Free London is not a plea to release London from bondage, but A Bit About Britain’s attempt to explain that you can have a jolly fun time in the capital of the United Kingdom at little, or no, cost. Everybody knows that London is expensive; those who have never visited insist that it is. Certainly, London can empty a wallet quicker than you can say, “Jack Rob…” So – how can you enjoy London for free, or on a limited budget? A Bit About Britain plans a series of Free London features with some suggestions that won’t cost you an arm and a leg: all you have to do is get there…
Here is Transport for London’s website.
This article lists free to visit museums and art galleries. Doesn’t appeal today? Well, you could walk the streets (London is great for that), stroll through some of London’s amazing green spaces, visit one of London’s famous markets, attend public events and witness a bit of Britain’s ceremonial pomp, dip in and out of one of London’s iconic shops (you don’t have to buy anything), spend a bob or two having a pint in one of London’s historic pubs, enjoy free entertainment, take in some fabulous views, discover quirky stuff, or soak up some history in London’s churches…
Visit London’s free museums and art galleries
Perfect for dull days or when it rains. After all, doesn’t it always rain in Britain? London is home to a number of national and world-class collections, which are free to visit – though most are happy to accept donations. Some stage special exhibitions from time to time and there is usually a charge to see these. Take a few minutes to browse their websites, to see what’s available to look at for nothing in London.
Free museums in London
To get you started, here, in alphabetical order, are 22 free to visit museums in London. A website link is provided for each one, as well as a link to an article if the museum has been featured by A Bit About Britain.
Bank of England Museum
A museum sitting on top of an enormous gold vault. Discover the history of the Bank – the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street – what it does, the story of paper money – and pick up a gold bar. You can’t keep it – sorry. Bank of England Museum website.
The British Library receives a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland. As well as books (including early printed books), the collection includes manuscripts, maps, newspapers, magazines, prints, drawings, music scores, patents, sound recordings and stamps. Particular treasures include Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, the first edition of The Times from 18 March 1788 and Beatles manuscripts. As well as being open for research, free exhibitions and events are held throughout the year. British Library’s website.
Established in 1753, the British Museum specialises in history, art and culture. It is one of the largest collections in the world, with millions of objects – some of which were pillaged from the former British Empire. The British Museum is regularly the most visited attraction in Britain; you can lose yourself there for hours – or days…or centuries… British Museum’s website.
Grant Museum of Zoology
The Grant Museum of Zoology is one of the oldest natural history collections in the UK, and is the last remaining university natural history museum in London. Home to 68,000 zoological specimens, the collection is a unique window on the entire animal kingdom. Items include an impressive array of skeletons and 18 moles in a jar. As their website says, get to know your dodo from your quagga. Grant Museum’s website.
The Horniman is an anthropological museum set in 16 acres of landscaped gardens in south east London. There’s a traditional natural history gallery – dominated by an enormous walrus – where the exhibits are displayed in traditional cases; galleries dedicated to African, Afro-Caribbean and Brazilian art; a collection of about 1600 musical instruments; an aquarium; a nature trail; beehive – and lots of hands-on stuff for kids. Horniman Museum’s website.
Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum is an astonishing place. Appropriately housed in an old mental hospital, it tells the story of conflicts involving Britain and the Commonwealth since 1914. It includes many large exhibits, such as aircraft and tanks, as well as thought-provoking galleries and artwork. Permanent exhibitions include the First World War Galleries and the Holocaust Exhibition. IWM also has an extensive archive of original documents and audio-visual material, personal and official. IWM’s website.
London Sewing Machine Museum
A quirky museum above an industrial unit in south London that tells the story of the sewing machine from 1850 to 1950. There are more than 600 machines on display, including the first Singer machine and a machine originally owned by Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter. London Sewing Machine Museum’s website – it’ll have you in stitches.
