There are over 300 London museums and galleries. When you’re on a short visit to the UK capital, it’s perhaps difficult to know where to start. This is a guide to some of our favourite London museums, which we’ve visited, with and without kids. I’ve noted in the description of the place whether or not it’s a child-friendly London museum.
Several of these museums are clustered close together, and if you wanted to stay in a central location to visit a large number of family-friendly museums in a short space of time, one of the many hotels in Kensington would be convenient. There are many other neighbourhoods that make a good base for a holiday in London, though. Just check out this excellent guide from Globetotting to get some ideas.
This post is in collaboration with Hotels.com. All views are my own.
Free London museums
London’s Science Museum is perfect for children, and you could get lost in it for days. It covers science from all different dimensions, including space exploration and air transit. There are interactive spaces for hands-on experiements, live demos and there’s even an IMAX cinema showing 3-D films. It includes the most significant medical collections in the world, with the world’s first MRI scanner and robotic surgery equipment. Wonderlab is a huge interactive space for youngsters to take part in live experiments, travel under the stars or play with forces on giant slides. There’s a charge for this part of the museum (day passes start at £8), but if you’re looking for a place where children can play for free, try the Garden, an interactive space for three- to six-year olds.
Science Museum address: Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2DD
The V&A is another gargantuan collection, a world-leading collection dedicated to art and design. housed in a beautiful building that’s worth a trip in its own right. The V&A’s focus is costume and design, and it has a sterling programme of informative talks and events for families. Families can borrow back-packs, available free from the Learning Centre, and go on a treasure hunt around the museum.
London Victoria and Albert Museum address: Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL
The Natural History Museum is the place a lot of people think of first when considering London museums. It’s your first stop if you want to find out all about dinosaurs. The NHM holds the first T-rex fossil ever found, as well as an Iguanadon skeleton and a Triceratops skull. It also premiers images from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, which is a family favourite of ours. Because it’s such a child-friendly museum, with lots of interactive exhibits, it’s always teeming with youngsters during school holidays and weekends. If you wanted a quieter time to visit, mid-week would be best.
Natural History Museum address: Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD
Museum of London
The Museum of London is one of our family favourites: it covers the history of the capital from the earliest settlers through Anglo Saxon, Roman, Victorian and modern times. You can also see Thomas Heatherwick’s Olympic Cauldron there, designed for the 2012 London Olympic Games.
A child-friendly exhibition, Beasts of London, was at Museum of London until 5 January 2020. You can read about it here. There is a charge for Museum of London’s exhibitions, but many of them are suitable for youngsters, so do check out what is on when you visit.
Museum of London address: 150 London Wall, London EC2Y 5HN
The British Museum is impressive even if you only look at it from the outside: a Greek Revival quadrangle, with awe-inspiring colonnades. Inside, its collection reflects the country’s colonial history, with Mayan, Greek and ancient Egyptian sections being particularly worth a visit. Much of the British Museum is completely free, and entrance to all special exhibitions is free for children under 16, when accompanied by a paying adult. At the weekends, families can get creative using digital technology or take an activity backpack around the galleries. Museum explorer trails are also available to guide you on an in-depth exploration of different times and cultures, and during school holidays, the British Museum runs a range of workshops that bring the stories in the Museum collection to life.
British Museum address: Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG
Tate Britain is the stylish home of the Turner prize, and holds many works of iconic British artists, including J.M.W. Turner, Blake and Henry Moore. It’s more of a grown-up gallery than some London museums, but the Manton Studio is a space for families to relax, with storytellers on weekends and in school holidays.
Tate Britain address: Millbank, London SW1P 4RG
Whether you’re a pacifist or military enthusiast, the London Imperial War Museum is fascinating. It covers combat through the ages, and examines the human impact of war as well as its political significance. It’s a museum for all ages, and regularly holds special events for children, like Spies and Disguise, a collaboration with Puffin books, at Easter 2020.
Imperial War Museum London address: Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ
Tate Modern is housed in the former Bankside Power Station, and the airy, atmospheric space gained a large new wing in 2016, when the Switch House opened to great fanfare. Tate London is one of the city’s top three most popular attractions, with a staggering permanent collection that includes masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and Henri Matisse as well as striking works from across the globe in the Switch House extension. The collossal Turbine Hall has seen installations from artists like Louise Bourgeois. It’s featured playful artworks like a collection of swings by Danish artists’ group Superflex, and super-sized slides by Carsten Holler. Despite this, and a dedicated kids’ website, Tate Kids, you’ll always find more adults than children at Tate Modern.
Tate Modern address: Bankside, London SE1 9TG
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum is the largest maritime collection in the UK. You can find yourself gazing for hours at intricate ships in bottles, nautical costumes with ornate, glistening buttons (including the uniform Nelson wore at the Battle of Trafalgar), and splendid artworks by JMW Turner. For the under-7s, the Ahoy! Gallery is an immersive space where they can dress up in sailor’s garb, stoke the boiler of a steamship, land a fish or tend ships in the interactive boatyard. For 6-12 year olds, the All Hands Gallery is a space where children can help prepare food in the ship’s galley, or load cargo in the port, as well as shoot down pirate ships in an interactive game.
National Maritime Museum address: Romney Road, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF
West London’s Design Museum hosts some excellent exhibitions, like Moving to Mars, a trip through the history of space exploration. There’s a charge for these, but the rest of the permanent collection is free. The Design Museum offers an introduction to the history of contemporary design, and it hosts regular events and activities aimed at children and young people.
