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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

A Quick Guide to Three Museums in London

A bust of Ramses II from Egypt on display at the British Museum

I had the mindset to hit as many of the museums in London as I could. In the end I only had time – and sometimes not nearly enough – to hit three of the city’s best museums. And two of them could easily fight for the best museum I have ever visited, they were that good. On top of the priceless art and artifacts, the bonus to going to each of the museums was that they were free. And that’s a considerable bonus, when you think about how expensive London is to visit. So forget about having to shell out several dollars, or quid as the case may be, as you’d have to do in New York City or Paris, these gems are free and worth the time to see them.

TATE MODERN

Outside the Tate Modern

I stopped at the Tate Modern while on a River Thames Cruise. It was as easy as hopping off the boat, walking passed Shakespeare’s Globe, and under the Millennium Bridge. There was no fee, no one stopping me to say I couldn’t take pictures, I just walked right on in and admired some amazing modern art. Well, in all due fairness, a handful of amazing modern art amongst a throng of what I considered garbage.

A lot of what is on display at London’s Tate Modern is not to my liking. But if you have the patience to sift through some of the junk, you’ll definitely come across some more than amazing works. A room full of giant paintings by Mark Rothko – sadly hidden in Room 6 in the back corner on the third floor – for example, was one of a handful of highlights for me:

Mark Rothko on display at the Tate Modern

As I wandered through the galleries I stumbled upon a room similar to the one where Rothko’s work was displayed, although lighted much differently. It was brighter in the room – Room 7 in the back of the fourth floor – where Cy Twombly’s untitled works were on display. While my friends didn’t care much for it, saying it’s something they could just as easily do, I loved his use of curves and color and could have sat contentedly in the gallery for some time. The man who I consider the king of modern art was calling, though.

Untitled works by artist Cy Twombly in the Tate Modern

I had no idea any of the works by Pablo Picasso would be on display at the Tate Modern. Walking through one of the galleries, not really giving anything much thought, I did a double take and called my friends back. They were just about to walk out the exit of the Cubism exhibit – Room 11 on the fourth floor, which is right around the corner from Twombly’s works –  when I caught them and pointed out Picasso’s Seated Nude, simply recognizing it by the cubist and blue styles I’ve seen in many other of his works.

Pablo Picasso’s Seated Nude in the Tate Modern

The Tate Modern’s collection is housed in an old power plant building, which means there is more than enough room for lots and lots of quality art. As I said, though, there was a lot I did not care for. One of the pieces of art I frowned upon was a living work. After walking through the main entrance by the Thames, we walked passed a store and an information counter to the staircase and escalator leading to the galleries. Before heading up to the galleries my friends and I paused to peer into the massively open space that is one half of the building. While looking down I noticed a lot of people walking slowly. Very slowly. Very. Slowly. I understand and appreciate how some consider that to be art, but, for me, it was simply people with nothing better to do with their time. And it wasn’t worth mine to watch any longer when works by artists like Rothko, Twombly, and Picasso were on display on the upper levels.

People walking very slowly in the Tate Modern

 

THE NATIONAL GALLERY

Outside the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square

If I lived in London I would spend every possible moment in the National Gallery. Like the Tate Modern it is free. How that is financially possible I’m not about to question. All I know is that I would happily spend my days lounging and admiring master artists like Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Van Gogh, and Monet and Cezanne for absolutely nothing. Not a single dime.

By the time my friends and I made it Trafalgar Square they were spent. I have to give them credit, though; for a couple who don’t care much for sightseeing, they really did an excellent job keeping up with me while I ran through every possible stop as though I were Clark Griswold from one of the Vacation movies. So while I sprinted through the National Gallery – literally ran – they sat at a café sipping on some coffee. Since I didn’t want to leave them waiting for long, I made it a point to grab a map upon entry and locate the highlights of the museum. I know I missed a lot, I stumbled upon a few other pieces – like Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, located in Room 58 in the annex wing – which I had missed on the map.

Among the 2,300 paintings from the mid-13th century to the 19th century, here are some of my favorites and the rooms where they can be found:

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers can be found in Room 45

Van Gogh’s Wheatfiled with Cypresses can be found in Room 45

Cezanne’s Bathers can be found in Room 45

Monet’s Snows Scene at Argenteuil can be found in Room 43

Da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks can be found in Room 57

Photography is not allowed in the National Gallery, so these pictures are all postcards I purchased in the gift shop. If you want more, I highly recommend checking out the museum’s 30 Highlight Painting section on their website. There you should find plenty of inspiration to cause you to pull out your credit card and book a trip to see these great works and more. Much more; Rembrandt (Room 24), Caravaggio (Room 32), and Michelangelo (Room 8) are all there and more. And so, since everything is so spread out amongst all of the rooms, you really can’t go wrong no matter where you turn in the National Gallery. Just make sure to take enough time to see everything you like, using a map you can get upon entrance to help point you in the right direction.

