The museum’s working farmhouse uses historical skills and machinery to care for rare-breed livestock, with unusual varieties of cherries and apples also planted in its orchard. Reenactments of life throughout the centuries take place year-round, and you can often catch regular outdoor theatre in the summer.

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An archaeological site and an open-air museum, West Stow recreates an Anglo-Saxon village that existed between AD 420 and 650. It features eight buildings, including a sunken house, hall, workshop and a farmer’s house with real rare-breed pigs and chickens.

At the accompanying museum, visitors can learn about village life, dress up as Anglo-Saxons and get a closer look at artefacts found during on-site archaeological digs. There’s a Beowulf-themed trail around nearby heathland, and you can even take archery or longbow classes to aid you in your quest to slay Grendel.

Beamish was founded just after World War II to preserve a charming example of everyday northern British life. Today it features an expansive collection of vintage vehicles, a working tramline and an impressive late Victorian village including a department store, bakery, bank, garage, pub, stables and six terrace houses.

Costumed interpreters around the site act out the roles of village dentist, chemist, bank teller and other characters – bringing history to life before your eyes. And for a literal flavour of the olden days, you should definitely visit Jubilee Confectioners (for traditional cinder toffee and boiled sweets).

Elsewhere on the 350-acre site, a 1940s farm with real livestock depicts life in wartime Britain and construction of a new 1950s town is underway as part of a major redevelopment.

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Ulster American Folk Park, County Tyrone
Photograph: Albert Mi / Shutterstock

Ulster American Folk Park, County Tyrone

This collection of more than 30 buildings tells the story of Irish emigration to America across three centuries. Visitors can learn about life in rural Ulster on a tour of the houses, printing press, bank, police barracks, churches and schools in the Old World section. After this, they board a full-sized replica emigrant ship and enter the New World section, which features an old American tinsmith, general store and rebuilt houses from Washington and Pennsylvania.

There are also regular demonstrations of traditional skills, including candle-dipping, printing and open-hearth cooking, with one-off celebrations to mark events including American Independence Day and St Patrick’s Day.

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