Museum of London
The Museum of London tells the wonderful story of London from prehistoric times, through Roman occupation, medieval and up to its current status as a world city. Full of intriguing exhibits, displays and full-size recreations. One of its prize exhibits is the Lord Mayor of London’s State Coach – used annually at the Lord Mayor’s Show. Special exhibitions are also held. The Museum is located in the architecturally hideous concrete Barbican Centre, but don’t let that put you off – it’s one of the most historic parts of the city. Museum of London’s website.
Museum of London Docklands
The Museum of London Docklands (part of the Museum of London) tells the story (you guessed, didn’t you?) of London’s docks, how trade developed, the involvement of slavery, the time when London was the hub of a great empire and the world’s busiest port. You can also walk through 19th century ‘sailortown’. Museum of London Dockland’s website.
National Army Museum
This is the museum of the British Army, telling the fascinating story of the service from the 17th century to the present day and exploring its place in society. The museum has been refurbished fairly recently and holds some intriguing items in its collections (last time I visited, they had the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse on display), as well as obvious items such as a vast array of uniforms and weaponry. The layout is a good mix of audio-visual together with items traditionally displayed in glass cases. It is next door to the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. National Army Museum’s website.
National Maritime Museum
The National Maritime Museum claims to be the world’s largest maritime museum with a collection that includes artwork, maps and charts, models, memorabilia and thousands of other objects – such as an impressive number of figureheads and items relating to Horatio Nelson and Captain Cook. The museum opened in 1937 and is part of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site. You can spend a happy day in Greenwich. National Maritime Museum’s website.
Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum houses an enormous collection of items and specimens relating to the life and earth sciences: botany (plants); entomology (insects); mineralogy (the properties of minerals); palaeontology (ancient life forms and fossils) and zoology (animals). It is particularly renowned for its dinosaur skeletons, which kids adore (mine used to, anyway) – and its architecture. Natural History Museum’s website.
Spectacular aircraft museum on the site of the historic Hendon aerodrome, just over 30 minutes from central London. There are entire hangers dedicated to WW1 aircraft, bombers and the Battle of Britain, plus a lot more besides – including flight simulators. Be awed by the Avro Vulcan or Lancaster, or wonder how the flimsy aircraft of the early days managed to stay up. RAF Museum’s website.
Ragged School Museum
You’ll find the Ragged School Museum in a group of three canalside former warehouse buildings which were once the largest “ragged” or free school in London. Copperfield Road Free School was established by the London missionary and philanthropist Dr Bernado in 1877. It provided a basic education to tens of thousands of children until it closed in 1908. The museum includes several galleries, an authentic Victorian classroom where you can sit at a desk and experience a lesson, and an East End Kitchen from the 1900s, demonstrating what life would have been like in a simple, one-room home with no electricity or running water. Tell that to kids today and they won’t believe you. Ragged School Museum’s website.
The Royal Hospital Chelsea
The Royal Hospital Chelsea was founded in 1682 by Charles II as a retirement home for soldiers. The architect was Christopher Wren. Today, it is home to about 300 veterans, who have served in the British Army all over the world over the last 60 years or so. Known as Chelsea Pensioners, they can be seen out and about in London in their distinctive red uniforms and three-cornered hats. Group tours of the hospital can be arranged, and there is a museum. Particular highlights include the great hall and the Wren chapel. Among those buried on the site are ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her husband Denis, in the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary, which opened in 2009. The Royal Hospital’s extensive grounds are also the location for the annual RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Royal Hospital’s website.
Science Gallery London
Science Gallery London is not a traditional museum with a permanent collection on show. Quoting from their website (which, I confess, I didn’t really understand), “Our programme brings together scientific researchers, students, local communities and artists in surprising and innovative ways. We present three themed seasons every year, incorporating exhibitions, events, performances, live experiments, open discussions and festivals, all with scientific engagement at their core.” Science Gallery London is part of the Global Science Gallery Network. Science Gallery’s website.
