A Guide to visiting the British Museum

The British Museum is one of the most famous museums in England – a collection of over 8 million items dedicated to human history, art and culture. Located in London, and established in 1753, it was the first public national museum in the world. Its collection is truly astounding and beautifully presented, with absolutely no way of seeing everything in just one day.

It has to be acknowledged however, that the breadth of the collection is a result of British colonialization, and that the original collection was curated by Sir Hans Sloane who was a traveller, but also a slave owner. As the museum’s collection expanded over time, its ownership of some of its most famous objects originating in other countries is disputed and remains the subject of international controversy today through repatriation claims – most notably in relation to the Elgin (Parthenon) marbles of Greece, and the Rosetta Stone of Egypt.


What to see – Top 10 Highlights

1. The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is a stone made in around 200BC with an Egyptian decree written on it in 3 languages – Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script and Ancient Greek. It was effectively the way in which hieroglyphs were translated because pre the Rosetta Stone, no-one could decipher them.

The stone was carved in Egypt and displayed in a temple, but eventually used as building material in the construction of Fort Julien near the town of Rosetta. It was discovered there in 1799 by the French. When the British defeated the French they took the stone to London in 1801, and it’s been on display in the British Museum since 1802.

The stone itself

Should it be returned? It had been used as building material locally anyway, so there is an argument that taking it back to England enabled its preservation. Even so, perhaps now such an important item should head back to its origins.

2. Sutton Hoo Mask and Burial Ship

Wohoo, an item without controversial origins. Sutton Hoo is where the most valuable treasures ever found on British soil were discovered in 1939, when a lady discovered the burial site of an Anglo Saxon King! The most likely candidate is King Raedwald of East Anglia, the most powerful King in England in the 600s and who died in around 624 CE. The famous King’s mask is on display at The British Museum.

I actually visited Sutton Hoo in the summer of 2021, and you can read my post on it and the surrounding area HERE.

3. Egyptian Mummies

Some of the most popular galleries at the British Museum are dedicated to Ancient Egypt. The museum has a collection of over 140 mummies and coffins of which only a small number are on display due to space and preservation restrictions. They are absolutely incredible though, and some date back as far as 1600BC!!!

4. Enlightenment Gallery

Dedicated to the 18th-century Enlightenment era, this beautiful gallery was once known as the King’s Library. It was built between 1823 and 1827 to house over 60,000 books collected by King George III. The gallery now has lots of pieces in it, including fossils, ancient artefacts, Roman pots and more, which acts as more of an introduction to the Museum before seeing the more detailed galleries.

The beautiful Enlightenment Gallery

5. The Great Hall

Wow the Great Hall is beautiful. Arriving there for the first time really does make you just take it all in for a while. The Hall was finished in 2000 and is the largest covered square in Europe, creating a central hub in the Museum’s quadrangle shape! For the most amazing view, turn with your back to the entrance and take the stairs up one floor until you come out in a room with a small gallery window – look out of it, this is the view you get!

View to the Great Hall

6. The Parthenon Marbles

Back to controversy we go. The classical Greek sculptures on display were originally part of the Parthenon – you know, that over 2000 year old incredible temple in Athens. A rich Englishman – Lord Elgin, chiselled them off and brought them back to England in 1801 (the same year as the Rosetta Stone!). Even at the time this was controversial, and today The Acropolis Museum in Athens displays a portion of the complete frieze, aligned in orientation and within sight of the Parthenon, with the position of the missing elements clearly marked and space left should they be returned to their home city. I really hope they are.

Parthenon Marbles

7. Japanese Samurai

The beautifully ornate ensemble was made in the 1700s for a samurai lord in western Japan when armour like this was mostly used ceremonially. The armour was recently preserved, taking 8 months and during which it was cleaned using special brushes and a museum vacuum cleaner. Textile conservators secured loose fibres and added additional support where needed, and finally created a new mount for the object. It’s really beautiful, if a little smaller than I expected!

The amazing Samurai

8. The Lewis Chessman

These were actually the highlight of my museum visit. The chessmen were made in the 1100s and are carved from walrus ivory. They were discovered in 1831 on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland in 1831.  They constitute some of the few complete, surviving medieval chess sets. Today, 82 pieces are owned and usually exhibited by the British Museum, 11 are on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and there are 2 at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde – you can read about my visit HERE.

