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Free London Museums for Kids

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A vibrant city with an extensive list of attractions and activities that appeal to children and adults of all ages, London can also be very expensive to visit. Fortunately, you can save money on your London family vacation by taking advantage of several world-class museums that offer free admission to the public as well as kid-friendly programming. Here are a few must-see free London museums for kids.

Free London Museums for Kids

The British Museum

The British Museum

The British Museum in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of Central London, a museum of human history and culture, first opened to the public in 1759. The museum is among the world's oldest and most prestigious with an incredible collection of priceless artifacts. My family visited on a rainy Saturday morning which, in hindsight, might not have been wise as it seemed half of London had the same idea. Fortunately, the museum is large enough that crowds are only noticeable around the most popular exhibits even when it is very busy.

Completing the Ancient Egypt family trail at The British Museum

Completing the Ancient Egypt family trail at The British Museum

The first stop at the British Museum should be the Families Desk in the Great Court where staff will answer questions, provide advice and lend out various activities that make learning fun for children. Visitors can pick up free themed age-specific family trails to follow (we enjoyed the Egyptian Trail). You can borrow activity backpacks or art materials. A children's multimedia guide is available to rent for a small fee. Children are also encouraged to examine objects from the museum's collections at Hands On Desks. The museum offers free digital workshops for kids every weekend and kids under 12 even eat free all day in the Gallery Café when accompanied by an adult.

The British Museum - Rosetta Stone Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Elgin Marbles

Precious Artifacts – the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian Hieroglyphs and the Elgin Marbles

This museum has an extensive collection of some 8 million artifacts, many of which are the subject of controversy due to how they were obtained during the height of the British Empire. Perhaps the most controversial is the Elgin Marbles, which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens and which the Greeks insist should be returned. This was my 10-year-old Greek mythology expert's favorite part of the museum. Our crew was also impressed with the ancient Egypt collection, especially the animal mummies. Of course, you must make your way through the crowds surrounding the famous Rosetta Stone for a peek at this important piece of history. Dating back to 196 B.C. and discovered in 1799 A.D., the Rosetta Stone contains a message about the ruling Pharoah in three languages and was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics, and therefore much of ancient Egyptian history and culture.

It would take hours, if not days, to see everything in the British Museum so it's best to select a couple of exhibit areas to visit or a specific trail to follow rather than trying to tackle it all. Since admission is free, parents need not worry that they aren't getting their money's worth with an abbreviated visit.

View of the National Gallery in London from Trafalgar Square

View of the National Gallery in London from Trafalgar Square

National Gallery

The National Gallery, an art museum located on Trafalgar Square, houses a collection of Western European paintings from the 13th to the 19th century. The extensive family programming at this gallery offers much to encourage young minds to appreciate and learn about art. Choose from a selection of audio tours and printed trails (including Katie's National Gallery Adventure which was created by the author of the popular children's book series). Your family can also partake in story-telling for young children, drawing and studio workshops, and free Family Walks during the summer. Photography is not allowed in the gallery so children who want a souvenir of a favorite painting will enjoy choosing a postcard in the gift shop.

Our brood opted to take a private Family Program tour with Context Travel that introduces children to art and culture. The theme of our two-hour walk was A World of Stories and our docent led us on an interesting and informative tour discussing the stories told through many of the most famous works of art in the museum. Paintings by Degas, Monet and Seurat were among our favorites. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey was probably the painting that had the biggest impact on my moral 10 year-old who was adamant that it was simply wrong for Lady Jane to have been beheaded.

National Portrait Gallery London

The National Portrait Gallery in London

National Portrait Gallery

Founded in 1856 as a gallery of portraits of historically important or famous British men and women, the National Portrait Gallery is also located on Trafalgar Square. The gallery's collection includes more than 11,000 portraits, however, only about 1,400 are on display at any given time. This may result in disappointment if visitors were hoping to see a particular work. We missed the Daniel Radcliffe portrait on one visit to the gallery and on our recent visit the portrait of Duchess Kate had been removed the day prior to our visit. Fortunately, there were others that the kids were pleased to see including J.K. Rowling, various royals, and actors Dame Maggie Smith and Helena Bonham Carter.

The family program includes art workshops, storytelling, and free trails. Other these activities are designed for kids ages 3+, older kids who will recognize some of the famous Brits whose portraits hang on the gallery walls are more likely to enjoy a visit. For this reason, the Contemporary collection (which features pop stars, artists and actors) is most popular with families. Kids also seem to enjoy the Tudors and the contemporary Royals. Photography is not allowed in the National Portrait Gallery but the gift shops sells post cards featuring many of the most popular portraits. For a fee, you can embark on an interactive themed audio tour in English, for children aged 7-11.

These three free London museums for kids do an exemplary job of making it fun for families to learn about history, art and culture without blowing the budget.

Do you have a favorite museum in London? Let us know in the comments below!

All photos by Lisa Goodmurphy.

About Lisa Goodmurphy, The Spunky Travel Mama

Lisa Goodmurphy is a lawyer turned family travel writer and a mom of two daughters. She grew up in small town Northern Ontario and now resides near Toronto, Canada. Badly bitten by the travel bug years ago, she considers herself fortunate that her family is equally enthusiastic about her mission to explore the world—one trip at a time. Lisa shares her travel adventures on the blog that she founded in 2011 and now contributes to many online media publications as well. You can read about her family’s travels on her blog, Gone with the Family, on Google+ or on Twitter as @GoneWithFamily.

Comments

  1. Great suggestions. Another great place to visit is the British Library just down Euston Rd. from the St Pancras/Kings Cross rail station. We saw Paul McCartney’s Yesterday written on the back of a kid’s birthday card, a page of the original stamps from the Stamp Act that set off the American Revolution, had written compositions by Mozart and Beethoven, and the original Magna Carta. The museum portion of the Library is very well laid out and not as crowded as some of the more well known museums.

    • Thank you for the suggestion, Tom. I have not yet visited the British Library despite having been to London three times. Every visit I run out of time and don’t manage to see everything on my list – which is always a good excuse for a return trip. Next time the British Library will be at the top of my to do list for London!

  2. So much to do, so little time on our last visit in London! We spent wonderful, but too few, hours at the British Museum, and it only increased my resolve to return to London as soon as we can! Thanks for noting the other good spots to visit. So love the word ‘free’ in an expensive city like London!

  3. There is SO much to do in London (and I say that as a Londoner). The Natural History museum (with its dinosaur exhibit) is a must do (and free as well), although my kids would probably vote the Science Museum over that, which has masses of interactive things to do. Also, you must walk along Waterloo Bridge to take in the brilliant view there and up along the South Bank towards Westminster. We have lots of London suggestions on our blog (and also stayed in a brilliant London hotel recently, which we wrote about for Britmums), but these are some I would always recommend (plus some which aren’t free such as the Tower of London…)

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