Best free museums in London for kids

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If you’re visiting London with children and looking for the best free museums in London for kids then there are a wealth of family friendly museums which are all easy to get to by public transport and won’t cost you a penny.

Most offer activities for children and invariably some paid for attractions or special exhibitions.

So, in no particularly order here is my list of favourite top 10 free London museums for children.

Science Museum

With over 3 million visitors each year the Science museum is a firm favourite amongst children and adults.

There are seven floors of educational and entertaining exhibits, including the ground floor Exploring Space Gallery with the Apollo 10 command module, rockets, satellites, a piece of moon rock, a 600kg Spacelab X-ray telescope and a full size replica of the Eagle moon lander.

Science Museum, London
Images: Science Museum

Opened in 2000, the Wellcome Wing looks at the future of science, medicine and technology. Lots of interactive exhibits displayed in galleries with atmospheric lighting. Here you will also find the 3D (and 4D) IMAX cinema and simulators.

Opened in October 2016, the £6m Statoil Gallery features “Wonderlab” where children and adults get to explore science and technology with over 50 hands-on activities and shows in seven zones covering topics such as sound, forces, light and mathematics. Regrettably Wonderlab is not free entry. An adult day pass costs £8, £6 for children or £22.50 for a family day ticket. For £39 you can buy an annual family ticket for unlimited visits across in the year. Well worth it.

The very young are not forgotten. The Pattern Pod (level 0) introduces the under 8s to patterns in contemporary science in a fun and engaging way and the basement ‘Garden’ has great water play and building activities for toddlers and they can learn about “The Secret Life of the Home”.

No problem with wheelchair access and toilets and baby changing facilities are everywhere. Children with Autistic Spectrum Condition can visit early or late during Early Bird and Night Owl times.

There are several diners, cafes and picnic areas are on levels 3 and -1.

Bottom line. Knobs to turn and buttons to press aplenty. Child’s heaven.

Science Museum - Need to know

Cost : FREE (Charges apply for IMAX 3D Cinema, simulators, special exhibitions and attractions)

Open : 10am to 6pm daily (last admission 5.15pm)

Location : Exhibition Rd, Kensington, London SW7 2DD

Transport : South Kensington underground station (Piccadilly, Circle and District lines)

Website : www.sciencemuseum.org.uk

Natural History Museum

Just next door to the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum is another firm favourite amongst children.

The museum opened its doors in 1881 in Alfred Waterhouse’s purpose built Romanesque building with its beautiful pale blue and terracotta façade, joined by the modern Darwin Centre in 2009.

Natural History Museum, London
Images: NHM except exterior, 'Hope' and escalator

The dinosaur exhibits are a big draw for children. The museum features the first T-rex fossil ever discovered plus a specimen of the Baryonyx, one of Europe’s largest meat eaters ever found. There is an impressive collection of fossils and a life size animatronic T-rex.

The main entrance hall was once dominated by Dippy the Diplodocus, who stood in place for 112 years. Now on a nationwide tour, Dippy has been replaced by Hope, a Blue Whale skeleton which dives down on you from the ceiling.

The Museum has 30 permanent galleries. Marvel at the amazing blue whale and other mammals in the Blue Zone and get up close with the ‘Creepy Crawlies’ in the Green Zone. Pick out historical events on the cross section of the Giant Sequoia, see the array of stuffed birds (including the extinct dodo) and compare the eggs of a hummingbird and elephant bird.

In the Red Zone take the escalator ride through the centre of the Earth and feel what it’s like to be in an earthquake in the simulator. Learn about volcanoes and the restless earth and in the ‘Earth’s Treasury’ eye up gold nuggets, diamonds and kryptonite.

 “Investigate” is the hands on science centre where children and adults can explore animal, plant and geological treasure from the Museum’s collection using microscopes and other tools to learn more about the natural world.

Many of the museum’s 80 million specimens are housed on 17 miles of shelving in the Orange Zone Darwin Centre. Amongst them is Archie, a 8.62 metre (28 feet) giant squid.

The museum also has lots of temporary exhibitions and events such as the sleep over “Dino-Snores” where you get to stalk the galleries by torchlight until midnight and wake up to breakfast and a live animal show.

