Best London Museums for Kids

London's museums are generally extremely child-friendly. In fact it's increasingly rare to find a child-unfriendly museum in London these days - even museums that are not obvious destinations for families usually have a children's trail or quiz, and a 'hands on' area or play corner.

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No children allowed... and some surprises

Dennis Severs' House is an exception (children are not permitted) and the Imperial War Museum London, although generally very child friendly, does not recommend its Holocaust exhibition for children under 14, and children under 11 are not admitted. Similarly, due to the nature of its exhibits (which, for example, include human remains and displays related to illness and death), the Wellcome Collection's exhibitions are primarily aimed at an audience over the age of 14. There is however a "Young Explorers Pack" available for those who visit with children.

On the other hand, a number of museums that might seem unwise or impossible to visit with children are actually very child-friendly. The Wallace Collection, which - with priceless 18th century furniture on open display - might seem daunting, actually encourages families to visit, offering a children's guide book and audio tour, children's trails, armour to try on and regular events and activities for families. Sir John Soane's Museum, another building full of precious objects and antiquities on open display, also encourages visitors of all ages, offering a children's audio guide, holiday activities, drop-in activities and even a young architects' club.

Conversely, some museums that might seem good places to take children are actually not so good, an example being Pollock's Toy Museum in Fitzrovia, which lovely though it is, is really of more interest to nostalgic adults than small children who will just want to play with everything that catches their eye! Families would be better advised to head to the V&A Museum of Childhood (see below) instead.

London's child-friendly local museums

If you're looking for a place to while away a rainy afternoon without the crowds and a vast building to navigate then don't overlook London's many local museums. The displays are often surprisingly interesting, and most have put a lot of thought and effort into engaging children, providing trails and activities, and plenty of things for children to touch, try out and play with. We often find that our boys will happily spend an hour or two in a local museum such as Hackney Museum.

Special interests

London abounds in special interest museums, and although these are not particularly directed at kids, obviously if your child is a huge football fan, or passionate about ballet, then a visit to Wembley Stadium or the Royal Ballet School's White Lodge Museum (currently closed) is likely to be a success.

The 'top 10'

Bearing the above notes in mind, here is a list of what we consider to be London's very best museums for children, that is, the ones that almost any child will find rewarding and engaging. There are 10 museums in this list, however we have listed them in alphabetical order rather than ranking them. Ranking them from 1 to 10 seems an impossible task, and frankly pointless as so much depends on the age, interests and personality of the child(ren).

Return to London's museums grouped by theme

Best London Museums for Kids - the top 10

British Museum

Egyptian mummies, Roman treasure hoards, golden Buddhas, African masks and much, much more... even the least museum-inclined child should find plenty of interest here! It's a vast place, so keep visits fairly short, take a break for refreshments in the huge central court and pick up one of the excellent family trails or activity backpacks from the Paul Hamlyn Library, or a hand-held kid's multimedia guide from the Great Court. There are daily handling sessions around the museum, and a busy programme of events for children and families. There's even a museum shop especially for children, with lots of lovely educational books, t-shirts, toys and fun items at pocket money prices.

Golden Hinde

Any child (or adult) who's dreamed of being a pirate and sailing the seven seas* will love this 'real life pirate ship', actually a full sized reconstruction of the Tudor warship in which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe in 1577-80. Explore this ship full of stories and history on a self-guided tour, or with a costumed actor guide. For a truly memorable experience, book your children into one of the regular Pirate Workshops or Fun Days where they will hear tales of famous pirates, learn how to fire a cannon, raise the anchor and take part in a treasure hunt. Families can even 'join the crew' and sleep on board as part of an overnight living history experience.

NB: parents of very small children may find the relatively low guard rails coupled with close proximity to water rather stressful!

* Children who like the idea of life onboard a ship may also enjoy HMS Belfast which is moored nearby.

