South Kensington is one of London’s wealthiest and most recognisable districts. As well as being the haunt of the rich and famous, the district is home to a wealth of notable British institutions and to some of the city’s best museums. Being centrally located in one of London’s most important areas, with Westminster, St James’s Park and Buckingham Palace on one side and Hyde Park to the north, South Kensington became home to many notable figures in British society during London’s great expansion in the Victorian era.
The legacy they built is most pronounced, as London’s most iconic museums can now be found in South Kensington. Here, you can visit the world-famous Natural History Museum, which houses an extensive collection of natural exhibits from across the globe, the ever-informative Science Museum charts the history of innovation in the United Kingdom, while the Victoria and Albert Museum holds the largest collection of art and design in the world. Aside from these well-known institutes, there are some hidden museums around South Kensington that will give you an insight into some niche wonders, from the Clockmakers Museum to the nearby National Army Museum.
To help you to plan an intriguing day out, here are the best museums to visit in South Kensington.
Natural History Museum
Located on the great Exhibition Road, which is home to South Kensington’s other most famous museums, the Natural History Museum is a must-see attraction for anyone visiting London. The Natural History Museum is home to an incredible array of exhibits that chart the evolution of the natural world, while at the same time it’s a leading research facility and educational centre.
The Natural History Museum can trace its origins far back to the mid 18th century when the first specimens were purchased and curated in 1753. As the specimens grew in quantity, the curators found that they needed much more space. The current building is a work of architectural genius, a distinctive and lavish piece of work that’s as interesting and enthralling as the exhibits themselves. The current home of the museum dates to 1881, when the grand entrance was first opened to the public. The huge archways and vast space inside allows the museum to show off enormous exhibits of dinosaurs within its walls, making the Natural History Museum one of the most exceptional dedications to the natural world that can be found anywhere. For decades, a huge dinosaur greeted visitors at the entrance hall, but with a recent redevelopment, visitors are now welcomed by the sight of a blue whale specimen, in an effort to raise awareness about the oceans.
The Natural History Museum might well be famous for its dinosaurs, but there are a great many more sections to explore too. Be sure to visit the Darwin Centre, a prominent section of the museum that’s home to a vast collection of preserved specimens, some of which date back hundreds of years, and pay a visit to the interesting collections of insects and bugs collected from across the world.
Entrance to the permanent museum is entirely free, although special, temporary exhibitions may incur a fee.
The Science Museum
The Science Museum is the third of South Kensington’s most iconic museums, and is found in a historic Victorian building between the Imperial College and the Natural History Museum on Exhibition Road. First opened in 1857 after the Great Exhibition, the Science Museum was first known as the Patents Museum. Its popularity grew in the 19th century and has continued until today. In the 21st century, the Science Museum is one of the most visited attractions in London.
The Science Museum displays exhibits and stories from across the centuries, attempting to showcase the history of the human relationship with the scientific world, and study as well as showcase what the future of different fields could look like. The museum houses exhibits from broad-ranging subjects, tackling human anatomy, medicine, and the study of microbes and disease, through to astronomy, physics and space travel. Even if you have little interest in science itself, you are likely to find the museum compelling and intriguing, as they do a fantastic job of making complex history and theories accessible to anyone, which is one of the reasons for its enduring popularity.
The Science Museum, like the rest of the museums on Exhibition Road, is free to enter and you will find that there is much on display to keep you returning time after time.
The Clockmakers Museum
The Clockmakers Museum can date its origins back to 1814 when the extravagantly sounding Worshipful Company of Clockmakers began to assemble an extensive collection of watches and timepieces. Since then they’ve grown the collection into one of the most impressive in the world, and can even claim to be the oldest and most extensive clock museum to be found in any city, anywhere.
Although a museum of clocks and watches may not sound so exciting, it’s the stories behind the timepieces that are really the compelling factor in a visit to the Clockmakers Museum. The museum is home to some of the most important clocks in the history of timekeeping, including the famous marine chronometer built by John Harrison in 1770, which changed the history of nautical exploration and allowed British ships to so successfully chart and navigate much of the world, which ultimately led to Britain becoming such a world power.
The museum keeps over 1,000 different exhibits on display. Although for decades it was located in the Guildhall in the City of London, in 2015 it was moved into a dedicated gallery next to the Science Museum. It’s well worth a visit, even more so because entrance is free.
London Design Museum
The London Design Museum is found on Kensington High Street and makes for a very complementary visit after you’ve thoroughly explored the similar design ethos of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The London Design Museum is much more contemporary than the V & A, having only opened its doors in 1989 when it was initially set up in an old banana warehouse that was completely renovated to accommodate exhibitions and displays focusing on design in industry, fashion and commercial sectors, to name a few.