Natural History Museum - Need to know

Cost : FREE (Charges apply for some temporary exhibitions)

Open : 10am to 5.50pm daily (last admission 5.30pm)

Location : Cromwell Rd, Kensington, London SW7 5BD

Transport : South Kensington underground station (Piccadilly, Circle and District lines)

Website : www.nhm.ac.uk

See the Science Museum and Natural History Museum on our Royal Parks Walk

Museum of London

Away from the frenzy of the Kensington museums and a stone’s throw from St Paul’s, is the Museum of London. Here you can travel on a journey through the capital’s turbulent past. Across nine galleries starting with prehistoric London, see how the city changed under the Romans and Saxons, see the wonders of medieval London before examining the years when London was ravaged by civil wars, plague and fire.

Museum of London, London
Images: Museum of London

Transport yourself to modern London where you can stroll through a recreated pleasure garden, walk Victorian streets, see how Londoners survived the Blitz and see what life was like in the post war 60s and 70s.

Children will love the museum as there is plenty to do and see. Playtime! Is the specially-devised gallery for early years and beyond and explores the playtime experiences of London children through time. Watch 1950s TV shows in black and white and imagine how life changed for children when new toys became available.

Children with autistic spectrum conditions can visit before the museum opens during their Morning Explorers events and you can book a “Helping Host” for up to two hours to assist with disabled visitors.

Museum of London - Need to know

Cost : FREE (Charges apply for some temporary exhibitions)

Open : 10am to 6pm daily

Location : 150 London Wall, London, EC2Y 5HN

Transport : St Paul’s (Central) / Barbican (Circle, Metropolitan, Hammersmith & City) underground stations

Website : www.museumoflondon.org.uk

V&A Museum of Childhood

In the East end of London is the V&A satellite, the Museum of Childhood. The museum has been collecting childhood related objects since 1872 and is home to one of the world’s finest collections of children’s toys, doll’s houses, games and costumes dating back to the 1600s.

V&A Museum of Childhood, London
Images: Museum of London

There’s plenty to keep kids busy with free daily activities including arts and crafts, tours, storytelling and treasure hunts. They can also try rocking horses and play in the activity stations with Lego and sandpits.

There are numerous galleries and adults will enjoy reminiscing about toys from their childhood. See Automata and robots in the Mechanical Toys gallery (I still have my Slinky), building bricks in the Construction Toys gallery (am I the only one who remembers Betta Bilda?) and in the Must Have Toys gallery you can find out the best selling toys in each decade (What was it in 1965? Answer below).

V&A Museum of Childhood - Need to know

Cost : FREE (Charges apply for some temporary exhibitions)

Open : 10am to 5.45pm daily (last admission 5.30pm)

Location : Cambridge Heath Rd, London, E2 9PA

Transport : Bethnal Green underground station (Central)

Website : www.vam.ac.uk/moc/

Best selling toy of 1965 ? The Corgi James Bond Aston Martin DB5

Bank of England Museum

In Bartholomew Lane, just round the corner from the Bank of England’s main entrance, you’ll find the Bank’s museum. It’s a small museum and probably will take under an hour to visit (it has no café or restaurant) but is ideal add on to your visit to the Museum of London which is only one stop away on the Central line.

Bank of England Museum
Images: Bank of England Museum

The museum tells the story of the Bank of England, from its origins in 1694, as a national bank to fund the war with France, to the present. There are five different galleries where you can view ancient coins and original artwork for British banknotes, walk through the reconstruction of Sir John Soane’s 1793 Stock Office (he was the original architect) and handle a real 13kg gold bar (closely watched by CCTV).

‘Kenneth Grahame and the Bank of England’ is a permanent display commemorating the non-literary career of ‘The Wind of Willows’ author, who worked at the Bank of England for 30 years. As well as the interactive displays there are colouring, storytelling and a regular programme of events for children.

Bank of England Museum - Need to know

Cost : FREE

Open : 10am to 5pm Monday to Friday (last entry 4.30pm)

Location : Bartholomew Lane, London, EC2R 8AH

Transport : Bank (Central, Northern, Waterloo & City and DLR) station

Website : www.bankofengland.co.uk/museum

Museum of London Docklands

Nestled between the skyscrapers of the financial district of Canary Wharf is the Museum of London Docklands. Inside a 200-year-old warehouse once used to store sugar, coffee and rum, the long history of London as a port is revealed through stories of trade, migration and commerce.

