London is a magnificent metropolis, where life is in full swing among its almost 9 million people. The capital of Britain has a long history, starting as a Roman colony and growing into one of the most exciting metropolises in the world. One but. It is still very expensive here.
Among all the magnificent skyscrapers and buzzing taxis, you might think that it is almost impossible to afford entertainment here – but free museums come to the rescue!
In London there's museums for every taste, from modern to historical. And the good news is that a large number of eminent museums is state-owned, which means that entry is absolutely free of charge, regardless of citizenship or age.
In this article about London, we focus on the 10 most visited museums and galleries. These are real giants of art and science, which will be of interest to both adults and children. We will talk about what kind of places they are, what is waiting for you inside, and share interesting facts and useful information to prepare for your visit.
Tate Modern is the British National Gallery of Modern Art, the most popular art gallery in London. Last year alone, 5.9 million people visited it! Externally, Tate Modern is not what you would expect to be a museum, as this dark and gloomy industrial building looks more like a factory or warehouse. Before being transformed into the epicentre of art, the building indeed used to operate as a power plant.
The Tate gallery contains only modern art, with all of its exhibits created no earlier than 1900. You will find genres like impressionism – being the earliest represented genre – as well as abstractionism, cubism, expressionism, surrealism and pop art.
Tate Modern houses famous paintings, unusual sculptures, flashy posters and modern installations. Precious works from the hands of great masters like Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Malevich and Warhol, as well as installations and artworks by contemporary artists are just some examples of what you can expect here.
Besides the fact that Tate Modern is free to visit, it also works every day! With an ever-changing exposition, it will be useful to prepare for your visit by checking out their agenda at the official website.
If you are coming from the northern side of the Thames river, consider taking the Millennium Bridge. This pedestrian bridge basically connects the St. Paul's Cathedral with Tate Modern, and provides stunning views over London.
The British Museum is the central historical and archaeological museum of Great Britain and one of the largest museums in the world. The museum was founded in 1753, following the unification of the three large private collections from Robert Cotton, Robert Harley and Hans Sloan.
At some point, the number of artworks in the collection of the British Museum got so large that it became necessary to divide it. That is how the British Museum got its two branches, the British Library and the Museum of Natural History.
From a total collection of 8 million pieces, there's around 70 thousand works of art exhibited in the British Museum – and for exhibiting this single percent of its total collection, there's already 4 kilometres of galleries needed!
The collection of Roman and Greek art of the British Museum is unparalleled, and their Egyptian collection is the most extensive one outside of Egypt itself. In addition, the museum exhibits priceless treasures from the Anglo-Saxon and Roman Britain, from China, Japan, India and Mesopotamia.
The cultural value of the treasures of the British Museum is difficult to overestimate. Hall number 4 holds an invaluable ancient artefact known as the Rosetta Stone. It was found in Egypt in 1799 and literally revolutionized Egyptology. Three identical texts are stamped on it in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian demotic writing, and in the ancient Greek language. Thanks to decoding these texts, Ancient Egypt finally became more understandable and accessible to us.
The British Museum is located in Bloomsbury, a distinguished neighborhood in central London, where you will find nice little parks and streets lined with monumental Georgian red brick buildings. The museum is open every day!
The collection of the National Gallery houses masterpieces of all the European schools of painting, from the middle of the 13th to the beginning of the 20th century. The gallery arose much later than similar museums in other cultural capitals of Europe, and therefore in terms of absolute quantity, it cannot compete with the Prado, the Louvre or the Hermitage. But why would you care about quantity as a visitor? We come to see beautiful pieces of art, and the National Gallery certainly is the right place for that. In fact, its collection contains masterpieces of fine arts that even the best museums in the world will envy.
The unquestionable reason for the gallery’s pride is its extensive collection of works by Titian, including both his early works, as well as paintings from the period when he already was a recognized master. The National Gallery is also home to many other world-famous paintings, including The Rokeby Venus by Velázquez, Sunflowers by Van Gogh and an extensive collection of works by Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt.
The National Gallery has collected an impressive number of art masterpieces and it is impossible to see them all in one visit. If you are limited in time, it may be worthwhile to explore the official website in advance to familiarize yourself with the collection and to pick the works that are most significant for you. For instance, there you can preview the 22 paintings of the Flemish drawing genius Rubens that are currently on display. In any case, from the side of the National Gallery, there is no need to rush your visit as the museum is open all week!
