Our very favourite London museums - a personal selection
Here are our Editors' Picks, with the Editors being Lucy, a big fan of all kinds of museums, and Bodo, who is largely indifferent to museums ("I prefer the present and the future to the past"). Also with guest appearances by our two boys Jack (7) and Tom (4), both of whom are very happy to spend time in museums, just as long as "they're not boring ones"!
These lists are in a - probably permanent - state of flux as we haven't (yet!) visited all 200+ museums in London. We have, however, visited a good number of them, so here are our favourites so far, together with our reasons for picking them.
Return to London's museums grouped by theme
I love museums, big and small and on pretty much any theme, and have done for as long as I can remember. I even seriously considered becoming a museum curator at one point. I like to look around slowly and methodically and annoy accompanying family and friends by stopping to read all
the texts. Choosing my 10 favourites was hard!
My favourite museums, in no particular order:
Everyone knows the British Museum is wonderful, and I defy even the least museum-friendly person not to find something
of interest among its vast and (mostly) excellently displayed collections. Of course you shouldn't miss the Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman galleries... But probably my absolute favourite part of the museum is the less well known Percival David Collection
in the stunning Chinese Ceramics Gallery (Room 95). As someone who enjoys both Asian art and ceramics, I think this is about as good as it gets! The Korean Gallery
, which is a bit hidden away on an upper floor at the back of the museum (Room 67), is lovely too.
If you are at all artistically minded the V&A is such a treat. As a teenager I spent whole days blissfully wandering from one gallery to the next. The museum's brief to collect outstanding examples of art and design from around the world and across the centuries means that there's huge scope to find your own 'personal' treasures, and to be entranced - and sometimes challenged - by the exhibits. There's also a very good programme of events, talks and 'happenings'. A truly wonderful museum, and perhaps my absolute favourite!
The Geffrye Museum is a bit of a hidden gem - it's in the 'wrong end of town' for most tourists, but the setting (beautiful 18th century almshouses) and galleries are so nice that it's well worth making the trip. It's a museum of English domestic interiors: a friend laughingly called it 'middle class living rooms through the ages', which is about right! The whole place has a lovely atmosphere and is especially attractive in the run-up to Christmas when each of the period room settings is decked out in the Christmas decorations of the time. In summer there are also several period gardens and a herb garden to explore, and you can relax on the big front lawn with a picnic.
19 Princelet Street is a recent addition to my list. It is open only a very few days per year
, but if you're interested in London's history and its centuries of immigration - and lucky enough to be in town at the right time - then do go and visit. Although it's not a 'museum' as such, I found the whole place fascinating and very affecting. The description of the building as 'the most amazing found object' is spot on I think. Read our review
, and get hold of a copy of Rodinsky's Room
, a fascinating book by set in and around the building.
There is certainly some interesting (and in some cases inexplicable) art on display at the Tate Modern, and some great temporary exhibitions too, but it's definitely the building itself that steals the show. Gilbert Scott's great Bankside Power Station has an amazing cavernous turbine hall (best approached via the ramp on the western side of the building), and some impressive gallery spaces. But best of all is the bar-restaurant
on the 7th floor where you can sit at the counter running the length of the huge windows and enjoy a reasonably priced cup of coffee and pain au chocolat
while watching the comings and goings on the River Thames, with a backdrop of St Paul's Cathedral and the City of London.
This is a fascinating place packed with skeletons, stuffed animals and specimens preserved in fluid. The sheer quantity of material on display is impressive and the exhibits range from the fascinating and beautiful through to the rather gruesome (bisected heads and eyeballs preserved in fluid!). The Grant Museum is the teaching collection of the University of London, so there's no dumbing down here, but it's a welcoming place. Most of the labelling has been made understandable to the lay person, so you don't need to be a zoologist to find lots of interest. Highlights include complete skeletons of the extinct Quagga and Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger), and rare Dodo bones. The 19th century Blaschka Glass Models of invertebrates are quite extraordinary and were made with skill that has never been equalled.
The Horniman is the absolute model of what a family-friendly museum should be like - bright, well designed and welcoming, and full of interesting things for both adults and children of all ages. The music gallery is the most engaging I've ever seen, the collections of African and anthropological artefacts from around the world are stunning, and the natural history gallery still has a wonderful Victorian feel to it. There are activities and events pretty much every day, and lots of opportunities for hands-on sessions. The Horniman is a bit of a trip from central London, but well worth it for families looking for a fun and educational day out.
A treasure house of 18th century paintings and furniture, Dutch Masters, armour and objets d'art
, The Wallace Collection is of manageable size, never gets too crowded and has a very welcoming vibe. I'm not a huge fan of much of the collection (too much gold and glitz for me), but the quantity and quality of the items is stunning and I find it strangely relaxing to wander the beautiful historic galleries. The attractive shop is packed with postcards, beautiful things inspired by the collection and an excellent selection of art books. And the courtyard café is a real treat!
