Best Things to See at the British Museum If You Only Have 3 Hours

british museum in London
by Anisa // 19 Comments

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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gallery in british museum with art from ancient greece
Each gallery in the British Museum is full of so many treasures.

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.

The new roof at the British Museum is spectacular! - Two Traveling Texans
The new roof at the British Museum is spectacular!

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.

Room 1 in the British Museum. Lots to see including amazing books along the walls.
Room 1 in the British Museum. Lots to see including amazing books along the walls.

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.

The British Museum has such an impressive collection of Egyptian artifacts.
The British Museum has such an impressive collection of Egyptian artifacts.

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.

There is a large collection of Egyptian Art at the British Museum.
More Egyptian Art…..

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.

rosetta stone at the british museum
The Rosetta Stone is the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Parthenon sculptures are taken from the Parthenon in Athens.  There has been a huge debate over whether the British Museum should keep them.

a horse's head and other sculptures from ancient Greece at the British Museum
You can see sculptures made between Made between 447BC and 432BC that used to decorate the temple of Athena (the Parthenon) on the Acropolis in Athens in the British Museum.

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!

sculpture from Easter Island at the British Museum
One of the reasons Easter Island is on my bucket list are these statues.

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.

gold model of a ship that is actually a clock
The gold and the detail in this model make it special, the fact it is a clock is a bonus.

The Lewis Chessman which is a medieval chess set from the 12th century.  I had no idea the game had been around so long!

beautiful old chess set on board
You don’t have to like chess or know anything about it to appreciate this set.

The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial – This ship containing some amazing treasures from the 6th-7th century which was found in southeast England in 1939.

sutton hoo helmet
This helmet is one of the treasures uncovered during the excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial.

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:

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.  

lindow man, you can barely tell it was a person
It’s hard to believe this is the remains of a man from about 2000 years ago.

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.   

mummy of cleopatra at british museum
It took me a minute (or two) to realize this was 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!

British Museum in London
A tour is a efficient way to see the treasures inside the British Museum.

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? 

tiered tray of the afternoon tea that is served at the british museum great court restaurant
The British Museum Afternoon Tea looked delicious!

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.

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Anisa relaxing in her room at the Hoxton in Holborn close to the British Museum
Anisa relaxing in her room at the Hoxton in Holborn close to the British Museum

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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egyptian art at the British Museum with text overlay What to See at the British Museum

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

About the Author

Anisa is an experienced international traveler with extra pages in her passport and stamps from 41 different countries across 5 continents (and counting). She was born and raised in Texas. After a 13 year stint in NYC, she moved to England to live with her husband.