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.
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.
(Nearby is St Paul’s Cathedral)
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.
(Nearby is Covent Garden, Somerset House and the West End)
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.
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.
(Nearby is Banqueting House, Houses of Parliament and the next entry below)
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.
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.
(Nearby is All Hallows by the Tower with a crypt 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.
(Nearby is Sir John Soane’s House, and Dr Johnsons House)
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.
(Nearby is Oxford Street and lots of shops)
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.
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.
(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.