The British Museum is usually on just about every list of must see things in London for good reason. I went on my first trip to London many years ago. After seeing some photographs of the British Museum’s new roof, I thought it might be worth a return visit.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend a whole day at the British Museum because London just has so much to see. I wondered if I would be able to see the British Museum highlights in three hours. Let me tell you about our quick visit to the British Museum and give you some tips if you are short on time too.
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We checked out the website to see if we could come up for a plan to see the British Museum in 3 hours. After all, we had done it for the Louvre. Well, we were pleasantly surprised to find a page on the British Museum website with their recommendations on what to see if you only have 3 hours. We printed the itinerary and were ready to go.
Our Visit to the British Museum
One of the best things about London is that most museums are free, including the British Museum. When we arrived, we were surprised to find a line to get in. You don’t have to buy tickets or pay an admission fee (except for special exhibits) but you do have to go through security. Luckily the line moved quickly.
Next, we picked up a map and checked our coats (another line). I was planning on getting a British Museum audio guide, but there were so many people in the museum that they were actually sold out. All this took about 20 minutes.
Then we were ready to actually start seeing the museum. We were able to quickly find the first item on the list, the Sloane astrolabe. Then we looked around the room a little more. The walls were covered with books, we saw all kinds of old books like Homer’s Odyssey. We probably could have spent more time looking through the books but we were on a mission. On to the next item…..
We struggled to find the Stone chopper from Tanzania, which was the next item on the list. After circling the room twice, we decided to ask the guard. He told us that it was no longer on display and it hadn’t been for a few years. The website had not been updated. I’m not sure when the list on the website was put together but I did also notice that the audio guide reference numbers were not up to date.
For the most part, we were able to find most items on the list, but we couldn’t find all of them. We didn’t realize that there were also pictures of the items on the website because the downloaded pdf was just a list with room numbers, descriptions (vague at times), and outdated audio guide numbers. Some of the rooms had a lot of artifacts in them too, so at times we felt like we were on a scavenger hunt. We struggled in the jade room.
The Highlights of My Visit to the British Museum
The British Museum collection can be overwhelming regardless of how much time you have to spend at the museum. If you want to narrow down your priorities for your visit, there are some of my British Museum must-sees from the list:
- The Rosetta Stone, which provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs, because it has the same script in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic Script, and Ancient Greek.
- Parthenon sculptures are taken from the Parthenon in Athens. There has been a huge debate over whether the British Museum should keep them.
- Easter Island Statue Hoa Hakananai’a is actually from Easter Island but one of the smaller statues there. Seeing it in person reminded me of how I really want to go there!
- Automated Model of a Ship which is actually a clock. If I would have had more time I would have spent it in this room as there were all sorts of beautiful clocks.
- The Lewis Chessman which is a medieval chess set from the 12th century. I had no idea the game had been around so long!
- The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial – This ship containing some amazing treasures from the 6th-7th century which was found in southeast England in 1939.
We also noticed a couple of items on the British Museum map marked as not to be missed that were not included on the list we had downloaded from the website:
- The Horse from the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos is a very impressive sculpture from 350 BC.
- The Portland Vase is a beautiful Roman Cameo vase from 25 AD. The vase was broken in 1845 and they did an amazing job to restore it.
I was also surprised that the British Museum’s Lindow Man was not on the list of the top things to see at the British Museum. It is a body of a man who died sometime between 2 BC and 119 AD. The peat moss surrounding the body naturally mummified it. The body was only discovered in 1984 in northwest England. We just happened to stumble upon it in Room 50. Also, we noticed a crowd around Cleopatra’s Mummy in Room 62, which we thought was very impressive until I later learned it was A Cleopatra and not THE Cleopatra.
Did We Do the British Museum in 3 Hours?
We ended up spending about four hours at the British Museum, including taking a brief break to sit and have a drink. Can you see the British Museum in 3 hours? Yes, but you have to stay very focused and stick to the plan. Having a short list of items to see is helpful especially given a number of pieces in the museum.
It would be even better if the British Museum updated their website and added pictures to the pdf version of the list. You should also be prepared for the crowds. In spite of the challenges, I did enjoy the British Museum and hope to go back and explore further. There are so many amazing artifacts!
British Museum Tours
Thinking back, we may have been better off taking a guided tour of the British Museum. We wouldn’t have wasted time looking for specific pieces and our guide would have shown us the most important artifacts. You can choose from several different options on Get Your Guide. The tours last from 1.5 to 2.5 hours and are available in multiple languages.
Afternoon Tea at the British Museum
If you need to give your brain a bit of a rest, why not take a break for afternoon tea? The British Museum serves afternoon tea at the Great Court restaurant. It includes a selection of organic teas, finger sandwiches, pastries, and scones. Afternoon tea at the British Museum is surprisingly affordable, but you should book in advance. Click here to check price and availability.
Getting to the British Museum
The British Museum is located on Great Russell Street in Central London, so it is easily accessible by public transportation. You can pick from four different underground stations which are all pretty close: Holborn (500m), Tottenham Court Road (500m), Russell Square (800m), or Goodge Street (800m). We were able to walk from our hotel.
Overseas travelers can purchase a Visitor Oyster Card to use on the London Underground before their trip so that they are set once they arrive. Learn more about the Visitor Oyster Card here.
I would not recommend driving to as you will have to pay the congestion charge and parking is limited. If you do decide to drive, the closest British Museum parking is located at Bloomsbury Square.
Hotel Near the British Museum
If you are looking for accommodation near the British Museum, you should consider the Hoxton. The Hoxton is a trendy hotel conveniently located close to the Holborn tube station and of course, the British Museum. The lobby bar is always a happening place but the rooms were very quiet.
I loved the modern decor and the rooms are so comfortable. Every room comes with free WiFi, an hour of phone calls, fresh milk, tea and coffee, water and our daily breakfast bag drop. You choose the time of your breakfast and a bag filled with OJ, granola pot and banana gets delivered to your door. A great way to start a busy day exploring central London!
Have you been to the British Museum? Do you have any British Museum tips? I would love to hear about your experience.
Expert Tips for Visiting the British Museum
- Have a plan of what you would like to see when you visit the British Museum, especially if you have limited time. Alternatively, you may want to take a British Museum guided tour. You can check out the options here.
- Look at the suggested list of what to see at the British Museum if you only have 3 hours on your phone, rather than downloading and printing. That way you will have pictures of the pieces you are looking for.
- The Sutton Hoo burial site would make for a great day trip from London.
Disclosure: No financial compensation was received, but the Hoxton did provide a discount for our stay. As always, opinions expressed here are my own.
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