The Natural History Museum is just a fantastic place. First of all, the museum building itself is quite unusual with intricate shapes and covered with colourful tiles. From the outside, it might even look more like a church of Roman-Byzantine design. But as soon as you enter this wonderful and extraordinary building, you forget about the exterior because the world of nature opens before you in all its glory.
The exhibition of the Museum of Natural History is related to nature (animate and inanimate) and its development over time, boasting a gigantic collection of about 80 million exhibits. You can see the bones of prehistoric animals, reconstructions of endangered or extinct animal species, collections of shells, bones, minerals, and much more. The most beloved part of all is, of course, the dinosaur gallery.
The exposition of the Natural History Museum is divided into 4 colour zones, each of which devoted to a specific field of natural science. The Blue Zone tells about the life of dinosaurs, reptiles, mammals and marine animals. The Green Zone is devoted to birds, insects and plants. In the Red Zone you will unfold the mysteries of geology, volcanoes and earthquakes. And in the Orange Zone you will find the Darwin Center and the Wildlife Garden, where you can see how insects grow, from a small caterpillar to a butterfly, or you will find out about the surprising details of how bees work – it is in the Orange Zone where you will learn about everyday natural miracles that we often simply take for granted.
Thanks to this division into four areas, your museum visit gets more convenient as you can immediately decide where to go first. The amazing Museum of Natural History is open all week!
The creation of the Victoria and Albert Museum is associated with a couple of the greatest monarchs. Prince Albert collected the first items, and the queen laid the foundation for the construction of the museum. The completeness and diversity of the collection made it Europe's highest-rated museum of decorative arts and crafts. The area of 51 thousand square meters is all covered with rare exhibits, telling the 5000-year history of humans striving for beauty, starting with household items of the ancient Egyptians up to modern examples of home design showing the latest decor trends.
The exposition of the Victoria and Albert Museum is so rich that it is simply impossible to describe it in several sentences. Vast collections represent the art of Europe from different eras, including costume exhibitions, musical instruments, jewellery, furniture, glassworks, sculpture and even elements of architectural styles, with facades of buildings, statues and mosaics. No less impressive exhibits were brought from South Asia, Japan and China, giving you a chance to see Ming vases, intricate lacquer boxes, priceless kimonos or samurai armour.
It is especially worth paying attention to the museum's outstanding collection of jewellery with rare Siberian amethysts, Maharaja rubies, huge emeralds and diamonds. The museum also exhibits some unique works by Raphael, in a number of full-size drawings on wood called ‘cartoons’, which were designed for the production of tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. The tapestries themselves are currently exhibited at the Vatican Pinacoteca. The Victoria and Albert Museum works every day.
In the London Museum of Science, modern technology is intertwined with the oldest instruments, machines and mechanisms. They will tell you the most interesting facts about the creation and development of technologies, without which we cannot imagine life today.
Today, more than 300 thousand exhibits are stored in the complex. Across 5 floors there are galleries and halls with thematic exhibitions. They are dedicated to medicine, where you will see the very first scalpel in the world, or to mathematics, with exhibits from the Renaissance. Among the most spectacular exhibitions is the Flight Gallery, which presents the first version of fighter aircraft and a seaplane. The Making the Modern World Gallery contains interesting and unique objects, such as the Apollo-10 command module, the Crick and Watson DNA model, the first Apple computer, penicillin and even a porcelain bowl from Hiroshima. The museum is very interactive with lots of objects that you can touch or switch on to see the effects of inventions with your own eyes.
As any major museum, the London Science Museum also has its own store. The store of this museum is noteworthy for the fact that it sells a wide range of high-quality scientific literature for both scientists and researchers, as well as educational books for children. It is almost as interesting here as in the museum itself and you can easily spend about an hour looking at mechanisms and devices exhibited in the store. The Science Museum is open all week!
The Somerset House is one of the most beautiful and largest buildings in London, built in the eighteenth century in classical style. The first palace on this site dates back to 1547 and was owned by the royal regent Edward Seymour, or Lord Somerset. The site has been a haven for exiled queens, it has served as a state institution for parliamentarians and tax officials, and eventually became a well-known cultural centre.
The Somerset House perfectly combines old and new trends in arts. Admirers of the classics will be interested in visiting the Courtauld Gallery – note though that this gallery is currently undergoing reconstruction works that are expected to finish by the end of 2020. Its permanent collection combines paintings of Impressionist and Postimpressionist geniuses like Van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet and Modigliani, making it one of the most prestigious galleries in the world.
The part known as the Embankment Galleries is a former barrel-vaulted bargehouse that hosts exhibitions, press conferences, and events devoted to contemporary art. Some of the biggest annual events taking place here are Photo London and the London Design Festival.
