One of the most popular tourism destinations in the world, London, England brings in millions of visitors annually. With such a rich history on display, what are the true must-see museums in the city for tourists (and even locals)? You're about to find out.
When I arrived in London to visit my friend Kat, I gave her the responsibility of rounding up the must-see museums that her beautiful city had to offer. After all, I'm a huge history buff, and leaving any worthwhile museum unvisited would be such a shame. Though I had been to England in the past, I had not yet visited its cultural core — that is, had the opportunity to see many of the country's most precious artefacts that are located in the capital of London.
With the help of Kat, I was able to open these amazing doors into history, with most of the museums being absolutely free! Here are a round-up of my favourites:
The British Museum
Admission: Free (donations accepted)
Established in 1753, largely based upon the collections of the Irish physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane, the British Museum did not open to the public until six years later, in 1759. The original museum was located in Montagu House, on the site of the current building. Due to the expansion of British colonization, not only did the British Museum's collections become so large that the building needed to become much bigger in size over the next couple of centuries, but additional branches of the museum needed to be constructed on separate sites (such as the Natural History Museum, which I talk about further on).
As you wander through the halls of the museum, you have the opportunity to see the entire world through a historical lens*. These are found in the various galleries, based on areas of our world throughout their history: Africa, the Americas, ancient Egypt, ancient Rome and Greece, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Of course, a lot of the beautiful pieces you will see while visiting here (and the other national museums) ended up in London because of British colonization and the essential thievery of nations' historical artefacts, something you should certainly keep in mind while taking this walk through history. Yes, of course, appreciate the historical value and the immense beauty of many of these items, but also be aware that many did not all fall into the hands of the museum by peaceful or agreeable means. But I digress.
In an overwhelming amount of excitement at having so much world history in my grasp free of charge, we found ourselves spinning around the Great Court upon entering the museum from the outdoor security check, unable to decide where to begin. We walked over to Room 1, whose theme is based upon the Enlightenment, into a space that was once the library of King George III (pictured above, right). The exhibit's name derives from the Age of Enlightenment, a time in which people (i.e., the collectors of the British Museum) used both reason and first-hand observations in order to understand the world around them in novel ways.
As you wander through the outstretched wings from the library's central point leading in from the Great Court, you can find cases containing artefacts on trade and discovery, religion and ritual, and ancient scripts to your left. Down the rightmost wing, you will find antiquities relating to the natural world, the birth of archeology, and art and civilization.
From here, we took the elevator up to the uppermost floor, where we began working our way back down to the main level, through each expansive exhibit. Because it would be too much to write about everything that I saw, I'll highlight some of my favourite areas (but your personal highlights would depend on what your favourite times in history are; these are simply reflections of mine).
In the European wings (level three of the museum), I was instantly enraptured with the exhibits on Medieval Europe (1050 to 1500) in Room 40, and Europe from 1400 to 1900 in Rooms 46 and 47. Here, you can discover a plethora of items used in the everyday life of Medieval Europeans; from jewellery to religious church relics, armour to painted miniatures on snuffboxes, you can truly step back in time by simply admiring these finds. Nearby, in Room 52, you can also find impressive pieces from the Middle East's ancient Iran, in the form of intricately embroidered garments and awe-inspiring jewellery.
Further along, also on level three between Rooms 61 and 66, are exhibits on ancient Egypt. Having always had an obsession with this period in time, it's a section of every museum that I am forever drawn to. Naturally, 'thanks' to the aforementioned colonization, the British Museum has artefacts abound, especially when compared to the exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum at home in Toronto. Here, as in the photo directly below, I was able to look down at multiple mummies in sheer wonder of their civilization's detailed embalming process (I mean, Victorians unwrapped mummies just for the heck of it, so England certainly imported mummies abound, at one point in their history). Not to mention the mass amounts of beautiful jewels, pottery, painted canopic jars, and other items used during this time.
Another area of ancient history that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, is that of Rome and Greece. Though the third level has a solid amount of rooms dedicated to this period in time, my favourite exhibits were located on the main level. We came across this section after seeking out the famous Rosetta Stone, located in Room 4 on the main level. After pushing through throngs of people to catch a glimpse of this key to decoding Egyptian hieroglyphs, I escaped the crowd to move onward.
Cue rooms filled with the detailed, life-like carvings of ancient Rome and Greece's sculptures, the white marble resembling the human body so closely that it feels as if they will burst into movement at any given moment. These are carvings so realistic that — if one were permitted to touch them — you would expect their hands to feel like warm flesh, to feel a pulse of coursing blood beneath a thin layer of veined marble skin. Possibly because our ancestors come from these regions, myself from Italy and Kat from Greece, they feel all the more special. Perhaps a thousand years ago, one of our ancestors looked up at these same sculptures where they originally stood, or carvings of a similar nature, never imagining that they would survive through a millennia to be viewed by tourists in a faraway museum.
