With so many cultural attractions on offer, there’s no need to let the British weather dampen spirits on your London city break. If it does start to drizzle, a great place to take shelter is the Natural History Museum. Over four million people visit this beautiful building each year, and once you’ve seen it for yourself, you’ll understand why it’s so popular. Besides being warm and dry, there are over 70 million fascinating specimens from the natural world on display here, from tiny creepy crawlies to huge dinosaur skeletons. In fact it’s so packed full of marvels you might find you’re pleased it’s raining.
The Natural History Museum began life in 1753 when doctor to the world’s rich and famous, Sir Hans Sloane, allowed the British government to buy his collection of interesting specimens he’d picked up on his travels. The collection became part of the British Museum, but received such poor treatment from incompetent staff there, the department fought to become a separate entity. The Principal Librarian was known for his contempt for natural history, one staff member threatened to destroy any shell that wasn’t listed in a certain scientific text, while another destroyed all the labels of insects identified by a rival. Fortunately, the Natural History Museum got its own building in 1881, but didn’t fully get its independence and own board of directors until 1963 and was still known as British Museum (Natural History) right up until 1992.
The most famous exhibit here is Dippy the Diplodocus, a 70ft plaster-cast dinosaur skeleton that greets you the minute you walk into Museum’s spectacular Hintze Hall. Much-loved and seen by an estimated 90 million visitors, Dippy’s been standing guard since 1979, but is due to go out on tour around the country. In its two-year absence, Dippy will be replaced by the equally impressive four-tonne blue whale skeleton.
Love museums? Why not turn your trip into a whole weekend full of London culture, by staying at a Premier Inn hotel near the Natural History Museum? Some are just around the corner, and being so close means other famous London attractions, from the V&A to the Science Museum, will be right on your doorstep, too.
The magnificent Romanesque building may look more like a cathedral than a museum, but don’t expect a trip here to feel dated or stuffy. With its interactive displays and up-to-date facilities, the Natural History Museum is the epitome of a modern museum experience.
Open daily at 10am, the Museum closes at 5.50pm. It’s open all year round (except for 24th, 25th and 26th December). Admission is free, but there is a charge for some tours, events and temporary exhibitions. For enquiries, telephone the Museum on 020 7942 5511.
There are three great gift shops. In Hintze Hall you’ll find the Museum Shop for nature-inspired items. Head to the Red Zone for the swanky Cranbourne Boutique for exclusive fashion and luxury decorations. Finally there’s the Dino Store at the exit of the Dinosaur gallery, for toys, games mugs and clothing with a prehistoric theme.
If you’re here with children under seven, you can borrow Explorer Backpacks from the main Hintze Hall information desk. Inside there’s an activity booklet, safari hat and binoculars. They’re free of charge, but you will need to leave some form of ID as a deposit.
All floors in the Blue, Green and Red Zones, are accessible by lift, as is the Darwin Centre. If mobility is an issue, wheelchairs can be hired for free from the cloakrooms. There are also a small number of parking spaces for Blue Badge holders. Book in advance by calling 020 7942 5000 and asking to speak to the security reception team.
The Museum is really easy to get around, and is divided into four different Zones, each with its own highlights. Here’s a brief rundown of each, along with the exhibits you don’t want to miss.
The Blue Zone is dedicated to the amazing diversity of life on Earth and is undoubtedly the most popular, especially for younger visitors. Why? In a word - dinosaurs! But while the animatronic T.rex in the Dinosaur Galleries is a big draw, there’s also the life-size blue whale replica in the mammals exhibition, as well as some fun brain games to play in the Human Biology section.
Walk through the jaw-dropping Hintze Hall and the first things you’ll see are the diplodocus skeleton and the 1,300 year old giant sequoia tree - and these are just the beginning of the Green Zone. Don’t miss the creepy crawlies and the Vault, which houses the oldest substance you’ll ever see in your life - diamond dust formed from an exploding star billions of years ago.
You know you’re in for a treat right from the entrance of the Red Zone when you take an escalator ride into the Earth’s core. That’s just the start of your journey through the Earth to find out about the tremendous forces that shape our planet. Don’t miss the Volcanoes & Earthquakes exhibit, where the floor shakes to simulate what it would be like to live through a real-life tremor.
In the Orange Zone there’s a beautiful wildlife garden that’s open between March and early November, but the major attraction year-round is the Darwin Centre. Shaped like a giant cocoon, a lift carries you seven floors high, and then you explore the exhibitions as you descend on foot. It’s here you’ll find the wonderfully creepy Spirit Collection - 22 million creatures preserved in spirit jars.
Special tours and events
From adult sleepovers to silent discos, there’s always something going on in the Museum. On the last Friday of every month the Museum opens late for drinks, talks and to give everyone the chance to feel like they’re in the film Night At The Museum. One tour that’s on all year round and really shouldn’t be missed is the popular Spirit Collection tour in the Darwin Centre. It costs £10 and takes about 50 minutes - watch out for Archie, the 8.62m long giant squid and view specimens collected by Darwin himself.
From cafes that are perfect for young explorers to more grown-up offerings, there are plenty of places inside the Museum to take a breather and grab a bite to eat.
Fancy dining with the dinosaurs? The family friendly T.rex Grill is the place to go. Step back in time to a cretaceous jungle where they also happen to serve burgers, steak, pizzas and puddings - and all with a triceratops twist. You’ll find it in the Green Zone and it’s open between 11am and 4pm.
Found next to Earth Hall, the Red Zone Kitchen has more of a grown-up feel with a rotating selection of salads and hot dishes. But don’t let that put you off coming with kids, as there are special lunch deals and activity packs on offer for the little ones. Open between 10am and 5pm.
Relax after your earth-shaking earthquake and volcano experience at The Coffee House. More informal than The Red Zone Kitchen but right next door to it, you’ll find artisan coffees and freshly baked pastries and cakes - great for a quick break. It’s open from 10am until 5pm.
The Central Café is in beautiful Hintze Hall and serves coffee, pastries and light lunches. Open between 10am and 5.30pm, it’s worth going there for the view alone. Make sure you check out the 162 panels on the ceilings - they’re intricately decorated with plants from all over the world.
Tucked away in the Darwin Centre, the Darwin Centre Café is usually less crowded than the Museum’s other eateries so finding a table is less of an issue. It still sells a great selection of sandwiches, muffins and snacks. You’ll find it in the Orange Zone, and it’s open between 10am and 5pm.
The front of the building is on Cromwell Road and you can’t miss it. A stunning example of Romanesque architecture, the building’s a true work of art and one of London's most iconic landmarks. If you’re here to visit the Dinosaur exhibition, ignore the Cromwell Road entrance and use the Queen's Gate instead.
There are bike racks on Exhibition Road or, if you’re hiring a city bike there’s one cycle hire docking station near the Exhibition Road entrance and one on Thurloe Place, near South Kensington tube station.
Buses 14, 49, 70, 74, 345, 360, 414 and C1 all stop very near to the Museum.
By tube and train
The easiest way to get to the Museum is by tube. Nearest stations are Gloucester Road and South Kensington on the District, Piccadilly and Circle lines. Both stations are only a five-minute walk away. The nearest mainline station is Victoria.
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