Top 10 museums for Tourists visiting London

I am regularly asked to recommend a list of museums for a visitor to visit, so this is another of the myriad of top museum posts that populate the internet, but I am going to say something that very few of them say.

Don’t go to the obvious big museums!

Not because I am sizeist, but because when you look at the large national museums, almost every capital city has their equivalent. Yes, the exhibits are different, but essentially most National Collections around the world have some Egyptian mummies, some dinosaurs, some roman relics, etc.

A visit to the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, the Science Museum, is enjoyable, but they are not the places that a time-pressed tourist should spend time on.

Go for the museums that are unlikely to have analogue in your home country.

Museum-of-London1) Museum of London

You’re in London, so visit the one museum dedicated to the history of the city. London is vast, deep in history and broad in geography. There is everything here from the earliest stone age settlers right up to the modern Olympics.

They usually have a couple of large blockbuster exhibitions per year, but the highlight for many visitors is the recreation of a Victorian shopping street, dimly lit with gas lamps.

You can easily spend half a day here, and still wont have seen everything.

Entry is free.

(Nearby is St Paul’s Cathedral)

London-Transport-Museum2) London Transport Museum

London is famous for many things, and not least its pioneering transport networks — from the early horse drawn buses to the world’s first underground railway. This museum is a good snapshot of the history of transport, with examples of trams, buses and some tube trains on display surrounded by smaller collections of artifacts.

Do stop for a coffee, where a tube roundel will be sprinkled onto the top of the coffee for you.

Entry costs £15

(Nearby is Covent Garden, Somerset House and the West End)

RAF-Museum-London3) RAF Museum

One of the museums away from the centre of London, it amply rewards a half day visit as the museum is huge. A massive collection of mostly, but not exclusively military aircraft, and again, mostly, British, but with some foreign examples on show.

Several large hangers are packed full of aircraft, and some helicopters.

A large hall is often used for temporary exhibitions.

Entry is free

Cabinet-War-Rooms4) Churchill War Rooms

Once a top secret underground bunker, now a highly successful restoration shows how the British government controlled its military operations during WW2.

You’ll see the rooms occupied by Winston Churchill, the famous mapping rooms and a vast warren of officers rooms and command rooms.

You will come away with a deep understanding of how wars are commanded, and appreciation for the — to our modern eyes — the rudimentary ways they were carried out.

Entry costs £17.50

(Nearby is Banqueting House, Houses of Parliament and the next entry below)

Household-Cavalry-Museum5) Household Cavalry Museum

Quite small but often overlooked, and just around the corner from the Churchill War Rooms, the Household Cavalry Museum explores the history of this famous military regiment and the combination of its ceremonial and practical work.

Anyone who has loved all the British pomp and ceremony will enjoy a short visit to this museum. In addition to the museum, windows let you see into the working side of the Cavalry, where horses are groomed and looked after.

Entry costs £7

Tower of London6) Tower of London

The Crown Jewels, Beefeaters, the Bloody Tower, Traitor’s Gate, History, heritage, what more needs to be said? Actually, the Tower is a lot more than that, and surprisingly packed full of things to see. An introduction by Beefeaters usually takes an hour, and then there is the White Tower, with floors packed full of old armour and weapons to see.

The Crown Jewels obviously, and several other towers with older crowns and regalia. The ravens, traitors gate, and just loads of heritage to look at.

You can easily spend a day here, but if visiting on a tight schedule, the top attractions can be done in half a day.

Entry costs £22

(Nearby is All Hallows by the Tower with a crypt museum)

Hunterian-Museum7) Hunterian Museum

This is a huge medical museum in the centre of London and often overlooked even by Londoners. One room is visually stunning being filled with the glass bottles of pickled remains and specimens, while an upper floor goes into considerable detail about the history of surgery.

It’s a bit of a love it or loathe it, but even a squeamish person is likely to be awestruck by the huge collection on display.

Entry is free

(Nearby is Sir John Soane’s House, and Dr Johnsons House)

Wallace-Collection8) Wallace Collection

The only art collection in my round-up, as while most galleries around the world share works with each other for big exhibitions, by special decree, none of the Wallace Collection can ever leave the building it is housed in.

A grand country house now firmly encased within the centre of London, it houses an exceptional collection of paintings.

If you want to see the Laughing Cavalier in person, then this is the only building in the world where he can be seen. And the same applies to a lot of other Old Masters that adorn their collection.

A not insubstantial collection of military armour adds an odd finale to the building.

Entry is free

(Nearby is Oxford Street and lots of shops)

Maritime-Museum9) Maritime Museum

Royal Greenwich, ancient home of Royal palaces and maritime heritage is also home to the UK’s Maritime Museum. A large venue with numerous displays of the various eras in Britain’s famous naval history, from military to merchant and through to exploration.

The museum is set amongst a complex of other museums, including Queen’s House, the Royal Observatory, the Cutty Sark and the Old Royal Naval College — so a day out in Greenwich is perfectly possible.

I wouldn’t pay to go into the Cutty Sark, as it is overpriced for what you get, but the Painted Hall, and the views from the Royal Observatory are spectacular.

Entry is free

Tower-Bridge10) Tower Bridge

No visit to London can go without a trip to the famous Tower Bridge. Entry gets you up to the top walkways, with fantastic views across London, and then down to the original steam pumping rooms that used to power the bridge before the advent of electricity.