Museum of London Docklands
Images: Museum of London Docklands

Discover a wealth of objects in ten world-class galleries. Sailortown is an atmospheric recreation of 19th-century London centered on Wapping and Shadwell.

“London, Sugar and Slavery” reveals the city’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade whilst Docklands at War shows how the Port survived and aided the war effort from Dunkirk to D-Day. With unique artifacts, unusual objects and fascinating tours, the Museum of London Docklands is one of London’s hidden gems.

Many of the objects and pictures were rescued during the 1970s and 80s when competition forced London’s port to move downstream and trace the area’s history back to Roman times. Together with photographs and documents from the Port of London Authority, they show how the area grew to be the busiest port in the world by 1880 and illustrate the many traditional trades that supported it.

There is a changing programme of events for children, including visits by children’s authors, music sessions for the under 5s and until the end of August 2018 the Mudlarks gallery is an interactive space for the under 5s where they can play with cranes, explore the docks in Docklands playtime or build with giant bricks and wheelbarrows. Mudlarks is free but a timed ticket is needed, either booked online or collected from the front desk.

Museum of London Docklands - Need to know

Cost : FREE

Open : 10am to 6pm daily (last entry 5.30pm)

Location : No 1 Warehouse, West India Quay, London, E14 4AL

Transport : Westferry (DLR), Canary Wharf (DLR, Jubilee) stations

Website : www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london-docklands

RAF Museum Hendon

The Royal Air Force Museum is not in central London but well worth the effort to get to. From Waterloo the journey time is around 40 mins (Northern line Edgware branch – alight at Colindale not Hendon Central).   

RAF Museum Hendon
Images: RAF Museum

The Royal Air Force Museum has free admission to more than 100 displays of aircrafts with interactive exhibits and fun activities for kids. See the world’s only life-sized model of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet then visit the Bomb Bay TV under the huge Vulcan Bomber. There’s also a 1:1 scale Airfix model of a Spitfire that featured on the BBC’s Toy Story series.

Kids can enjoy the 4D Theatre (charges apply) in the Historic Hangar with dynamic seating and special effects to experience time travel or an adventure as the pilot of a B-17 Bomber on a mission. My children loved the interactivity of the Aeronauts Interactive Centre where they discovered how aircraft fly and tested their pilot aptitude with the 40 hands-on exhibits.

In the Battle of Britain Hall you can see ‘Our Finest Hour’, a multi-media account of the Battle of Britain. ‘Milestones of Flight’, a permanent exhibition in the museum’s silver barrel-vaulted, stainless steel clad building, includes some of the most important RAF aircraft, along with classics from the USA, Germany, Japan and France.

RAF Museum - Need to know

Cost : FREE (car parking charges apply)

Open : 10am to 6pm daily Mar to Oct (last entry 5.30pm) 10am to 5pm daily Nov to Feb

Location : Grahame Park Way, London, NW9 5LL

Transport : Colindale (Northern line going to Edgware)

Website : www.rafmuseum.org.uk/

National Maritime Museum

The National Maritime Museum is the largest maritime museum in the world with 10 free galleries to explore plus a collection of artwork, maps, and memorabilia. So if your scurvy dogs are into pirates, shipwrecks and adventure this is the place for them.

National Maritime Museum, London
Images: National Maritime Museum

The fantastic interactive “All Hands” children’s gallery (6-12s) enables kids to learn about maritime technology past and present. They can load cargo and explore the “Seahorse” whilst arming a cannon and shoot down a dastardly pirate ship in a brilliant interactive game. Then they can help prepare food in the ship’s gallery and find out about the strange meals sailors ate on board.

The “AHOY!” children’s gallery for 7s and under will fire up your little ones imagination as they stoke up the boiler of a steamship, land fish, play iceberg ice-hockey and make friends in the interactive boatyard. Polar exploration, pirates and other maritime themes are brought to life in this playful gallery – just look out for the eight metre high mast of SS Rawalpindi by the entrance.