Horniman Museum

Probably London's most child-friendly museum, offering fascinating exhibits and exciting activities from all over the world. Galleries include musical instruments, natural history and African art & culture, plus an aquarium and extensive gardens. Highlights are the wonderful 'hands on base' where children can touch and handle items from cultures around the world, and a music room where everyone can experiment with playing a wide variety of specially commissioned instruments. With changing exhibitions and temporary displays there's always something exciting and unusual to see, plus lots of child-friendly events and activities, from storytelling sessions to nature trails and pond dipping.

London Transport Museum

Red buses, black taxis and the London 'tube' - learn all about London's iconic public transport at the lively, interactive museum brilliantly located among the shops and cafés of Covent Garden. There's a fantastic collection of historic vehicles, from horse-drawn buses to tube trains and modern taxis, some of which you can enter, plus displays on all aspects of public transport in London, from tickets and posters to stations. Drive a tube train simulator, see a giant 3D map of London's tube network and discover what the future might hold for the city's public transport. There are plenty of hands on and interactive exhibits, plus gallery trails, stamps to collect and regular storytelling and themed workshops for children.

National Maritime Museum

A museum about discovery and adventure - from shipwrecks and scurvy to trade routes and navigation there's plenty here to interest children of all ages. The fantastic interactive Children's Gallery enables kids to explore maritime skills and technologies past and present and will keep them occupied for hours with tasks such as loading cargo, sending a semaphore signal and even loading a cannon. The Ship Simulator Galleries enable older children to experience piloting a ship and steering it into port, and learn about navigation and communication at sea. The Museum's Planetarium has regular child-friendly shows, and there's even a special 'Space Safari' show for under 5s. There are regular family events and children's holiday workshops.

Natural History Museum

The famous dinosaurs in the museum's huge entrance hall and the excellent dinosaur and fossil galleries (with a life-size animatronic T-Rex) are the Natural History Museum's biggest draws for families, but there are plenty of other exciting things to see and do across the 30 permanent galleries. Marvel at the amazing blue whale, handle geological specimens at the Earth Lab and experience an earthquake, visit Investigate, the science lab for 7 to 14 year olds, or become a museum explorer by borrowing one of the Explorer activity backpacks. There are regular family events and science sessions for children.

RAF Hendon

The sheer size and scale of this museum and many of its exhibits will appeal to most children, plus the fact that there are over 100 aircraft to explore (some of them literally) and plenty of interactive features, films and engaging displays. Visit the fascinating Milestones of Flight Gallery, and the impressive Battle of Britain and Bomber Halls. Soar amongst the clouds or participate an intense aerial battle in the two flight simulators and the 4-Dimensional Theatre Ride. Children love discovering how aircraft fly and testing their pilot aptitude with the 40 hands-on exhibits at the Aeronauts Interactive Centre, and there are themed children's activity weeks throughout the summer.

Science Museum

There are fabulous hands-on galleries for all age groups at the Science Museum: Launchpad - the museum's most popular gallery - enables adults and older children to explore science and technology with 50 hands-on activities and shows, Pattern Pod has scientific fun and games for younger children, and the basement 'Garden' has great water play and building activities for toddlers. See rockets, satellites, a piece of moon rock and a full-size replica of the 'Eagle' moon lander in the Exploring Space Gallery, or learn about electronic music, the future of fuel and the history of aviation in fabulous galleries over six floors. Older children will want to get their hands on the controls in the Fly Zone Simulators, while the whole family can experience a Saturn V rocket launch in the 4-D cinema, watch a science film on the enormous IMAX screen or take part in workshops, storytelling sessions and science shows.

Victoria and Albert Museum

This treasure house of art and design is a hit with older children who appreciate the stylish presentation and the focus not only on historic artefacts, but also on contemporary design, fashion and celebrity. There are fabulous fashion, jewellery, architecture, photography and performing arts galleries, plus masses of inspiration for budding artists of all types. Explore stage make-up, fashion illustration, Asian art and digital photography and much more. There are family trails and activity backpacks, hands-on activities - including brass rubbing, costumes to try on, and sound effects to experiment with - plus regular workshops and a lively young people's events programme.