Having free entry to major museums is one of the best things about London. But much as we love the big ones like the V&A, Natural History Museum and Tate, it’s worth spending a little time and (occasionally) no more than a tenner on the more unusual free and cheap museums in London. If budget trips to ornate private homes, sites of medical and engineering history, entertainment paraphernalia and weird anthropological collections are your bag, read on.

Unusual Free Museums in London

Sir John Soane’s Museum

It’s the Georgian home of famous London architect Sir John Soane, whose work included the old Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery. The museum has been preserved as it was at the time of his death 180 years ago, left for the benefit of amateurs and students as per his wish and an Act of Parliament.

Here, you’ll find a huge collection of antiquities, including thousands of architectural drawings, sculptures, furniture, and artworks by British artists Hogarth and JMW Turner. Last year saw the completion of a seven-year restoration project. The work opened up previously unseen spaces like the kitchens, basement anterooms and and catacombs filled with Soane’s collection of Roman artefacts.

Nearest Tube: Holborn
Tickets: Free

Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum

Photo by Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum used under CC

Walthamstow is also home to the better-known (and lovely) William Morris Gallery, but if you’re interested in something a bit more niche, check out the Pumphouse Museum. As the name suggests, the building is an old water pumping station, and the museum is dedicated to transport, technology, and local industrial history.

Exhibits include old Victoria Line carriages (often used for filming and photoshoots), old Victorian pumps and compressors. Basically, anyone who likes to nerd out over old locomotive and industrial revolution machinery will be well rewarded by a weekend trip to this place. You’ll have to time it right, though; it’s only open on Sundays between 11:00-15:00 (or other days by prior arrangements.) On the last Sunday of each month you can see old steam engines in action.

Nearest Tube: Blackhorse Road
Tickets: Free – donations welcome

Horniman Museum

Museum entrance and clocktower
Photo by nrssmith

Home to an infamous over-stuffed Walrus (so legendary, there is a pub in nearby New Cross called The Fat Walrus). Perhaps more importantly, it’s a large, Victorian (yeah, those guys again!) anthropological museum and gardens, with natural history exhibits behind glass cases and a shedload of cool musical instruments—around 1300 of them.

In fact it’s more like several museums in one place. The Horniman also has an aquarium, a Butterfly House, 16 acres of beautifully-landscaped gardens including the Animal Walk, and the Hands on Base—where you’re allowed to handle some of the objects displayed. If Mexican masks and musical instrument experiments are your thing, grab your chance here.

There are some more modern elements though. New offerings include temporary exhibitions like 2022’s Cats and Dogs, where you can explore what it’s like to be one of our feline friends and devoted doggos. The main museum and gardens are free, but there is a small charge for the aquarium, Butterfly House and temporary exhibitions.

Where: Forest Hill
Cost: Free

19 Princelet Street

Large hallway of an old home
Photo by Tired of London used under CC

Hidden behind some battered old doors on a Spitalfields house lie some secrets of London’s multicultural heritage. 19 Princelet street was formerly called The Museum of Immigration and Diversity, the first of its kind.

The house has an interesting history; it was originally the home of the Ogier family who escaped persecution in France in 1719 and later prospered in the silk-weaving trade. It would go on to house Irish immigrants, and later Jewish communities from Eastern Europe who installed the Synagogue.

The main exhibition on display is Suitcases and Sanctuary, spread over three floors, which was created by children to explore waves of immigration through personal items, luggage and poems.

Going there requires a bit of forward planning as it’s only open at certain times of the year—it’s too fragile to take large numbers, but you can book group visits at a month’s notice.

Nearest Tube: Liverpool Street
Tickets: Free – donations welcome

The Clockmakers’ Museum

The world’s oldest clock and watch collection is now a museum housed within the Science Museum. The pocket watches in particular are gorgeous and guaranteed to make you come over all Bridgerton – or Peaky Blinders. Some clocks still strike the hour, so for maximum chime value aim to be there at midday.

Nearest Tube: South Kensington
Tickets: Free, but currently need to be booked in advance

The Grant Museum of Zoology

It’s not all about the jar of moles. The Grant Museum also houses the world’s rarest skeleton (a Quagga), dodo bones, delicately intricate glass models of sea creatures and the skull and antlers of a giant deer. Okay, and a big jar of moles.

