The Best Museums in London – A Travel Guide
There are many great museums in London. London, widely accepted as a prominent European culture capital, truly comes alive through the lens of art.
London is an undeniable destination for every jetsetter. It is a sophisticated urban center known for world class food, fashion, theater and more– not to mention sealed with the Royal stamp of approval. In fact, there are so many things to do in London it can be overwhelming.
Many visitors find themselves wondering how to prioritize time and money on the most basic level, much less how to pick out the best museums in London. Those who do finally settle on a museum or two may even find themselves questioning if the experience will compete with all of the other amazing things to do in London. Should they just give up and focus on finding the best pub lunch near their hotel?
While pub lunches are great (I personally recommend The Porthouse…), London’s museums cannot be missed for many reasons, most excitingly, the price! Every museum in London is free of charge to visitors, and while anyone can make a donation, visitors will never be charged an admission fee at a museum in London. This makes appreciating the top museums in London a breeze. Keep reading to discover the best museums in London– and I promise, you’ll still have time for lunch.
The Best Museums in London
The Tate Modern
- Address: Bankside, London SE1 9TG, UK
- Admission: Free except for special exhibitions
- Hours: Sunday through Thursday from 10:00 am – 6:00 pm & Friday and Saturday from 10:00 am – 8:00 pm
General Vibe of the Tate Modern
As a designer and lover of modern, European art, the Tate Modern is a personal favorite of mine. Located on the South Bank of the Thames, the Tate is branded with a contemporary client in mind. Museum goers and passersby are greeted with a massive overhead sign reading “Welcome to the Tate”. Straightforward and clean, it is an accurate first impression. This commanding entrance is directly across the river from historical St. Paul’s Cathedral, connected only by the infamous Millennium Footbridge which creates a dynamic and surprising architectural juxtaposition for visitors on both ends. It is also, coincidentally, part of the Queen’s Walk and one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon.
What Not to Miss at the Tate Modern in London
Featured Exhibitions and artists at the Tate are on an almost constant rotation– even their permanent collection is never shown all at once– which can make planning your visit a little tricky. Luckily, they have an extensive, dynamic website that will show you past, current and upcoming events and exhibitions, as well as helpful historical context and artist information. My current favorite shows include Bridget Riley and Salvador Dali.
While it’s not exactly art, be sure to check out the Tate’s Terrace Bar while you are there. They serve a range of craft beers, coffee, cocktails and pastries– and you can even rent the space out for parties or private events! It’s the perfect way to break up a day at the museum, and the views cannot be beat.
Best Museums in London – The Victoria and Albert Museum
- Address: Cromwell Rd, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL, UK
- Admission: Free except for special exhibitions. These are often the most elite, well advertised shows and range in price, but typically remain below twenty pounds per person.
- Hours: Open Daily from 10:00 am – 5:45 pm & Friday until 10:00 pm
General Vibe of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London
The Victoria and Albert Museum, also known as the V&A, is a stark contrast to the minimalist, concrete palace of the Tate Modern. Instead of the gleaming steel and glass interior of the Tate, visitors at the V&A are met with delicate, vaulted ceilings, and elegant stone detailing and an endless labyrinth of classically proportioned rooms. In the entranceway a sage green Chihuly curls above an informational kiosk as gleaming marble walls guide visitors through the various exhibitions.
This glamorous, but nonetheless exhausting, overstimulation of the V&A is perfectly engineered. Just as visitors start to tire: their feet begin to blister, children pull at purses and everyone starts thinking about that pub lunch… an oasis of cushioned benches materialize. Previously lost and frustrated visitors find themselves in a courtyard lined with hydrangeas the size of soccer balls, offset with a clear, cold fountain just shallow enough to stroll through and a petite cart offering citrus sodas and croissants. Getting lost is essentially inevitable at the V&A… and by far the best part.
What Not to Miss at the Victoria and Albert Museum
The V&A is composed of endlessly rotating international exhibitions. In addition to these world class shows, however, the V&A offers a stunning permanent collection, which is always free and open to the public. Permanent pieces are accessible online, providing an incredible way to gauge the range of the V&A’s collection.
Current highlights include the renowned “Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up” and “Fashioned From Nature”, a comprehensive exploration of fashion and nature from 1600 to present. Both will be on site until January, 2019. And of course, be sure to pass through the gift shop. Their jewelry selection is so eclectic.
The Best Museums in London – The Natural History Museum
- Address: Cromwell Rd, Kensington, London SW7 5BD, UK
- Admission: Free
- Hours: Daily from 10:00 am – 5:30 pm
General Vibe at the The Natural History Museum in London
As a student of art history, I’m personally quite biased toward art museums. However, even I can recognize that the Natural History Museum is one of the top museums in London. Upon entering the Natural History Museum– which, beware, can often involve quite a long wait in the rain– visitors are shuffled into a surprisingly contemporary entryway constructed from cool, semi-opaque glass. After filtering through security, visitors find themselves in an entrance hall that can only be described as the Great Hall from Harry Potter. I had to quickly open and close my eye to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
Each pillar is a unique, floral lattice carved from stone, every window a homage to centuries past. The ruddy, smooth rock that makes up every balcony and stair, handrail and floor tile, emits the faint smell of botany, while a great blue whale floats above the crowds of visitors. This is the kind of place that takes the day out of your bewildered hands gently, like a gift, leaving you stumbling out the entrance at five, wondering what happened to the afternoon and questioning the existence of life itself. It is pure magic.
