London Museums

London places priority on their museums, which are top-notch. There are all types and sizes, a majority of which are actually free.

Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum

Member Rating 1 out of 5 by captain kait on June 18, 2005

Madame Tussaud's of London is a bustling, continually popular tourist attraction. After the London Eye, it is probably the most visited non-historic site. The bizarre museum showcases a collection of celebrity replicas made from wax. It is located near Regent's Park and the Baker Street Tube stop. While in London, I took lessons at the Royal Academy of Music just down the street. Each time I walked past Madame Tussaud's, there would be a line out the door for tickets. (Once inside, there is still a 20- or 30-minute wait.) Sometimes the line would wrap around the building, hardly seeming to move. These people certainly aren't lured by the prices: a ticket can cost upwards of $40 US.

When I finally got around to visiting Madame Tussaud's (after winning free tickets), it was towards the end of my time in London. I was familiar with the city, and when I stepped inside, this place didn't appear to fit at all. There are garish decorations everywhere, mostly a grandiose entertainment-type theme. After the long wait for tickets, a golden elevator took me up to the actual exhibits, with some corny announcement along the lines of the rider being a star. Even once out of the elevator, the crowds were still a big problem. There are celebrity wax figures spread everywhere, but if you want to see one up close or take your picture with one, you'll have to wait your turn. Music plays and lights dance, intending to look like the glamorous Hollywood lifestyle. In reality, it just makes the wax figures seem that much more fake.

After you've seen most of the movie and music stars on display, there are also smaller, less-posed galleries of royalty and politicians. This was somewhat interesting, but the only part of the museum I really enjoyed was the torture chamber - well, maybe enjoyed is not the best word, but it was certainly interesting. This area showcases weapons or torture devices used in the past, displaying them in use with their victims. There are also changing "exhibits." I visited one about escaped convicts featuring plenty of strobe lights and staff members jumping out from dark corners. I had a hard time figuring out how this related to the rest of the museum.

All in all, Madame Tussaud's was, for me, not even worth the free ticket. For the price of a real one, you could collect some cardboard stand-ups and hang around still life celebrities 24/7. Thinking back on it, the artistry of recreating those faces and even the clothes so meticulously is quite impressive. However, in a museum setting, these galleries just became dull and were extremely overdone. Maybe kids are more entertained by this place, but in a city as fabulous as London, there are simply too many other wonderful things to see to waste your time here.

Madame Tussauds
Marylebone Road
London, England, NW1 5LR
44 (870) 999 0046

Victoria & Albert Museum

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by captain kait on June 18, 2005

At first, it is hard to put your finger on the theme of the Victoria and Albert. The British Museum has artifacts, the National Gallery has paintings, and the V&A has lots of... stuff. At times it seems to be 20 different museums all housed in the same building, and indeed, I visited on multiple occasions and seemed to experience it differently each time. Officially, it is a museum of "decorative arts," but a lot seems to fall under that category. Just look at some of the collections - Fashion and Jewellry, Asia, Ceramics, Glass, Sculpture, Architecture, Furniture, Paintings... it just goes on and on. There is an entire gallery dedicated to wrought iron.

With so many areas to cover, it's hard to know where to start. There are certainly some that are more popular and always safe bets. For example, the plaster cast galleries are crammed with full-size replicas of famous artwork, including Michelangelo's David, which is probably enough for a museum of its own. The fashion galleries show you what the people of the past really looked like. Wild and wacky can be found alongside the typical in furniture. Just keep exploring. As you venture into the higher levels, you'll meet fewer and fewer people. In the ceramics gallery, I found myself looking at some of the oldest man-made objects in existence without anyone in sight. Also, the V&A is built around central enclosed gardens, which are very peaceful. Even in this popular museum, there are places to get away.

My favorite part of the V&A, though, has to be the British Galleries. These house furniture, linens, table settings, textiles, and much more from Britain's past, all arranged in chronological order. This can provide an overview of the "decorative art" history or become a place for lengthy exploration. There are reading and computer research lounges spaced throughout, as well as several fully furnished historical rooms rebuilt inside the museum. Many of the exhibits allow you to discover as much or as little as you like, from lengthy explanation books to short documentary films. And, best of all, the curators have made these galleries kid-friendly. There are periodic stops with designated areas for hands-on exploration, which could include a small craft project or feeling the weight of a sword. My favorite activity (I won't lie, I enjoyed them) was trying on a corset and hoop skirt. Though there are interesting items to be found throughout the V&A, the British Galleries simply provide a wonderful whole-package museum experience that transports you into a different world.