Aren’t they just the best?!

I was also watching Harry Potter the other day and noticed that in Film 2 – The Chamber of Secrets, the chess pieces used when Harry and Ron are playing is a Lewis Chessmen replica set, sold at the British Museum!

9. Easter Island Mo’ai

Well we couldn’t go too long without some controversy could we? When Commodore Richard Powell arrived on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in 1868, the statues were buried deep in the earth at the ceremonial village of Orongo, cloaked by a stone structure. Powell asked the islanders to help to excavate the mo’ai, and 2 were taken on a ship back to England and gifted to Queen Victoria. The Queen then donated them to the British Museum.

The beautiful Mo’ai

Easter Islanders are now calling for the statues to be returned to their homeland, but it should be said that they have shown great gratitude towards the museum for taking such good care of their ancestors, saying they are ‘being very respectful in asking for their return’.

10. Special Exhibitions

The British Museum rotates special exhibitions on a quarterly basis. This means there is always something new to see at the museum, and the carefully curated collections may be on loan from other countries or museums meaning you can see other collections without having to travel. Examples over the years have included exhibitions on Tutankhamun, The Vikings, The Arctic, Troy, and Emperor Nero.

At the time of my visit there were 2 special exhibitions – one on Hokusai and one on Peru. Hokusai was a Japanese artist born in 1760 who lived until he was almost 90 and is famous for his beautiful, intricate drawings. He was my main reason for visiting the museum as my Granny loved his work and I know she would have loved the exhibition.

The famous wave

The Peru exhibition told the story of Peru through the ages, to mark Peru’s bicentennial year of independence. The exhibition highlights the history, beliefs and cultural achievements of the different peoples who lived here from around 2500 BC to the arrival of Europeans in the 1500s, and their legacy in the centuries that followed. It was a small but fascinating exhibition.

Traditional statues and bags for Coca


There are of course, many more than 10 main things to see in the Museum. You can also check out The Barnack Burial, a bronze age skeleton and The tomb-chapel of Nebamun, an Egyptian accountant in 1350BC. Then there’s also the famous Hinton St Mary Mosaic from Roman Britain, and amazing collections from The Islamic World, Ancient Iran, Mesopotamia and Nubia galleries. The Assyrian Lion Hunt Reliefs, sculptures and Balawat Gates are also absolutely incredible.


Food & Drink at the Museum

The Museum has various food and drink options. On the ground floor of the Great Hall is the Court cafe, serving tea, coffee and snacks. It sometimes also serves afternoon tea when bookings are made ahead.

On the third floor of The Great Hall is the wonderful Great Court restaurant, which serves to a menu of hot meals, wine and cocktails. As we visited at Christmas, we treated ourselves to a Christmas lunch and Prosecco – not the worst way to spend a few hours! When I visited again in February, the food looked suspiciously similar minus the stuffing and sprouts.

Also on site is a Pizzeria in the south-west corner of the Ground floor – just turn left immediately after you enter the Main Entrance and go past the cloakroom following the signs, as well as a first floor café lounge, and outdoor dining in the summer.

Outside the Museum


Getting to the Museum

Getting to the museum is straightforward. If you’re arriving at major train stations King’s Cross, St Pancras or London Euston you can walk to the museum within 20 minutes. If not, the nearest Tube stations are Russell Square (Piccadilly line), Tottenham Court Road (Central line) or Holborn (Central/Piccadilly lines).

Entrance in to the museum is free so you can just walk in without a ticket, although in COVID times you may need to book an entrance slot. If you want to visit the special exhibitions, they do normally cost a bit extra, ranging from around £5-£20 a ticket.


I found the British Museum housed an incredible collection which I have been privileged to see, and I highly recommend a visit to this amazing place if you get the chance.

However, I also acknowledge that the origins of some of these pieces are uncomfortable and if the originating nation wants them back and can preserve them to the same level as we can here in England, I totally see the argument. I don’t doubt the Mo’ai statues would be more appreciated and treasured on Easter Island than in London with hundreds of tourists trekking past largely oblivious to their significance. Perhaps in time the British Museum should be about British history, with special exhibitions curated temporarily on rotation from other countries. Though you could argue Colonialism and Empire is a part of our history, and one we should address but not erase. What do you think? Stay safe and happy travelling everyone!

