If you’re in London on a city break, it can be a tough call choosing between all the fantastic museums on offer. But before your feet automatically start walking towards the Natural History or Science Museum, the British Museum also deserves its place on your sightseeing list. With the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone and more Egyptian mummies than a double episode of Scooby Doo, there are some jaw-dropping exhibits among the eight million items on display here. No wonder then that the British Museum is one of the world’s most popular cultural hotspots, attracting over six million people a year.
With nine departments and eight million items to marvel at, you could easily spend the whole day here. But, rest assured, when your eyes are worn out from the visual feast on offer, there’s a Premier Inn near the British Museum, with a comfortable bed waiting for you. With fascinating artefacts collected from every continent, the British Museum documents the story of human culture from its very beginnings right up to the present day. Established in 1759, it was the first national museum open to the public anywhere in the world. And what made it even more unique was that it was free to enter - something that’s still true today. The first exhibits were ancient coins and medals, books and natural remains, collected by naturalist Sir Hans Sloane. These have been added to over the centuries to include discoveries made by British explorers, like the Rosetta Stone from ancient Egypt and the Parthenon sculpture from the Acropolis in Athens.
The museum’s not been without its controversy though, and in recent years there have been campaigns by nations who want their treasures back. In fact, the issue over the legal right to the Elgin Marbles has been taken up by Amal Clooney on Greece’s behalf. However, the British Museum remains one of the world’s most popular attractions.
Enjoy a relaxing Sunday at The Garden Room with a relaxing drink at the cafe, lots of people watching and taking in views of the tranquil lake - it’s like a free for all oasis in the middle of the city.
Apart from all the exciting exhibits on offer, the Museum also has some great facilities for its visitors. Read about them here, along with other important information to help you plan your day.
The Museum closes 24, 25 and 26 December and 1 January, but is open every other day of the year. The galleries are divided by location and time period (Asia, Ancient Egypt and Rome etc) and are open daily from 10am until 5.30pm. Opening hours are extended on Friday, when most galleries shut at 8.30pm.
Forget shushing and tutting - children are welcome at the British Museum. To make the most of their visit, it’s well worth getting them either a kids’ audio guide or backpack, both of which takes them on a themed treasure hunt. There’s also a dedicated centre for school age children - head there to store bags, have a picnic or do some museum inspired art projects.
Arguably the highlight of any museum visit, the gift shop at the British Museum is one of the best. Fancy a Rosetta Stone rucksack, some Egyptian mummy lip balms or your own Lewis Chessmen chess set? You’ll find them all here, in this treasure trove of books, authentic replicas, high quality fine art prints, jewellery and gifts.
There is limited parking in the Museum's forecourt for disabled visitors, which needs to be booked in advance. The Great Russell Street entrance has 12 steps but offers access lifts either side.There is also level access at the Montague Place entrance and most galleries and all exhibitions are fully accessible.
As soon as you walk into the magnificent Norman Foster-designed glass-roofed Great Court you’ll realise this isn’t a stuffy old resting place for relics. The British Museum is alive with the sound of students, tourists and Londoners who’ve stopped by for a quick look or a spot of lunch. There’s so much to see in the nine galleries that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. With that in mind, we’ve listed five of the British Museum’s most prized exhibits.
The Rosetta Stone
Arguably the most important piece on display, the Rosetta Stone draws big crowds, so go early to get a good view. Discovered by French soldiers of Napoleon Bonaparte who were digging a fort in Rosetta in Egypt, the stone dates back to 196 BC and is inscribed with a decree on behalf of King Ptolemy. Most importantly though, the decree is written in three languages - Demotic, Ancient Greek and Ancient Egyptian - meaning that people could finally crack the code of hieroglyphics.
The Elgin Marbles
Also known as the Parthenon Sculptures, this magnificent collection of intricately carved friezes and statues once adorned the Parthenon in Athens. The British Museum got hold of them in 1816 from a man called Thomas Bruce who sold it to them for £35,000. Bruce was the seventh Earl of Elgin and, over a ten-year period, he removed 56 friezes and 19 statues from the Parthenon. They’re worth a look, as their future at the museum been the cause of controversy, with Greece calling for them to be returned to their home country.
The Lewis Chessmen
Famed for their mysterious origins, these hand-carved chess pieces were made out of walrus ivory and whale bone some time during the 12 century - yet no one is sure who created them. They were found buried near Uig on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in 1831 and you can’t help but be charmed by their comical expressions. There are moody kings as well as a scared-looking warder biting down on his shield. They even made a cameo in the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone movie.