This is Britain’s national museum of science and technology, founded in 1857. Its collections include large and small exhibits, with many hands-on activities. The permanent galleries cover such topics as flight, robotics, space exploration, IT, engineering and medicine (the latter largely helped by the collection of Henry Wellcome). Among its larger items are Stephenson’s Rocket, several iconic aircraft and the Apollo 10 Command Module. This one’s long overdue a revisit, so far as I’m concerned. Science Museum’s website.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
Sir John Soane, architect and collector, left his house and museum to the nation. In his lifetime Sir John – whose works included the Bank of England – amassed a collection of architectural drawings as well as classical and medieval works of art, artefacts, sculptures, paintings (including works by Canaletto, Hogarth and Turner) and other items. It is an astonishing, eccentric, collection – certainly unusual! Unfortunately, they don’t like photography; not yours, or mine, anyway. Sir John Soane’s Museum’s website.
V&A Museum of Childhood
The V&A Museum of Childhood is the UK’s National Museum of Childhood and claims to be the largest institution of its kind in the world. Its collections include clothing, furniture, paintings – and, of course, toys and games: dolls, dolls’ houses, models, cuddly toys, building toys, mechanical toys – you name it. V&A Museum of Childhood’s website.
Victoria and Albert Museum
The V&A is the world’s leading museum of art and design, housing a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects that span over 5,000 years of human creativity. The Museum holds many of the UK’s national collections and houses some of the greatest resources for the study of architecture, furniture, fashion, textiles, photography, sculpture, painting, jewellery, glass, ceramics, book arts, Asian art and design, theatre and performance. By the way – the shop is astonishing too. V&A’s website.
The Wellcome Collection grew out of the Wellcome Trust, a global charity which, amongst other things, is a huge funder of medical research. The Wellcome Trust was established by the will of Henry Wellcome, a US Anglophile who co-founded the pharmaceutical firm Burroughs Wellcome – inventors of Calpol and later absorbed into GSK. Wellcome was also an avid collector – anything from mainstream artwork to the bizarre – many of his items are now in the Science Museum. The Wellcome Collection includes two permanent displays, ‘Medicine Man’ about Henry Wellcome, and ‘Medicine Now’. Its temporary exhibitions include an eclectic mix of art, history and somewhat off-the-wall – all with a medical bent. There is also access to the Wellcome Library, a collection specialising in medicine and its history which includes many rare and unique items. Very handy if you’re at Euston Station with time on your hands. Wellcome Collection’s website.
William Morris Gallery
The William Morris Gallery is housed in William Morris’ childhood home, a Georgian house set in Lloyd Park in Walthamstow. It contains the world’s largest collection of this iconic Victorian designer and craftsman’s work, including tapestries, furniture, tiles, wallpaper, embroidery and paintings. The museum was opened in 1950 by the then Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. William Morris Gallery’s website
Get in touch if you’d like to suggest a free to visit museum to be added to this list..
Free art galleries in London
Here, in alphabetical order, are a dozen free-to-visit art galleries in London, to put you in the picture… A website link is provided for each one, as well as a link to an article if the gallery has been featured by A Bit About Britain.
Camden Arts Centre
Camden Arts Centre is a contemporary art gallery which hosts exhibitions and educational outreach projects. It has a changing programme that includes exhibitions, artists in residence, off-site projects, activities and courses. The gallery occupies a refurbished Victorian building with a garden to relax in. Camden Arts Centre’s website.
Guildhall Art Gallery
The Guildhall Art Gallery was established in 1885 as a place to display the City of London’s extensive art collection, but was destroyed during the Blitz in 1941. It was rebuilt in 1999 and displays about 250 works at any one time, on a rotating basis. There is a great deal of Victorian and, as to be expected, London-themed, work. There is also a small, but very interesting, museum – and the Art Gallery additionally provides access to the remains of London’s Roman Amphitheatre beneath your feet. Guildhall Art Gallery’s website.