This small art gallery inside the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is like a jewel box - individually Marianne North's
paintings are beautiful, but displayed en masse the effect is amazing! It's the very opposite of what you might expect from an exhibition of 'Victorian botanical art', and not to be missed if you're visiting Kew Gardens.
I'm not naturally a museum-goer. I'd rather be out and about in the city, or at some event, than looking at objects from centuries past in glass cases. But having said that, I do like the atmosphere many museums have, and they generally have really nice cafés!
If you have a partner who's mad about visiting museums and wants you as company, these are the ones I suggest you steer him/her towards for the best experience for you both.
My favourite museums (not 10 yet, but I'm working on it), in no particular order:
This is a great place to wander around, but try to avoid weekends and school holidays as more popular and 'hands on' galleries can get impossibly crowded. The Launch Pad is a good place to have fun with science (take the kids) and the Oramics Gallery
is a pretty unique look at the history and development of electronic music. The Atmosphere Climate Science Gallery is worth a visit too, and don't miss the IMAX and the 4D cinema rocket launch experience!
With dozens of galleries on several floors you don't have to look far to find something interesting here, even if the decorative arts aren't your thing. The lobby is usually buzzing with activity, and there always seems to be something special or unusual on. All in all, it feels like a good, happening place to be.
Morris, Gamble and Poynter Rooms were the first ever museum restaurant in the world, and are a pretty impressive place for a snack.
I'm not a major fan of most the art here, but there's plenty of 'weird and wonderful' stuff that's worth a quick look. As Lucy says (above), the building is amazing and worth a visit itself. And yes, the café
on the 7th floor has great views over the Thames and is a good place to spend some time, either on your own, as a couple, or with kids.
This is much more than a library! Not only are the public spaces large and attractive, with plenty of places to have a coffee and work on your laptop computer (there are power points and free Wifi), or even read a book (most people seem to read from a screen these days), but the exhibitions in the Library's gallery spaces are mostly outstanding. Exhibition themes have included medieval manuscripts, maps and mapping through the ages, and science fiction and its influence on scientific discovery. And then there's the permanent 'Treasures of the British Library', which is simply amazing whatever your interests.
Medicine, science, weird and wonderful artefacts and a bit of art... it's hard to pin the Wellcome Collection down, and that's why I like it. The Medicine Man gallery
features the 19th century collection of Henry Wellcome, and has everything form an Egyptian mummy to a Chinese torture chair. He must have been a very odd man indeed. The Medicine Now gallery
takes a look at aspects of modern health care. It's all refreshingly different and thought provoking, with listening posts and artworks as well as scientific information. Temporary exhibitions take a look at themes such as 'Dirt', mental illness and the visual arts, and scientific photography. There are daily free tours on a variety of themes. Downstairs in the foyer is a bright airy cafe, which is right next to the museum bookshop. Perfect!
Jack (7 years old)
I like museums where I can do things like quizzes and trails and spotting things around the museum. Some of the museums we go to are a bit boring, but lots of them are actually really interesting. It is difficult to choose my favourite museum. The dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum are really awesome, and I like the Egyptian rooms at the British Museum too.
I'm really interested in the ancient Egyptians, so I like the British Museum's Egyptian Galleries, especially the mummies
. You can see real mummies and lots of painted sarcophagi and little models that were buried with people for them to use in the afterlife. You can learn about the Egyptian gods and goddesses too. There are even animal mummies. Downstairs in the big Egyptian sculpture gallery you can see the stone that helped us to understand hieroglyphs (the Rosetta Stone
There are lots of other cool things in the museum too. I like the African Gallery with the tree made out of old guns (the Tree of Life
). There is a chair made of guns too (the Throne of weapons
). The guns are broken and old and are being used for making something good now, instead of hurting people.
I also like the Easter Island statue
. It is really mysterious. You can borrow special backpacks
to help children explore the museum. They have games and puzzles and are good fun.
I love this museum. I've been there lots of times and I'm still not bored of it. There are loads of real aeroplanes, and some of them you can look into or even get into. You can see what the first aeroplanes looked like, and see films about how aeroplanes were used in wars. There are computers that you can use, and two flight simulators. I especially like the special children's area where you can learn all about what you need to know to be a pilot. My favourite thing is a game where you have to drop cargo from a model plane onto a target. It's really difficult to hit the target!
There are lots of displays here about buildings, but the thing I really like is the great big model of London (the Pipers 1:1500 scale model
). It's huge and so you can look at it for a long time. You can see all the skyscrapers like 'the Gherkin' and the 'Shard', and the Olympic stadiums. All the new buildings that are going to be constructed are marked. I wish more of the model was painted though, then it would be even better.
This is a real battleship ship and you can go inside it and see all the different parts. It's really cool! You can climb the ladders between the different decks and see what it was like to live on the ship. 950 sailors lived on this ship! There wasn't a lot of space for them all. You can see the gun turrets and go into one of them and see what it was like when the ship was in a battle.