Nearest Tube: Warren Street, Euston Square, Goodge Street
Tickets: Free

The Bank of England Museum

Visit the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, aka the Bank of England, and trace the history of banknotes. Can you spot a forgery? Name all the people celebrated on banknotes? Pick up a real gold bar? There’s only one way to find out.
Note that this museum is closed at weekends: opening hours are Monday-Friday 10am-5pm.

Nearest Tube: Bank (unsurprisingly)
Tickets: Free

Wellcome Collection

Alongside permanent exhibitions Being Human and Medicine Man, there is usually a temporary exhibition within the broad scope of health and human experience and the connections between science, medicine, life and art. It is always worth dropping by here to see what’s on – plus, they have a great shop and cafe.

Nearest Tube: Euston Square
Tickets: Free

Museum of the Home

Previously known as the Geffrye Museum, prepare to start asking yourself some deep questions about how what you display in your home expresses your identity, whether that defines you or how others see you, and what ‘home’ actually means. On a less profound note, they also have rooms and gardens through the ages, a lovely cafe – and a summer pyjama party.

Nearest Tube: Liverpool Street, Old Street
Tickets: Free, but book online to guarantee entry

Two Temple Place

In addition to regular exhibitions and one of the most gorgeous venues (and this is London, the competition is fierce), 2TP hosts tons of free family events, music evenings and pay-what-you-can workshops.

Nearest Tube: Temple
Tickets: Free

The Queen’s House, Greenwich

Perhaps the least-known of Greenwich’s big four, after the Royal Observatory, National Maritime Museum and the Cutty Sark, the Queen’s House by Inigo Jones is home to the iconic Armada portrait of Elizabeth I, the stunning and uber-Instagrammable tulip stairs, some fabulous ornate ceilings and the All The Queen’s Men exhibition, looking at the role of the queen’s courtiers in her life.

Nearest Tube: Cutty Sark DLR
Tickets: Free

Museum of London Docklands

Housed in the original No.1 Warehouse of the West India Docks, you can get interactive with testing the weight of a selection of docker’s tools and immerse yourself in docklands life. Changing exhibitions spotlight different aspects of the importance of the river Thames to London.

Nearest Tube: Canary Wharf
Tickets: Free

The Design Museum

Fascinating look at the role of design in our everyday lives, from designing a car on the Jaguar/Land Rover design app to watching a 3D printer at work. The Balcony Gallery on level 1 is home to a changing series of free displays – and the shop is fabulous.

Nearest Tube: High Street Kensington
Tickets: Free

The Hard Rock Vault

London’s only rock ‘n’ roll museum is small but mighty, with memorabilia from your favourite rockers. As far as venues go, it’s also pretty cool – it’s in a vault once used to protect the Queen’s valuables in what used to be a Coutts bank.

Nearest Tube: Green Park
Tickets: Free, with the purchase of food/drink from the restaurant; check availability

Unusual Cheap(ish) Museums in London

Old Operating Theatre

Operating theatre
Photo by Andrew Stawarz used under CC

As the name suggests, it’s an old operating theatre. It’s the only 19th-century operating theatre in the country, and it’s nestled in the attic of an old church opposite Guy’s Hospital. Climb up the wooden steps to see original furniture and gruesome-looking surgical implements. Discover the grisly stories of pre-anesthetic operations carried out on poor women who were the patients there.

It’s a theatre in two senses of the word; the wooden benches overlooking the operating table were often filled with students, peering at the unfortunate women. Bonus fact: it’s also known as the Herb Garret, as herbs and dried heads of opium plants were found in the rafters.

Nearest Tube: London Bridge
Tickets: £7.50

The Cinema Museum

We’ve shown our love for this one before, but it bears repeating. Truly one of London’s hidden gems, it’s tucked down a residential street in Kennington. The former Victorian workhouse (and residence of  a young Charlie Chaplin) is now a treasure trove for cinema lovers. The exterior still looks like an old workhouse, but it houses a collection of artefacts and old film equipment going as far back as the 1890s.

It’s volunteer-run, and only open for pre-booked tours. Definitely worth a tenner for film buffs, not so much if you’re not into film—but if you are, it’s a true delight. The museum is also open for talks, screenings, markets and performances often around the £5 mark.

