Things to do in London

London Museums

Run to the Tube, grab a seat, and prepare for your stop. You have a limited amount of time and all these London museums to visit.

You’ll want to see them all because there’s not a single place to miss on this entire must-see list of museums. In addition to these museums, make sure to explore the wide array of things to do in London, ensuring a truly memorable visit.

1. Sir John Soane’s Museum

Most museums in London are situated in sprawling buildings that look like they could be backup palaces for the royal family. But Sir John Soane’s Museum is a house museum. It’s literally built into the former home of neoclassical architect John Soane. He was a visionary who created some incredible structures, such as the Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

He also collected oodles of designs, drawings, sculptures, and other important artifacts. Those goodies were put into a museum while Soane was still alive, via an actual Act of Parliament.

Yes, the museum is narrow — so narrow only 90 people can wander the halls at any given time. But everywhere you look, there’s something waiting to bore into your brain. It reminds you not only of the London of yore but also of how the city grew and morphed over time.

In addition to perusing Soane’s amalgamation of artifacts, you can also take tours of the upper apartments that were used by Soane and his wife once upon a time. Keep an eye on the museum’s calendar and exhibits. Events such as special on-site drawing courses and candlelit music performances fill up quickly.

2. Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is inarguably one of the best museums in London. That’s not just because founder Sir Richard Owen is the man who literally came up with the word "dinosaur." Visit and you’ll encounter 80 million specimens that span the plant, animal, mineral, rock, and fossil realms.

Get to know a T. rex, get jiggy with a giant sequoia, or see what UV-reactive crystals look like when the regular lights go down and the party turns up.

The building itself is also an architectural marvel, a testament to the rich London architecture that can be found throughout the city. The facade is a gathering place for carved lions, pterodactyls, and saber-toothed tigers. They perch on tops of columns and corners of window ledges, keeping their sharp eyes and even sharper talons pointed at the crowds below.

Inside, the cathedral-style Hintze Hall has monkeys playing peekaboo from in between tiles. Look up to see various other flora and fauna either carved into or painted onto the walls and ceiling.

Photographer: Toa Heftiba

3. Design Museum

Ever marvel at a rhinestone-plated topcoat or a plumed headdress? The attire at one of our shows is far from orthodox — it's painstakingly designed and made, a craft paid homage to at the Design Museum. There’s a lot of history in London, but sometimes you just want to embrace the more modern side of things. That’s what the Design Museum is for.

Originally built on the site of a former banana warehouse, this formerly Thames-adjacent museum moved to its current Kensington grounds in 2011. There are displays dedicated to fashion, furniture, graphic design, architecture, and cross sections of all of the above. In short, if you can build it, there’s something here connected to it.

Exhibits rotate and tend to be devoted to a singular concept, such as the How to Build a Low-Carbon Home display and a Converse-sponsored skateboard design evolution exhibition scheduled in 2023.

The permanent Designer Maker User spot is an introduction to the museum that takes visitors through the design process. Someone plans it, then someone makes it, and finally, we use the realized item.

The programming here is inspiring and intended for all ages. Classes, such as The Drawing Gym, teach technique and simple tools aspiring artists can use to visualize and communicate ideas.

Other educational sessions explore different approaches to fashion design, making Christmas decorations through pewter casting, using silicone molds to build coasters and expert approaches to harnessing light and composition when mastering skate photography.

4. British Museum

Contrary to what the name might suggest, the British Museum isn't solely focused on British artifacts. Instead, this world wonder houses more than 8 million pieces representing 2 million years of human existence.

This makes it one of the most important museums in London and probably on the entire planet. It houses everything from artifacts from the prehistoric times to more modern displays.

The Rosetta Stone? It’s here. Parthenon sculptures? Check. Egyptian mummies?

Every item is preserved and displayed with respect. This allows us to learn from the past and honor cultures whose traditions may have disappeared into the ether.

The main museum level is free, as are many of the exhibitions that come into town throughout the year. Displays can be quite niche, such as Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies.

There are also fascinating lectures and instructional exhibitions that concentrate on the work of a single artist or academic. Learn about artists who make books for poetry or politics, or study the intersection of roads and insects under the guidance of Ed Ruscha.

