London is a true museum capital

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Choosing from London’s top museums

In London, whatever your interest, there is likely a museum for it. From art and decor, natural history, scientific discovery, and so much more, the tough part is deciding which to visit.

I’ll never forget my first museum in London. A local friend suggested we spend the day exploring on foot. After seeing Big Ben and Westminster Abbey and strolling along the Thames, we meandered over to the British Museum—one of the most visited museums in the world—and a treasure trove of millions of pieces of art and artifacts from throughout human history.

Upon entry you are met by an impressive circular pavilion nearly the size of a track field with towering, stone, pillared walls and a ceiling made of glass. Instinctively, I looked around for where to pay and quickly learned—like so many museums in London—entrance is free.

In all directions in this pavilion—with a gift shop in the center—are open passageways that lead to rooms featuring items from different eras and locations around the globe. I stood looking from left to right, wondering where to start.

Lucky for me, my friend took me by the hand and led me to his favorite first stop.

There, on the far end of the pavilion, just beyond an open doorway sits the Rosetta Stone. It is not a replica. It is the authentic Rosetta Stone from 196 BC Egypt, and the archaeological find that allowed modern scientists to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. As a linguistics geek, this sure lit me up. Then, from there, we walked around the collections from ancient Egypt, to Greece, and the Middle East and beyond—a truly humbling experience.

If you are looking to fill your London itinerary with wow-moments, choose museums that align with your particular interests. To help make your decision easier, here is a brief rundown of select museums by theme.

Museums for the science-minded

At the Natural History Museum play Darwin for the day. See exhibits housing tens of millions of plant, animal, and earth samples and specimens telling the story of earth’s evolution. Another great option is the Science Museum, which provides an engaging and hands-on experience ideal for families to learn about scientific discoveries of such diverse fields from human biology and psychology, to space travel. Both of these museums offer free entry.

For a related museum, that is less well-known and smaller in size, consider the Freud Museum where you can walk into the very apartment where Sigmund Freud worked and lived with his family during the last year of his life. Here there is a charge for entry.

Art and design throughout the ages

If it is Western European art that gets you going, head straight to The National Gallery. This museum displays paintings from the most acclaimed artists spanning from the 1200s to 1900. Move from room to room, and see works by (among many others) Botticelli, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and the Impressionists. Alternatively, just on the other side of Hyde Park, the Wallace Collection, puts a spotlight on 18th century France. In an historic townhouse, it displays an exquisitely curated mix of design items such as French paintings, furniture, and sculpture from the era.

For a more anthropological experience, head to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A is a sprawling property that showcases items such as ceramics, ironwork, jewelry, sculpture, drawings, and photographs from around the world over the last five thousand years.

What’s hot now in art

If you are most interested in what is trending in the art world skip on over to the Saatchi Gallery (free entry). Renowned collector, Charles Saatchi, shows work from budding artists. What you see here is at the cutting edge of the art scene.

And of course, don’t miss the famous Tate Modern (free entry), a massive modern and contemporary art museum that features work of all mediums and scales.

Viewfinder Tip: Many museums in London offer free entry throughout opening hours but often temporary, featured exhibitions come at a charge.

Wartime and geopolitics

At London’s Imperial War Museum (free entry) learn about British history through the lens of its conflicts—specifically all clashes of British or Commonwealth forces since the start of World War I. One branch of the Imperial War Museum includes the Churchill War Rooms (buy tickets). Inside a command center of the British forces during WWII the exhibit focuses on the life of Winston Churchill.

Running with this theme, another popular defense-related exhibition is the Royal Air Force Museum (free entry). Here get up close to old bombers and other aircraft in historic hangars.

All about your destination

You made it all the way here, why not learn about your destination! London has quite a few museums that help you get to know it better. Top on that list is, of course, the Museum of London (free entry). From prehistoric times to today, learn about the rise and struggles of London. Another interesting stop is the London Transport Museum. From the road, to the Thames, to the underground, get to know the evolution of London’s transportation systems. You’ll walk away from these two museums feeling like you know your destination well. For the LT museum, you’ll need to buy tickets and booking online in advance you’ll get a discount.

What kind of museums do you like visit?

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Travel with Kate

Kate Thomas is the host and producer of the web-series Travel with Kate, a show that follows her around the world connecting with passionate locals. She is a cultural travel journalist finding out what's trending in popular destinations. And whether she’s leading you to the best local foodie finds, showing off exciting, lesser-known attractions, or revealing the scoop on local etiquette – she’s got your insider perspective. Kate has been featured as a travel expert on Afar.com, Huffpost Live, and AOL, and as an on-camera journalist for TripAdvisor.

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