As you leave the V&A, be sure to take a look around the outside of the building, where you can see bomb damage from the Blitz. Fortunately for all, the museum survived and houses treasures for every age and interest.

Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road
London, England, SW7 2RL
+44 (20) 7942 2000

Sir John Soane's Museum

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by captain kait on June 19, 2005

When I first stepped inside the foyer of Sir John Soane's Museum, I had no idea what to expect. My brother had located it in our guidebook, suggesting an outing to explore this somewhat less-known museum. From the outside, this gallery simply looks like another nice but plain townhouse in a nice neighborhood. From my first step into the magnificently decorated foyer, though, I was shocked and thrilled by all I found there, perhaps simply because I had not been expecting much.

First off, the house is furnished and decorated in a beautiful traditional style and lit naturally through large windows and skylights. Narrow passageways and crowded rooms form a maze of wonderful hallways and rooms in what looks from the outside to be a tiny home. Soane, an architect, was a collector, and this townhouse takes the unique approach of simply filling the walls and rooms with his treasures. One of the walls even switches to reveal more art. As I learned, this relatively small museum houses plenty of surprises. The coexistence of a large Egyptian sarcophagus and a cork model of the Parthenon exemplify the quirkiness of this collection. There are just a few items that are especially noteworthy (such as Hogart's "Rake's Progress"), but the clutter and casualness of the place produce a wonderful combination. If you can, get one of the knowledgeable workers to tell you about the house and the pieces - there are sometimes guided tours - because even the most ordinary appearances become extraordinary in this magical museum.

Sir John Soane's Museum
13 Lincoln's Inn Fields
London, England, WC2A 3BP
+44 20 7405 2107

Tate Britain

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by captain kait on June 19, 2005

The most famous Tate gallery is the Tate Modern, but the collection is actually made of four different galleries, two of which are in London. Unlike most major sites in London, the Tate Britain is on the south side of the Thames. It is a bit of a walk from the nearest Tube stop (Pimlico), but there are also busses that stop just outside the museum. The galleries house, as you'd expect, all art from British artists.

Although the Tate Britian is not one of the most well-known or popular art galleries in London, its collection was probably my personal favorite. The first time I visited, it took me a while to find an entrance (I later found out that the front of the building faces the Thames, while most forms of public transportation leave you at the back), and I didn't know where I was supposed to start my visit. In this museum, though, that wasn't a problem. Each gallery or group of galleries is self-contained, yet transitions between the sections are fluid. In other words, it's easy to wander around and not feel lost but see plenty of what the museum has to offer.

What the collection does house are large numbers of works from British artists, big and small. Unlike galleries, which feature one or two pieces from major artists, here you can see multiple works and start to get a feel for their styles. After seeing their works here, I was able to identify Turners, Joseph Wrights, and others when I saw them in other galleries. My personal favorites were some of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood works, which use vibrant colors and tell stories of the British and world history. I especially fell in love with J.E. Millais, whose statue stands outside the museum. There is also plenty of modern art in a setting that isn't as intimidating as the Tate Modern. The great thing about the Tate Modern is that it is specialized enough not to be overwhelming, but also diverse enough not to be boring.

Tate Britain
London, England, SW1P 4RG
+44 20 7887 8000

The National Portrait Gallery

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by captain kait on June 19, 2005

The most interesting thing about the National Portrait Gallery is that it shows you the faces of hundreds of writers, artists, and nobility you've heard about but have never seen. Tucked just around the corner from the National Gallery, and an extension of it, this museum houses exclusively portraits. This may sound boring, but a trip to the NPG can be quick and combines both history and art. Often there are lengthy explanations of an individual's accomplishments and how they relate to others whose portraits are on display.

