Written by Karen Martin
Gone are the days of stuffy museums and ‘Do not touch’ signs. London’s best museums are popular because of their emphasis on fun, with interactive, hands-on exhibits, and family-friendly trails and activities.
For some of London’s most revered institutions, head to the museums of Exhibition Road (South Kensington underground station), where you’ll find the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, and the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum all in close proximity.
First off we go to the Science Museum, which is the one I’m most excited about, and by the shrieks we can hear when we step inside Im not the only one. The family-friendly galleries range from space exploration to medical science, inventions to genetics, and its one of the most hands-on museums we visited. As you explore the museum you’ll come across actors playing characters from history. The 19th-century electrical pioneer Michael Faraday had us engrossed in his cutting-edge electrical experiments, but you might also bump into physicist Albert Einstein, Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, or pioneering aviator Amy Johnson.
Next door is the Natural History Museum, and anyone who went there in their own childhood will remember ‘Dippy’, the affectionately named Diplodocus replica skeleton in the lobby, and he’s still as popular with visitors today as he was when he was revealed to the public over 100 years ago. Fast forward a century and you can now come face to face with a roaring, moving adult T-Rex, as well as several other animatronic dinosaur models. The sight of every imaginable stuffed animal – current, endangered, and extinct – had lots of little noses pressed to the glass in wonder, and the animal, plant, and geological treasures in the hands-on Investigate science centre also had children captivated.
Just opposite the Natural History Museum is the V&A, the iconic art and design museum that is a favourite of mine purely for its fashion galleries and exhibitions. But fashion is only one part of its expansive collection, with dedicated sections for books, dance, furniture, architecture, prints, Islamic and Middle Eastern collections, and more. And that’s the beauty of it – you can just pick the area that interests you and explore. Family-friendly events and workshops make the visit all the more fun, and during the summer holidays kids can pick up the activity and materials of the day and then go around the museum to get inspiration before drawing or making their idea.
From southwest London to southeast, the museums that make up the Royal Museums Greenwich can be explored in a day. Climb aboard Cutty Sark to walk the decks and venture underneath the last surviving tea clipper that sailed the world over a century ago. Continuing the maritime theme, the National Maritime Museum is a short walk away, where Yinka Shonibare MBE’s huge sculpture Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle stands outside. We decide to focus on the Royal Observatory, where time began.
Up the hill through beautiful Greenwich Park, we reach the Royal Observatory. From here it feels like we’re out of the city, although the familiar skyline can still be seen nearby from the vantage points. In the Meridian Courtyard you can stand across the Greenwich Meridian Line, a foot either side on the eastern and western hemispheres. If you happen to be there just before 1pm, look out for the Time Ball rising up its mast and dropping at exactly 1pm – you can literally set your watch by it! Inside the Planetarium a Royal Observatory astronomer took us on an amazing tour of the night sky. Throughout August the museum is exploring all things alien, with an exhibition and planetarium show that question whether we are alone in the universe.
A walk along the south bank of the Thames reveals several museums, which we discover whilst wandering between Waterloo and London Bridge stations. Just west of London Bridge you can experience Tudor life aboard Golden Hinde II, a full-sized reconstruction of Sir Francis Drake’s Tudor galleon, with costumed guides and events such as Tudor fun days and battle workshops during the school holidays. Between London Bridge and Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast offers an insight into life on the warship during the Second World War, with rooms made up like they’re still in use.
Further along, east of Tower Bridge along Shad Thames, is the Design Museum, celebrating the world’s best designs. Budding designers aged 5 to 11 can try their hand at the Design and Make workshops, and older children might enjoy the thought-provoking ‘United Micro Kingdoms’ exhibition, which imagines a fictional future England devolved into four self-contained counties, each free to experiment with governance, economy, and lifestyle.
If you are heading to Covent Garden, then the London Transport Museum is worth a quick visit. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, and the museum has a section on how the London Underground was built, plus buses, taxis, and trains from past and present.
All things money related can be found at the Bank of England Museum, at the aptly named Bank station. Here you can lift a genuine gold bar, and ‘The Pound in Your Pocket’ exhibition tackles the topic of inflation through a series of interactive exhibits. The centrepiece of the exhibition involves taking the controls of a balloon and chartering it on a stable course, to simulate the role of the Bank in keeping inflation steady.
There are hundreds more family-friendly museums in the capital, from special interest to the lesser known and the obscure. And of course there are the museums that we will continue to visit again and again, whether it’s for their ever-changing temporary exhibitions or for our favourite permanent collections that we will never tire of.
Free events on the South Bank
You don’t need to dart around London to find things to do. Exit Waterloo station on foot and within minutes you’ll be on the bustling South Bank and in the midst of living statues, live music performances, temporary exhibitions, art installations, and more. The Southbank Centre is famed for its great festivals, many of them free. Until Sunday September 8, the Southbank Centre is celebrating 75 years of The Beano comic by creating Beanotown – a Beano neighbourhood featuring a Beano museum and social club. Events include drawing workshops led by The Beano illustrators and sessions revealing the history of Dennis the Menace’s pranks, complete with demonstrations. Also until September 8, Danish artist Jeppe Heins Appearing Rooms Fountain returns after a break last year due to drought. Walls of water rise and fall randomly to create a series of constantly changing ‘rooms’. See if you can run in and out without getting splashed!
They may not be the latest thing on the London scene, but I think pop-ups are more than a fad. I like their immediacy and transitory nature, plus I’m a big fan of supporting start-ups and local independent businesses. Pop-ups can range from restaurants, bars, and shops to creative workshops and even outdoor film screenings, and I usually hear about them via social media sites.
Picture-perfect charm of London villages
I grew up in the suburbs, so I like my city with a neighbourhood vibe and an air of arty bohemia – if it’s got a farmers’ market, an artisan bakery, an independent coffee shop, and an array of boutiques then I’m happy! Blackheath has a picture-perfect charm, with numerous boutiques, butchers, bakers, delis, and a weekly farmers’ market providing a rural village feel, and the heath itself is a lovely open space in the city.
I love everything about this building. Originally designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the 1870s, the neo-Gothic-style hotel has been beautifully restored and updated, retaining all the romance, grandeur, and style of the Victorian railway hotel. The hotel lobby stands where Victorian high society once alighted from horse-drawn cabs, and in the Booking Office bar, the former ticket hall adjoining St Pancras Station, you can still imagine the bustle of arrivals and departures.
St Pancras Renaissance Hotel
Euston Road, London, England NW1 2QR
+44 20 7841 3540
Housed in a former ironmongers, Department of Coffee and Social Affairs is an Antipodean-run coffee shop on Leather Lane in Holborn, near London’s famous jewellery quarter Hatton Garden. It has good food, great coffee, knowledgeable baristas, and a laid-back atmosphere that is perfect for getting a bit of writing done when I need a change of scenery.
Distance: 5,219 km
Flight Time: 7 hours, 35 minutes
Frequency: 6 flights a day