“Nothing is certain in London but expense,” wrote the 18th century poet William Shenstone. It is however possible to see some of the greatest historical treasures from around the world, entirely for free, in 21st century London. London has a wealth of free museums that cover a wide range of subjects, but here we highlight those that are the best of the free historical museums.
London may be one of the biggest cities in the world, but unlike other capital cities, we are very lucky to have so many national museums which are free for everybody, residents and tourists alike. It’s entirely possible to spend days in London visiting all of them without paying any entrance fees, and if you add in the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and other less historical museums, there would be enough to keep you busy for weeks.
Please bear in mind that although these museums have no entrance fees, they rely on donations to provide running costs and ensure that they remain free for everyone, so give generously if you can, particularly to the smaller museums.
Museum of London, Barbican
With over 7 million objects in its ever expanding collection, the museum covers every aspect of London from pre-history to recent years.
With ten permanent galleries that ranges from hippos living in central London 125,000 years ago, through the Roman city, Viking invaders, the Great Fire, the Blitz, right up until when the city hosted the 2012 Olympics, this museum provides a great day out for the whole family.
There are free daily tours, regular events, workshops and experiences. The museum is fully accessible, and has a restaurant and shop on site. The museum closed at the end of 2022 until 2025 when it will re-open in a new site.
Victoria & Albert, Knightsbridge
The world’s leading museum of art and design, the V & A has collections which range from ancient Chinese ceramics, through Medieval, Renaissance and Gothic, right up to post modernism.
It covers every aspect of human creativity and portrays the arts, fashion, theatre, architecture, interiors and manuscripts. There are regular tours which include behind the scenes and plenty of temporary exhibitions, workshops, courses and family friendly activities.
The museum is fully accessible, and has three restaurants, including the world’s oldest museum restaurant, and a shop on site.
Imperial War Museum, Lambeth
Photograph © Peter Trimming
Established in 1917 to collect war ephemera, the museum collected material from all nations involved in the war and gathered records from everyone affected by it, not just the military.
Today it covers all warfare, including both world wars, war photography, conflicts since 1945 and a very harrowing floor dedicated to the holocaust, where people walk through shocked into silence.
There are regular temporary exhibitions, tours, events, talks and family activities. The museum is accessible, with a restaurant and shop on site.
IWM Website >>
Royal Air Force Museum, Edgware
Photograph © Iain Duncan.
This museum on the outskirts of London tells the story of the first 100 years of the Royal Air Force after the RAF had separated from Army Flying.
The museum covers World War I, the RAF Nursing Service, bombers, helicopters, Battle of Britain, marine craft and an aircraft factory.
There is a lot to see which includes are temporary exhibitions, flight simulations, a 4D theatre, a Spitfire experience, a Dambusters VR factory, free tours and regular events. The museum is accessible with a café, shop and outdoor playground.
National Army Museum, Chelsea
A fantastic museum which tells the experience of the soldier, from recruitment, training, deployment and battle over the centuries.
Without any glorification of war, it lays bare what is involved and how it impacts those who sign up, with a mix of interactive displays and well curated exhibits.
There is a detailed section on Waterloo including some impressive artefacts, as well as a look at the portrayal of soldiers in society. There are temporary exhibitions, talks, heritage days and family activities. The museum is accessible, has a cafe and shop.
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Part of the Royal Museums of Greenwich, which include the Cutty Sark, Royal Observatory and Queen’s House, this museum looks at the world of exploration and adventure by sea, with galleries dedicated to Trafalgar and Sea Traders amongst others.
Four new galleries explore the world of piracy, polar worlds, tales of Pacific exploration and stories from the deep. There are two galleries just for kids, as well as special kid friendly events.
There are plenty of events and exhibitions to offer adults too. The museum is accessible, has a shop and two cafes.
Royal Maritime Museum Website >>
Royal Hospital, Chelsea
An institution that goes back to Charles II, who established a place for veterans in this incredible Grade I listed building.
There is a small but fascinating museum on site, and you can do a self-guided walk around certain areas of the estate to see original sleeping booths, the Wren designed chapel, the Great Hall and their gardens.
The site is fully accessible and has a very good and very cheap café on site.
Guided tours by Chelsea Pensioners in their distinctive red coats are available on certain days of the year and at set times – see the website for further details.
London Mithraeum, City of London
Archaeologists found the temple of Mithras during excavations after the Blitz, and have faithfully recreated it here, presenting it with sound and light effects to transport the viewer back to the site in 240AD.
Thousands of artefacts were found during excavations, many of which are on display.
Visits to this look at Roman London are free but must be pre-booked online. There is also a contemporary art exhibition on site. The site is fully accessible. There is no café on site, but there are plenty of eateries on the former Roman road next door.
