With over 250 registered art institutions, the city of London is one of the world’s greatest cultural capitals. The city’s iconic museums are a huge draw—especially for first-time visitors. Exploring these intellectual landmarks of art and history in person is not only a priceless experience but also a free one: Baring special temporary exhibitions, most of London’s national museums are completely free of charge. So without cost to worry about, these are the must-see museums for art lovers and culture vultures on their first trip to London.
If there’s one museum to see in London, this is it. From Egyptian mummies and pieces of the Parthenon to the game-changing Rosetta Stone and an enormous Easter Island figure, the British Museum in London's West End—covering a whopping 18.5 acres—is not just one of London’s best museums, but one of the world’s. Organized by geographic territories, modern-day Indiana Joneses could spend weeks exploring these halls, which date back to 1753. Preplan your visit by mapping out the highlights in advance. Don’t miss the dizzying Great Court, a two-acre wide inner courtyard covered by a memorizing glass ceiling with the museum’s statuesque Reading Room at its center.
Victoria and Albert Museum
The V&A museum knows how to make a good first impression. Dangling in its epic entrance foyer is a colossal blue-and-green Dale Chihuly's blown glass chandelier, and that’s just the beginning. Established in 1857, the museum’s collection spreads over seven floors and is comprised of decorative arts and design in virtually every medium from virtually every time period. Highlights include the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci; ceramics by Picasso; a copy of the first collected edition of the works of Shakespeare; treasure troves of art from Medieval and Renaissance Europe; and one of the most comprehensive jewelry collections in the world.
Housed in an industrial power station at the foot of the River Thames, the Tate Modern is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious contemporary and modern art museums. Exhibiting British and international works dating from 1900 to today, the Tate Modern displays contemporary masters like Rothko, Matisse, Picasso, and Dali, alongside modern mavericks like Yayoi Kusama, Tracey Emin, and Marina Abramovic. The cavernous and imposing Turbine Hall plays host to temporary exhibitions of considerable scale. In the past, these dwarfing displays have included Olafur Eliasson’s "The Weather Project" made up of an eerily glowing giant sun. Also, from the vantage point of the museum’s tenth floor, there are perfect views of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Sister gallery to the Tate Modern is the Tate Britain, a bastion of British art. Sporting old-world marble floors, spiral staircases, and Grecian columns, the Tate Britain is a veritable temple of British art from 1500 to today. Get swept away by the world’s largest collection of stormy and atmospheric Turner oil paintings and a considerable assemblage of the most ethereal and romantic Pre-Raphaelite portraits of mythical and literary characters.
National Portrait Gallery
Where else but the National Portrait Gallery can you find oils of the Brontë sisters and William Shakespeare alongside black and white photographs of the Spice Girls and a mixed media portrait of J.K. Rowling? Featuring a collection of famous Brits from the Tudor period to the present day, the National Portrait Gallery—just off Trafalgar Square—is a must for Anglophiles. On Friday nights, the gallery is open after-hours for the Friday Lates program, which includes a DJ and a bar in the Ondaatje Wing Main Hall.
Ideal for left-brainers, London’s Science Museum celebrates scientific, technological, and mathematical achievements—but that makes it sound so serious. With interactive exhibits, flight simulators, an IMAX theater, and even a milkshake bar, a trip to the Science Museum is far from the snore-worthy science lessons from back in the day. Some of the coolest things to spy? A 1970s Black Arrow rocket; an early steam locomotive; and the world’s first jet engine. Also, on level two, you can find The Clockmaker’s Museum, a collection of the world’s oldest and most fascinating clocks, watches, marine chronometers, and even sundials. Popular with kids, avoid the crowds by staying clear of the Science Museum during the British school holiday period.
From Michelangelo to Monet and Raphael to Rembrandt, almost all of the old European masters can be found on the walls of the National Gallery, overlooking London’s famous Trafalgar Square. Crowd favorites include Van Gogh’s "Sunflowers"; Botticelli’s "Venus and Mars;" and Monet’s "The Water-Lily Pond." (If you’re short on time, you can pre-plan your trip around the gallery’s 30 must-see paintings.)
Churchill War Rooms
The Imperial War Museum is a collection of five museums and sites with the mission to preserve the history of British conflict starting from WWI to the present day. One of the collection’s most fascination inclusions is the Churchill War Rooms, a subterranean bunker under the streets of Westminster. (A close second would be the Royal Navy ship HMS Belfast, which is permanently moored in the River Thames.) Walking through the underground labyrinth of war rooms is literally walking in the footsteps of Sir Winston Churchill and his war cabinet during WWII. These corridors provided shelter during German air raids and acted as a top-secret headquarters of sorts to map out the path to victory for the Allies. History is found in every nook and cranny: The Map Room has been left untouched since August 16, 1945, one day after the end of the war.
Natural History Museum
Showcasing neo-gothic spires and decorative flourishes, the gorgeous Natural History Museum was built as a ‘cathedral to nature,’ and nowhere is this more apparent than in the echoingly immense Hinzte Hall at the main entrance. Once the home to African elephant specimens and jaw-dropping casts of a Triceratops and Diplodocus, the museum’s main hall now floats the real skeleton of a blue whale high above visitors’ heads. Though no longer in the entry hall, you can still find dinosaurs here, such as the first fossil ever found from a T. rex. Other natural treasures in the museum’s collection of over 80 million specimens and samples include the world's largest collection of colored diamonds, which can be found in the Vaults.
Royal Museums Greenwich
Royal Museums Greenwich is a group of four museums in the green and peaceful southeast London neighborhood of Greenwich. The historic complex, a UNESCO's World Heritage site, includes the National Maritime Museum; the Queen's House art gallery; the Royal Observatory (where you can stand on the famous Prime Meridian line); and the world’s last tea clipper ship, the Cutty Sark. The area also boasts postcard-perfect vistas of London’s skyline from across the Thames. Though some of the attractions are free (such as entry to the National Maritime Museum and the Queen's House), some attractions are ticketed, such as entry to the Royal Observatory, which currently cost £13.50 online.