Nearest Tube: Kennington, Elephant & Castle
Tickets: £10.00

Lion in top hat at the Victor Wynd Museum
Stop for a drink with a lion at the Victor Wynd Museum | Photo by Oskar Proctor

The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art and UnNatural History

I’m putting a big Parental Advisory warning on this one – it’s not for the remotely delicate, prudish, squeamish or faint of heart. For all of you still reading who have their interest piqued rather than dampened by this, you’re going to love this place. It’s an absolute treasure – eccentric doesn’t even begin to cover it.

In Wynd’s own words, it’s not so much a museum as a ‘Wunderkabinett – a mirror to a world so suffused with miracles and beauty that any attempt at categorization is bound to fail’. Consequently expect to see fairy skeletons, retro erotic lierature, occult artefacts, celebrity body hair (yes, that body hair) and lots of taxidermy.
Admission includes a free cup of tea on request.

Nearest Tube: Bethnal Green
Tickets: £10.00, £5.00 for walk-ins on Thursdays. More unusual concessions include those who can’t afford full price and those who have pre-booked a drink at the absinthe bar. As Wynd says, ‘We advise you to visit the museum after you have had your drink as you will appreciate it more’.

Bow Street Police Museum

Located on the site of the 1881 Bow Street Magistrates’ Court and Police Station, this museum of London policing has galleries in former prison cells (all clean and shiny now). Tracing the links between historical Covent Garden and the police force from the Bow Street Runners onwards is a particularly interesting London story.

Nearest Tube: Covent Garden
Tickets: £6.00

The Brunel Museum

Welcome to the engineering dynasty that was the Brunels. Tour the Thames Tunnel Shaft sixteen metres underground, track the considerable dramas of Brunel’s first and last projects and visit the site of the world’s first underground concert party in 1827. There are some lovely commemorative items, watercolours and an oil painting of the Thames Tunnel Banquet.
Note that this museum is closed during the week: opening hours are Saturday and Sunday 11am-5pm.

Nearest Tube: Bermondsey/Canada Water
Tickets: £6.00

London Canal Museum

Immerse yourself in London’s waterways; learn about the people who worked the boats and the horses that pulled them along the towpath and get to see inside a narrowboat cabin. The museum also focuses on the cargoes carried along the canals, particularly ice to meet the period’s new craze for ice cream.

Nearest Tube: King’s Cross
Tickets: £6.00

The Fan Museum

Everything you ever needed to know about the history of fans and fan-making illustrated by an eclectic collection of beautiful fans dating from the twelfth century. The setting alone is stunning: Grade II listed townhouses nestled in leafy Greenwich, plus a secret Japanese garden and elegant orangery for a spot of tea.

Nearest Tube: Greenwich overground/DLR
Tickets: £5.00

The Cartoon Museum

Fascinating library and collection of the history of cartoons, caricature, animation and comic art. Did you know that the original meaning of cartoon is a life-size preparatory drawing for a tapestry or mural and that the present meaning can be dated back to an illustration in Punch Magazine in 1843? Well, you do now, and there’s plenty more where that came from.

Nearest Tube: Oxford Circus
Tickets: £8.50

Museum of Brands

Wander through the Time Tunnel of consumer culture, celebrate the brands that have responded to charitable and social issues and immerse yourself in nostalgic packaging and jingles. For best value, take someone over 40 and get used to hearing, ‘Oh I remember those!’.

Nearest Tube: Ladbroke Grove
Tickets: £9.00

Clink Prison Museum

Based in one of England’s oldest prisons dating back to 1144, at this museum you can get up close and personal with medieval torture devices and delve into the murky crimes of its infamous residents.

Nearest Tube: London Bridge
Tickets: £8.80 (including booking fee)

Pollock’s Toy Museum

The UK’s oldest toy museum, housed in two historic buildings in Fitzrovia: stroll through displays of dolls’ houses, teddy bears, tin toys, puppets and the museum’s speciality, toy theatres. And if that’s not cool enough, it was a key inspiration for David Bowie in the late sixties (clowns, anyone?).

Nearest Tube: Goodge Street
Tickets: £9.00

Where museums have particularly limited opening hours (such as weekends only) we have made a note but it is always best to check on the museum’s website before you visit; hours can be subject to change.

Originally written by Becky Matthews, 2017. Latest update: April 2022

Written by:
BIO: Freelance writer, flâneuse and former blogger at London Girl About Town, Amanda is dedicated to sharing the latest on London's restaurants, bars, hidden quirks and general wonderfulness.
Filed under: Things to Do

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