London has some of the best museums in the world.
Ancient Egyptian mummies, secret underground trains, bizarre stuffed creatures and fake pubs: these museums in London are full of fascinating objects to stir the imagination. Let’s go exploring! [Also see our guide to the best exhibitions to see in 2018.]
Free museums in London
Despite the name, this sprawling building in London’s academic Bloomsbury district is only fleetingly concerned with British history. Instead, it aims to represent the entire sweep of human endeavour, from pre-historic man through Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Absolutely marble-ous. This is a free museum to visit with occasional paid exhibitions. Lates: open until 8.30pm on Fridays. Find out more about… the British Museum.
2. Natural History Museum
This gorgeous museum in South Kensington’s free museum district is most famous for the stunning Hintze Hall, dominated by the suspended skeleton of Hope the Whale. (In the Earth Gallery, meanwhile, you can take an escalator through the centre of the earth!) The Natural History Museum is dedicated to the flora, fauna and geology of the planet we call home, with exhibits on dinosaurs, earthquakes, venomous insects and other bad-ass features of the natural world. In the winter months, there’s a picturesque ice rink outside; late opening is the last Friday of each month and often includes activities like crime scene investigations and silent discos. Find out more.
3. The Science Museum
Another free museum in South Kensington, dedicated to the miracle of technological progress… and all the neat things we’ve discovered along the way. Some of the ‘classic’ galleries focusing on the birth of steam power are a little fusty, but the bit about space travel is neat, and there are tons of neat interactive exhibitions to play with. The Wonderlab area (which isn’t free alas) is full of hands-on experiments that kids will go absolutely bananas for. Opens late on the last Wednesday of each month, until 10pm. Find out more.
4. Victoria & Albert Museum
Documenting 5,000 years of art and design, the free Victoria & Albert Museum is the third in the South Kensington museum trilogy. Known to most simply as the V&A, head here for amazing outfits, glittering jewellery, intricate mosaics and ancient sculptures in their constantly changing collection. Opens late on the last Friday of each month, until 10pm. Find out more.
5. Museum of London
The greatest city in the world deserves its own museum, and that’s exactly what the Museum of London provides! Set somewhat incongruously in the middle of a brutalist roundabout, exhibits here cover everything from the city’s ancient past as a Roman settlement right up to the present day, featuring both the 2012 Olympic cauldron… to a congealed lump of sewer blockage from our city’s great nemisis, the Fatberg. Find out more.
6. Museum of London Docklands
Ths sister to the Museum of London, this Docklands museum explores London’s heritage as a port city: the home of sailors, globe-spanning import-export business, and all that salty jazz. A ‘Sailortown’ recreates the ramshackle neighbourhoods of the city in the 1800s, and even has a fake pub, so why not crack open a few tinnies to really bring the exhibit to life? (N.B you’ll probs get asked to leave if you do this.) Find out more.
7. Imperial War Museum
War: what is it good for? This free museum in south London interrogates exactly that, charting human conflict as it’s affected Britain throughout the centuries, with a particular focus on WW1 and WW2. See how London survived the Blitz and hear the stories of those who paid the ultimate price for their country. Find out more.
8. Design Museum
A cavernous space in Kensington celebrates all things design. The core ‘Designer Maker User’ collection is free to visit, while other temporary exhibitions require a ticket purchase. Find out more.
9. Horniman Museum
One of the further-flung museums on our list, head south-east to Forest Hill for this fantastic all-rounder. Based upon the eclectic collections of Frederick John Horniman, you’ll find a gallery of taxidermy (including a famously over-stuffed walrus), a new World Gallery based on diverse civilisations around the globe, a butterfly house, an underground aquarium (this has an admission charge) and even some cute llamas outside in the beautiful gardens. A perfect family day out.
10. Museum of Childhood
Head to Bethnal Green in east London to discover the free Museum of Childhood. Operated and curated by the V&A, it’s home to toys, dolls houses, and thousands of other interesting items. Find out more.
11. Sir John Soane’s Museum
This house in Holborn holds over 45,000 fascinating items amassed by the 19th-century architect Sir John Soane. Find out more.
12. Wellcome Collection
Investigate bodies beautiful and bizarre at the Wellcome Collection, a free museum near Euston concentrating on the human body. A permanent collection of anatomical curios is on display, and their programme of temporary exhibitions is usually pretty cool too. The beautiful reading room upstairs is an especially tranquil spot to enjoy a book or catch up on some emails. Find out more.
