London is a paradise for museum lovers. These historic institutions have played central roles in Western culture for generations, accruing collections both broad and deep. They’re housed in grand buildings which are head-turning architectural attractions in their own right. The London Underground, also known as the Tube, ensures easy access. Possibly best of all, their permanent collections are free, although some temporary exhibits charge a fee.
The wealth of options means visitors must be strategic. Whether it’s science, history, art, industry or fashion that piques your curiosity, there’s a London museum just for you. Here are a few favorites, along with info on getting there via public transit.
Natural History Museum
The façade of this palatial 1880s building reflects its origins as a Victorian temple of knowledge. This iconic landmark is regarded as one of Britain’s most striking examples of idiosyncratic Romanesque architecture. Interior and exterior terracotta tiles, bricks, and relief sculptures are highly ornamented in scientifically accurate plant and animal motifs, with extinct species displayed in the east wing and living species in the west.
The five main collections focus on botany, entomology, mineralogy, paleontology, and zoology. Founder Sir Richard Owen is celebrated today for coining the word “dinosaur.” Favorite exhibits include an 82-foot blue whale skeleton hanging in the central hall; ancient dinosaur fossils; a rare piece of Mars rock; and precious gemstones and rare minerals. The modern Darwin Centre (opened in 2009) houses scientists, at work and on view for visitors.
Victoria & Albert Museum
Right next door, the Victoria and Albert Museum emphasizes art and design, with a permanent collection of over 2.3 million objects spanning over 5,000 years of human creativity. They’re housed in a purpose-built collection of buildings where Queen Victoria laid the first foundation stone in 1899.
The initial structure was revolutionary for its day, adopting and adapting a scrapbook of architectural styles and motifs, notably classical revival and gothic, and combining them with modern elements reflecting the industrial revolution. Polished marble, gleaming stone, and lofty ceilings convey the grandeur and elevation which Victorian culture associated with education and refinement.
V&A's buildings were intended to represent the best contemporary architecture and design, in support of its founding mission: to educate the public, designers, and manufacturers in art and craft. Virtually every medium is represented in the V&A’s astonishing collection: photography, sculpture, painting, jewelry, glass, ceramics, architecture, furniture, fashion, textiles, book arts, theatre, and performance.
Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum is a family of five museums dedicated to exploring the causes and impacts of modern conflict. Three locations are in London, including the Churchill War Rooms underneath Westminster, the navy warship HMS Belfast, and the main museum on Lambeth Road in Southwark.
The 1815 building which houses the museum has a solemn history: It was formerly Bethlem Royal Hospital, the famed psychiatric asylum from which the word “bedlam” is derived. Rescued from demolition, the neoclassical building with the striking copper dome is now accessed by a path dwarfed by a pair of 15-inch naval guns from Royal Navy battleships, capable of blasting a 1,900-pound shell over 16 miles.
The collection includes examples of military vehicles and aircraft, equipment, and other artifacts. There are also extensive archives of personal and official documents, photographs, film and video material, and oral history recordings.
More Free Museums
London is home to even more amazing museums. Check out www.visitlondon.com, which lists 23 free museums including:
The British Museum, with cultural artifacts from around the world, including the Rosetta Stone and sculptures taken from the Parthenon.
The National Gallery displays paintings from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, from masters such as Van Gogh, Da Vinci, and Botticelli.
The Science Museum has interactive displays and an IMAX 3D Cinema.
The Tate Modern, a repurposed power station, is London’s destination for modern and contemporary art.
The National Portrait Gallery hosts the largest collection of portraits in the world.