Regardless of how the artefacts arrived at the British Museum, there is no denying that they are incredible feats of mankind. The detail in so many of these pieces make them works of art, something that should undoubtedly be preserved for the admiration of generations to come. However, the manner in which they were acquired by the museum, and where they should be preserved and admired today, is a different story altogether.
*Did you know that the British Museum also offers a number of free tours and gallery talks at designated times? Visit their website prior to arriving to best plan your trip, if this is something that you are interested in.
Victoria and Albert Museum
Admission: Free (donations accepted)
With a permanent collection of over 2.27 million objects within its walls, the Victoria and Albert Museum is the world's largest museum of applied and decorative arts and design, as well as of sculpture. Along with my friend Amy (who I stayed with during my first visit to England back in 2017), the three of us came to the Victoria and Albert Museum to explore the incredible historical clothing and decorated period rooms that Kat was raving about for the duration of my trip.
Though its collection spans five thousand years of art and has holdings of objects like ceramics, glass, silver, ironwork, medieval objects, sculpture, prints and printmaking, drawings, and photographs are among the largest and most comprehensive in the world, it was their textiles, costumes, jewellery, furniture, and paintings and miniatures collections (including a lovely little painting of Marie Antoinette by François-Hubert Drouais in 1773, found in Room 2 of the Wolfson Gallery) that had my heart.
Just as Kat suspected, I spent the most time admiring these specific items while visiting the museum, drinking in the incredibly detailed textiles, the hand-stitching of ornately extravagant garments (particularly the robes à la française, or sack-back gowns, that I love, but also dresses emerging from the Edwardian period), and the richly dyed fabrics and threads used to pull it all together. As with any time I am able to see such clothing up-close, I was in utter awe. I didn't want to move away, but did so only with the promise of being visually graced by yet another textile masterpiece.
In addition to the luxurious garments, you can also enjoy the aforementioned decorated rooms, where one can walk into the enclosed space and feel as if they have stepped back in time to a period-accurate drawing room, sitting area, or hall. From the patterns in which the wooden floors are laid, the wallpaper enveloping you, the chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, and the furniture bringing the area to life, each piece was chosen to work in unison to give you a sense of time travel. One moment you are in the twenty-first century and the next, you are lounging in the Victorian era or readying to play the harp in a Baroque music room.
Building on this mesmerizing beauty, the museum also houses the world's largest collection of post-classical sculpture, with its holdings of Italian Renaissance items being the largest outside of Italy. Smaller-scale works are displayed in the Gilbert Bayes Gallery, while the majority of the Medieval and Renaissance sculptures are visible in the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries.
Although I could honestly go on for ages, I'll sum up my experience at the Victoria and Albert Museum by saying this: If you have even the slightest interest in applied and decorative arts and design, as well as in sculpture, this is a museum that you'd do well to explore.
Natural History Museum
Admission: Free (donations accepted)
Located in South Kensington, the Natural History Museum was a branch of the aforementioned British Museum, built in order to manage the mass numbers of artefacts coming into England from abroad with unfortunate Colonial expansion (though officially, it became its own entity in 1963. As its name suggests, the museum specializes in life and earth science specimens, housing around an impressive eighty million items within its five main collections: botany, entomology, mineralogy, palaeontology, and zoology.
Upon walking into the museum's massive lobby, Hintze Hall, the skeleton of a blue whale (the world's largest animal, pictured in above collage, on the left) hanging from the ceiling immediately commands your attention. From this central point, you can begin your journey through the museum in whichever direction you choose, exploring their many galleries.
Though there are countless things to see here — a wildlife garden, various galleries of taxidermy mammals, a live insect exhibit (or so I imagine, I was honestly too scared to enter that room), fossils, and a massive hall with minerals from across the globe on the upper floor — there were some highlights that I would recommend as must-sees while visiting the Natural History Museum.
In the Earth Hall, taking the escalator up through 'the core of the earth' is a cool experience all on its own. Upon entering this two-level gallery, you have the opportunity to see the ways in which the earth effects our natural and manmade worlds alike. It was here that I had the chance to see two plaster casts of victims of Mount Vesuvius' eruption over the ancient Roman city of Pompeii (a human and a dog), that I had not been able to see while visiting the Italian archeological site the month prior. You can also stand in an earthquake simulator a little further on, before wandering through the rest of the displays.
On the lower level of Earth Hall, you can walk through the process of human evolution (pictured above), having the chance to meet Lucy, our ape-like Australopithecus afarensis ancestor who is believed to have died falling out of a tree. These early versions of the human race were likely extremely hairy and possessed long arms resembling apes, but also had more human characteristics, with regards to the shape of their feet and upright bipedalism (walking upright on two feet, instead of hunched over on all fours). This gallery also presented a couple of life-like models of later periods in human evolution, including that of a Neanderthal.