Museum of London Docklands, West India Quay
In a Grade I listed warehouse in the East End, the museum looks at the history of the Docklands of London, beginning in the 1600s.
Moving from the development and early importance of the site; the early days of merchants and piracy, the slave trade, on to its hub at the heart of the British Empire and its role as the worlds busiest port.
In the 20th century the docklands and its people suffered terribly in the Blitz, followed by the area’s drastic decline and then its recent regeneration. There is a children’s gallery, two cafes and a shop and the museum is fully accessible.
Bank of England Museum, Bank
The Bank of England and money are the historical topic here, with a look at the history of the bank and how and why currency developed.
Starting in 1694 through to the present day, the five galleries give visitors the chance to learn about and handle gold, see the development of banknotes, visit the Stock Office which shows how the bank looked 200 years ago and learn about the historic building itself. There is no café on site and the site is accessible although there are some steps. The museum is closed for three weeks over Christmas.
Museum of Freemasonry, Covent Garden
An Art Deco building in Covent Garden, the museum is on the first floor of Freemasons Hall and is free to everyone.
There are several permanent exhibitions as well as temporary, and a library where you can research every aspect of freemasonry.
You can also book free guided tours that take you through the museum, the ceremonial areas and finally into the Grand Temple, where the guide will explain all of the mysterious symbols and rituals. There is no café on site but there is a drawing room where you can have drinks.
Sir John Soanes Museum, Holborn
John Soane was an eccentric 18th century architect who amassed an extraordinary collection of art, antiquities, furniture, sculptures and more, which he bequeathed to the nation.
The greatest treasure he collected was probably the Sarcophagus of Seti I, sold to him by the archaeologist who found it.
Artworks include many Hogarths, Turners and Canalettos. Tickets are free but are for timed entry, which you must book in advance online. The museum also holds regular ‘Lates’ when people can visit by candlelight and see artefacts that are normally hidden from view.
The Queen’s House, Greenwich
The Queen’s House in Greenwich was the first classical building in Britain. Designed by Inigo Jones, inspired by his travels through Italy, it is now home to a renowned art collection which includes works by Lowry, Turner and Canaletto.
Completed in 1638 for the royals, it was sold off after the Civil War and was an asylum for orphans until the 1930s. The building has all of its original features, including the famous Tulip stairs. With regular events, including an ice rink at Christmas, this free museum has a shop and is fully accessible.
British Museum, Bloomsbury
Covering millennia of history from around the world, this controversial museum has free entry for all, although does charge for some of its exhibitions and tours.
With artefacts such as the Rosetta Stone, Parthenon marbles, an Easter Island head, hundreds of Egyptian mummies, the Sutton Hoo ship burial collection, this is one of the most visited museums in the world.
There are regular events, activities, lectures and talks, as well as plenty of kids activities and trails. The museum is fully accessible, has cafes and a large shop.
The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, Bloomsbury
Part of the University College London, the Petrie Museum has one of the finest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world, most of which was collected by the famous Egyptologist and UCL Chair, the archaeological pioneer Flinders Petrie.
There are some wonderful exhibits which include mummies, a pot burial and so much more. The museum runs free tours and there are plenty of activities and events to get the kids interested.
The museum does have unusual opening times, so do check the website before setting out.
Museum of the Order of St. John, Clerkenwell
This museum looks at the story of the ancient military religious order, who started caring for pilgrims in 11th century Jerusalem.
Now better known as an international first aid charity, this museum looks at 900 years of history, art, religion, culture and medicine.
The museum galleries are open all year round, but the church, crypt and historic St Johns Gate can only be visited on guided tours.
Tours are free of charge, although they do appreciate a donation of £5. The museum holds regular free talks and events. Check the website for accessibility before you go.
The British Library, Euston Road
The library has more than 150 million items, spanning over 3,000 years. From the Magna Carta and Lindisfarne Gospels to Shakespeare’s First Folio, there are some incredible literary treasures.
Entrance is free, although you will have to pre-book and pay for any of the guided tours which are run regularly and can focus on the treasures or the actual building itself.
There are regular free exhibitions, courses, talks and other activities on offer. You can also access the library to work, but must get a free Readers Pass in advance. The site is fully accessible and has free Wi-Fi and cafes. Photograph © Bill Woodrow
The City of London Police Museum, City
AS OF 2023 THIS MUSEUM IS STILL CLOSED AFTER THE PANDEMIC
This small museum, tucked away next to the Guildhall Library in central London, focuses on the history of the City of London Police force, who operate in the Square Mile of the City of London.
Formed in 1839, the museum looks at their background and the main events since their formation such as the Houndsditch Murders, the bombing campaign conducted by the Suffragettes and recent terrorist activities.
Entrance is free, although you can also book guided tours or attend events. The site has audio guides, a children’s trail and is fully accessible.