6 Best Museums in London

April 19, 2017

British values become apparent when visiting the museums in London—most are FREE. The government and the people esteem art and history so highly and ensure these wonders of the world are open and accessible to the public. The word “museum” first described the 17th century university building in Alexandria. This “seat of the muses” housed the artistic, historical, scientific, and cultural artifacts of ancient Greece. While wandering through these fine spaces today, you may discover inspiration you have been seeking. The muses will whisper to you!

The Top 6 MUST SEE museums: Choose AT LEAST one or two of these fabulous locations to visit during your stay. Current exhibits may help in your decision so check out the art exhibits in advance. Since most museums are free, you can be flexible. When we wake up and see a warm and sunny day, the parks and shopping are our destination. On a rainy day there is nowhere better than being comfortable and dry in an exciting museum. Each of these museums has extensive websites where you can explore details about current exhibits before traveling to London. Read on to UNCOVER all there is to DISCOVER.

VICTORIA AND ALBERT – THE V&A

Queen Victoria and her beloved Albert brought culture (including music, art, and architecture) to England like no other monarchs before—and made it available to the people. The Victoria and Albert Museum is the world’s leading museum of art and design. You will find artifacts from the past 5000 YEARS including architecture, glass, jewelry, photography, sculpture, textiles, and more. There is no admission fee and it’s open every day of the year except December 24-26. This is one of those flexible destinations on your agenda — perfect for a rainy day in London. South Kensington Station is the closest underground location and you can use the Piccadilly, Circle or District Line to get there. You will walk a few blocks down Exhibition Road past restaurants and bakeries. The bus is also a great option with several stops near the south and west entrances of the V&A.  

As you first enter this mind-boggling space, don’t get overwhelmed. There is no way you will see even a portion of the 2.3 million permanent objects housed here. Pick up one of the maps of the museum and find a bench. Even better, you can download a map before you leave home or use the interactive map on their website. Choose an exhibit and get started; you may find some detours along the way, and that is all the better. You might enjoy a tour — and there are many options. I was told there was an audio tour if I had my own headphones which I had unfortunately left at my flat. I like to use the west entrance. Immediately before you, you will see a great hall filled with sculptures. Often there are small groups of artists huddled around the pieces of art — busily sketching. It is a living space and one can imagine the generations of artists before that have studied and sketched these same FABULOUS works. Also located near this entrance are the current featured exhibitions that are not part of the permanent collections. Each time you visit there will be something new to see. Make your way through the sculptures and Asia exhibits to the grand entrance and stand beneath the Chihuly glass chandelier designed for the V&A. UNFORGETTABLE.

Midday you will need to relax and re-energize — there is no need to cut short your visit. Lunch in the V & A Cafe is fresh and fabulous, especially if you secure a table in the dining area with the arched and ornate ceilings. You will be snapping photos before you can eat a single bite. There is a children’s menu and high chairs available. Should you bring your own packed lunch, there is a lunchroom provided on the 3rd floor or a lovely outdoor area in the garden. Now you are ready to venture past the FIRST LEVEL.

 

Beatrix Potter sketches are so delicate and bring back a flood of childhood memories of “Peter Rabbit.” Pictures can be taken throughout the museum except of the amazing collection of jewels, which we discovered when reproached by a guard. You could spend days just looking at the tiaras. On the upper levels you will also find paintings, furniture, ceramics, modern glass, mosaics. I especially love walking through the stained glass exhibit and noticing how the light dances through the colorful panes. Tapestries, sacred silver, portrait miniatures, architecture from around the world are all here. THE TOP MUSEUM in the world.

THE NATIONAL GALLERY

At the edge of Trafalgar Square, the picturesque National Gallery sits in splendor. This location was chosen in the early 1800’s so all social classes could easily access the art—the wealthy from their west end estates and the poor from their humble abodes in the East End.. Like the V & A, this massive space includes more than you can possibly see in a single visit.. Priceless paintings are on display without cost, and open 361 days each year. Hours are from 10am to 6pm, and until 9pm on Friday.

Art is such a personal thing. I find it a good idea to spend part my day all alone. We decide to meet for lunch in the cafe at a specific time, and then I feel free to wander and enjoy the works that draw me in. I can spend an entire hour contemplating one painting if I wish and not feel hurried. Depending on the museum, I seek to learn about one mode or one painting not previously understood. Murals, tapestries, altarpieces, sculpture, religious art, contemporary…the list is endless. The paintings in this gallery are organized by the eras they were created. If you want to visit the art chronologically, you can easily do that—or perhaps you will choose to start wandering and find where you are drawn. Maybe you have one style of painting you will choose to focus on this visit. I have done several approaches to museums, and it depends on my mood that particular day.

I like to end my time with the impressionists and once again soak in Monet, Renoir, Degas, Seurat, and Van Gogh. Guided tours will help you understand a few of the paintings in depth. Choose from several options. Podcasts and audio tours can be downloaded to your device ahead of time. Interactive workshops for all ages are held during the holidays. The gift shop is one of the finest I have seen in a museum, and will print a poster of your favorite painting while you wait. The grandchildren LOVE choosing this souvenir that they hand-picked! PERFECT!