Sign up for a guided tour. Options include themed treks that honor the intersection of desire, love, and identity as seen by the LGBTQ community. Another option takes you around the world in just 90 minutes. It’s a way to experience this jewel in London’s crown, even if you only have a couple of hours to spare.

Photographer: Nicola Lysandrou

5. Horniman Museum

If steampunk chic, an orchestra, and a botanical garden had a baby, it might come out looking something like the Horniman Museum. Here, eclectic is the name of the game. Exhibits exploring the origins and popularization of tea share the bill with a display marking the progress of the Clean Air Bill.

The latter includes a cornet that belonged to Ella Roberta, a young girl who died prematurely as a result of air pollution.

From anthropology and natural history to living specimens and musical instruments (1,600 of them), there's so much to inspect and consider.

If the overstuffed Victorian-era walrus doesn’t strike your fancy, you may be more moved by the interactive options, including a nature trail, an aquarium, and a Handling Collection that defies conventional museum rules everywhere and allows visitors to touch and study more than 3,700 objects from our collective past and present.

As for the gardens, there are 16.5 acres to explore. Some of it's purely organic, with trees and plants left to grow and twist and leave their leaves wherever they may. But there are also shaped displays, including stone rectangles and pathways guarded by perfectly squared-off shrubs.

It’s perfect for walking in the sunshine (or the London fog, as the case may be). You can also rent it out for one of the many weddings, parties, and festivals that take advantage of the verdant grounds.

Photographer: Paolo Grandi

6. London Transport Museum

One look at the streets of London and it’s fairly obvious the city’s residents have plenty of get-up-and-go. But the methods used to move from one end of London to the other have changed considerably over the years. The London Transport Museum is here to tell the tale.

Displays include actual vehicles, such as a vintage red Routemaster, plus early train cars, uniforms. You’ll also see maps that were the lifeblood of travelers before GPS paved the way for a more stress-free day. If you’d rather focus on the history of London’s maritime travel, consider a stop at the Museum of London Docklands.

One of the museum’s biggest draws is Hidden London, a network of forgotten Tube stations and tunnels paired with behind-the-scenes looks at busy stations still operating as main thoroughfares.

As unwitting pedestrians scamper on the streets above, you’ll listen to expert guides discuss the engineering and infrastructure as you take in the vintage tiles and historic posters still adorning the subterranean walls.

This exploration of the city’s hidden aspects aligns perfectly with discovering other hidden gems in London, where history and modernity intertwine beneath the bustling city streets.

7. Queer Britain, King's Cross

Founded in 2018, Queer Britain is one of the youngest museums in London, as well as the first dedicated to British LGBTQ culture and history. The progressive venue was the brainchild of Joseph Galliano-Doig, a one-editor of the Gay Times, and Ian Mehrtens, a leader on the London business scene.

The museum’s main exhibit, We Are Queer Britain, was created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Pride March in the United Kingdom. As the LGBTQ footprint and experience in England evolves, so does the exhibit.

The riot of color explodes with objects, images, quotes, and an intangible sense of what it must be like to live the queer life (terminology the museum proudly reclaims) in London.

The calendar also boasts an array of interesting and culturally immersive events, such as a poster-making workshop that highlights opportunities for activism. It’s a chance to be a part of a movement while also shaping that movement’s direction.

You can do so as a member of a community striving for recognition and acceptance or as an ally helping to make those dreams come true.

Photographer: Isi Parente

8. Imperial War Museum London

American philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It stands to reason, then, that we may well be able to avoid the globally threatening launch of World War III if world leaders with the power and weaponry to change our lives would just stop by the Imperial War Museum for a few days for exploration and reflection.

The Imperial War Museum is known as the world’s leading museum on topics such as conflict and war. It was birthed during the chaos of World War I, creating a space for those who experienced the wreckage of international conflict to contribute their stories and witness the stories and legacies of others.

