Since the United Kingdom introduced free entry to its national museums in 2001, admissions have spiked. And little wonder! I love to potter into the British Museum for a quick peek at the Elgin Marbles and artifacts from Roman Britain. My personal favorite exhibit is always the Rosetta Stone: a tablet dating back to 196 BC that allowed archeologists to finally decipher hieroglyphics. In addition to the city’s countless museums and galleries (precious artworks and artifacts housed in London’s finest buildings), quick day trips will bring you to some of the area’s lesser known, underrated museums. Spend an afternoon in Greenwich at the National Maritime Museum’s free Nelson, Navy, Nation exhibition. This gallery explores the dramatic seafaring life of the 18th century and is open to all visitors. Whether you’re looking for a free museum in downtown London or casting your net to the countryside and nearby townships, be sure to check ahead: many museums still charge for special exhibitions.
No visit to London is complete without exploring this iconic museum in Fitzrovia. When it opened in 1753, it was the first national public museum in the world. Get there early in the morning to avoid the crowds: annual visitor numbers come in at nearly 6 million. In addition to the Rosetta Stone, ancient Egyptian mummies and an enormous moai sculpture from Easter Island are can’t-miss highlights.
Museum of London
Inside one of my favorite museums, you’ll discover 450,000 years of London history. Later in 2014, an exhibition on Sherlock Holmes (The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die) will send visitors back to Victorian London. While there’s a fee for this special, visitors can still peek inside the Gilded Lord Mayor’s coach and tour the old-fashioned Great Fire of London exhibit for no added charge.
National Portrait Gallery
Explore portraits of famous citizens from Tudor Kings and Queens like King Henry VII in 1505 to the Bronte Sisters in 1834. For a more contemporary piece, check out David Beckham, filmed asleep, by Sam Taylor-Wood in 2005. It’s a great place for adults and children to discover Britain’s great personalities. Don’t miss the 1981 portrait of Lady Diana Spencer.
Victoria and Albert Museum
Described as the world’s greatest museum of art and design, the Victoria and Alber Museum currently houses a free Disobedient Objects exhibition exploring how seemingly insignificant pieces can create social change, like suffragette teapots. From paintings and glasswork to furniture, fashion, and jewelry, it’s nearly impossible not to lose yourself for a day at this exquisite institution.
Here, locals and sightseers regard the finest works of art from the 13th to the 19th centuries, like Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh, Bathers at Asnières by Georges-Pierre Seurat, and my personal favourite: Whistlejacket, a horse mid-trot by George Stubbs. Following your tour, take afternoon tea in the restaurant afterwards: warm scones and finger sandwiches with exotic, infused brews.