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.
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