London has a wide variety of world-renowned museums. With so many options including the British Museum, Madame Tussaud’s, Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Maritime Museum, London Transport Museum, the Science Museum and so many art museums, there really are museums for everyone in London. As an added bonus, many of London’s museums do not charge admission. We barely scratched the museum surface with kids but have been lucky to visit a few of London’s amazing museums. Here are our favorite five:
#1: Natural History Museum
My kids really enjoy visiting natural history museums in Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and London’s Natural History Museum definitely did not disappoint. The cathedral-like building in South Kensington is stunning, and we were greeted by Dippy, a diplodocus skeleton featured in Hitze Hall, the main hall of the museum. This dinosaur reminded us of Sue, the T-Rex featured in the Field Museum’s main hall.
Replacing iconic main hall dinosaurs seems to be a trend in natural history museums. Just as Sue is being replaced at the Field Museum with a cast of the world’s largest dinosaur, Dippy was replaced with Hope, the museum’s blue whale’s skeleton last year. This time-lapse video shows Hope’s installation.
Dippy was quite a centerpiece, but one of the biggest takeaways from our trip to London’s Natural History Museum for our boys was that the blue whale is the world’s largest animal. So, they would probably approve of the change. Admittedly, it must be easier to photograph Hope without getting scores of other visitors in your shot.
The Dinosaur Gallery one-ups the other dinosaur exhibits we have visited by adding animatronics. The enormous animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex is the highlight of the exhibit. Visitors stand in a line (which is known as a queue in London) that eventually inches past the T-Rex.
The Natural History Museum was originally designed to house the British Museum’s natural history collection, particularly Charles Darwin’s samples, so there are plenty of animal specimens. My younger son got up close and personal with the lion exhibit.
As a publicly funded national museum, there is no general admission, but some some temporary exhibits do require an admissions fee.
- Kid Facts: The cast of Dippy was a gift from Andrew Carnegie at the request of Edward VII. The almost complete skeleton is displayed at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
#2: National Gallery
London’s National Gallery, London is the fourth most visited art museum in the world with over six million visitors annually. The Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum are the only more popular art museums. It is located in Trafalgar Square and houses a relatively small collection of about 2,300 paintings, but almost all are world- famous and on permanent display.
The museum entrances are off of Trafalgar Square. We used the side entrance, which is more stroller friendly than the main entrance, which although beautiful, is not easily accessible. Our focus was the Impressionist Gallery that holds some of the world’s most famous paintings by Claude Monet, Pierre Renoir and Vincent Van Gogh. Monet’s paintings on exhibit here include Gare St. Lazare and The Water-Lily Pond.
Sunflowers is one of the most recognizable paintings on exhibit. Van Gogh only created about 800 oil paintings in his life, including several variations of these sunflowers. Similar versions are displayed in the Van Gogh Museum and Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art, which purchased Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers for about $40 million in 1987, a record at the time. It’s hard to believe that Van Gogh was financially reliant on his brother during his life.
Our boys were particularly fascinated by Georges Seurat’s massive Bathers at Asnières. Seurat masterfully uses pointillism, a painting technique that uses small, distinct dots of varying colors to form an image. It’s much harder to see how the patterns of dots form an image when observing the painting up close, and the boys learned to step back to see the image more clearly.
There is no admission charge for this national museum but may be fees for special exhibits.
- Kid Facts: The National Gallery was founded in 1824 when the House of Commons purchased 38 major paintings.
#3: Tate Modern
The Tate Modern houses modern and contemporary art from the 20th and 21st centuries in a former power station. Tate Modern is the sixth most visited art museum in the world.
Displays change frequently and many exhibits come from the Tate Collection, which houses the United Kingdom’s national collection of British Art. The expansive Turbine Hall entry can showcase large-scale work. Check out this video to get a feel for the space.
The Tate Modern is an extremely kid-friendly art museum. The website has a special page dedicated to visiting families that explicitly states that women are welcome to nurse wherever they feel comfortable – which is exactly what I did while the boys explored the interactive building area.
The view of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Thames and the Millennium Bridge from the balcony should not be missed. The Millennium Bridge is a pedestrian bridge that was completed in 2000 to connect the Tate Modern to St. Paul’s Cathedral, but an unexpected sway required it to close almost as soon as it was opened and undergo almost two more years of additional modifications.
There is no admission fee, except for special exhibits. A 10-story addition opened in 2016 after our visit.
#4: National Portrait Gallery
London’s National Portrait Gallery contains the world’s most extensive portrait collection with approximately 200,000 works. The collection most notably includes portraits of important, famous and royal Brits, including members of the royal family, celebrities, politicians, artists and writers. Visitors have the chance to view history through portraits, photographs and sculptures arranged chronologically from 1500s to modern-day.
King Henry VIII is one of the most infamous Brits and is featured in the center of the bottom row. After their visit to the Tower of London, our boys were particularly excited to check out this portrait wall.
Make sure to check out the view of Trafalgar Square and Houses of Parliament from the Museum’s restaurant. We missed it during our visit. There is no admission charge for this national museum but donations are welcome, and there are fees for special exhibits. Also, there is a small fee for a map.
- Kid Facts: When London’s National Portrait Gallery opened in 1856, it was the first portrait gallery.
#5: London Sea Life Aquarium
The London Sea Life Aquarium is one of the largest aquariums in Europe and features an amazing array of aquatic creatures. The museum was closed for a major renovation in 2008 and 2009, and we visited a few months after its reopening. It is conveniently located on the South Bank of the River Thames, right near the London Eye and just across from the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. The Shark Walkway is a special treat and gave us an opportunity to see into the tank from the top.
This was one of the first attractions we chose to visit explicitly for our toddler, who particularly enjoyed SeaBase at Epcot a few months earlier. He loved the Sea Life Aquarium, and, quite honestly, the five adults accompanying him were pretty much wowed, too.
This short promotional video provides a great visual overview.
- Kid Facts: Sea Life London is a sponsor of Bite-Back Shark and Marine Conservation, a program striving to prevent shark-finning in England. Despite the fact that many species of shark are on the endangered list, sharks continue to be killed for shark fin soup, a delicacy in some cultures.
London has so many fun family museums, and we can’t wait to go back and check out more! Make sure to check out our posts on London, including Our First Family Trip Abroad, Five(teen) Fun Family Attractions, Spotlight: The Tower of London, Five Fun Family Parks (to come) and Sample Itineraries (to come).