Or tips for visiting the Natural History Museum in London
Ask any child what the want to do when they visit London, and invariably the answer will be “See the dinosaurs!” The Natural History Museum is undoubtedly one of London’s treasures, a gorgeous building housing acres of fascinating exhibits. And it also has animatronic dinosaurs. But as London’s answer to Disneyland, I think it has become a victim of it’s own popularity and is so usually so crowded that you can feel like a sardine in a tin.
We are lucky enough to live a short bus ride away from the museum so I’ve worked out a strategy for visiting, which goes like this:
- The best time to go is on a week day during the school term time, when you will be joined by school groups and hordes of toddlers. If you have school age children, you will have to endure it being busy whatever day you go.
- Take a look at their website before you go to plan what you want to see. It is a huge building, covering a whole block, so it’s worth having some sort of a plan before you start. You can also book tickets to timed exhibitions and find out what special events are on the day you plan to go.
- Arrive just before it opens at 10am, when the queue will already be building up outside. There are two entrances, the main entrance on Cromwell Road and the Geology Museum entrance on Exhibition Road. The latter is usually quieter and has the benefit of being buggy friendly.
- If you arrive at 11am, the queue will be snaking around the front courtyard like a popular ride at Disneyland but it does move quite quickly.
- If you arrive at noon, the two queues will be stretching along their respective roads and threatening to meet at the corner.
- The big ticketed exhibitions are usually fantastic and child friendly. If you have booked timed tickets in advance, you can walk straight in to the museum when you arrive, so it is really worth doing.
- Absolutely the first thing you must do when you get inside is go and see the dinosaurs. Very quickly a queue builds up and by lunchtime it snakes around the giant brontosaurus in the entrance hall like a popular ride at Disneyland (are you sensing a theme here?)
- The dinosaur exhibition is hot, dimly lit and surprisingly extensive, and if you are in the company of a five year old boy you will have to look closely at EVERYTHING (unless they’re scared of large roaring animatronic beasts, you do see children exiting in tears). It is a one way system, so you can’t just see the animatronic T Rex and avoid the educational bits.
- Once you’ve finally emerged, head back to the main entrance hall and visit the information desk. Every day the museums puts on a great selection of activities and tours, many of which are surprisingly under subscribed. We’ve had two real life scientists and three microscopes all to ourselves, a solo performance from an Annie Darwin puppet and the undivided attention of demonstrators sharing specimens, as well as great guided tours of the museum and gardens. The information desk will tell you what is on when, and give you free tickets as necessary.
- The information desk also hands out explorer backpacks for children, which are great, but I find that there’s often not enough space to stop and look at the contents so we don’t usually bother.
- Investigate, is the special hand-on area for children aged about 5 upwards. It has tons of stuff to keep children interested and isn’t always busy, it’s definitely worth a visit.
- Once you’ve visited the big ticket items, preferably before midday, head upstairs. Bizarrely, few visitors make it to the many interesting galleries above the main hall, yet there are lots of things to fascinate children. Our favourite, is the room with row after row of glass cases full of beautiful crystals and gemstones. At the back of the room you go through a huge safe door into the area they keep the gold and precious stones. It may not have animatronic specimens like the Creepy Crawlies gallery, or a simulated earthquake in a Kobe supermarket, but I guarantee you’ll be impressed.
- By now, I expect you’ll be getting tired and hungry. The museum has good cafes and restaurants, but by lunchtime, you’ve guessed it, the queues start building up. Small hungry children and queues are not a happy combination. The museum is well provisioned with benches and indoor picnic areas, so bring a sandwich, have a sit down and gather your wits before you embark on the next gallery. Whatever you do, don’t go out of the museum if you want to see more after lunch. You will have to queue to get back in.
- If you feel you’ve seen enough for one day, my suggestion is to head out of the museum for a picnic in the lovely garden of the Victoria & Albert Museum over the road. There is a great cafe for additions to your picnic, loos just inside, a perfectly manicured lawn to sit on (or poo on if you are so inclined) and a huge water feature that you are allowed to paddle in.
- If it’s too cold for a picnic and a paddle, head to one of the many restaurants around South Kensington tube. You can choose from conveyor belt sushi, Chinese, sandwiches, cupcakes, pizza, Lebanese, frozen yoghurt, Indian, Carluccio’s, Scandinavian, Thai, an ice cream shop where you can watch the ice cream being made and a Polish restaurant that’s a London institution. You won’t go hungry.
It’s not surprising that the Natural History Museum is so popular with families. It is stuffed to the gunnels with fascinating objects which are displayed in an engaging and relevant way. With only a little bit of planning, you will have a fantastic time and not spend half your day in queues. In the words of our resident five year old museum critic “Wow, it’s so cool”.