It all starts in the atrium, which is a staggeringly immense chamber big enough to accommodate dangling fighter planes that look like they were captured and locked into suspended animation while mid-mission. Then, across six floors, the museum digs into the true tales of experiences of those on the front lines and people victimized by skirmishes on foreign soil and at home in the United Kingdom.

It also has an 800,000-item-strong collection of photographs, sound recordings, documents, books, pieces of art, and 3D objects. It helps reinforce the idea of what war really means when you’re on the ground and in its midst.

Look for special installations that salute subtopics relevant to war efforts. Spies, Lies and Deception covers over a century of intrigue and subterfuge that saw secret agents working behind the scenes from the First World War through modern times.

Northern Ireland: Living with the Troubles looks at a more sensitive topic, examining how differing perspectives and religious discord created unrest that’s lasted decades and led to strife that still continues today.

The Imperial War Museum offers other museum sites. This includes tours of the HMS Belfast, where you can step onboard and step back in time as you explore the ship. The Royal Air Force Museum is another option if you want to continue your military journey through history.

9. National Portrait Gallery

If you visited London between 2020 and 2023 and couldn’t get into the National Portrait Gallery, you weren’t alone. The museum closed for 3 years for renovations. But now the gallery is back and better than ever.

The main changes taking place as part of the Inspiring People project. It saw a comprehensive reworking of how portraits from the Tudor era through the present were displayed. The refurbishment also saw the creation of a couple of new public spaces, an updated entrance, and a learning center.

The National Portrait Gallery is one of the most important art museums in London. It made its way onto this list because of its singular obsession with pictures of important British people. It puts portraits of everyone from William Shakespeare and the Brontë sisters to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert all under one roof.

It has temporary exhibits, centered on an artist, such as David Hockney, or a cultural group, such as Caribbean influencers in Croydon.

Like many other museums in London, this one has a busy calendar of special events to complement its permanent galleries. You can attend a lunchtime lecture, workshop about digital illustration, or life drawing class. You can also have your kids attend a youth session to help further their own artistic talents.

One of the biggest past exhibitions shone the spotlight on Paul McCartney. The noted Beatle-turned-photographer showed off portraits he captured during the height of Beatlemania. Some of them had never been seen before.

Interested in other art forms? Tate Britain and Tate Modern are two solid options.

Photographer: Hulki Okan Tabak

10. Victoria and Albert Museum

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are one of the most enduring and beloved duos in British history. Scratch that — they’re adored the world over, not only in commonwealth countries but by anyone who appreciates British royal history or what simply amounts to a stellar love story.

It stands to reason the Queen and her soulmate would lend their names to one of the best free museums in London.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, aka the V&A, in South Kensington isn’t about the 19th-century couple. Queen Victoria was on hand to open the museum’s doors back in 1857, though. It’s actually a collection of 2.27 million objects that come from the worlds of design, decorative arts, and applied arts, so it’s not stuck in the Victorian times.

All told, it’s a massive stockpile that represents some 5,000 years of global art, including everything from medieval tools and turn-of-the-century textiles to prints and printmaking tools that represent the evolution of the written word.

It also has sculptures, running the gamut from the largest accumulation of Italian Renaissance pieces out of Italy to objects from Asia and Islamic countries. There aren’t many places where you can applaud details of a piece of Chinese ceramic in one room and an Alexander McQueen evening dress in another. Somehow, at the V&A, the journey just feels right.

Traveling with kids? Spark their creativity at Young V&A, previously called V&A Museum of Childhood. Its Bethnal Green location hosts lots of interactive displays for all ages.

Explore Art, History, Science, & Culture at London’s Museums

London is a rich, intricately woven tapestry that ties culture, art, science, and lifestyle together to create a fabric that’s become impossible to unravel. The city’s respect for history and progress is well-balanced and incredibly evident, creating these pockets where tourists and locals immerse themselves in artifacts and exhibits that teach, amaze, implore, and influence, all in equal measure.

While you’re in town, extend your desire for something dreamy to the theater. Round out your visit with a ticket to a Cirque du Soleil show in London. Our productions are as known for their acrobatics as they are praised for their poetic and awe-inspiring storylines — all that’s missing is you.

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