The Cat Mummies
As well as humans, there are over 300 animal mummies in the British Museum's collection, many of which live in the mummy store. Thought to date from the first century AD, cat mummies were really quite common – in fact, in the 19th century, a shipment of 180,000 of them were sent to Britain to be processed into fertilizer. Why did the Ancient Egyptians mummify so many cats? Felines were linked to the goddess Bastet and young cats were culled to provide the corpses needed for mummification.
Three human figurines
At first glance, these primitive-looking clay figures look a little out of place amongst all the incredible displays of art, power and wealth in the British Museum. Probably made by children and found in Bab edh-Dhra, near the Dead Sea, they’re a jaw-dropping 5,000 years old. They also have what is arguably the best caption in the whole museum: ‘Two of them certainly represent men. The third is either female or has lost a small piece of clay.’
If all that culture has given you an appetite, you’ll be pleased to hear there are plenty of tasty options on offer. Fancy lunch amid the treasures? The British Museum has three places to satisfy your rumbling tum. But if you step outside the Museum gates, you’ll find that fashionable Bloomsbury awaits and it’s packed full of pubs, bars and restaurants that are bursting with charm.
Inside the British Museum
The Norman Foster-designed Great Court opened in 2000 and it’s simply breathtaking. The Great Court Restaurant offers you the chance to dine under its beautiful glass ceiling - expect fine dining with casual feel, aided by the open kitchen. Try the afternoon tea, served from 3pm, complete with mini bagels, fluffy scones and delicious pastries.
If you just want to grab a coffee, a sandwich or have a well-earned slice of cake while you take a breather, head to the Court Cafe in the north-east corner of the Great Court on the ground floor level. Here you’ll eat at long sharing tables, but there’s plenty of them so you shouldn’t have to get too up close and personal with the people sitting next to you.
Just past the gift shop on the ground floor is the family-friendly Gallery Café. In fact it’s so welcoming that the little ones eat free (one child’s meal per each paying adult). The Gallery Café serves baked potatoes, pizza slices, and curry and rice combos. It’s a great spot for families to relax while the kids let off a bit of steam.
Outside the British Museum
Named after Mrs Dalloway, the subject of Virginia Woolf’s novel, Dalloway Terrace is part of the Bloomsbury Hotel. Romantic in spring and summer with its candles, heated outdoor terrace and lovely indoor decoration, in the colder months it totally transforms into a winter wonderland that’s very much like stepping into Narnia. The food is superb and locally sourced, but what everyone raves about are the hot chocolate cocktails - the chocolate orange cocktail is to-die-for.
Fancy a gin in a pub where Dickens used to drink? Then step into The Lamb - a pub that’s remained pretty much unchanged since Charles stopped for a swift half. Described by English Heritage as “an exceptional piece of Victoriana” it still has its original “snob screens” (so the well-heeled wouldn’t have to see into the public bar). With low lights and candles, the Lamb takes comfort very seriously. Expect great pub food, award-winning cask and craft beers, lashings of wine.
You’ll find the British Museum in Bloomsbury, one of the most fashionable places in London. Famous for its literary past (with writers like Virginia Woolf and EM Forster making up part of the Bloomsbury Group) it’s full of character, beautiful buildings and green spaces. All in all, it makes a really pleasant place to wander around.
Driving within central London is not for the fainthearted, but if you’re willing to brave it put the postcode WC1B 3DG into your satnav and make sure you’ve paid the Congestion Charge. When you get here, there’s not much on-street parking, but there is a carpark at Bloomsbury Square with the postcode WC1A 2RJ.
By tube and bus
Closest tube stations can be found at Tottenham Court Road (for the Northern and Central lines) and Holborn (for the Central and Piccadilly Lines). Both are 500m away. Or get the bus - the closest bus stops to the Museum are on New Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road or Southampton Row.
Luckily, Barbican station is just a five minute walk away from the venue itself and can be picked up on the Circle, Hammersmith & Travelling by bike? You’ll find bike racks inside the Museum gates at the Great Russell Street entrance. Or if you fancied hiring a Santander city bike, there’s a docking station just outside the gates on the corner of Great Russell Street and Montague Street.
The nearest mainline train stations are Euston, Kings Cross and St Pancras. From Euston, you can take the Northern line down to Tottenham Court Road Station, and from Kings Cross and St Pancras, grab the Piccadilly Line down to Holborn, and walk from here.
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