The exterior of the British Museum, a stone building with tall columns
At the British Museum you'll find sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon in Athens, the Rosetta Stone, and a fantastic Egyptian collection.
Photo Credit: iStockPhoto / claudiodivizia

Free Museums in London: Hundreds of Years of History at Your Fingertips

Experience Some of London’s Greatest Treasures for Free

When British writer Samuel Johnson commented, “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life” in the 18th century, London had its first museum with a collection spanning the globe. Johnson’s oft-repeated words ring even more true today — a time when Britain’s capital boasts more museums, galleries and public collections than any other city in the world.

If you visit London, your trip will be incomplete without checking out at least a few of the museums scattered throughout the city. In fact, London has so many museums that a visitor could spend all of a two week holiday perusing its major collections and still only scratch the surface.

There are London’s mainstays: The British Museum, The National Gallery and Tate — these and others would be an educational trip for kids. But there are also lesser-known collections: from the macabre (Clink Prison Museum) to the enigmatic (The Library and Museum of Freemasonry), from the eclectic (Sir John Soane’s Museum) to the cultured (Theatre Museum), from the scientific (Wellcome Trust) to the literary (British Library).

Fortunately, a perusal of London’s greatest treasures is no longer painful to the pocketbook, making London a more budget-friendly destination in Europe. In 2001 Britain’s national museums scrapped their entrance fees, as part of a government scheme to offer free access to all.

Whether you’re looking for essential things to do while on a layover in London, are vacationing there for a few weeks, or are a local, traveling back in time to explore history has never been more accessible.

Here are some must-see free museums, but be warned: each venue could suck away a day, just to get a cursory glance of these collections.

British Museum

London’s most popular is the British Museum, a mainstay in the Bloomsbury neighborhood since 1759. You’ll find sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon in Athens, the Rosetta Stone and a fantastic Egyptian collection with mummies.

Plus Roman artifacts and local finds such as “Pete” — a centuries-old man found preserved in a peat bog.

Don’t get too caught up seeing every item. If you spent one second gazing at each of the six million objects here it would still take 70 solid days to see everything.

But artifacts aren’t the only thing to spend your time looking at. The architecture of the building alone is enough to make your jaw drop. At its heart is the Great Court, a central marble courtyard with a spectacular glass roof that plunges like a vortex into a central hub, the Reading Room.

The exterior of the National Gallery buildingThe National Gallery is a bastion of fine art where you can feast your eyes on everything from Botticelli and Gainsborough, to Turner and Van Gogh.Photo Credit: iStockPhoto / stockcam

The National Gallery

For the art lover, two important galleries lay near Trafalgar Square. The first is the National Gallery.

The museum is a bastion of fine art where you can feast your eyes on everything from Botticelli and Gainsborough, to Turner and Van Gogh. The gallery houses temporary exhibits in the Salisbury wing which, although aren’t free, represent some of the finest works in the world. There’s a reason the National Gallery is one of the best museums in the world.

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People walk past the main entrance to the National Portrait GalleryThe National Portrait Gallery houses a collection of portraits from medieval to modern times.Photo Credit: iStockPhoto / justhavealook

National Portrait Gallery

Around the corner is from the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square is the National Portrait Gallery, where a collection of portraits from medieval to modern times is housed. For those with a passion for English monarchy, don’t miss the upper floors where there are more images of kings and queens than in a Vegas casino.

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