It's fitting that London is blessed with the world largest, most comprehensive, and altogether finest city museum. Even though over a millennium's worth of exhibitions (the "Medieval Galleries" covering AD 410-1558) won't reopen until Autumn 2005, the other exhibitions more than make up for this lacuna. There's something here for every age group and level of knowledge, from the delightfully ornate Lord Mayor's Coach to disturbing wax models depicting diseases rampant in 19th-century London's vast underclass.
For all this breadth, however, you can get a reasonable sense of London's past, from pre-history to 1914, when the museum's collections terminate, in a couple of hours, either with the recorded tour (for which there is a charge) or by taking advantage of the extensive labeling that accompanies each item on display. Indeed, more than any individual exhibition, this straightforwardness is probably the museum's best attribute since London's history has been extremely complex. It commendably covers the experiences not only of the nobility and merchant class, but also examines the plight of women, the poor, and immigrants, who usually get short shrift in this kind of museum elsewhere.
Unusual for a civic museum, the first gallery "London Before London" deals with pre-history, providing a wealth of information on the early inhabitants of the Thames Valley in neon-lit display cases that wouldn't be out of a place in a modern art museum! Personally, I prefer the Roman Gallery, which harks back to the city's foundation as Londinium and contains a pair of very impressive reconstructed rooms featuring actual Roman mosaics. I enjoyed the recordings featuring spoken Latin and the cookbook of foods consumed by Roman patricians – including milk-fed snails and stuffed dormice! By contrast, the Tudor and Early Stuart section is little more than some ostentatious furnishings accompanied by a careworn display on the Great Fire of 1666.
This seminal event in London's history is your cue to walk to the airy downstairs galleries. "Late Stuart London" covers the rebuilding of the city, largely under the auspices of Sir Christopher Wren, best known for designing St. Paul's Cathedral. "Eighteenth Century London" examines the development of both bourgeois and plebeian culture in the reborn city – as well as displaying a cell from the notorious Newgate Prison. The museum's largest and most interesting exhibition covers London's rise as the world's preeminent economic and cultural center between 1789 and 1914. If you're pressed for time, you should come directly here, as it goes further in explaining how London came to be the city it is today than any other exhibition.
The museum's exhibitions compose an essential introduction to London. It also plays host to quite a few events (many geared to families and most free) every day, many of which offer the opportunity to add an interactive element to your visit. Inquire at the Information Desk when you enter, where you can also pick up a free museum map and find out about temporary exhibitions (for which there is often an admission charge.)