Design Museum address: 224-238 Kensington High Street, London W8 6AG
Nestled between south London’s Forest Hill and Dulwich, the Horniman is part of the Victoria and Albert family of museums. With award-winning gardens and stunning views over the capital’s southernmost territories, the Horniman is perhaps the most child-friendly of all London museums. Inside, an aquarium, a natural history collection with stuffed animals ranging from a walrus to ducks, and musical instruments from around the world, attract youngsters in their droves. Outside, there’s a farm with goats, rabbits and alpacas, and a butterfly house, where visitors can walk among the fluttering mini beasts. For some sections, like the aquarium and the butterfly house, and any temporary exhibitions, there’s a charge, but the rest is free.
Horniman Museum address: 100 London Road, Forest Hill, London, SE23 3PQ
Museum of Childhood
The V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green is free to enter. It’s a moderate-sized collection of toys through the ages, with a full schedule of drop-in family workshops over the school holidays. These include game and building design for over-7s, as well as storytelling and play sessions for younger kids.
Address: V&A Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road E2 9PA
The National Gallery holds the national collection of paintings in the Western European tradition from the 13th to the 19th centuries. You could very easily spend a whole day there, staring at the Vermeers, the Titians, Caravaggios, Constables, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers…the list goes on. Some exhibitions are ticketed and there is a charge, but most of the collection is free.
National Gallery address: Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN
As well as large-scale exhibitions, where you have to buy tickets, the National Portrait Gallery houses a large permanent collection of portraits, from the 16th century to the present day. Most are portraits of big names from the past, so it’s fascinating for history-lovers as well as art enthusiasts. The National Portrait Gallery in St Martin’s Place will temporarily close to the public from 29 June 2020 until spring 2023, while building works take place.
National Portrait Gallery address: St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE
The Wallace Collection is hushed and magnificent, with staff who were super-friendly and helpful. The Wallace Collection houses French 18th-century furniture and porcelain as well as artworks, and a world-class armoury. You’ll find more adults there than children, but they do host family events, like The Litte Draw, a free drop-in drawing workshop.
The Wallace Collection address: Hertford House, Manchester Square London W1U 3BN
Small but punchy, if you head to the Serpentine Gallery when it opens in the warmer months of the year, you’re bound to see some interesting art. It’s part of a duo of galleries set five minutes’ walk from each other on either side of The Serpentine Bridge in the heart of the Royal Park of Kensington Gardens in central London. The Serpentine Gallery shows emerging and established artists from around the world. One of my favourites was Hilma Af Klimt, a Swedish abstract artist.
Serpentine Gallery address: Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, London W2 3XA
London Museums where there’s a charge
The Barbican is a surprisingly beautiful concrete jungle with an arts centre at its heart. The art gallery and the Curve host an eclectic mixture of exhibitions. In the past I’ve seen a stunning collection of Brazilian ‘Tropicalia’ art and music, and there was even once an exhibition where you could walk through a passageway of live birds.
Barbican address: Barbican Centre, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS
The Cartoon Museum is owned and operated by the Cartoon Art Trust. It has a library of over 5,000 books and 4,000 comics. There’s an impressive range of original artwork from the likes of David Law (Dennis the Menace, Beryl the Peril) and Posy Simmons. Definitely worth a look.
Cartoon Museum address: 63 Wells Street, Fitzrovia, London, W1A 3AE
What fun this place is. Inside its central Covent Garden home, you can run the gamut of trams, buses and tubes from London’s history. Many of them are open to allow visitors to climb aboard, and you can even have a go at driving a (simulated) tube train. The London Transport Museum might not be in every adult’s top 10 London museums, but the youngsters love it.
London Transport Museum address: Covent Garden Piazza (south east corner), London WC2E 7BB
The London Film Museum was founded in 2008 and its mission is to support the film industry. At the moment it’s exhibiting ‘Bond in Motion’, a collection of vehicles from the James Bond films.
London Film Museum address: 45 Wellington Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7BN
The Insitute of Contemporary Art, on the Mall, is usually populated by serious-looking people in black turtlenecks and geek-chic spectacle. It’s definitely not a place for rowdy toddlers. On a previous visit I was wowed by the beauty of one of the exhibitions, Theatre of the Domestic by Betty Woodman.
Institute of Contemporary Arts address: The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH
Another of the must-see London museums, the Royal Academy is an artist-led collection that hosts talks and family events as well as landmark exhibitions. From Ai WeiWei and ‘Painting the Garden: Monet to Matisse’, to a week-long series of talks to mark International Women’s Day and a Young Artists’ Summer Show, the Royal Academy’s programme is gripping and exciting.
Royal Academy of Arts address: Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD
Did you know that the composer George Frideric Handel lived next door to Jimi Hendrix, in Mayfair? 200 years apart, of course…but a weird coincidence, nevertheless. Now you can visit both residences, above shops on Brook Street.
Handel & Hendrix in London address: 25 Brook Street, Mayfair, London W1K 4HB
At the Sherlock Holmes Museum you can see inside a faithfully reconstructed 221b Baker Street. You’ll need to queue for admission (there are strict limits on the number of visitors at any one time, and you have to buy tickets in person), but there are fun props to wear while you’re waiting outside.
Sherlock Holmes Museum address: 221b Baker St. London NW1 6XE
The House of Illustration was founded by Sir Quentin Blake, illustrator of Roald Dahl’s books. It opened in July 2014 at the heart of the King’s Cross regeneration area (see my post on Camley Street Natural Park, which is just round the corner). It features illustration in all its forms; from advertisements to animation, picture books to political cartoons and scientific drawings to fashion design.
House of Illustration address: 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross, London N1C 4BH
Museum of the Home
Formerly the Geffrye Museum, the Museum of the Home is due to re-open in Summer 2020. Set in 18th Century almshouses, it uses the reconstructed space to reveal and think about how we use the home.
Museum of the Home address: Geffrye Almshouses, 136 Kingsland Road, London E2 8EA
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