London’s one of the greatest cities in the world when it comes to culture - you can almost smell it in the streets. The British capital is jam packed with museums and galleries that could occupy you not just for days and weeks but months, but if it’s your first visit, or you’re a returning tourist but with limited time, where should you visit?
It’s really hard to know where to start, when it comes to recommendations but much like the Big Five that you look for, whilst on safari in Africa, we think there’s a Big FIve for every culture vulture. Even more amazing, admission to all of them is free (a policy brought in by the government, back in the 1990s) which means you don’t have to worry about breaking the bank.
And if you don’t manage to see them all? Well, you’ll just have to plan another visit!
1. The British Museum
You could spend days (if not weeks) wandering in the British Museum - it’s a truly magnificent place that can easily overwhelm you. But for first-time visitors, there are a few things you absolutely shouldn’t miss. The Roseta Stone (discovered in 1799 by French soldiers, and the key to unlocking hieroglyphics) is fantastic, as are the Egyptian mummies in their caskets. The Parthenon (Elgin marbles) is wow-factor stuff and you shouldn’t miss the Lewis Chessmen (made of walrus ivory) and the Samurai sword up in the Japanese Gallery.
And, of course, the Great Court (with its magnificent glass court) is a wonderful place to sit and take a breath, with a cup of coffee from the cafe there.
Address: Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, WC1
Opening hours: 10.00 - 17.00 (Friday 20.30)
How to get there? Take the tube to Tottenham Court Road (Northern and Central lines) then a 4 minute walk There are many buses that stop nearby too, including the 14, 19, 38. 24, 25, 68 and 73.
2. The Natural History Museum
A truly fantastic place for all the family, you’re spoilt for choice at the Natural History Museum, Be taken aback by a full-sized dinosaur skeleton, a superb mineral gallery and the relatively-new Darwin Centre, not to mention all kinds of stuffed animals (including London Zoo’s once-famous Guy the Gorilla), wherever you look.
This museum is divided into four halls (‘zones’). Red looks at the changing history of our earth, and green the evolution of our planet. Blue explores diversity on earth and orange focuses on wildlife.
Kids will love checking out fossils, learning more about meteorites, volcanoes and lava and gasping at the huge Blue Whale skeleton in the Hintze Hall.
Just a stone’s throw from Hyde Park, you can even take a break, stroll in greenery, then come back for more exploring, since this museum (like all others listed here) has free entry.
Address: Cromwell Road, South Kensington, SW7
Opening hours: 10.00 - 17.50
How to get there? Take the tube to South Kensington (Piccadilly and Circle & District lines) then a 5 minute walk. Buses that will drop you close by include the 9, 14 and 74.
3. The Victoria & Albert
On the same street as the Natural History Museum lies the Victoria & Albert, the world’s leading museum when it comes to art and design. From the minute you walk in, and see the Chuilli glass statue hanging down, you;ll be enthralled - the museum is beautifully laid-out, with a lovely courtyard and a nice cafe too.
Don’t miss the Rodin statues, the jewellry collections and the Victoriana exhibits (which kids will like). The atmosphere is grand and sumptuous and, of course, there are special exhibits (often relating to fashion maestros, such as Balenciaga and Christian Dior). Staff are helpful and friendly and the guides are very informed. The museum itself is roomy, so you won’t feel ‘crowded’, even when its busy. A true hidden gem in South Kensington.
Address: Cromwell Road, South Kensington, SW7
Opening hours: 10.00 - 17.00 (Friday until 22.00)
How to get there? Take the tube to South Kensington (Piccadilly and Circle & District lines) then it’s a 5 minute walk. Buses that will drop you close by include the 9, 14 and 74.
4. The Tate Modern
Once a power station that had fallen into disrepair, the opening of the Tate Modern at the turn of the 21st century was a big deal in London. Situated on the River Thames, with views of St. Paul’s Cathedral and surrounding London Bridge area from its top floors, it's an incredible space which has been very well designed!
Inside, there’s a lot to see, with paintings by Marc Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Paul Klee and Jackson Pollock. The museum hosts plenty of temporary exhibits and blockbuster Special Exhibitions (although you have to buy a ticket for these). Oh, and if you’re looking to pick up a book or tote bag, the gift shop downstairs is absolutely stupendous.
Moreover, you’re just a stone’s throw from Borough Market, so you can pop over and grab lunch then sit by the Thames and savour the view.
Opening hours: 10.00 - 18.00
How to get there? Take the tube to St. Pauls (Central line) or London Bridge (Northern and Jubilee lines) then walk for 6 minutes . Buses that will drop you close by include the 21, 35, 133, 344 and 381.
5. The National Gallery
There’s no other word to describe the National Gallery’s collection than ‘wow’. Seriously. From the minute you walk up its steps, you’ll be blown away and if you aren’t, then you don’t deserve to be there. From the outside, the building looks like something out of a renaissance painting. Inside, there are treasures you can’t comprehend, spanning centuries of art.
Early period works from Leonardo da Vinic, Tiziano and Michelangelo are stunning. Vermeer, Constable and Turner are glorious. And more ‘modern’ impressionist works by Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne and Degas will make you sigh with delight.
The National Gallery is a curator’s delight - it’s so beautifully designed, you could just sit in various rooms all day, staring at masterpieces, and be left utterly transfixed. Its cafe has wonderful views over Trafalgar Square, making it a fine place to grab a bite and a drink and the gift shop is lovely (our tip: pick up the 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle of Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’).
Address: Trafalgar Square, WC2
Opening hours: 10.00 - 18.00 (Friday until 21.00)
How to get there? Take the tube either to Leicester Square (Northern and Piccadilly lines) or Charing Cross (Northern and Bakerloo) then walk for 2-3 minutes. Buses that will drop you close on or close to Trafalgar Square include the 24, 29, 13,139, 159 and 453.