London: 7 tips for surviving the British Museum

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British Museum
The British Museum draws huge crowds, but there are still ways to have an enjoyable visit. Photo: Christophe G

The British Museum is probably one of the sights you shouldn’t miss when you’re in London. There’s a reason why it’s the most visited tourist attraction in the UK: it has an amazing collection of artifacts, dating back thousands of years and drawn from all over the world. Plus, it probably doesn’t hurt that the price is right (always free admission).

But with over 6.7 million visitors attending the museum last year, it can get a bit hectic in there. Here are seven ways to get the most out of your visit to the British Museum.

1. Try to avoid peak times

Okay, let’s be realistic here—the British Museum is never going to be the quietest spot in London, but you can visit when it’s a little quieter. Aim to arrive for the 10 AM opening, or come later on a Friday when the museum closes at 5:30 PM. Check out what special temporary exhibitions are on—if it is a really a popular show, the museum gets especially full when they’re in their opening or closing weeks.

And don’t be tempted to save your trip for a rainy day—the museum is at its busiest when it’s bad weather outside. Instead, tackle it on a sunnier day: The sun shining through the glass roof of the Great Court means the museum is at its most handsome, as well as quietest.

Related: Affordable hotels near the British Museum

British Museum Parthenon Sculptures

The Parthenon Sculptures are one of the biggest attractions at the British Museum. Photo: Bram S

2. Tackle the biggies first

You’re first through the door at 10 AM, and your aim is to get to the big sights before everyone else does. First up, the Rosetta Stone, the discovery that provided the breakthrough in understanding Egyptian hieroglyphics—it’s in room 4, the Egyptian Sculpture gallery on the ground floor, which is straight off the Great Court.

Rosetta Stone

Hit the Rosetta Stone early so you can get up close. Photo: bor4s

Head onwards through the galleries to get to room 18 where the Parthenon Sculptures are displayed. Also known as the Elgin Marbles, these were originally part of the Parthenon in Athens and were removed and taken to Britain in the early 19th century. The debate continues whether these should be kept in the British Museum or returned to Greece. Decide for yourself before heading upstairs to room 70 to get a taste of Rome and the Portland Vase, the cameo glass vase that has inspired generations of makers, poets and scholars.

If you are feeling brave and you’re still ahead of the crowds, rooms 62-63 displays some of the Ancient Egypt collection, most famously the mummies. Finally, it’s back downstairs to room 24, the “Living and Dying” gallery which includes Hoa Hakananai’a, an imposing Easter Island statue. Then make your way back out to the Great Court and treat yourself to a cup of tea and a slice of cake from the café—you deserve it.

3. Prepare in advance

That brief tour only skims the huge amount the British Museum has to offer. There’s a great podcast that uses a hundred of the museum’s objects to tell the history of the world. Listen ahead of your visit to be inspired.

Although entry to the museum and the permanent exhibits is completely free, there are charges for special exhibitions. Save yourself time by booking tickets for these online: You’ll be given a timed ticket so you don’t have to waste time waiting in line once you’re inside the museum.

4. Don’t neglect the lesser-known galleries

The British Museum has beautiful and fascinating objects all over the world, so it’s rewarding to spend time in some of the less famous galleries. After the crowds that fill the Egyptian Galleries, the Japanese Galleries offer a more serene atmosphere in which to appreciate the beauty of their objects. And, while the British Museum isn’t as well known for its fine art as other London galleries, the Prints and Drawings galleries always shows wonderful examples by undisputed masters of the medium.

Central Hall British Museum

The massive central hall of the British Museum with a giant glass roof. Photo: Spiros K

5. Take your time

Because entry to the British Museum is free to enter, don’t feel the pressure to do it all in one go. You could spread your visit over a series of mornings, or pop outside to get some fresh air and a change of scenery if the crowds and all the culture are becoming slightly overwhelming. There are plenty of fantastic (and affordable) places nearby to grab some food or a drink.

Related: Guide to eating and drinking near the British Museum in Bloomsbury

6. Or see it all in 90 minutes

If you are pressed for time, the British Museum runs a fantastic introductory tour to their collections called ‘Around the World in 90 Minutes’, which takes place on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It does exactly what it says it will, taking in the Rosetta Stone and Parthenon Sculptures, as well as lesser known marvels along the way and taking up just an hour and a half of your valuable time. Tickets cost £12 and you can book in advance through the museum website.

7. Consider becoming a member

If you are a serious culture vulture and are going to be around in London for longer than a short break, it’s probably worthwhile becoming a museum member. It costs £60 for a year’s membership (£42 if you are under 26 years old). Perks include a dedicated cloakroom, so no waiting to deposit bags or umbrellas, free unlimited entry to all special exhibitions, as well as special evenings and events. Find out more here.

The British Museum

Great Russell St, London WC1B 3DG
Daily 10 AM to 5:30 Pm (8:30 PM on Fridays)
Website
Tube: Tottenham Court Road, Holborn, Russell Square or Goodge Street

About the author

Frances Ambler

Frances Ambler has been doing her best to live in London on the cheap since 2003. She works as an editor in one of London’s best – and free – museums, as well as writing for various websites including domesticsluttery.com. An avid second-hand shopper, ten years of "research" culminated in her most recent project: writing for the soon-to-be-published "Rough Guide to Vintage London."

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