The British Museum, established in 1759, welcomes 6 million patrons each year. At its founding, the collections included mostly books, manuscripts and natural specimens. Today, the museum is home to 8 million objects spanning 2 million years of human history and culture. This year’s exhibitions highlight life in Pompeii before Mount Vesuvius erupted, fourth-century fine dining in Roman Britain and the history of money during biblical times. Then, of course, the permanent collection has its gems—the Rosetta Stone, a key for interpreting hieroglyphs created in Egypt in 196 B.C, for instance, and the Elgin Marbles, ancient Greek sculptures originally part of the Parthenon. Admission is free.
Royal Museums Greenwich
The Royal Museums Greenwich consists of four sites: the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory, the Queen's House and the 18th-century ship, the Cutty Sark. The National Maritime Museum documents 500 years of British nautical history through numerous ship models, countless artifacts from life at sea and a massive, interactive world map that visitors can walk on to track seafaring stories. The Queen’s House, built in the 17th century, holds the museum’s fine art collection of more than 4,500 oil paintings. The Royal Observatory, located longitudinally at the Prime Meridian, allows visitors to stand in both the eastern and western hemispheres at the same. Visitors can also walk aboard and beneath the 144-year-old Cutty Sark, a clipper ship that has visited every major port in the world. Admission is free, except for the Cutty Sark, which costs £12 for adults and £6.50 for children ages 5-15.
Churchill War Rooms of the Imperial War Museum
Between 1939 and 1945, several basement offices in London’s Whitehall area served as meeting places for Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his trusted advisors. Known collectively as the Cabinet War Rooms, the underground bunker sheltered Churchill during the Blitz, an 8-month-long German bombing attack on Britain. Each day, visitors can explore the rooms and learn about the people who hid in them. Admission is free.
Victoria and Albert Museum
Named after Queen Victoria and Albert, Britain’s reigning royalty for a large part of the 19th century, this museum is devoted to decorative arts and design. The collections include more than 4 million objects from Europe, North America, Asia and North Africa, spanning 3,000 years of humankind’s forays into furniture and textile making, sculpture and ceramics. Highlights include the Beauharnais Emeralds, which Napoleon gave to his daughter, and diamonds from Russia’s Catherine the Great, as well as the Raphael Cartoons—designs that the Italian Renaissance painter made in the early 1500s for tapestries in the Sistine Chapel. Admission is free.
The Tate Modern is Britain’s national museum of modern and contemporary art, featuring works by Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Dalí, Pollock and Warhol. The collections, for instance, include such masterpieces as Picasso’s Weeping Woman, Duchamp’s Fountain and Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych. The Modern’s most notable feature is a massive five-story-tall turbine hall with roughly 36,000 square feet of floor space for exhibitions. Admission is free.