Disclaimer: I wrote this post in 2019. Due to COVID-19, the museums listed below are temporarily closed.
If you’re in love with French culture, you’re a Francophile. So if I’m in love with art museums, I’m an arto-museophile, right? Err, the red squiggle I’m seeing under that word indicates some illegitimacy… but heck, I like it.
I’ve fallen in love with London for many reasons, and no reason is more prominent than my love for its world-class art museums (with FREE admission…all within walking distance of each other).
I was in London for two months and spent roughly eight hours a week exploring one or more museums—usually blowing off something important to do so, like work or a date. I tried to visit during less popular hours to have a more intimate experience with the exhibits, but sometimes had no choice but to do the touristy thing of spending four hours on a Saturday brushing shoulders with strangers to get a glimpse at some obscure Van Gogh.
Through it all, I have nothing but good things to say about each museum. So, for my own sake as well as yours, I’ve recorded impressions of each of them, in order by my favorite, with tips to plan your own trip if you ever make it there.
Note that I wasn’t able to visit some popular museums (National Portrait Gallery, Saatchi Gallery), so this isn’t an exhaustive London art museum list!
Cromwell Rd, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL, UK
Image via timeout.com
This beauty was, by far, my favorite. I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum on a rainy, cold Friday night when the patronage was light and galleries uncrowded. I was enthralled by the expanse of the first floor, which boasted a Christian Dior gallery next to a series of rooms housing major artworks from all over the world, from every recorded period. As I moved throughout the museum, I felt like I was travelling though multiple time periods, as each room was decorated ceiling to floor in exhibit-appropriate décor. Parts were reminiscent of the Louvre, but unlike the Louvre, the V&A permanent galleries combined painting and sculpture with furniture, fashion, architecture, photography and other mixed media. The was even a room that doubled as a performance space where musicians could play the instruments of that time period.
The V&A calls itself “the world’s leading museum of art and design.” I’d run that through a fact checker just to be sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is, in fact, true statement. The building is huge. Printed in the Museum Map, which lays out FIVE STORIES of exhibits, is the assertion that “the V&A is home to 5,000 years of human ingenuity in art, design and performance.” Those are, like, my favorite things, y’all. I want to keep this post short (ha, what is short), but I could go on for pages about how wonderful my time was inside the V&A. I absolutely cannot WAIT to go back and see more.
FREE + Some Paid Exhibits ($10 -20)
|Sunday – Thursday||10AM–5:45PM|
|Friday||10AM–10PM (Late night!!)|
Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3DG, UK
Image via Wikimedia Commons
I’m a little biased when it comes to the British museum; I had a lovely date there and now can’t help but associate the place with that day. I did make a point to go back on my own, though, and explore it without distraction. Given that my experience was as great the second time as the first, this stunning museum has secured its position at #2 on this list.
The British Museum famously houses some of the world’s greatest treasures, including the Rosetta Stone, Mummy of Katebet, and ancient Samurai armor. It’s controversial, naturally, because many of these artifacts were acquired during the era of the British Empire, and were essentially stolen from their native lands. But the pro-British Museum argument is that now these artifacts are preserved and on display where people from all over the world can come see them for free.
The museum houses 8 million+ works in its permanent collection alone (here’s a list of special exhibitions) and is one of the worlds biggest museums for that reason. I mean, seriously, if there was one place to go to learn about the entire history of the world as we know it, it would be this bad boy. The only problem for me was that the visit required hours of reading plaques and guidebooks to ascertain context around each artifact, and it was mentally exhausting (at least for someone like me who really wants to dig in and remember all of the information).
FREE + Some Paid Exhibits (~$17)
|Sunday – Thursday||10AM–5:30PM|
|Friday||10AM–8:30PM (Late Night!!)|
Bankside, London SE1 9TG, UK
Image via modulo.net
I booked a Hotel in London’s South Bank specifically to be a short walk from the Tate Modern. Was it worth it? I guess so. Thing is, I’m not a huge modern art fan, so I’m in two states of mind: 1.) It was an excellent place for modern art if you’re into modern art, but 2.) It’s very modern-arty, so if you’re not emotionally captivated by large floor installations, interactive exhibits, and “Instagrammable” moments, then it might not be for you. But come on, in this day and age, who doesn’t like that trio?
Tate Modern features British and international contemporary and modern art. Across multiple rooms and seven floors, the collection includes works in an array of materials, methods and displays. They depict everything from statements about the human experience to artistic perspectives on current events. It’s probably one of the best modern art galleries in the world. Regardless of my stance on modern art, I am very happy I visited.
