“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
Photograph © Tony Hisgett
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.
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 cafe, 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 >>