Kenwood House is one of the finest 18th century country houses in London and includes some of Robert Adams’ finest interiors. But the house also contains an astonishing art collection, with works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, Gainsborough and Reynolds. To cap it all, Kenwood occupies a beautiful position on the northern edge of Hampstead Heath and has often featured in movie and TV productions, including Notting Hill and Mansfield Park. Kenwood House’s website.
The National Gallery houses the British nation’s national collection of paintings in the Western European tradition from the 13th to the 19th centuries. Established in 1824, it is regularly in the top 10 most visited attractions in Britain and includes works by (in no particular order) Botticelli, Canaletto, Caravaggio, Cézanne, Constable, da Vinci, Gainsborough, Holbein, Monet, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, Turner, van Dyck, van Gogh and Vermeer. National Gallery’s website.
National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1856 to collect portraits of famous British people. Its collection includes over 200,000 portraits from the 16th Century to the present day in a wide variety of different mediums. These include drawings, miniatures, negatives, paintings, photographs, prints, sculptures and many more. It can get very crowded – but it’s absolutely fascinating looking into the faces of people from the past – and present. You’ll find it on the north of Trafalgar Square, next to the National Gallery. NPG’s website.
Queen’s House is a former Royal Palace, commissioned by James I for his wife, Anne of Denmark – allegedly as an apology for swearing in front of her after she had accidentally killed one of his favourite dogs. I wouldn’t swear in those circumstances – would you? Sadly, Anne died before it was finished. (“Oh dear”, said James.) Work was completed for Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria, in around 1636. The building is considered notable for its break with the traditional, red-brick Tudor style of building. Inside, it is an art gallery, with works by Lowry, Turner and Canaletto – as well as featuring the famous Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. The National Maritime Museum is next door. Queen’s House’s website.
The Saatchi Gallery presents contemporary art, largely by new young artists, or by international artists whose work has been rarely or never exhibited in the UK. It also operates as a springboard for young artists to launch their careers. Saatchi Gallery’s website.
The Serpentine Galleries are two co-located venues in Kensington Gardens, the Serpentine Gallery and the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, linked by the bridge over the Serpentine Lake. The website says that the Serpentine is committed to presenting interdisciplinary and collaborative work across art, architecture, design, fashion and digital, and the galleries present a year-round, open programme of exhibitions, including education, live events and technological innovation in the park and beyond. No, I don’t know what it means, either – but here is the Serpentine Galleries’ website.
The Tate Gallery was founded by industrialist Henry Tate and Tate Britain houses both permanent and temporary exhibitions of British art from 1500 to the present day. The building has been extended at least seven times since opening in 1897 and the Tate brand has also expanded, with Tate Modern in London, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives now all part of the network. Tate Britain’s website.
Housed in a former power station, Tate Modern is Britain’s national museum of international modern and contemporary art. It includes work by Blake, Cézanne, Dali, Matisse, Picasso, Pollock, Rothko and Warhol. Tate Modern’s website.
The Wallace Collection is one of the finest in the world, assembled over the 18th and 19th centuries by a branch of the Seymour family, the Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, son of the 4th Marquess. It is housed in their former townhouse, Hertford House, and includes a particularly outstanding collection of 18th century French art, 17th and 19th century paintings, medieval and Renaissance works and one of the finest collections of princely arms and armour in Britain. The Laughing Cavalier’s eyes will follow you around the room (apparently). The collection was given to the British Nation in 1897. Wallace Collection’s website.
The Whitechapel Gallery was founded in 1901 to bring contemporary art to the people of east London and is now internationally renowned. Among its many firsts are the first (and only) display of Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica, in Britain, the first major show in Britain of Jackson Pollock’s work and the first shows of David Hockney. Whitechapel Gallery’s website.
Get in touch if you’d like to suggest a free to visit gallery you think should be added to this list.