What Not to Miss at the The Natural History Museum in London
Sensational Butterflies, possibly the museum’s most promoted show, is undoubtedly a highlight for all ages and can be found in the outdoor, tropical butterfly house on the grounds of the museum. The Natural History Museum also houses the world’s largest collection of colored gems. You cannot miss this. Located in ‘The Vault’ this collection features meteorites, glow-in the dark stones, and the royal jewels of antiquity.
Best Museums in London – The British Museum
- Address: Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3DG, UK
- Admission: Free
- Hours: Daily from 10:00 am – 5:30 pm & Friday until 8:30 pm
General Vibe at The British Museum in London
Visitors enter the British Museum through a rather daunting courtyard, complete with an expansive marble plaza dominated by Greco-Roman revival architecture. Walking into the cool, cavernous entryway makes visitors feel suddenly, unreasonably guilty for things like wearing shorts or chewing gum or having chipped fingernail polish. Anything less than Royal behavior is met with barely discernible disapproval, sent sternly through the atmosphere by some mysterious source. The floors of the British Museum are bright white marble and the ceiling feels more like a sky. A complex network of steel beams hold up a vast skylight that undulates hypnotically, subtly guiding visitors around the massive main room. The entire interior is strangely reminiscent of a slinky and smells undeniably like old books, though no one knows why. The space– and institution– truly lives up to its name. It is at once majestic, intrinsically intimidating, and thoroughly educational; about as British as it gets. If you are looking for a classic London setting and don’t mind politely avoiding large groups of schoolchildren, you have officially found your perfect afternoon.
What Not to Miss at The British Museum in London
A self-proclaimed public institution dedicated to human history, art and culture, the British Museum has a wide variety of anthropologically fascinating exhibitions to discover. Free tours and talks are held daily, with details outlined on their website.
Founded in 1753 as the first public museum in the world and boasting more than eight million objects, the British Museum rotates the collection on view. They are currently showing an exhibition celebrating the sculptor Rodin and the art of Ancient Greece. Don’t miss it!
Best Museums in London – The National Portrait Gallery
- Address: St. Martin’s Pl, London WC2H 0HE, UK
- Admission: Free, donations welcome.
- Hours: Open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, Thursday & Friday until 9:00 pm
General Vibe at The National Portrait Gallery in London
The National Portrait Gallery is another traditional highlight of London’s art world. Tucked quietly just north of bustling Trafalgar Square, the National Portrait Gallery’s entrance is an understated archway of beige bricks. As visitors enter, they are met with an appropriately dark, only slightly damp entrance hall which is split into two floors by a grand, granite staircase not dissimilar to the one from Jane Eyre. From here, most visitors will find themselves in a disconcertingly modern gallery graced with a ten-foot portrait of Ed Sheeran’s face, extremely helpful docents and a frighteningly narrow escalator. Others will find themselves in dungeon-like lavatories. You want the second staircase.
Each room is fitted with warm oak flooring, low ceilings and mahogany benches that are occasionally upholstered with gleaming chestnut leather. I was personally overcome with the feeling that a kind, elderly British woman might offer me tea at any moment and had to actively resist napping.
The National Portrait Gallery is a refuge in every sense; quite, considered and imbued with history. Come here to escape the eternal overload of information and chaos of urban life. The bookshop, by the way, is fantastic.
What Not to Miss at The National Portrait Gallery in London
The National Portrait Gallery in London truly has the most extensive collection of portraits in the world. With over 200,000 Tudor portraits alone, the space won’t allow every piece to be on view at one time, but does publish the works currently on view on their website. My personal favorites include a larger-than-life photograph of Lady Dianna taken from her infamous post-divorce photoshoot, that striking portrait of Ed Sheeran in the lobby (of course) and the fabulous painting of Queen Elizabeth used in every middle school history textbook since the beginning of time. You know the one.
Speaking of fame, if you are looking for a quick culture fix, the much anticipated exhibition, “Michael Jackson: On the Wall”, comes to the National Portrait Gallery in June 2018. Be sure to check it out!
I’m the first to admit, museums can be overwhelming. And a city of them? Panic inducing. That’s why I genuinely hope these descriptions provide a little guidance in choosing the right museum based on your interests, time constraint or even just your mood. Maybe you can even make to all five of the bets museums in London!
As always, safe travels. I’ll see you out there!
Where to Stay – The Best Budget Hostel in London
Looking for an awesome budget hostel in London? We recommend the Astor Hyde Park Hostel. It’s located in a beautiful Victorian Townhouse across the street from Hyde Park, has plenty of common spaces for socializing, a kitchen, modest breakfast for a pound, large and small dorms, a relaxed vibe, and some of the most friendly staff around making it one of the best hostels in London! For more information, reviews, or the best prices on Astor Hyde Park Hostel click here.
Want more fantastic budget accommodation options for London? Check out our guide to the Best Hostels in London.
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About the Author – Marie
Marie is a designer, storyteller and occasional yogi who’s love for art history almost competes with her passion for Thai food. When Marie isn’t reading or writing, you will find her outside somewhere, planning a new adventure and drinking slightly overpriced matcha lattes. View her most recent work and current musings at Marie Concilus.
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