As you come into the NPG, you are taken up an extra-long escalator that spits you out at the earliest portraits of the nobility. You move through room after room of regal and sober expressions in ornate clothing. It's amazing how much of a progression you can see on the walls simply in fashion. For me, I found it helped me connect the royal line, which has always been confusing. The piece descriptions explain whose son this was or who his children became. The oldest paintings are fragile, so the light is low, but this only adds to the feeling of mystery.

Down in the lower galleries, you can find anything, from pop-art pictures of movie stars to abstract self-portraits. I was fascinated to see what the authors I've read and heard so much about looked like in real life. Also, I realized just how much a part of art portraiture really is. This smaller museum provides an enjoyable and informative afternoon visit, if nothing else.

And did I mention it’s free?

National Portrait Gallery
St. Martin's Place
London, England, WC2H OHE
44 20 7306 0055

Tate Modern

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by captain kait on July 15, 2005

Just across the Millennium Bridge from St. Paul's Cathedral, on the banks of the Thames, the Tate Modern is a perfect example of the proximity of old and new that is so characteristic of London. The museum is housed in an old warehouse that is not much to look at from the outside, but has been renovated inside into a space fit for a well-rounded collection of the world's best modern art. To tell the truth, I sometimes find it challenging to enjoy modern art, and I expected to be somewhat bored when I first visited the Tate. This turned out to be far from the case.

You enter on the lowest level, where you can walk into a huge, open courtyard area that houses interesting rotating exhibits. For example, when I visited, a mammoth several-storied red funnel provided a whimsical greeting. Through a few visits, I found that it seemed best to start out by taking the escalators all the way up to the top floors and work my way down. The galleries are organized by subject matter, theme, or medium (the nudes are all grouped together and easy to avoid with kids), but are also connected, which makes it possible to choose a certain mood or simply wander from room to room. Each floor has sitting areas, some of which incorporate reading and research. There are a couple gorgeous reading rooms overlooking the Thames, as well as a restaurant. The museum offers a varied but quality collection that is stimulating without becoming overwhelming. I would recommend the Tate even to those who typically dislike modern art. Admission is free, so there's not much to lose.

Tate Modern
Sumner Street
London, SE1 9TG
+44 20 7887 8000

HMS Belfast

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by captain kait on August 3, 2005

While I was walking on a pathway floating on the river, I realized that this was no ordinary museum. Moored in the Thames, it can easily be overlooked for bigger, grander landmarks like St. Paul's and Tower Bridge. When you come up close, however, this floating hunk of metal is quite impressive. The HMS Belfast is a battle cruiser from the Royal Navy that served in WWII and is now permanently open to the public to glimpse a bit of a sailor's life. I expected to see normal things - the deck, the weapons, etc. To my surprise and pleasure, we were allowed to tour what seemed to be a majority of the ship, seven or eight numbered areas in all, from the sleeping areas and kitchen to the navigation rooms, the boilers in the ship's bowels, and the captain's seat itself. Instead of just reading about the weapons, I hopped into one of the gun turrets and swung around the barrel, sighting some hefty targets. One interesting room is set up as a museum-within-a-museum, following the ship's service history.

We got to tour the ship ourselves, winding and crawling through the narrow passages. (There are also many many sets of steep, closed-in staircases, and once you head in one direction, it's not easy to turn around. The lower areas aren't ideal for those with mobility problems or space issues, but the upper areas also offer interesting features.) The day we visited, a weekday in mid-spring, there were few other visitors, which meant we were able to explore most of the ship by ourselves. In certain areas, we came across life-sized figures posed mid-action in their duties, but these seemed to detract from the adventure of prowling through seemingly endless tunnels and tiny passageways alone. It was somewhat confusing to try and follow the set-up progression of areas, and without signs it would be easy to get lost below decks. I was amazed, however, at the opportunity to see all this up close and learn through that contact. And of course, at the end of our trip, I stood at the bow of the ship, threw my arms out, and re-created that famous scene from Titanic. The buildings along the Thames may date the ship back half a century, but while on the HMS Belfast, it's easy to lose track of time. London is famous for it's (older) history, but this fun museum would be a great stop for families or any war history buff.

HMS Belfast
Morgan's Lane
London, England, SE1 2JH
+44 20 7940 6300

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