The best 25 free museums in London (without the crowds)
You don’t have to battle the crowds in South Kensington for the best and most beautiful free museums in London; the capital is replete with quieter, unique places to explore that won’t cost a penny to visit. Here are 30 of my favourites.
Note: While these London museums are officially ‘free’, some do ask for a small donation on the way out to help them continue their work. So if you enjoyed it, pop them whatever you can afford to say thanks.
The Wallace Collection, Marylebone
The Wallace Collection was one of the first quiet places I visited when I moved to London, so it’s kind of special for me. Set in Hertford House, a beautiful central London town house, The Wallace Collection is made up of 18th and 19th-century works of art.
Opening times: 10am-5pm daily, including bank holidays
Nearest Tube: Bond Street
More information: Wallace Collection website
William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow
As the name suggests, this historic house in Walthamstow charts the life and work of the famous interiors artist William Morris. The building was Morris’s family home during his school years and is now dedicated to his contribution to the arts and crafts movement of the 19th century.
Highlights include the stunning gardens, the rooms dedicated to his relationships and socialism, and of course the tea room (where you can buy possibly the biggest scones in north London).
Opening times: 10am-5pm, Wednesday to Sunday and Bank Holidays
Nearest Tube: Walthamstow Central
More information: William Morris Gallery website
Burgh House and Hampstead Museum
Burgh House holds 300 years of history, having been built during the reign of Queen Anne. It’s also the location for Hampstead Museum, which charts the area’s development from a settlement for forest hunters in 7000 BC to a luxury haven in the present day.
Opening times: 12pm-5pm, Wednesday to Friday and Sunday
Nearest Tube: Hampstead
More information: Burgh House website
Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge, Epping Forest
Commissioned by Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge was built in 1543. Typically of Henry, it was built to be grander than anything that had come before: it was known as the ‘Great Standing’, owing to the fact that it was the only three-floor standing in England. There’s no evidence that Great Harry ever visited, but there’s an intriguing legend linking the building with his daughter (and its namesake)…
Opening times: 10am-5pm, Tuesday to Sunday
Nearest station: Chingford
Valentines Mansion, Ilford
Valentines Mansion, a stunning 17th century house in Valentines Park, Ilford, was built for Elizabeth Tillotson, the widow of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1696. Added-to and renovated in Georgian times, it stood empty for 15 years before being transformed again into the house you can visit (for free!) today.
Opening times: Tuesday and Sunday (closed every winter until February)
Nearest Tube: Gants Hill
More information: Valentines Mansion website
The Geffrye Museum of the Home, Hackney
If you love peering into pretty living rooms on Pinterest, then take a trip to Hoxton and The Geffrye Museum of the Home where you can indulge your passion for interiors (and see another, more down-to-earth side of Hoxton).
Opening times: 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm Bank Holiday Mondays
Nearest station: Hoxton
More information: Geffrye Museum website
Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Beckenham
The 13th-century Bethlem Royal Hospital was the first UK institution to specialise in the care of the mentally ill continues to provide care today. This unique free museum within the hospital buildings charts the lives and accomplishments of those with mental health problems.
Opening times: 10am-5pm Wednesday to Friday (except public holidays) and the first and last Saturday of the month
Nearest station: West Wickham
More information: MedicalMuseums.org site
The Faraday Museum, Mayfair
When Michael Faraday took over this lab in the basement of the Royal Institution in the 1820s, he probably didn’t realise that it would be turned into a museum dedicated to his legacy almost 200 years later. But so it was, and the collection now includes many exhibits that were used by Faraday himself, including the electromagnet above, which was used in an experiment to show that light and glass are affected by magnetism.
Opening times: 9am-6pm Monday to Friday (excluding public holidays)
Nearest Tube: Green Park or Piccadilly Circus
The Museum of the Order of St John, Clerkenwell
This small museum in Clerkenwell charts the story of the Order of St John, from its 11th century Jerusalem roots through to its modern-day work with St John Ambulance.
Opening times: 10am-5pm Monday to Saturday
Nearest Tube: Farringdon or Barbican
More information: The Museum of the Order of St John website
Grant Museum of Zoology, Bloomsbury
This small but perfectly formed (and free) museum in UCL’s buildings houses everything from a penguin skeleton to half a cat and a corner of insects; all from London Zoo, The Hunterian Museum and Imperial College London.
Opening times: 1pm-5pm Monday to Saturday
Nearest Tube: Euston Square
Guildhall, City of London
Not strictly a museum, but one of the finest (and oldest) historical buildings in London. The Guildhall was the setting for Lady Jane Grey’s trial as well as many other medieval defendants, and sits on top of a Roman amphitheatre.
Nowadays it’s used for state and civic banquets, as well as being the home of the City of London Corporation, and its great hall, art gallery and the amphitheatre can all be visited for free.
Opening times: 10am-4.30pm daily (not open on Sundays during the winter)
Nearest Tube: Bank
More information: City of London website
St Bart’s Hospital Museum, Smithfield
St Bartholomew’s Hospital has been treating the sick for almost 900 years and is now one of the world’s most prestigious museums. The museum of the same name is hidden beneath Henry VIII’s statue in the Hospital’s North Wing and includes hundreds of medical artefacts, surgical equipment, 12th-century documents, art and uniforms charting nine centuries of medical history.
Opening times: Tuesday to Friday, 10am-4pm
Nearest station: St Paul’s or Farringdon
The BDA Dental Museum, Marylebone
As the name suggests, this museum is dedicated to the history of dentistry. Among its 30,000-piece collection are Waterloo teeth (teeth taken from bodies from the Battle of Waterloo and sold as dentures) and some vintage public health information films and posters.
