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.
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.
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- About the British Museum
- Our Visit to the British Museum
- The Highlights of My Visit to the British Museum
- Did We Do the British Museum in 3 Hours?
- Is the British Museum Worth it if You Only Have a Few Hours?
- Will you have time for special exhibitions if you only have a few hours?
- British Museum Tours
- Afternoon Tea at the British Museum
- Is the British Museum good for kids?
- Getting to the British Museum
- Hotel Near the British Museum
- Expert Tips for Visiting the British Museum
About the British Museum
The British Museum is one of the largest and most popular museums in the world. It was founded in 1753 and opened its doors in 1759. The galleries cover human history, culture, and art across almost 2 million years.
No other museum has a permanent collection with the same depth and breadth, beauty and significance. Typically they have more than 9,000 objects from their collection of eight million objects on display.
Located by Russell Square in Central London, it is free to see the British Museum’s vast permanent collection. In addition to the permanent collection, there are always interesting special exhibitions but these typically charge admission.
If you can’t visit the British Museum in person, you can take a virtual tour here. You can also try these virtual tours in London.
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 Room 1 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.
Update: Photos have been added and audio guide numbers have been removed from the guide. Some objects on the list have changed since we visited too, but this post still gives you an idea of what it is like to see the British Museum in three hours.
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, there was so much to see.
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.
Items Not on the British Museum Map that You Need to See
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.
In Room 62, we noticed a crowd around Cleopatra’s Mummy, 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. (Update: There are pictures on the website, I just wish you could easily print out the 3 Hour Trail.)
You should also be prepared for the crowds (or join this VIP tour to get access to the British Museum before it officially opens to the public) as it is one of the most popular attractions in London.
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!
Is the British Museum Worth it if You Only Have a Few Hours?
Yes. Even if you had the whole day that wouldn’t be enough time to see the whole museum. If you plan ahead (or do a tour), you can see the highlights which are quite something, especially considering it is free.
Will you have time for special exhibitions if you only have a few hours?
The British Museum always has temporary exhibitions happening that are quite special and interesting. Unfortunately if you only have a few hours, you may have to choose between seeing special exhibitions and the permanent collection. In most cases, there is an extra charge to see the special exhibitions.
We were quite impressed by the World of Stonehenge exhibition.
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.
This VIP tour gets you access to the British Museum before it opens to the public. Imagine not having to fight the crowds to see the Rosetta Stone and getting insights from an expert guide!
You can also 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.
Read our review of afternoon tea at the British Museum.
Is the British Museum good for kids?
Yes. They have created a trail that includes twelve objects to see with kids at the British Museum. This should be possible in less than three hours.
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!
Read more reviews of The Hoxton on Tripadvisor here.
If you are looking for more budget-friendly options, check out this list of hostels in Central London.
Have you been to the British Museum? Do you have any British Museum tips? I would love to hear about your experience.
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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.
This post also contains affiliate links. This means we will receive a small commission for some purchases made using links in our blog with no additional cost to you. Please be assured we would not promote any product unless we believe that our readers will also benefit. The commission does not influence the editorial content of this site.
Last Updated on May 19, 2023
I am impressed! I’m one of those who could happily spend all day(s) in a museum exploring every nook and cranny, and reading every sign. (Drives the wife nuts!) Love your plan of attack, just not sure I could actually stick to it. #TheWeeklyPostcard badge
Rob – I admire your patience! The British Museum is so huge and filled with so many pieces that even if you spent the whole day you would only see a fraction of it. We didn’t always stick to our plan, but in a place the size of the British Museum you have to have some sort of game plan.
The British Museum is a must! We were just there in July, and I have to say the Rosetta Stone is well worth waiting for the crowds to dissipate. It’s such a great museum.
Corinne – yes the British Museum just has so many interesting pieces and agree the Rosetta Stone is another one not to be missed. Thanks for stopping by!
I’ve never properly seen it because there’s always a line to get in and then later there are so many ppl around that the whole experience is just frustrating! I think they should charge the entrance. I’ve seen just parts of the museum so one day I have to do a proper tour. # the weekly postcard
Tanja – For us, the line to get in moved pretty fast so that was not really an issue. I agree you really need to bring your patience because the crowds are intense, but the things that you get to see are amazing. I agree that if they added a admission price it would be less crowded, but I think its great that everyone can visit without worrying about money. I wish more museums in the US were free, I would go more often.
I loved the British Museum and I could have stayed there the hole day, but unfortunately we only had a few hours. I’d love to go back and explore it in more detail. It’s one of the best in the world (if not THE best!)
Anda – I definitely agree. It can be a little intimidating because it is so big. I want to go back and explore more too!
Oh I do love a good museum. I’ve been to the British Museum before, as I live not too far from London, but there’s always something I missed (or would like to see again). I like to take my time going around museums and read every sign, drink in every exhibit. Sounds like I need to set aside a full week to do it justice!
Rachel – I admire you’re patience. Even if you had a whole week not sure you could really see everything in the British Museum, but that would be fun to try! Thanks for stopping by.
I am so very embarrassed to say that I have never been in the British Museum – I visited England when I was 18, for about 2 months.
The Man that was discovered from 2000 years ago, covered in Peat Moss, that is one freaky display!!!
I reckon I would end up spending all day there – love looking at Museums 🙂
Lisa – I hope you get the chance to go back. And yes the Lindow man is very freaky! Thanks for stopping by.
Thanks for linking to #TheWeeklyPostcard; this is a great story. We have done a similar thing in both the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) and Prado (Madrid). It’s actually a fun challenge. We might have done something similar here in London but we arrived too late, so we’ll have to go back. So thanks for the heads-up that the online tour isn’t up-to-date.
I’d definitely put the British Museum on any list of Top 10 Things to see in London, even for non-museum goers. It has such a wide variety of fascinating things to see that there really is something for everyone.
The next time we’re in London we also want to see the Victoria & Albert Museum. It comes very highly recommended. Have you perchance managed to see that as well?
Linda – thanks for reading. I hope you get to visit the British Museum soon. I have been to the the V & A it is nice, but really doesn’t compare to the British Museum. The British Museum just has so many historical pieces that will really impress you.
I had the same reaction to the museum – I googled a “must-see” list! But this is really helpful. I never cross-referenced with other recommendations because I was in too much of a rush.
The British Museum can be really overwhelming, so I’m glad you find it helpful. I hope you get to visit soon.
I did a similar post about the Louvre and I’m working on one for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I’ll check them out! Thanks! 🙂
I was at The British Museum last December and had only 2 hours to spend there. I was really overwhelmed. This is a great guide on what to see in a short while.
Thanks Sara! It is such an amazing place and so much to see! I don’t think you could even see it all in 1 day. It is crucial to have a plan!