Due to its growth and popularity, the museum moved from the warehouse to a new location in Kensington in 2016, where it is continuing to go from strength to strength, even being named European Museum of the Year in 2018. The museum’s main exhibition focuses on contemporary design in the modern setting, and there are many wonderful temporary exhibitions offering unique insights into niche areas of design, past and present. The museum also helps to host workshops and presentations, ensuring that it’s a fundamental part of London’s modern and future design scene. Entrance to the permanent exhibition, entitled ‘Designer Maker User’ is entirely free. Although the museum doesn’t necessarily have the history of the Victoria and Albert Museum, it’s of much more interest to those looking for an insight into more modern developments in design, rather than history.
Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum – usually referred to by Londoners as the V & A – is found opposite the Natural History Museum, also on Exhibition Road. This is one of London’s most historic and popular museums, housing over 2 million different objects of art covering thousands of years of human history, and displayed over hundreds of galleries.
In 1851, the Great Exhibition was held in London, with huge input from Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The Victoria and Albert Museum was opened the following year using some of the displays from the Great Exhibition. A few years later, the museum was permanently moved to its current location where it has expanded ever since.
The museum’s sole focus is on art and design, and within its walls you can find exhibits ranging from classic paintings and ancient artwork to contemporary photography and artistic design. The museum aims to showcase human talent and creativity, and to chart the evolution of art through the centuries. It’s an incredibly varied space and it would be impossible to explore everything on display in one day, perhaps even in a lifetime – there this is that much to see. Entrance is free to the permanent exhibits, ensuring that you can return time after time to explore, while on site there is a fantastic selection of cafes to keep you fuelled during your trip to the V & A.
Leighton House Museum
Next to the Design Museum, also on Kensington High Street, you can find the Leighton House Museum, a lesser-known museum that is dedicated to the Victorian painter Frederic Leighton. The museum is a great example of the art scene that swept through Kensington in the 19th century as the area became an integral part of central London and began to be developed by the rich, the wealthy and intellectuals. The museum is found in the painter’s home and personal studio, and is a heritage building that is a wonderful example of Kensington’s Victorian architecture.
The museum tells the story of Frederic Leighton, who became famous for his work that portrayed a mixture of biblical scenes and classical scenes from the ancient world. He was knighted for his efforts in the art world, and then later became a Baron. He died though, just one day after he was given this title, an unfortunate end to his illustrious life. The museum displays much of his work and, although these days he may not be so well known, it’s a wonderful opportunity to explore the life and work of a man who in his day was top of the game.
Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum
If you are looking for an intriguing and offbeat museum to visit, or if you have an interest in Polish history, then an excellent place to visit is the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum which is found at the northern end of Exhibition Road, opposite Hyde Park. The institution was established after World War II when many of the thousands of Polish soldiers and airmen who had fought from Britain after the fall of Poland were left in exile when the Soviets then occupied their country. As a memorial to their fallen comrades and as a way to continue their culture in London, the Polish Institute was established as a place of study and research. A museum was established too and dedicated to Polish General Wladyslaw Sikorski, who acted as the Polish Prime Minister in exile and who was then killed during the war.
The museum tells the tale of an almost forgotten part of British history, through the showcasing of Polish history, and is a reminder that many nationalities fought against both German and communism during the war. The museum is only open Tuesdays to Fridays and only from 2-4pm. When it is open, there are free tours available of this intriguing and unique museum.
National Army Museum
Found on the outskirts of South Kensington, in Chelsea, an area that has long been associated with army veterans due to the famous military hospital here, the National Army Museum is an interesting place to learn more about Britain’s military history. The museum charts the history of British armed forces, primarily focusing on the evolution of the army through the centuries.
The museum tells the stories of individual soldiers through its extensive displays, alongside an overall vision of the army itself, from its early days through to modern Special Forces. On display, you can find many historical artefacts, including equipment, medals and uniforms as well as displays of weaponry through the ages, generally from the English Civil War era through the modern conflicts around the world today. It’s a great look at the role the military has played in British history.
The museum is free to enter with several permanent galleries, as well as frequent temporary exhibitions. The temporary exhibitions explore unique aspects of military history, from the SAS through to the history of cavalry in the British military. It’s best to check ahead to see what is currently on at the museum.
Feeling inspired to check out London’s museums? While you’re in town, check out our range of fabulous London tours, or contact one of our experienced team to help plan your trip.