3 Free Museums You Can’t Leave London Without Visiting

OK, at least check out one.

February 27, 2019

Whether you count yourself as a “museum person” or not, I’d bet that you aspire to visit more museums. Among my friends, one of the most common New Year’s resolutions is to “be more cultural.” Museums, theater, and historic walking tours are all outstanding options in a place like London, the most enticing being the epic—and free!—museums.

Three of my favorite museums in London allow you to experience culture without draining the bank. Classy. Check them out below:

1. The Tate Modern

The Tate Modern is always my first recommendation to visitors, partially because of its location along the south bank of the River Thames; a stroll along the south bank path takes you from the famed Borough Market, past Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, and straight to the entrance doors of the Tate Modern.

It’s a museum of modern contemporary art, so their exhibitions showcase international art like paintings and multimedia, multisensory experiences. They have temporary exhibitions—like an in-depth exploration into the life and work of Modigliani and an exploration of the eras of Picasso—that sometimes have an entry fee, but even those are inexpensive (usually £5) and worth every cent. While you’re there, check out their open viewing terrace on the top floor for 360-degree views of the London skyline. And since you just saved on your afternoon activity…why not enjoy that view with a cocktail in hand?

2. The National Portrait Gallery

Cross the Millennium Bridge, a steel suspension pedestrian bridge, to make your way over the River Thames and saunter a bit west to the National Portrait Gallery. Next to Trafalgar Square, this museum is a national treasure for its prestigious collection of portraits of everyone from the Tudors to Winston Churchill to Kate Moss. Reading all of the captions on the little placards associated with each portrait offers a deluge of historic and cultural information—better than any coffee table book you could buy. I also think of this museum as one of London’s more peaceful places; it's perfect for a couple hours of quiet introspection.

Once you’re ready to move on with your day from the National Portrait Gallery, you’re in for a treat: The museum is located in the epicenter of London’s best food area (in my opinion), with Soho just northwest and Covent Garden to the north and east. If a glass of wine feels right, head down the street to Terroirs or Gordon’s Wine Bar. If a proper meal is calling you, then check out Petersham Nurseries, Lao Café, The Palomar, Hoppers, Bone Daddies, or Dishoom (an Indian restaurant that has a zealous following in the city and has converted many people who thought they didn’t like Indian food).

3. The Victoria & Albert Museum

My final museum recommendation is in a building so gorgeous that you feel you ought to be charged admission for simply being in such a stunning space. Alas, the Victoria & Albert Museum is free and open to anyone keen for a dose of inspiration. It’s the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, and boasts a permanent collection of over 2.27 million objects and temporary exhibitions (like the one I saw last year of Frida Kahlo’s clothing and personal possessions from her home, Casa Azul). It’s not as mammoth as New York’s Metropolitan Museum, so it doesn’t leave you feeling exhausted, but don’t leave before grabbing a cuppa tea at their outdoor courtyard, which is expansive and charming in its own right. The V&A (as it’s often referred to for short), is a five-minute walk from Hyde Park, one of London’s largest and most lovely parks.

The art director and designer George Lois observed that “museums are custodians of epiphanies.” The epiphanies at these gorgeous institutions are recurrent and will inspire you to return again and again.

What's your favorite museum in London? Tell us in the comments below!
Listen Now

Join The Sandwich Universe co-hosts (and longtime BFFs) Molly Baz and Declan Bond as they dive deep into beloved, iconic sandwiches.

Listen Now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Deb Howe Allen
    Deb Howe Allen
  • judith@hudsonvalleycooking
  • Katie Quinn
    Katie Quinn
Katie Quinn is the author of "Cheese, Wine, and Bread: Discovering the Magic of Fermentation in England, Italy, and France" and "Avocados." She co-hosts the podcast Either Side Eaters and creates weekly food and travel videos for her YouTube channel, QKatie.


Deb H. February 27, 2020
The London Transport Museum, in Covent Garden. Fascinating technology, social history, design, you name it. And the gift shop is terrific, too!
Katie Q. February 28, 2020
Fantastic recommendation!! Thanks for adding it to the page as a resource for others :)
I spent time in London Museums last spring and learned that many are free but charge high prices for special exhibitions. I guess they make choices.