On the opposite end of the museum, one can find an entire exhibit on dinosaurs, across from the room housing the Museum of the Moon, a touring artwork by U.K. artist Luke Jerram. This will be hanging in the Natural History Museum until January 5th, 2020. Within the dinosaur exhibit, you'll not only find the typical (albeit impressive) full-scale dinosaur skeletons that children are mostly only interested in when visiting a museum, but much more. This gallery is home to a true paleontological experience, with visitors able to watch immersive videos as they make their way through the exhibits, see genuine footprints created by this magnificent creatures of the past, and come face-to-face with a large and vociferous animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex (pictured below).
Before you leave, be sure to take the test to find out what dinosaur you would have been. For those of you who are curious, the test is also available online. Naturally, it's no surprise that I'm an independent, super tall, plant-eating Amargasaurus, that may have used ornaments (spines) on its body to make a social statement. I think we could have been friends, don't you?
As you leave the Natural History Museum, you have a better grasp on the incredible world that we live in. The evolution of the planet and all of its inhabitants are truly fascinating, and seeing the remnants of these past eras is truly worthwhile.
Shakespeare's Globe (The Globe Theatre)
Admission: £17.00 (guided tour)
As a writer and history fanatic alike, the Globe Theatre is somewhere that I have dreamed about going for years, even before entering my first AP English class in ninth grade, at the tender age of fourteen. Though not everyone has cracked open a copy of one of Shakespeare's plays, everyone has either watched a live performance, seen a cinematic remake, or at the very least, knows some of their titles by name (hello, Romeo and Juliet). These performances and their take-home messages defy the tests of time, making them a crucial part not only of England's unique history, but arguably the general world's history, too. For this very reason, the Globe Theatre is a must-see while in London.
Located on the south bank of the River Thames, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is a world-renowned performing arts venue, cultural attraction, and education centre originally built in 1599 by Shakespeare's playing company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The original venue was destroyed in a fire taking place on the 29th of June, 1613, but was resurrected on the same site by June of the following year; however, this second theatre was closed in September 1642, along with other London playhouses, by the Long Parliament due to the obscenities and humour used in many plays of the time. The playhouse we see today, called Shakespeare's Globe, is located approximately 230 metres (750 feet) from the site of the original theatre, and was opened in 1997.
Though you can enter the lobby and gift shop of Shakespeare's Globe free of charge (more on the latter in a moment), touring around the famous O-shaped theatre is only permissible during forty-minute guided tours or if paying to see a performance. On these tours, a guide will take you on a fascinating tour of the theatre, enlightening your group with stories of the colourful past of the 1599 Globe, of the reconstruction process in the 1990s, and of how the aforementioned O-shaped theatre works today, both as an imaginative and experimental theatrical space. Because this is a working theatre, tour times vary due to performance schedules; however, this also means that they can sometimes overlap with rehearsals, giving people an exclusive look at the rehearsal process while on their tour.
Prior to leaving, we went into the Globe Theatre gift shop to look around, where (after spending close to a half hour debating on what I was going to buy) I purchased three things Hamlet-themed: the Collector's Library edition of the play and both a tote bag and bookmark featuring the first handful of lines from Hamlet's well-known Act III "To be or not to be" soliloquy.
The Tower of London
Admission: £27.20 (£24.70 online, in advance)
The stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Tower of London is a spot crucial to England's rich and colourful history. From its prison towers, charming Tudor-era Queen's House, and awe-inspiring Crown Jewels, there is something here to be appreciated by every history buff.
Though the name of this site (which is officially known as "Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London") suggests that there is only one singular tower, there are in fact twenty-one on location, with the keep and the White Tower having been built by William the Conqueror in 1066 as a demonstration of Norman power. This makes it the oldest stronghold in all of Europe, a contributing factor to its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sitting strategically on the River Thames, the fortress served as a gateway to the capital, but in the modern day is known for being the most complete example of an eleventh century fortress palace still remaining in Europe.
Though not a traditional museum with rooms full of themed artefacts on display behind glass cases, nor a gallery with stunning paintings lining its walls, the Tower of London is undeniably home to a rich history; its very walls serve as a glimpse into the past. However, you can still find museum-like displays here, including the Crown Jewels located within the Waterloo Barracks; graffiti carved directly into the stone walls of prison rooms in Beauchamp Tower; and the Line of Kings' impressive display of tournament armour belonging King Henry VIII, as well as the gilded armours of Charles I and James II, located within the White Tower.
To read my full and detailed write-up on the Tower of London, click here.
Whether wandering the halls of a traditional museum, or the paths of one that has adapted a more open-air feel, you're bound to find yourself immersed in England's rich history while travelling through London.
With a plethora of museums at your fingertips, you'll have plenty to explore not just at the places I have mentioned here, but also at the number of incredible museums and art galleries that I did not have the chance to visit myself. Indeed, regardless of how you spend your time in London, you're bound to be taken back to a faraway moment in time.
Happy (time) travels!
To read more of our posts on London, click here.