Top 10 London museums

Published 26 January 2016

The must-see museums in London, from the British Museum and National Gallery to Tate Modern and V&A.

British Museum, London

British Museum

Described as the greatest treasure house in Europe, the British Museum houses some 8 million artefacts and has become famed for its trail-blazing exhibitions.

The most popular cultural attraction in the UK, the British Museum is an extraordinary treasure trove. With objects dating back millions of years, it tells the epic story of human civilization from all over the world. Founded as the first national museum in 1753, it opened in 1759 and has been free to the public ever since. Some of its highlights include The Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon sculptures and perhaps the museum's most iconic object, a golden helmet found in an Anglo Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. Together with its fascinating permanent collection, the museum stages ground-breaking exhibitions. This year will see a remarkable show of ancient Egyptian treasures once buried beneath the Mediterranean seabed. It will be the first ever exhibition to explore underwater archaeology.

Tate Modern

Tate Modern

The powerhouse that brought modernism into the light, Tate Modern is a wondrous art gallery with a radical collection of international modern and contemporary art.

Situated on the banks of the river Thames opposite St Pauls Cathedral, Tate Modern is a stunning example of innovative re-invention. The original building was a power station designed by the famous British Architect Sir Gilbert Scott and many of the features of the gallery's industrial past are retained within the structure, including the tanks which are now used for performances. As well as its permanent collection, the gallery holds temporary exhibitions and stages commissioned work by contemporary artists in its Turbine Hall.


National Portrait Gallery

Home to over 10,000 portraits dating from the Middle Ages to the present day, the National Portrait Gallery is a guide to British history through the men and women who created it.

Set in the heart of London, this exquisite gallery provides the visitor with a chronological history of Britain through the ages. From battleworn kings to pioneering philanthropists, the building houses portraits of the great, the good and the downright devious. There are pictures of early British noblemen of York and Lancaster and satirical cartoons of buffoonish politicians of the eighteenth century. There are paintings of the Romantic poets Byron and Shelley, and self-portraits by William Hogarth and Sir Joshua Reynolds. The gallery also boasts a wondrous top-floor restaurant with sweeping views over London, taking in Nelson's column and the London Eye.


Tate Britain

The great provocateur of the British art world, Tate Britain is a masterful combination of historical painting and controversial contemporary art.

Founded by the Sugar Magnate Sir Henry Tate, this stately building on riverside is home to a fantastic collection of British art dating back to the 1500s. Its historic collection includes paintings by Hogarth, Reynolds, Constable and an entire wing, known as the Clore Gallery, devoted to JMW Turner. Fans of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood will naturally be drawn to the Arthurian heroines depicted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais while in the modern galleries, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud offer a raw, bestial vision of humanity. The gallery is famous for holding the Turner Prize, an annual competition featuring four artists living in Britain under the age of 50.


National Gallery

A building bursting with the nation's treasures, the National Gallery has paintings from every European school of art from International Gothic to 1900.

Established in 1824 in order to house 38 paintings donated to the nation by the banker John Julius Angerstein, the National Gallery is one of the most popular attractions in London. Its colonnaded splendour radiates across Trafalgar Square. Inside, the gallery offers a thousand lost worlds through its historic collection. Among the 2,000 works of art are some of the finest paintings of the Italian Renaissance, spanning early masters like Giotto and Piero della Francesca to later superstars Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. The Gallery's collection also contains many wonderful Impressionist paintings, including paintings by Cézanne, Renoir, Monet and Degas.


V&A (Victoria & Albert Museum)

Boasting the world's largest collection of decorative arts, the V&A is a glittering jewel of museum in which old-world regal elegance and cutting-edge contemporary design sit side by side.

Founded in 1852 after the Great Exhibition, this wonderful museum has a highly eclectic collection of art and design. A huge department devoted to artefacts from Asia include ancient textiles from 2000 BC to exquisite Mughal miniatures, while the Sculpture galleries feature works from the 4th to the 19th centuries. Highlights from the permanent collection include Tipu's Tiger, a life-sized wooden automaton of a fearsome tiger devouring a man and the beautiful marble sculpture, 'Three Graces' by the Roman artist Antonio Canova.


The Courtauld Gallery

Hidden behind The Strand is The Courtauld, the world's leading centre for the study of art history. Its remarkable gallery houses one of Britain's best loved collections of paintings.

Some of the most stunning examples of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism are held at The Courtauld Gallery in London. Among them are important works by Édouard Manet and Paul Gauguin. A Bar at the Folies-Bergere was Manet's last major work and depicts a barmaid standing behind a counter. Nevermore, painted in Tahiti in 1897 was inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's malevolent poem The Raven and is a portrait of Gauguin's Tahitian wife Pahura. Both are highlights of a collection that ranges from the early Renaissance to the 20th century.


Natural History Museum

A much-loved museum, this edifice to Victorian enlightenment in the heart of Kensington offers everything from pre-historic animals to preserved bats.

Built in 1881, the Natural History Museum is an extraordinary Romanesque palazzo designed by Alfred Waterhouse who had been inspired by his frequent trips to Italy. Inside is a veritable trove of curios, from stuffed dodos to elephant birds. Both a research institution and a museum, the piece de resistance is the magnificent central hall in which dinosaur skeletons dominate. The splendid Darwin centre houses some 22 million insect and plant specimens while the latest edition to the museum is the human evolution gallery featuring our long-lost Neanderthal ancestors. Often overlooked is the lovely outside Wildlife Garden, well worth a lunch-time stroll.


Science Museum

From Apollo 10's command module to the Beagle 2 Mars lander, the Science Museum houses a galaxy of technological innovations for the boldly curious.

The Science Museum is a cabinet of wonders with over 300,000 items in its collection. Some of the highlights include George Stephenson's Rocket, Crick and Watson's model of DNA and perhaps most fascinating of all, Charles Babbage's early computer. The institution is a delight for children and adults, and their edifying exhibition program continues to challenge our perceptions of science. A recent exhibition featuring relics from the Soviet space program provided a fascinating document of the Cold War while also revealing just how romantic the vision of space is to the human race.

Exterior view of the front of IWM Main building

IWM London (Imperial War Museums)

Having re-opened in 2015 after a £40 m rebuild, the Imperial War Museum displays the terror and excitement of conflict and war in spectacular fashion.

A museum where the stories of those who endured suffering and loss are given as much weight as the objects that caused them, the Imperial War Museum is both thought-provoking and thrilling. Hanging from the rafters are great icons of the First and Second World Wars, like the Sopwith Camel and the Spitfire, while other items are more poignant, including the battered suitcase of a Jewish refugee. Founded in 1917, the IWM has been at its current location since the 1930s and today tells the story of Britain through the ages from Imperial power to the muddled conflicts of today.

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