Britain's free museums and art collections are real boons to visitors accustomed to shelling out extra money on vacation or holiday at every turn. The art, artifacts and treasures of a destination are big factors in choosing to travel there in the first place. So it's frustrating to have to ration attractions because of the cost of tickets.
Not all museums in the UK are free but, happily, most of the greatest collections are. The permanent exhibits of the national museums, university collections and some local museums are usually free for all comers. And quite a few museums have a kids-go-free policy with generous age restrictions, making museum going easy for large families.
Best Free Museums - A Personal SelectionThis list of free museums, organized by general region, is by no means comprehensive. It's simply a selection of my personal favorites. Wherever your vacation takes you, you won't be far from several of the kinds of museums worth making a side trip to see...for free.
Free Museums in London and the South of England
- The British Museum The world's largest museum human history, culture and art. Among its treasures - the Rosetta Stone, objects from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, Egyptian mummies, discoveries from the Mesopotamian Kingdom of Ur, and enough material on any ancient culture you care to name to fill a week of museum going. One of the Seven Wonders of the United Kingdom.
- The Imperial War Museum London Not at all what you might expect, the Imperial War Museum in London is more about peace than war. A sobering experience and a worthwhile museum to seek out.
- The National Gallery Established in 1824 and now an anchor of the north side of Trafalgar Square, this is one of the world's greatest collections of European paintings from 1250 onward.
- The National Portrait Gallery Tucked alongside the National Gallery, this art gallery houses portraits of great Britons from Tudor times to the present. The collection includes paintings, drawings, photographs, cartoons and caricatures of prominent people from all walks of life. A fascinating place.
- The Natural History Museum Dinosaurs, minerals and gems and all sorts of creepy crawlies, housed in an amazing late Victorian building.
- Portsmouth City Museum Sherlock Holmes fans will love this little municipal museum for its amazing Sherlock Holmes/Arthur Conan Doyle collection. Conan Doyle wrote the first Sherlock Holmes story in Portsmouth so the city could be considered the fictional sleuth's birthplace.
- The Science Museum Space travel, automobiles, computers, lots of hands-on experiments and demonstrations in physics, chemistry, biology. Kids and grown up kids love it.
- The Tate Galleries London The Tate Modern and the Tate Britain are the two London establishments of a group of British art galleries. The Tate Britain houses British art from medieval times to the early 20th century while the Tate Modern, across the Thames, is the national collection of modern and contemporary art.
- Turner Contemporary Free public art gallery on the beach in Margate, Tracey Emin's home town. The gallery sits just about on the viewpoint from which Turner painted some of his most famous seascapes of Thanet.
- The Victoria and Albert Museum The V&A is a feast of design - fashion, furnishings, industrial design, from ancient to modern times. The changing and permanent exhibitions are great fun. Probably my favorite museum.
- The Wallace Collection 18th and 19th century European and French paintings in a great London town mansion. This is where to see "The Laughing Cavalier" by Frans Hals.
Heart of England, East of England and the MidlandsThe swathe of England across the middle from west to east has several outstanding, free museums.
- The Ashmolean The UK's oldest museum open to the public is part of Oxford University. It underwent a £61 million transformation in 2009, bringing its fascinating collections of art, archaeology, antiquities and curiousities into the 21st century.
- BMAG The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has one of the finest collections of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the world. It's also home to the Staffordshire Hoard of Anglo Saxon gold.
- IKON Birmingham's entertaining contemporary art space is housed in a spacious, converted schoolhouse. Exhibitions change all the time but a permanent feature is the amazing singing elevator (lift).
- The Fitzwilliam Museum This is Cambridge University's free public museum. Housed in a sprawling complex that includes the original, 19th century founders building as well as several 20th century additions, it has an impressive art collection and fascinating archaeological and ethnological collections. Definitely a full days outing for a museum lover.
- The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is a free art gallery on the grounds of the University of East Anglia in Norwich. It's carefully curated collections include modern and contemporary art, the eclectic Sainsbury Collections of modern painting and sculpture along with art from Africa, the Pacific, the Americas, Asia, Egypt, medieval Europe and the ancient Mediterranean; The UEA Collection of Abstract and Constructivist Art, Architecture and Design and more. It's all housed in architect Sir Norman Foster's first major public building.
Yorkshire and the North
- Kelham Island This museum of heavy industry and big machines is only free during Sheffield school vacations. Come here to see the last surviving, complete Bessemer converter. The Bessemer process for converting pig iron to steel was developed in Sheffield. Other gigantic machines - from giant steam engines to Rolls Royce jet engines enthrall little boys young and old on this 900 year old man made island.
- The Imperial War Museum North in Manchester looks at the impact of war on people. It's housed in a stunning, steel-clad building by World Trade Center architect Daniel Liebeskind.
- The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool is the only museum of its kind in the world. The slave trade was important in the 18th and 19th century maritime history of Liverpool and this museum looks at all aspects of historical and contemporary slavery and is an international hub for resources on human rights issues.
- The Leeds Art Gallery houses 20th century British artwork and sculpture, including work of nearly native sons and daughters Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Look for the self-portrait of Walter Sickert who some believe may have been Jack the Ripper.
- Millennium Gallery Stunning Sheffield metalwork, craft and design are showcased at this city center gallery along with artist, educator and social philosopher John Ruskin's the unusual collection of original source materials.
- National Railway Museum Right next to the York train station, train spotters and railway buffs will have a field day exploring all sorts of famous locomotives and railway cars.
- Royal Armouries, Leeds British and world armor through the ages is more fun than you might expect. There are full suits of Samurai armor and an amazing full suit of Indian elephant armor.
- The Kelvingrove Museum Opened shortly after Queen Victoria's death, this museum's approach to accumulating art, natural history, arms and armor is in the best of Victorian traditions. Amongst its treasures are Salvador Dali's "Christ of St. John of the Cross" and a real World War II Spitfire.
- The Riverside Museum Scotland's Museum of Transport emphasizes public transportation with a spotlight on Glasgow industry and technology. Opened in 2011, it occupies a building by internationally respected architect Zaha Hadid with a riverside facade entirely of glass.
- The National Galleries of Scotland. Edinburgh has three great galleries and museums within the city center for very close by. The Scottish National Gallery is home to the national collection of fine art,from the early Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. It's one of Edinburgh's most popular attractions. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art occupies two impressive buildings filled with the national collection of modern and contemporary art.The Scottish National Portrait Gallery underwent nearly £18 million worth of renovations in 2011, the first in its 120 year history.The portrait gallery has several trails to follow to bring the personalities of Scottish history to life. I particularly like the Fur Coat an' Nae Knickers trail that takes an irreverant look at some familiar faces.