Given its status as one of the most expensive cities in the world to live, London offers a surprising number of world-class free admission museums.
These are five of the best.
#5 The Wallace Collection
Stepping through the entryway of the Hertford House, which houses The Wallace Collection, feels as if you have stumbled uninvited into the imposing private home of an exceptionally wealthy British family.
The 25 galleries are a feast for art-lovers. The rooms are crammed with wall-to-wall paintings, and are anchored by elaborate chandeliers.
The first four Marquesses of Hertford and the son of the fourth Marquess, Sir Richard Wallace, collected the pieces on display in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Sir Richard’s widow bequeathed the collection to Britain in 1897.
The collection includes ceramics, such as 18th Century French Sèvres porcelain and pieces from the Italian Renaissance era.
Many of the paintings on display are portraits. “A Boy with a Falcon and Leash” (1665) by Joan van Noordt (1620-1676) of The Netherlands depicts a playful, happy scene of a boy in regal dress holding a small falcon in one hand.
The museum notes that such depictions became common after hunting rights were expanded by the Dutch to the wealthy middle class, who then were eager to portray themselves in this newly expanded pursuit. Therefore, this boy’s extravagant clothing and his joyful participation in such sport was a celebration of his right to do so.
“The Lady with a Fan” (1640) by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) of Spain depicts a somber-faced woman in a black lace mantilla veil. Her low-cut dress contrasts with religious accessories such as the rosary she prominently clutches in one hand.
Velazquez was best known for his portraits of Spanish royalty and members of the court of King Philip IV (such as “Las Meninas”), according to the Met Museum. Despite his royal connections, the identity of the woman in the painting remains a mystery. The Independent reported that she may be one of many Spanish courtesans he painted, but at least one art historian believes she was a French aristocrat. Still other experts believe the painting may be of his wife or daughter.
“The Persian Sibyl” (1620s) by Domenico Zampieri or Domenichino (1581-1641) of Italy is striking. Depictions of “Sibyls” in art often depicted beautiful women in exotic dress – in this case, the woman is wearing an ornate gold headdress.
The museum’s arms and armour rooms make up its most distinctive collection. The section is composed of about 2,500 objects, making it the largest part of the collection. The elegant equestrian armor below is of Gothic style from Germany, circa 1480.
The display also includes weapons that are Indian, Persian, and Turkish, from between the 15th and 19th Century. Some of the European pieces are even older, including a sword dating to the 10th Century.
I won’t soon forget room after room of colorful walls filled with art. As you walk from room to room, make sure to take note of the fine 18th Century French furniture, sculptures, and exquisite gold boxes.
Before bidding goodbye to the luxurious residence, appreciate the red-carpeted grand staircase that greets guests. The striking iron balustrade railing is from the former Royal Bank building in Paris, dating to about 1719-1720. The railing depicts images of wealth such as horns of plenty stuffed with fruit and money.
Sir Richard Wallace bought the balustrade in 1871, and installed it at Hertford House three years later. Lady Wallace’s will noted that if the collection was moved the balustrade would have to be moved along with it!
#4 Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum (or “V&A”) bills itself as the world’s leading museum of art and design.
The collection feels a bit like a random hodge-podge of decorative art. However, it is great fun to explore. It is a place where you can explore everything from fashion and jewelry to ancient Asian and Middle Eastern art.
While many museums host occasional exhibits on specific fashion designers, the V&A museum boasts the largest dress collection in the world. The dresses cover five centuries, mainly from Europe.
The dress below is known as a mantua consisting of a bodice and a train, and was made in England in in roughly 1755-60. As impressive as it is, its creator is unknown.
This massive style of dress with a very wide petticoat was typically worn at court. This particular dress is ivory silk with a rich gilt thread brocade of flowers and leaves. According to the museum, the dress was found by a woman in her grandfather’s attic in Cambridge in 1989, but it was not reconstructed for display until 2007.
The dresses below from 1960-1970 made me think of The Beatles.
Additionally, I marveled at the display of jewelry and diamonds. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed in that section, which was patrolled by employees quite strictly.
My husband greatly enjoyed the Middle Eastern collection, including the display of The Ardabil Carpet of Iran — which the museum boasts is the world’s oldest known carpets (roughly AD 1539-1540) and one of the largest.
The carpet is only periodically illuminated for roughly ten minutes at a time to preserve its rich colors, so my husband and I waited eagerly to see it. The dyes that create the stunning colors are allegedly from natural sources such as a pomegranate rind. The details of swirling leaves and flowers are from the style of the Safavid dynasty. It is named for the city of Ardabil in northwest Iran.
In search of a break from the seemingly endless museum galleries, we enjoyed tea in the museum courtyard, a stunning space in itself anchored by a lovely reflecting pool. The pigeons kept us company while we took a break from our busy sightseeing schedule.
#3 National Portrait Gallery
I stumbled into the National Portrait Gallery accidentally, thinking it was the nearby National Gallery.