THE BRITISH MUSEUM

The main entrance to the British Museum

I had about as much time to see the famed British Museum – 90 minutes in total – as I did to see the National Gallery. Yes, I agree, that’s a shame. But with some careful planning, and loosely following the “Don’t Miss” suggestions on the museum’s map, I was able to hit most of the museum’s highlights. There are certainly a lot of things I missed, I won’t lie, but I most definitely plan to return in the near future and spend much more time, and write a more thorough guide, in each museum, and then some.

A Roman mosaic in the British Museum

We accidentally wandered into the museum by the back entrance. Because of this, we ended up in some halls we weren’t particularly interested in. But we also found some amazing pieces – like Roman mosaics from the B.C. era – which we likely would not have seen otherwise. These were located in the staircases leading down from rooms on the upper floor – Halls 53 to 65 – of the museum. Nonetheless, I recommend going for the grand entrance and walking through the main doors. From there, right at the start, you’ll be impressed by the amazing glass-domed ceiling and the statue of Discobolus.

Discobolus and the British Museum’s glass dome

After admiring some of the works in the giant atrium, hang a left at the gift shop and go into Room 4. You’ll run right into one of the most important historical artifacts in the world, the Rosetta Stone – best known for cracking the code for hieroglyphics by using Ancient Greek. In truth, it’s not very impressive to behold artistically – it’s just a big black stone. But its significance is undeniable and most definitely worth a short look. What’s truly impressive is what lays beyond it in that wing of the building.

The crowd around the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum

Ancient Egyptian and Greek wonders – including a multitude of items from the Athenian Acropolis – are on displays. And they are nothing short of fantastic. My friend, who, as I said, is not into sightseeing, continually exclaimed his delight at the wonders as we passed from room to room. And he continued to talk about it all across the street at a pub at the end of our visit. I could only agree with the man, since the items are some of the most precious artifacts I’ve ever seen.

Inside the British Museum’s Greek Parthenon Sculpture Hall

Sculptures from the Greek Parthenon in the British Museum

Several other galleries make up the British Museum, including pieces from not just Europe, but also the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. I wanted to see more of it, but, to put it in my friend’s words, we were simply knackered. We were at the end of a long week of sightseeing and both absolutely exhausted. So, since I had no doubt I would return to see more of London, I agreed to call it quits and save the rest for my return journey.

Sure, as I said, I missed a great deal of the British Museum. A whole wing and most of the upper floors, to be exact. It would be easy to spend several days in there and not be bored, not see the same item, and still spend very little time examining each piece.  There is just so much there that you could spend weeks and weeks in it by simply taking a minute at each artifact. That, as well as more time for the National Gallery, will be reserved for my follow up visit, which will hopefully happen this next year.

Seated Sakhmet from Egypt in the British Museum

I left London happy with what I had seen in the city’s three main museums, but also disappointed that I did not have more time in each of them nor time for many of the other great museums in London. Just like trying to see other great cities of the world, though – Paris, New York City, Beijing – it’s just not possible to do it in a week. And that was all the time I had to spare for this visit. But, as I said, a return journey is already on the brain and will most definitely happen in the near future; how could I not be enticed after seeing such great wonders on my first trip?!?

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7 Comments on “A Quick Guide to Three Museums in London”

  1. The Guy December 18, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

    Your pictures of the British Museum brought back lots of memories for me. The fact the museums are free (apart from special exhibits) is a real plus. Like you I found there is so much to see that it can take hours or a day to only see half of it. I think you should break it into little chunks and keep going back to see a little bit more each time before you get too tired.

    • Jason's Travels December 18, 2012 at 7:27 pm #

      I’ll definitely be back to see more and do more; I’m hoping to return this next year. There’s so much to do and see, too, that I’m not sure I could really fit any of it all in one story, either, even if for one museum.

  2. The Guy December 18, 2012 at 7:22 pm #

    Great post and it just shows the fabulous free opportunities when travelling.

    Merry Christmas.

    • Jason's Travels December 18, 2012 at 7:29 pm #

      Thanks! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, too.

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