Everything and anything you’d need to know about the British Museum.
In the pantheon of museums in London, one stands out from the crowd. By virtue of being the biggest, oldest, and most popular of London museums, the British Museum is a titanic cultural attraction. It’s also one of many free things to do in London, giving it that extra penny-pinching appeal. So, with all this going for it, what are the best things to see at the British Museum? As always, Secret London is here with the lowdown.
British Museum overview
What is it? Oh, no big deal, it’s only the world’s oldest national public museum. Inside, you’ll find collections of art, literature, and other artefacts telling the story of human history. Over six million people visit each year, which is more than the population of Libya. It’s been the most popular tourist attraction in the UK, a title the British Museum has held for over a decade – until Tate Modern stunningly dethroned it earlier this year.
How old is it? The British Museum was founded in 1753 and opened in 1759, making it older than the USA. It was created by an Act of Parliament to accommodate the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, who also gives his name to Sloane Square.
What’s inside? A vast number of treasures, acquired over the years. The British Museum is split into sections corresponding to areas and time periods. You’ll find separate wings for Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas, spread across three floors. Oh, and a drop dead gorgeous glass roof covering the stunning Great Court.
Anything else? In the past, the British Museum has become so big that it’s had to expand twice – once to a site in Kensington, the other now located in St Pancras. These expansions became, respectively, the Natural History Museum and the British Library. The British Museum also has a fabulous Reading Room, but in recent years it has been – mostly – closed to the public.
Things to see at the British Museum
It may be called the British Museum, but most of the objects have been loaned from other countries or purchased from private collections. You also can’t escape the fact that many were claimed by underhand tactics of the British Empire, leading several countries to demand the return of their artefacts. Since there are 7 million objects here, we’ve selected the top things to see at the British Museum.
The Rosetta Stone: Not just an expensive language guide, you know. The ancient translation tool is written in both Egyptian and Greek, and is the reason we can read hieroglyphics. Carved in 196BC, it also happens to be the British Museum’s most visited object, so you’ll need to be patient to get to the front.
Easter Island moai: Easter Island is a bit of a trek, but since the British Museum has one of the famed heads in its collection, you only need go as far as Bloomsbury.
Egyptian mummies: The British Museum has a long history with mummies, having hosted Tutankhamun’s treasures in 1972. Today, you can find sarcophagi, the mummy of Katebet, and mummified pets, including cats and fish. Don’t get any ideas from that last one…
Parthenon sculptures: These figures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, have seen a never-ending saga of ownership which shows no sign of stopping. Greece claims they were illegally taken after Lord Elgin made a dodgy deal with the ruling Ottoman Empire, whilst the UK maintains it was a legal purchase under the laws of the time. Regardless of which side you take, you can enjoy the beautiful sculptures in a gigantic hall in the British Museum’s west wing, and learn much about ancient Greece in the process.
Aztec serpent: A fascinating lot, were the Aztecs. When they weren’t busy indulging in ritual sacrifice, the Aztec created beautiful objects, like this stunning double-headed serpent mosaic. Find it on the ground floor of the British Museum.
Olduvai stone tool: It looks fairly unremarkable, until you discover it’s the oldest artefact in the British Museum. At a whopping 1.8 million years old, this stone tool is quietly one of the most impressive objects in the entire building.
Egyptian sculpture: When you think of the British Museum, this is probably what you’re thinking of. A huge hall, full of busts of Egyptian gods and kings, this is one of the museum’s most impressive sights.
Winged bulls of Assyria: They once guarded the gates in the ancient cities of Nimrud and Khorsabad in Iraq, but now the bulls take up residence at the British Museum, looking downright imposing.
Mausoleum of Halicarnassus: It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and you can find parts of it at the British Museum. Statues from the mausoleum can be found in the Ancient Greek wing on the ground floor.