I’m so glad I made the mistake, because the portrait gallery offers many lessons on British history. The portraits of significant people are accompanied by summaries of their lives, which provides an excellent quick history lesson.
My favorite section was the Early Tudors area, highlighting colorful personas such as King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon.
Of course, Henry’s decision to to divorce caused a break with the Roman Catholic Church and led to Protestant England with Henry as the head of the Church of England.
The captivating oil painting below of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) is eye-catching, but was painted by an unknown English artist around 1600. It is known as “The Coronation Portrait,” as it depicts Elizabeth in the gold gown she wore to her coronation in 1559.
She also wears a crown, and the orb and sceptre that are symbolic of her power. The painting is believed to be a commemorative of the event copied from a lost miniature portrait at the time of the coronation. According to the museum commentary, the painting style is not considered sophisticated even though the composition is powerful.
Not every figure depicted was a royal. Kitty Fisher was a famous courtesan. The painting below was completed by Nathaniel Hone in 1765. The museum described that Fisher marketed her celebrity image at the time through paintings. She rose from poverty to charm London at the time. She was essentially famous for being famous (apparently not just a modern phenomenon).
While her face and appearance may seem to be the focal point, don’t overlook the playful kitten at her side fishing for goldfish.
#2 The National Gallery
A seemingly never-ending maze of rooms at The National Gallery are overflowing with the world’s greatest artists, including van Gogh, Renoir and da Vinci.
Sometimes watching people interact and respond to art is half the entertainment value of visiting a great world museum.
Rather than depicting elites, the painting showed people living in a working-class industrial suburb north of Paris enjoying some rest next to the Seine River.
The pointillism, or art crafted with tiny dots, that Seurat later used is seen somewhat in the work. The Gallery notes that the portrayal of the subjects in profile could show the influence of Egyptian art.
A crowd gathered in front of the riveting painting of a firing squad taking aim “The Execution of Maximilian” by Edouard Manet. The painting shows Emperor of Mexico Maximilian being executed alongside two generals in 1867. The painting is even more captivating and somewhat mysterious due to its missing pieces that cut out Maximilian himself, except for his arm.
Maximilian of Austria was regarded as a puppet and was put in place by Napoleon III of France. According to the MOMA, Manet was opposed to Napoleon, and he produced a series of paintings of the scene between 1867 and 1869. Because the art was controversial, it was not displayed in Paris at the time.
I really was struck by the 1785 painting “Mr. and Mrs. William Hallett (The Morning Walk” by Thomas Gainsborough — perhaps because I could never imagine walking a dog so splendidly overdressed myself. I was sad to see the painting crop up in the news a short time later after a man attacked it with a sharp object, but relieved to hear it is apparently fine.
Despite the serious collection the museum very much felt like a community gathering place, as we caught a glimpse of children taking an art lesson in a gallery.
The children were painting a huge depiction of a handsome rearing horse titled “Whistlejacket,” a racehorse painted by George Stubbs around 1762. Stubbs was known for his depictions of sport and horses.
We also came across a man painting on an easel in a gallery. The museum has a “copyist program” that allows artists in training to copy artwork on display. The museum notes that more than 8,000 permits have been issued to copy paintings on display in the gallery. Applicants must undergo a background check to obtain a permit in order to replicate works with paint or other oil and liquid media.
The museum includes several great works by French impressionist landscape painter Claude Monet, including “The Water-Lily Pond” (1899). Monet painted 17 works offering the same view of his water garden and Japanese style bridge in Giverny, where he lived. Monet is said to have painted around 250 water lily-themed oil paintings inspired by his peaceful home.
I was captivated by the stately woman depicted in the portrait below titled “Mrs. Siddons,” by Thomas Gainsborough (1785). The woman depicted is British actress Sarah Siddons, and she was renowned as a tragic stage actress.
#1 British Museum
The British Museum is a bit of a misnomer for a museum filled with antiquities from great civilizations outside of Britain.
The museum houses sculptures from the Parthenon, and acknowledges on its website that there has been discussion over whether the pieces should be housed there and acknowledges that the Greek government has requested their return since the early 1980s. (As a side note, I have visited the amazing Acropolis Museum in Athens and it would offer a beautiful setting for these pieces if they were ever returned.)
The British Museum mummy collection includes more than 120 human mummies and 300 animal mummies (such as a crocodile, cats and dogs). More than 80 mummies are from Egypt and 40 are from Sudan.
Interestingly, the museum notes that it acquired the first genuine mummies in 1756 – the mummies the museum obtained before then were discovered to be fakes. The museum said no mummy has been unwrapped there since the 1790s.
Each of these museums has something different to offer for free — whether it’s a lesson about history, culture, art, fashion, decorating and beyond. Enjoy!
- “Top 20 Free Things to Do in London,” Lonely Planet
- “Free Museums in London,” Time Out London
- “The Ten Best Museums in London (And They’re Free),” Forbes