Opening times: 1pm-4pm Tuesdays and Thursdays
Nearest Tube: Oxford Circus or Bond Street
More information: British Dental Museum website
Horniman Museum and Gardens, Forest Hill
East London’s version of the Natural History Museum is a bit out of the way, but you don’t have to go into central London to visit it. Get your fill of natural history in a quieter setting at this Forest Hill gem.
Opening times: 10.30am-5.30pm daily
Nearest station: Forest Hill
More information: Horniman Museum website
London Sewing Machine Museum, Tooting
This unusual museum in Upper Tooting celebrates the humble sewing machine with a collection of 600 machines, including one that was given to Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter as a wedding present.
Opening times: 2pm-5pm, first Saturday of the month
Nearest Tube: Tooting Bec
More information: Crafty Sewer website
V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green
Its big sister may be packed come weekends, but the V&A Museum of Childhood should be far enough away from central London to put off rowdy tourists. As its name suggests, this collection in Bethnal Green charts the evolution of everything from intricate Victorian dolls houses and paintings to Lego and He-Man – and even the trusty space hopper.
Opening times: 10am-5.45pm daily
Nearest Tube: Bethnal Green
More information: VAM website
The Hunterian Museum, Holborn
The third natural history museum on the list and probably the lesser-known. This small but full-to-the-brim museum contains thousands of jarred specimens and skeletons: everything from the 7ft 7ins ‘Irish Giant’, human brains and a plaster cast of Isaac Newton’s death mask.
Opening times: 10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday (CLOSED 20th May 2017 until summer 2020)
Nearest Tube: Holborn
The Ragged School Museum, Mile End
Test your slate board handwriting and avoid the dunce’s hat during a 45-minute lesson at what was once London’s biggest free school.
Known as a ragged school and set up to give the area’s poorest children a basic free education, it was the work of Thomas Barnardo – also the founder of Barnardo’s children’s charity.
The museum and Victorian lessons are free, but you’ll be hard-pressed to deny them a £2 donation for their trouble.
Opening times: 10am-5pm every Wednesday and Thursday; 2pm-5pm on the first Sunday of each month
Nearest Tube: Mile End
More information: Ragged School Museum website
The Royal London Museum
The Royal London Hospital Museum was founded in 1740 and, like St Bart’s, it has a museum dedicated to its history. Highlights (for want of a better word) include a carbon arc lamp used to give ultraviolet light treatment to King George V in 1928 and a replica of a hat and veil worn by Joseph Merrick (the ‘Elephant Man’) who stayed at the hospital.
Opening times: 10am-4.30pm Tuesday to Friday (closed over Christmas, New Year, Easter and public holidays)
Nearest station: Whitechapel
More information: Barts Health website
Bank of England Museum, City of London
Bank’s resident fortress looks pretty impenetrable (and rightly so) whatever time you visit, but head to the museum on a weekday for a glimpse of 300 years of financial history.
Opening times: 10am-5pm Monday to Friday
Nearest station: Bank
More information: Bank of England website
New London Architecture
This small museum in The Building Centre offers a preview of how London will look in the future. Admire the giant model of the capital, attend a lecture or even get the inside track on a guided tour.
Opening times: 9am-6pm Monday to Friday; 10am-5pm Saturday
Nearest Tube: Euston or King’s Cross
More information: New London Architecture website
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, Bloomsbury
The Petrie Museum’s website promises that it’s the ‘one of the greatest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world’ and the 80,000 ancient artefacts in University College London would certainly take some beating. It’s hard to believe this packed series of rooms is free to visit but free it is.
Opening times: 1pm-5pm Tuesday to Saturday
Nearest Tube: Euston or King’s Cross
Sir John Soane’s Museum, Holborn
Maybe it’s the fact that its huge collection has been left untouched, exactly as Sir John Soane left it, for over 180 years. Maybe it’s Londoners’ love of eccentric obsession. Either way, this time capsule charting one man’s love of art continues to gain in popularity.
If you can get in, you’ll be treated to an extraordinary collection of artwork from world-famous artists such as Hogarth, Turner and Canaletto.
Opening times: 10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday
Nearest Tube: Holborn
More information: Sir John Soane’s Museum website
The Library and Museum of Freemasonry, Marylebone
Freemasonry might not be at the top of every London bucket list, but dig a bit deeper into this central London gem (it’s just round the corner from Holborn and a short walk from Covent Garden) to see items belonging to popular figures such as Winston Churchill and Edward VII.
Opening times: 10am-5pm Monday to Friday except public holidays
Nearest Tube: Holborn or Covent Garden
More information: The Library and Museum of Freemasonry website
Anaesthesia Heritage Centre
From Morton’s demonstration of ether inhalation in 1846 to machines that knock you out today, the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre is a must for anyone interested in the history of medical science.
Opening times: 10am-4pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday
Nearest Tube: Oxford Circus, Regent’s Park or Great Portland St
More information: Medical Museums website
Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich
Its Painted Hall — designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor — has been described as ‘the Sistine Chapel of the UK,’ so there’s at least one reason to visit this south-east London landmark if you haven’t already. On show in the visitor centre are Tudor objects excavated from the old Greenwich Palace, the secret of Greenwich’s own nuclear reactor, and the history of the site as a refuge for old and injured sailors.
Winter opening times: 10am-5pm daily
Nearest station: Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich
More information: ORNC website
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