There are loads of cool things to do and see in this museum, but sometimes it gets too crowded, so try to go at a quiet time. The Exploring Space
gallery is really good. You can see the lunar lander and a part of a rocket that the astronauts were in. There's a piece of moon rock too, and you can learn about what astronauts eat and how they go to the toilet! The IMAX cinema
is awesome. We saw the 3D film about the space station. And the Launchpad
and Pattern Pod
galleries are really awesome because there are lots of experiments that you can do, things to play with and computers that you can use.
There are loads of interesting things to see in this museum, like an enormous blue whale and lots of fossils and animals and birds. But the best things are the dinosaurs
- they are awesome! There is a diplodocus skeleton in the entrance hall. When my mum was a little girl the tail was down on the floor, but now dinosaur experts think that Diplodocus held his tail out straight, so they have changed the skeleton to show it like that. And in the dinosaur gallery there is an animatronic T-Rex. It roars and turns to look at you when you walk past. It's really cool!
On the grass outside the museum you can see some great big pieces of fossil trees. They are hundreds of millions of years old, that's older than the dinosaur!
This museum is all about London from long ago before it was even a town through to now. You can see lots and lots of interesting things from London, like prehistoric tools, a Roman room with a mosaic floor, and shoes from medieval times that were found in an old rubbish dump! You can also see real things from the Great Fire of London which are really good. There's also a great big golden coach that is still used by the Lord Mayor of London on special days. It looks like Cinderella's coach! Outside the museum you can see part of the old Roman Wall that used to go right around the old part of London. It's really sad that only this bit is left now.
This is where you can see the real crowns and other jewels that the Queen wears. Some of the diamonds are enormous! Everything here is priceless, so it has to be kept in a kind of vault under the ground. The doors are made of metal and they are really thick. Guards are watching you all the time you are there in case you try to steal anything! The rest of the Tower of London is really cool too. I like the ravens and the story that if they ever leave the Tower then it will fall.
(also known as the Mosquito Aircraft Museum
The best thing about this museum is that there is a Comet
(the world's first commercial jet airliner) that you can go into. You can sit in the cockpit and even play with the controls and the switches. Some of the lights in the cockpit still go on and off, so you can feel like a real pilot ready for take off! There are lots of other planes and engines and things to look at, and a funny plane that was used in the war - it was made of wood and canvas and was only used once to take soldiers behind enemy lines. Each soldier had a bicycle to get away on. There's also a Morse code machine that was fun.
This is a funny building with no windows so that no one can steal all the bank's money. The museum isn't that interesting for children, except for two things: you can see the way paper money is printed on big sheets, and best of all you can try to pick up a real gold bar! It is inside a special security box, so that you can put your hand in to pick it up - it is really heavy - but you can't steal it.
Tom (4 years old)
This is just like a real pirate ship where you can dress up and pretend to be a pirate or an adventurer in Tudor times! The man who showed us round was the captain and he showed us the cannons and the anchor and the ropes. He told us all about what it was like to live on the ship and travel around the world. It was really fun!
This is a great big house like a palace with lots of pictures and golden furniture. There is loads of armour and some really awesome shields and weapons. There is even armour for horses! My favourite painting is of a dog called Brizo
. He was a shepherd's dog and I think he is really nice. I also really like the picture of the horse and her foal in the entrance hall (Landseer's The Arab Tent
). There is a great big picture hall upstairs. I like it because it is so big, and some of the pictures are really big too. There is a café where you can have special drinks and cakes. Children can go there, but they have to be really well behaved. My cake was really yummy!
When I was really little I loved the 'The Garden'
, where you can play with water and a big crane, but now I like the Pattern Pod
too. It's all about shapes and patterns and there are lots of big computers that you can use to play with patterns. The Exploring Space
gallery is really good too. You can see a lunar lander and rockets and a real satellite, and sometimes there's an astronaut wearing a space suit there to tell you all about being on the moon. I like the great big steam powered machines (in the Energy Hall
) and I like the aeroplanes (in the Flight
This gallery has lots of really nice pictures of dogs (I like dogs a lot). It's fun to choose which dog I like best. The pictures they have often change, so each time we go there are different dogs to see.
I like the dinosaurs best! The (animatronic) T-Rex is a bit scary though. You can see lots of dinosaurs and fossils. There are fossil dinosaur eggs too. And you can see the actual great big fossil Ichthyosaurus that Mary Anning
found in Lyme Regis a long time ago. There are lots and lots of things to see, and it's a really good museum!
I like the old buses and trams that you can go into, and I especially like the museum trail where you have to find lots of stamp machines around the museum and each stamp cuts a different bus or train shape in your trail card. I like playing with the wooden railway, and I love the tube driver simulator where you can pretend to be a tube driver!
This is a great big museum with lots of toys to play with. There is even a sand pit that you can play in! There are old toys and new toys. Some of the toys are the ones that my mum and dad played with when they were little. You can have lots of fun at this museum.
I really like the big walrus and I like the fish in the aquarium. It's fun to play all the musical instruments in the special music room. And I like listening to the sound of the instruments in the music gallery. You can visit the museum and then have a picnic in the gardens and then visit the museum again. It's a really nice museum.