Shrine of Amaravati: In a corner gallery of the British Museum, you’ll find the Great Shrine of Amaravati, painstakingly recreated to fill the whole room. It was one of the oldest and largest Buddhist shrines in India, and is definitely worth a visit.
Samurai armour: If Tom Cruise is your idea of a samurai, then you definitely need to visit this British Museum exhibit. The intricate armour of the honour-driven warriors has been preserved for 400 years, a relic of a fascinating part of history.
Lampedusa cross: Not everything in here is ancient. The Lampedusa Cross was acquired by the British Museum in 2015, to commemorate the 359 refugees who died when their boat sank off of the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013. A local carpenter, Francesco Tuccio, carved the cross out of the wreckage of the boat, making a hugely poignant artefact in the process.
British Museum exhibitions
A couple of upcoming exhibitions have caught our fancy. Opening on October 10th, you’ll see the wonders of the east in ‘Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art‘. Meanwhile, things are all Greek to me in ‘Troy: myth and reality‘, which opens on November 21st. (See more art exhibitions in London.)
British Museum visitor information
Tips on exploring: I’d advise you get to the British Museum nice and early if you want to beat the crowds and avoid the queues. Alternatively, the British Museum is open late on Fridays, giving you ample time to wander round the galleries after most people have left. Picking up a map for £2 will give you their “Top 10 objects to see” tour, which will take you through most of the major galleries (a cheap paper copy, without the top 10, is available for a “suggested donation”). Alternatively, audio guides can be rented for £7, and come in 10 languages.
Location: The British Museum can be found at
Opening hours: The British Museum is open every day of the year, except January 1st and December 24th, 25th, and 26th. It is open daily from 10am until 5:30pm daily (except Fridays, when closing is 8:30pm).
Entry: The British Museum is free to enter, but donations are welcome; you’ll find donation points scattered around the open areas. Special events and exhibits may be charged, and you’ll normally need to book in advance. Small bags can be left in their cloakroom, but large luggage (such as wheely cases) is forbidden. For a fee, a nearby hotel may hold onto them for you.
Tours: So-called “eye-opener” tours, focusing on individual rooms, run throughout the day – find the schedule here. Paid tours of the British Museum include an early morning tour for £30 per person, or a highlights tour for £14pp. See a full list of tours.
Demonstrations and performances: Regular demonstrations, such as a Japanese tea ceremony and musical performances, can also be found within the walls of the British Museum. See a full list of what’s on.
Shopping: The smaller of the two giftshops is filled with replica objects, perfect for turning your own home into a museum. The larger shop offers more standard souvenirs, whilst the British Museum bookshop includes a broad range of fiction and non-fiction.
Food options: No fewer than three eating options at the British Museum. Casual fare comes in the form of the Court Cafe, whilst the museum also offers an on-site Pizzeria. The Great Court Restaurant is the fancier spot, serving seasonal mains under the museum’s stunning roof.
Best spot for photos: The Great Court is massively Insta-worthy. But for a different view of the British Museum, head to the viewing platform on Level 3 for a dramatic elevated vista.
Before you go: The British Museum is the largest indoor space mapped on Google Street View. If time is tight, browse around ahead of your visit and pick out what you want to see.
Final word of warning: Be on the lookout for the vengeful ghost of an Egyptian god. Amun-ra is supposedly a resident of the Egyptian Room, and he’s been rumoured to snatch people from nearby Holborn station.
More information: from the British Museum website.
Things to do around the British Museum
📚 Browse the stacks at the London Review Bookshop
🕹 Experience the bonkers arcade games of Novelty Automation
🎳 Strike down the competition at All Star Lanes
🎯 Step up to the oche at Flight Club
💚 Marvel at the beautiful Dalloway Terrace
Restaurants near the British Museum: Nando’s, Pizza Express, Steak & Lobster, My Old Dutch, Hubbard & Bell, and The Chicken Shop.
Featured image: @vr.photographies
Also published on Medium.