FREE + Many Paid Exhibits (~$13)
|Sunday – Thursday||10AM–6PM|
|Friday – Saturday||10AM–10PM (Late Nights!!)|
Millbank, Westminster, London SW1P 4RG, UK
Image via artfund.org
Ugh, just wonderful. Strangely, the feeling I was missing when I visited the National Gallery, I found in Tate Britain. The museum featured prized works from all of my favorite periods and genres, though, of course, the focal point was British art. The museum boasts famous art pieces from 1500 to today, including showstoppers from Francis Bacon, John Singer Sargent, and my personal joy, William Hogarth’s, “The Painter and his Pug” (1745). I’m not a big Hogarth buff, BTW, I was just floored by an 18th Century painting of a pug. You have to see it. I also especially loved the William Blake collection held within a somber, dimly-lit room draped in a thick, navy blue velvety wallpaper. I knew Blake was both a poet and painter, but I forgot the about latter. The exhibit was a lovely reminder.
What pained me, however, is that the museum had a Van Gogh exhibit on display at that time but I had to forgo it. Every ounce of me wanted to see it, but I was ramshackled by the $25 entry fee. Alas, my better judgment and skyrocketing credit card bill convinced me to stick with the free stuff. I had an exceptional time regardless.
FREE + Some Paid Exhibits ($10-25)
Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross, London WC2N 5DN, UK
Image via visitlondon.com
I’ll start this off with a confession: I found the National Gallery forgettable. (Whattt?? Alexis?? Who are you?) It’s not that I intended to. But I visited about two months ago and I can hardly remember what I saw. What I do remember is that some of the rooms were under construction, so they had to move around paintings and cram some together into smaller rooms that, of course, became highly congested leading to an uncomfortable amount of shoulder-bumping (one of my top perturbations).
But visiting the National Gallery was honestly the whole reason I went to London. I’ve been loving my copy of Art: A Visual History by Robert Cumming, which features the most notable artworks and artists in history—and I found that most of the famous pieces I loved that I had yet to see where at the National Gallery in London—of the only major art museums in the world that I have not visited. So I was determined to make a trip to this world-famous museum, only to be disappointed that it didn’t, in my opinion, live up to my expectation. I promise that I will give the museum another try when I am back in London and update this post with new thoughts.
FREE + Few Paid Exhibits ($15-20)
|Sunday – Thursday||10AM–6PM|
|Friday||10AM–9PM (Late Night!!)|
16-18 Ramillies St, Soho, London W1F 7LW, UK
Image via artfund.org
The Photographer’s Gallery had a sign next to exhibit’s entrance that read something along the lines of “Warning: Some content is distressing and may not be appropriate for young audiences.” I think this forecast affected my experience for I went in with the expectation of being unsettled. And it did not disappoint. The gallery featured temporary exhibits from various artists, mostly journalistic in nature. I saw one collection of landscape images, but, other than that, the collections depicted the human experience, most notably, human suffering. There was an exhibit on international abortion law, on an Iranian genocide and other heavy human rights topics. I actually had to excuse myself to the hallway after seeing a particularly distressing image of a group of men holding their decapitated rivals’ heads on spears. It was too much for me to take in right after breakfast.
So, I totally understand the power of photography in telling stories, memorializing historical events, and influencing public opinion around certain sociopolitical or socioeconomic issues. But I personally prefer imaginative photography—images that have artistic compositions, clever perspectives and unexpected use of light; photos that look like classical paintings. Frankly, I was expecting more of that in the gallery, but that is my own fault for having my blinders on. It was still a thoughtfully crafted gallery, consisting of four floors and 1-3 exhibits per floor, and plenty of written context around each set of works. I would recommend The Photographer’s Gallery for anyone interested in historical black-and-whites and underrepresented historical perspectives.
$5 (Sorry, not free…)
|Thursday||10AM–8PM (Late Night!!)|
96 Euston Rd, London NW1 2DB, UK
Image via carnegieuktrust.org.uk
I spent a few days each week working from the British Library. I absolutely loved it. It’s massive, open and clean and has hundreds of work stations and desks (though you can never find an empty seat…). And the building hosts a 5-story, gorgeous book case erected right at its center, visible from every floor. The library was an was an amazing location immerse oneself in knowledge and information… But hay, this post isn’t about where to get work done in London 🙂
The British Library every bit as much a museum as a library, and that why it’s on this list. The national edifice is home to copies of the Magna Carta, the only Beowulf manuscript, two Gutenberg Bibles, and numerous other documents of universal historical significance. In some rooms and hallways there are contemporary art and photography displays. Additionally, visitors can enjoy temporary exhibits with documents and artifacts covering myriad topics, from world religions to historical figures to major media events. Most exhibits are free, but there will always be one or two paid exhibits like this year’s, “Writing: Making Your Mark,” and “Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion.” 100% worth the visit in my opinion.
FREE + Paid Exhibits (~$15)
What are your favorite museums? Have you visited any of the above? Let me know your thoughts!