36 Comments

  1. Such a magnificent museum. I’d love to visit to see items like the Rosetta Stone. It is good that you mention the problem of ownership. The British Museum has the same problem as many other museums. The collections are very educational but are often the result of looting or purchases for much less than fair value. An item the Acropolis Museum would like to reclaim is the caryatid from the Erechtheion’s Porch of the Maidens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for reading and I’m glad you found it interesting. I absolutely agree, and I really think the Acropolis items are so controversial they should sit where they belong in Athens. History is very complicated, but we absolutely stole a lot of these things and we shouldn’t ignore that.

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  2. What a wonderful guide on this incredible museum. It is one of those places that I’ve always wanted to visit, but at the same time I would nervous about it because how you even begin to grasp what is there and where to go to see it. So this guide is perfect for people like me who would be going for the first time. With so much to see, it’s so nice to have a more easily digestible list of the must sees as a place to start. And I was excited to see the chessmen you wrote about from your visit to the Viking museum! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Meg, appreciate you reading. yes it’s taken me a few visits now to actually get a grasp of the layout and what’s there. There is no way you can see everything in a day and most people only visit for a couple of hours which means missing a lot of the good things if you don’t know what to look for! I love the chessmen, they are my favourites 🙂 Have a lovely evening!

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  3. The content of the British Museum you’ve shown looks amazing, Hannah, as does the actual facility in those related pictures. A wonderful way to spend the day, indeed. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Most welcome, my friend. You see such amazing places, and document your travels so well. Have a great day, dear Hannah 🙂

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  4. Wow, what a fascinating place to visit. I love Enlightenment Gallery and the Great Hall, but if there is one thing I would be eager to see the most, it would be the Lewis Chessman. I just came back from another trip to Edinburgh where I visited the National Museum of Scotland once more just to see the fascinating figurines. Along the way, I even bought a few books; this way I can deepen my knowledge about the world’s most famous chess pieces, the Lewis Chessmen. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. Thanks so much for reading Aiva – and I totally agree on the chessmen, they were my highlight too! That’s great you have seen them in the Scotland Museum, I must complete the set and visit there too. Have a lovely evening 🙂 xx

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  5. I had a whirlwind of a visit to the British Museum during my equally brief time in London. I rushed for a visit in the last 90 minutes before the museum closed at the end of the day, so I didn’t have time to take in the exhibits as much as I would’ve liked, let alone have seen all of them! I personally believe that it is problematic to have exhibits from other cultures like the Rapa Nui’s Moai statues and the Rosetta Stone, especially if they were “stolen” from the original civilizations. I guess it’ll remain a controversy, but at least visitors can enjoy them without having to travel further otherwise (i.e. to Easter Island, Egypt, etc).

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    1. I’m so glad you got to visit – 90 minutes is still a decent amount of time to see some of the main items. I agree with you, it is problematic and the origin stories very uncomfortable. I hope that we give some of them back one day soon. Thanks so much for reading 🙂

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  6. Wow Hannah, so many amazing pieces of history to be see here! The Egyptian Mummies is beautiful, so is the view over the Great Hall! It doesn’t matter from which country the pieces are coming from … it still is history that is mind-blowing (and great that its been taking such good care of)!

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  7. Great post! I remember going to the British Museum quite some time ago, when I was a kid and can only remember the Rosetta Stone and Egypt part, mainly because I was studying that at school at the time! Now I’de be really curious to go back and check the Easter Island statues! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  8. This was quite a detailed description of the museum! I’m always finding that, in a huge place like that, I will choose a handful of departments that interest me for more of a deep dive than trying to cruise through it all.
    In these modern times, we recognize the value of ancient civilizations and how much looting has happened over the years to bring back treasures. I think the growing practice of returned items to their original homes is a good one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Ruth, I’m glad you enjoyed the tour. I am in agreement around choosing departments and breaking it up bit by bit, otherwise you don’t really take in anything if you cruise around it all seeing nothing in detail! Thanks for reading 🙂

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