TOWER OF LONDON

A museum isn’t always limited to what is INSIDE the walls — sometimes IT IS THE WALLS. The Tower of London is an absolutely must-see part of every itinerary. It has been a royal palace, a prison, a zoo, a museum, a site of execution, and a jewel house. Because of such a history over a thousand years, the stories are almost unending. To reach the Tower of London — which is on the far east side of central London — take either District or Central Tube Line to Tower Hill Station, cross under the busy highway, and go directly to the entrance. Let me emphasize that booking your visit online before you arrive will enhance a visit to one of the most interesting sites anywhere in Europe: THE TOWER OF LONDON. Really, really exciting.

Let me suggest, in the strongest terms, to take the tour with the Beef Eaters who gather groups at the entrance and walk you through the Tower, telling you stories with all their gruesome details. You will roar with laughter, you will stand amazed at the beautiful architecture, you will see jewels—the Crown Jewels—that will dazzle your eyes. You might also look into the CEREMONY OF THE KEYS where visitors are allowed to join the night guards as they close the Tower of London; it is a medieval ceremony and very engaging. HAVE FUN! Buy online tickets ahead or you will spend the day in very, very long lines. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

TATE BRITAIN

Tate Britain is the museum that holds the national collection of British art from 1500 to the present day. Founded in 1897 by Sir Henry Tate as the National Gallery of British Art, next called the Tate Gallery in 1932, it finally became known as the Tate Britain when the Tate Modern was opened in 2000. The focus on art from the United Kingdom makes it the world’s most comprehensive collection of British historical and contemporary art. The Tate is open from 10am to 6pm daily, and continuing with the British tradition—the admission is FREE. Located in central London in Chelsea, you can get there by bus or tube. Plan in advance by understanding the galleries, tours, restaurants, exhibits, displays, and tours available. Map of the museum and activities can be downloaded before you arrive.

New sections of the museum conceived by the architects at Caruso St John were completed in 2013. This area includes a total of nine new galleries, with reinforced flooring to accommodate heavy sculptures.

A second area was unveiled later in 2013, the centrepiece being a new spiral staircase beneath its rotunda as well as the reopening of the building’s Thames-facing entrance.  In addition to British art, you can learn more from the website before you arrive about Performance art, Land art, Pre-Raphaelite secret society, and impressionism. FASCINATING READING whether you will visit London soon, or are an “armchair” traveler for now. ENJOY!

MUSEUM OF LONDON

If you are a people watcher, this is the museum for you. The Museum of London focuses on the SOCIAL HISTORY of London’s inhabitants. Over a million visitors per year come to see the largest urban history collection in the world, with over six million artifacts. It is located in the financial district of London that was developed in the 1960’s to 1970’s. Just a short walk north of St.Paul’s Cathedral, it is easily reached by public transportation. FREE daily from 10am to 6pm. There is so much to see at this location from prehistoric to modern times—everything from altar pieces from the 1500’s to a Vespa collection from the 1950’s. Pewter toys from the 1300’s, Oliver Cromwell’s death mask, a model of London’s Great Fire of 1666, World War II memorabilia, Suffragettes displays, and fashion from the hippy era — are all here. Map can be downloaded before you arrive so you don’t miss what is most interesting to you. Restaurants are on location.

NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM

There are good reasons for the long lines you will find at the London’s Natural History Museum. Besides being FREE, it has 80 MILLION artifacts—including specimens collected by Charles Darwin, dinosaur skeletons and ornate architecture. Truly SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE. Focusing on life and earth science, the five main collections are divided into botany, entomology, mineralogy, palaeontology and zoology. Download the Visitor App in advance to preview which might catch your interest.  Although admission is FREE, there is a charge for some of the temporary exhibits. I highly suggest you book tickets online in advance to skip the LONG LINES at the entrance. If you purchase tickets for the temporary exhibits through the museum website, the cost will be half as much as a tourist site.

The vaulted central hall, also called CATHEDRAL OF NATURE houses the large cast of Diplodocus. The museum is recognized as the pre-eminent center of natural history and research of related fields.Open daily from 10:00 am to 5:50 pm, it is closed only on July 13 and December 24-26. Located at the intersection of Cromwell Road and Exhibition Road in South Kensington, it is directly across the street from the Victoria & Albert Museum. You can see why this area of London is known as the “museum district.” As I walked right into the V&A, I could see the longest lines I had seen in London—at the Natural History Museum. Take my advice and book ahead online. Once again, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

DONATIONS APPRECIATED

Most museums are free, but it is a good idea to drop in a donation at the entrance. It is a small way to show gratitude and be a good guest in the city. There is so much to learn in the world of art, science, and history—and this knowledge adds depth and dimension to our lives. Museums in London are the perfect places to begin or add to your existing interests. EXPLORE while you are in London at one of these SIX BEST MUSEUMS.