If you have never been to London, England before, you are naturally going to be drawn to visiting the iconic landmarks you have obviously heard about, such as Buckingham Palace, The Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Madame Tussauds, to name but a few. I won’t be talking about London’s mainstream museums (and art galleries), but that shouldn’t prevent you from perhaps picking out a few that could be “up your alley.” When I lived and worked in London, I have to admit not realizing how many cultural institutions existed in my home town. It has only been as a visitor, on a London vacation, that I have discovered the delights of the full range of fascinating museums and art galleries that exist here. I can’t imagine another city having anywhere near as many. So here are some that I have enjoyed and I’m sure you will too.
By the way, just in case you didn’t know, the following are all free of charge – British Museum, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Imperial War Museum, Tate Modern and Tate Britain, Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural History Museum, and Science Museum. I leave those to you to discover.
The following are ones I have personally visited, on a London vacation, and thoroughly enjoyed.
Museum of London
I highly recommend starting with the Museum of London which is also free of charge. Located in the City of London, it is a well laid out museum where you literally walk through centuries of the city’s history, from prehistoric times to today’s London. Each section of the museum is designed to let you relive a specific era. There are life-size streets, shops, and houses, all accessible to the visitor. In a short space of time, you will have an entertaining history lesson about the world’s greatest city.
Churchill War Rooms
The Churchill War Rooms will be of interest to history buffs. This museum was formerly the secret underground headquarters where Winston Churchill conducted his cabinet meetings during World War II. The museum depicts the life of Churchill from his childhood to the time of the war. The War Cabinet Room includes the Map Room and the Transatlantic Telephone Room, taking you back in time to experience the planning and the plotting of the Second World War.
London Transport Museum
The London Transport Museum has exhibits dating back to the beginning of the 20th Century, including buses, streetcars, trolleybuses, and rail vehicles. The exhibits relate to the operation and marketing of London’s passenger services – some of which, if not most, you will experience on your London vacation – and the impact it has had on the city and its people. The first underground electric train, from 1890, can be seen here.
If you walk along the south side of the River Thames, known as The Embankment, you will come across an interesting venue. The Globe Theatre, which, although an active theatre featuring mainly Shakespeare’s plays, is also a living museum to the Bard, and you can have a guided tour inside the building and get an idea of exactly how the theatre looked in his day. It is a faithful reconstruction of the open-air playhouse designed in 1599, and in a half hour tour, you can learn all the facts about Shakespeare’s era.
Sherlock Holmes Museum
Continuing the literary trail will bring you to the Sherlock Holmes Museum at, naturally, 221B Baker Street. However, as a fictitious character, he didn’t obviously live there. The second floor study has been meticulously maintained exactly as it was described in the published stories. The museum is dedicated to the life and times of Sherlock Holmes.
Charles Dickens Museum
Sticking with literary figures, the Charles Dickens Museum is tucked away in a small street in Bloomsbury, but is well worth locating. It is the only remaining London home of Britain’s greatest novelist. Housed in an attractive Georgian house, the museum has an important collection of artifacts (rare books, photographs and personal belongings) relating to Dickens. There is also an entertaining video to watch.
Technically, this suggestion for a visit is not a museum or an art gallery, but nonetheless interesting and aimed at families with small children. It is Coram’s Fields, tucked away in Bloomsbury. It is a 7-acre playground for children and young people under 16, living in or visiting London. Bear this in mind, no adult can enter Coram’s Fields without a child! Apart from playground equipment, there is a small animal farm. There is also staff organizing daily activities. I suggest finding a child if you don’t have one, and then go and check out this haven for the young.
National Theatre Backstage
Another cultural “museum of sorts” is a visit to the National Theatre Backstage, on your London vacation. A tour here of its 3 auditoriums offers an insight into what goes on behind the scenes of this iconic London theatre. This includes the production workshops where the sets and props are made. I understand the theatre hires several hundred people to work on these.
Royal Museums Greenwich
I strongly suggest heading out of the centre of London to Greenwich, which is situated on the Thames, to the east of the city. Here you will find a number of different museums. There is the National Maritime Museum, the leading maritime museum in Britain, and I believe the largest museum of its kind in the world. The museum contains more than two million items including maritime art, ship models and plans, scientific and navigational instruments, instruments for time-keeping, and astronomy. It also explores the relationship with the sea and the future of the sea as an environmental force and resource.
The Royal Observatory is combined with the National Maritime Museum. It is here that time begins, that is, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Just climb the hill behind the observatory and you can stand right on the GMT dividing line. While in the vicinity, go see the Cutty Sark sailing ship, the last surviving ship of its kind, moored on the banks of the river. You can go on board and walk on the decks and passageways. Also visit the Queen’s House art gallery, a beautiful 17th Century royal villa with its collection of works by British Great Masters such as Gainsborough and Hogarth. All this in one trip to Greenwich… definitely worthwhile!
I now need to go on another London vacation and tick off other interesting and unusual museums, etc., from my list to be visited and enjoyed.
6-Day London and Surrounds