Time your arrival correctly, and you can watch the bridge open as well — although the views of that are best from the outside, not the walkways above.

Entry costs £9

(Nearby is The Monument, a stone column you can climb to the top of for leg tiringly good views of the city)

OK, let’s add the big museums in anyway — because while the displays might be the sorts of things every National Collection is likely to have, the buildings themselves are stunning.

The Natural History Museum has its impressive frontage and the great hall with equally impressive corridors leading off from there.

The British Museum‘s great court is a vast open space with a huge glass roof that acts as a convenient meeting point within the building.

The V&A also has a large open-air courtyard, with high Victorian decoration running all around the building.

All are free to visit, so pop in for the architecture, and move along, you have lots more to see on your visit to London.

14 comments on “Top 10 museums for Tourists visiting London
  1. shannon says:

    A great list, and one I will certainly look at again next time we have visitors.

    One thing, however, I think your pricing for the Maritime Museum is a bit misleading. The museum itself, along with parts of the observatory, the Painted Hall and the chapel are all free. Also, the Greenwich visitor information centre next to the Cutty Sark is worth a quick look and is free.

    • ianvisits says:

      Corrected – thanks. I thought it was free as well, but their website highlighted the paid options more heavily.

  2. ediFanoB says:

    Hello Ian,

    thanks a lot for the list which I highly appreciate.
    My wife and I will visit London in 2016. This travel will be our 25th wedding anniversary gift.
    We love museums but our time is limited. Therefore your list is great help for planning.

  3. Andrew says:

    A good selection, but I think you undersell the British Museum. Where else can you see the Rosetta Stone, and (most of) the Parthenon Marbles, and there is a great collection of British antiquities too. And the National Gallery, and the Tate too – amazing what you can see for free in London.

    No St Pauls or Westminster Abbey?

    • ianvisits says:

      Each museum has unique items that you can’t see elsewhere, but would someone with only a vague interest in Egyptology be that disappointed to not see the Rosetta Stone? I have tried to go for a broad selection of museums that would leave a person feeling that they saw “London”, rather than a specific selection of unique artifacts.

      The art galleries — again, unless you want to see a specific artwork, they are fairly generic locations. As for Cathedrals, they are two-a-penny in Europe.

    • Andrew says:

      I understand what you are saying: the London Museum is not visited enough if you have to pick only one of them, but as I said there are lots of British items in the British Museum too. Is Tower Bridge really a better choice, if you are going to Greenwich anyway (ideally by boat)? Would you equally recommend omitting the Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC, or the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Louvre in Paris, or the Vatican Museum in Rome?

      On St Pauls and Westminster, I was thinking of British cultural icons: the tomb of Nelson and the place where Charles and Di were married; the place of coronations, Poets’ Corner, and the wedding of Will and Kate?

      For the galleries, Constable, Stubbs, Holbein, Turner, … ok, each to his own, I suppose. There is no right or wrong here 🙂

  4. Greg Tingey says:

    Errr….
    The Wallace Museum may lend actually.
    The condition is that the exhibits cannot be put on ships, & by extension, aircraft.
    Recently, they actually did lend to a museum in (I think) Paris – the specimens went by train, of course …..
    May I suggest, rather than the HC museum (Mo 5 on your list) The National Army museum, in Chelsea &/or the Chelsea Physic Garden …..
    Both of which are under-visited & well worth the time?

  5. Samantha says:

    Can I add at no 11 the permanent collection at the British Library – John Lennon’s Beatle’s songs written on backs of envelopes, and the log book of the Victory turned to the page describing Nelson being shot and lots more (St Pancras platform 9 3/4 nearby) free of charge, also at the V&A the ground floor tea rooms and ladies loo next door with all their original tiling & plumbing plus the Cast Courts with life size copies of Michelango’s David and Trajan’s column etc. also free

  6. Samantha says:

    and at no 12 the National Archives’ Keeper’s Gallery, near Kew Gardens. Display changes regularly, worth an hour’s visit, free entry, and a good bookshop especially if you are interested in genealogy http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/visit/keepers-gallery.htm

  7. Nico C says:

    This is a great list. For smaller museums, I also really like the Foundling Museum and the Dickens Museum, both in Bloomsbury. I think there’s a small charge to get into both but they are quite interesting, and also have lovely little cafes.

    • Martin Tolley says:

      Go for the Foundling museum, a gem of spot. Just enough to see around in an hour or two, the cafe is lovely and the staff genuinely friendly and helpful.
      And for an off-beat hour, try the Cartoon museum in Little Russel Street, near the Brit Mus.

  8. Dan Tonks says:

    The problem is, some of these places are so expensive for one museum. £17.50 for the Churchill War Rooms for example. Similar in price to an all attractions dockyard ticket down here which lasts a year.

    • Andrew says:

      Good point, but 5 out of the 10 suggestions here are free, and the Transport Museum ticket lasts for a year, I think. The Tower of London is also expensive, but there is also a £46 annual pass for the six Royal Palaces (including also Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace and Hillsborough Castle)

      There big showcase museums and galleries in London (British Museum, V&A, NHM, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern) are all free. Imperial War Museum reopening soon too.

      There are lots of good small museums which are often free or cheaper: Geffrye, Horniman, Petrie, Grant … see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_museums_in_London !

  9. Paul Smith says:

    “you can watch the bridge open as well — although the views of that are best from the outside, not the walkways above.”

    With the right timing, you can now watch this from above through one of the new glass floors.

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