The Museum’s Planetarium (fee applies) has regular child-friendly shows, and there’s even a special ‘Space Safari’ show for under 5s. From Nelson’s heroics to ocean-liner glamour and pirate escapades, this museum has something to fascinate all ages.

Within a short walking distance you can also visit the Cutty Sark (entrance fee applies), the next door Queen’s House and on top of the hill take in the view of Central London from the Royal Observatory.

National Maritime Museum - Need to know

Cost : FREE

Open : 10am to 5pm daily

Location : Park Row, London, SE10 9NF

Transport : Cutty Sark (DLR)

Website : www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum

See Maritime Greenwich on our Time Traveller's Walk

Horniman Museum

The Horniman Museum is one of London’s most child friendly museums set in 16 acres of landscaped gardens. It’s close to Forest Hill overground station. From central London the journey time is 30-40 minutes.

Horniman Museum, London
Images: Horniman Museum

The museum was founded in 1901 from the collection of tea merchant Frederick John Horniman, an avid collector who amassed 30,000 items from his extensive travels. Today the museum has a collection of over 350,000 objects specialising in anthropology, natural history and musical instruments.

It has a large collection of stuffed animals (dominated by a large stuffed walrus) displayed in traditional glass cases. There are galleries devoted to African, Afro-Caribbean and Brazilian Art and a collection of 1300 musical instruments, some of which visitors can play.

The Aquarium (charge applies) has fifteen exhibits of environments from around the world and a nature base with live animals (alpacas, goats and sheep to name a few) and the Horniman beehive. The Butterfly House (charge applies) lets children get up close with hundreds of butterflies in the tropical indoor garden.

In the ‘hands on base’ children can touch and handle thousands of real items from around the world and there are lots of events from storytelling to nature trails and pond dipping.

The Horniman Museum was awarded the Kids in Museums’ Telegraph Family Friendly Museum Award in 2013 and the New York Times named the Horniman as one of the coolest museums in the world.

Horniman Museum - Need to know

Cost : FREE (charges apply for the aquarium and butterfly house)

Open : 10am to 5.30pm daily

Location : 100 London Rd, Forest Hill, London, SE23 3PQ

Transport : Forest Hill London Overground / 176,185,197, 356, P4 buses

Website : www.horniman.ac.uk

British Museum

When the British Museum was opened in 1759 it was the first free to enter national museum to be open to the public anywhere in the world. The first exhibits consisted of the collection of physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane – ancient coins and medals, books and natural remains.

British Museum, London
Images: British Museum except exterior and Great Court

Over the centuries it has become home to the most significant finds made by British explorers, like the Rosetta Stone from Ancient Egypt and the Parthenon sculpture from the Acropolis in Athens.

The galleries are divided by location and periods in history – Ancient Iran, Greece, China from 5000BC onwards, Roman Britain and so on.

When you first arrive you can’t fail to be impressed by the glass roofed Great Court, opened in 2000 and the largest covered square in Europe. Each one of its 1,656 glass panes are uniquely shaped and sit in a vast floating frame which expands and contracts with the changing temperature.

I have to admit that the very young aren’t likely to warm to the British Museum. My own children soon became bored of cabinets full of static objects. My then four-year son, when viewing ‘Ginger’, the mummy with red hair, remarked “He doesn’t look very happy”.

Having said that Egyptian mummies, Roman treasures, golden Buddhas and African masks should keep the older children interested. Get yourself one the excellent family trails or activity backpacks from the Ford Centre for Young Visitors (level -1). The “Alfred the explorer” backpack is aimed at under-5s and there are a variety of packs for older kids covering Ancient Greece, Egyptian mummies, Roman Britain and more.

Borrow crayons, pencils and pads from the Family Desk, or rent (£6) a hand-held children’s interactive game based guide. At weekends in the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre there are free digital workshops when kids can build Roman Britain in Minecraft or become an ancient Greek athlete.

British Museum - Need to know

Cost : FREE

Open : 10am to 5.30pm daily (Friday til 8.30pm)

Location : Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London, WC1B 3DG

Transport : Tottenham Court Rd (Central and Northern ), Holborn (Piccadilly and Central ), Russell Square (Piccadilly)

Website : www.britishmuseum.org

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