In addition to the art exhibitions, people love to enjoy the inner courtyard of the Somerset House. The wide open space is particularly popular during the warmer days, due to the refreshing effects of its central fountains. In summer you will also find open-air live music performances here, as well as the Film4 Summer Screen in August, which shows movie masterpieces on the biggest screen of London. In winter, the courtyard turns into a fabulous outdoor ice rink filled with colourful lights. Note that this skating rink is paid, as opposed to the Somerset House itself, which is free to visit every day!
Tate Britain was founded by Henry Tate in 1897, as an exposition of British painting. After becoming rich in the sugar trade, Tate decided to invest his resources in art, starting with Victorian painting. One hundred years later, Tate Britain had accumulated such a huge collection of artworks that it became necessary to split them into two galleries. This is when Tate Modern appeared in 2000, as a branch of the gallery that exhibits all the works of modern and contemporary painters.
Tate Britain’s collection is displayed in chronological order, from the 1500s to the present day, overviewing British painting as well as art from other European schools. The Clore Gallery is one of the most famous parts of the museum for its huge collection of the eminent British painter William Turner. It shows over three hundred artworks, which the painter personally bequeathed to the gallery.
For the convenience of those who want to visit both Tate branches in one day, there is a special shuttle boat called “Tate to Tate”, which connects both museums every 30-40 minutes. Please note though that this service is paid, with regular fares at around € 10. Tate Britain works every day, free of charge.
The vast collection of the Imperial War Museum covers the history of military conflicts in which Great Britain and the countries of the Commonwealth took part from the beginning of the 20th century up to the present day. However, the museum’s mission is not so much to demonstrate military equipment as more to study and show the feelings of people during military conflicts, the citizens of those countries whose governments solve political issues on the battlefields.
The extensive collection of the Imperial War Museum shows weapons, military heraldry and phaleristics, uniforms and ammunition of military personnel from different British countries, as well as works of art in the battle genre, detailed archives of personal documents, an extensive collection of photo documents and newsreels that is considered to be one of the oldest in the world.
The Imperial War Museum includes two branches that are also located in London centre, and which could be of interest to you. The first branch is a cruiser known as the HMS Belfast. The museum-ship is the pride of the British Navy, having served the British fleet for 32 years. Inside it offers expositions dedicated to marine life and the ship’s war history. The other branch is The Churchill War Rooms, located in the underground bunker of the British government from WWII. This underground shelter was built in 1939 for cabinet meetings regarding the course of the war. The most famous part of the bunker is the Prime Minister’s apartment. This is one room, combining an office and a bedroom, as well as the funniest exhibit, a night pot.
The Imperial War Museum as well as its branches are open every day, but note that admission is paid for the HMS Belfast and The Churchill War Rooms.
The Museum of London is devoted to the formation of the city in ancient times, highlighting in detail the influence that the Romans and Saxons had, and its fascinating journey of becoming the metropole as we know it today. What are the things defining London? The main idea of this museum is to show the everyday life of ordinary people who lived in London, and what surrounded them daily – on the street, at work or at home in different eras.
The exhibition is built up in chronological order, allowing you to travel through centuries. The halls are equipped with interactive panels and screens showing exciting videos that will be of interest to both children and history buffs. One of the most interesting parts of the museum is a reconstructed ragged street from the Victorian era, on which there are shops and small houses, all built according to the traditions of that time. In this part you will definitely feel like travelling into the past.
The Museum of London has a branch in London Docklands, which is devoted to the history of the port of London. It tells the story of the port starting from Roman times, its heyday in the 17th century with the creation of the East India Company, up to the 1970s when the docks were finally closed. The Museum of London Docklands can also be visited free of charge. Both museums are open every day.
Using our free map of London you will not only be able to spot more amazing museums in London, but you will also learn much more about the area where the museums are located. You will easily see if there's a nice shopping street nearby, a lovely green space, or maybe one of London's street markets? Using the unique layers of the Streetwise map, makes figuring this out a piece of cake.
It is no secret that London is a very expensive city, but in search of inexpensive entertainment you should not limit yourself to museums only. You can take advantage of strolling the most beautiful parks, some of which originally owned by British monarchs. You are ready for a tour through London's colourful neighborhoods with our Streetwise map that prepares you with essential information and fun facts.
Or what about London's coolest street markets? They are all free to enter, and you will be able to taste delicious food and find lovely vintage at bargain prices. Discover all the greatest markets with our travel guide of London. In general, you definitely won’t be bored in the capital of Great Britain, even when you are short on money!