13. Grant Museum of Zoology
This little free museum from University College London boasts over 60,000 zoological specimens, which mostly means weird skeletons and pickled creatures in jars. (Don’t miss the disturbing ‘jar of dead moles’!) Bone up on your animal knowledge – find out more here.
14. RAF Museum
Fresh off a multi-million pound upgrade in celebration of the Royal Air Force’s 100th anniversary, the RAF’s free museum in Colindale, north London, now boasts interactive galleries and immersive activities… along with lots and lots of planes. Find out more.
15. The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
The free museum in Greenwich celebrates London’s seafaring past with permanent exhibitions along with temporary attractions throughout the year, including a fun area especially for kids. More info here.
16. National Army Museum
The army’s museum in Chelsea tells the story of Britain’s fighting forces, across five galleries and four floors: Soldier, Army, Society, Battle and Insight. Find out more.
Non-free museums in London (that are still great)
17. London Transport Museum
Trains, planes and automobiles! Well, no planes… and of buses. This Covent Garden museum memorialises the many ways Londoners have schlepped across the city over the last century. Embrace your inner transit nerd, and don’t miss the gift shop, which gives you the chance to spritz up your living room with some classic tube moquette. Adult tickets are £17.50, kids go free! More info here.
18. The Postal Museum
This unmissable new museum in Farringdon is dedicated to the history of the Royal Mail. Most notably, it has an entire secret underground train ride, which follows the tracks of the abandoned Mail Rail, by which letters and parcels were conveyed under the city as recently as the early 2000s. It’s frickin’ awesome! Elsewhere, you can discover the daredevil history of the postman, whose personal equipment once included high-powered weaponry to fend off highwaymen. Great stuff. £17 for adults, £10 for kids. More information here.
This tiny museum near Goodge Street is best known for its Instagram-worthy exterior, but yes, there really is a toy museum inside. It focuses mostly on the weird playthings of yesteryear – expect creepy dolls, wooden toys from Victorian times and other pre-Minecraft entertainments. £7 for adults, £4 for kids. Find out more about Pollock’s Toy Museum.
20. Viktor Wynd’s Cabinet Of Curiosities
This bizarre collection of curiosities offers everything from ‘the intriguing beauty of McDonald’s Happy Meal Toys, to old master etchings to prison inmates & mad women’s doodles, occultists paintings and pop art prints, the horrors and wonders of nature, two-headed kittens and living coral.’ Tickets are £6. More information here.
21. The Garden Museum
This small collection offers a permanent display of paintings, tools, ephemera and historic artefacts: a glimpse into the uniquely British love affair with gardens. The café is also rather pleasant! Admission is £10 for adults. Find out more.
22. The Cinema Museum
London’s Cinema Museum is devoted to keeping alive the spirit of cinema from the days before the multiplex. Admission is only via joining one of their regular guided tours, which costs £10. Find out more.
23. Body Worlds
Newly arrived in London, this fascinatingly invasive exhibit features hundreds of bodies, perfectly preserved in plastic. Far from being gruesome, the museum is highly educational, teaching us to take care of ourselves. Learn more here.
Beautifully eccentric, this place has been frozen in time, transporting you back to Georgian London. The museum tells the story of the fictional Jervis family, with the space left as if they’d just popped out. Lucky visitors will see Madge, the mouse-hunter-in-residence, standing watch over the home. See more here.
25. The Clink Prison Museum
A rather arresting spot amongst London museums, The Clink spent some 600 years as one of the city’s most feared prisons. Far from the charming spot it is today, Southwark used to be a lawless place; prostitutes, heretics, and drunkards all graced the cells of The Clink at one point or another. Why not join them? More info.
25. Fashion & Textile Museum
As museums go, this one is rather eye-catching, given that it’s a lurid shade of orange. You won’t find any permanent displays inside; instead, a catwalk parade of temporary exhibits come and go, each one revealing something new about contemporary fashion. More information here.
26. The Old Operating Theatre Museum
The blood and viscera has long since been scoured away, making this museum a fascinating place to visit. Pioneering medical techniques were trialled here back in the day, and today, it holds the crown as the oldest surviving surgical theatre in Europe. Check it out here.
27. The Fan Museum
Those who love curiously niche museums should make a beeline for Greenwich, where The Fan Museum tells the history of fans and the art of fan-making. A bright and breezy visit should end at The Orangery for afternoon tea. What can we say, we’re fans of it… More info.
Once upon a time, an eccentric fellow known as Frederic, Lord Leighton decided to turn his house into a palace of art. The result is a splendid museum, with mosaic walls, sculptures aplenty, and even a fountain built into the floor. A little impractical to live in, but well worth a visit. Find out more here.