7 Things to See and Do at London's Natural History Museum

Written by Bryan Dearsley
Sep 14, 2020

The original nucleus of the Natural History Museum, which was founded in 1754 and moved to its present building in 1881, was formed by the scientific collections of Sir Hans Sloane.

The museum - a palatial building in Romanesque style - was designed by Alfred Waterhouse and is an impressive 675 feet long, with two 190-foot-high towers. Its exterior is faced with terra-cotta slabs bearing relief figures of animals.

Chief among its many artifacts is its original collection of more than 50,000 books, 10,000 preserved animals, and 334 volumes of pressed plant species. The collection has since grown to include more than 80 million items covering zoology, paleontology, mineralogy, entomology, and botany, with a further 500,000 added each year.

The museum is also a center for scientific research specializing in conservation and has many collections of historical value, including specimens collected by Charles Darwin.

London's Natural History Museum
London's Natural History Museum

Other famous collections include those of Joseph Banks, who accompanied James Cook around the world, as well as three volumes of zoological drawings and 18 volumes of botanical watercolor studies donated by artist Sydney Parkinson.

Widely recognized as the world's largest and most important center for research into natural history and its many related fields, London's Natural History Museum is one of the top places to visit in London and deserves to feature highly on any tourist's itinerary.

Getting around the museum to find areas of interest is relatively easy thanks to the implementation of colored zones. The Red Zone focuses on the evolving history of our planet, the Green Zone displays fossils and marine life exhibits, the Blue Zone features dinosaur exhibits, and the Orange Zone has a wildlife garden and the new Darwin Centre. (Check out the handy map on the museum's website for locations of each zone.)

To get the most from your visit to this popular tourist attraction, be sure to refer often to our list of the best things to see and do at London's Natural History Museum.

1. Mammals

Mammal exhibit
Mammal exhibit | Allan Henderson / photo modified

The northwest corner of the ground floor is devoted to mammals, including whales, as well as examples of extinct mammals. The lower floor is devoted to land mammals, including giraffes, elephants, hippos, and their early relatives, while the upper gallery focuses on mammals living in water.

Other notable things to see include exhibits related to the first ever mammals to have wandered the Earth, as well as Australian species (living and extinct).

2. The Earth Hall

The Earth Hall
The Earth Hall | Joy / photo modified

The Earth Hall has an extensive and interesting collection of material on the geology and minerals of the world. Regular lectures and film shows are offered on particular subjects, and in the Main Hall, a rotating globe, six feet in diameter, serves as a reminder of the museum's purpose: to tell the "Story of the Earth."

Visitor experiences include a simulation of an earthquake, as well as a collection of gems showing the stones in their natural state and after being cut and polished.

A special display illustrates the story of "Britain before Man," and other sections are concerned with the regional geology of Britain and the economic mineralogy of the world. Specimens of rocks brought back from the moon by the spacecraft Apollo are also on display.

3. Minerals, the Origin of Species & Human Evolution

Minerals, the Origin of Species & Human Evolution
Minerals, the Origin of Species & Human Evolution | Ryan Somma / photo modified

The first floor accommodates exhibits focusing on the origin of species and human evolution, and explores natural selection and Darwin's theories.

The Mineral Gallery contains some 130,000 specimens, representing some 75 percent of the world's known minerals. Also in this gallery is a collection of meteorites, including the huge 3.5-ton Cranbourne meteorite from Australia.

The adjacent gallery shows "Our Place in Evolution" and exhibits the remains of "Lucy," the Australopithecus discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 and believed to be between 1.5 and five million years old.

4. Ecology

Ecology | Udo Schrter / photo modified

The long corridor through the department of fossilized mammals leads to a room devoted to the balance of nature and the environment. Interesting facts may be discovered about acid rain and the interaction of forest and coastal ecosystems.

5. Dinosaurs

Dinosaur fossil at the Natural History Museum
Dinosaur fossil at the Natural History Museum

The Iguanodon and Hypsilophodon are just two of the excellent dinosaurs on display at the Natural History Museum. Several other skeletons from all corners of the world are found here as well. Popular exhibits include part of one of the first T-Rexes unearthed, as well as a triceratops skull.

6. The Darwin Centre

The Darwin Centre
The Darwin Centre | Nicolas de Camaret / photo modified

The museum's newest addition is the Darwin Centre. Home to millions of preserved specimens, as well as numerous educational opportunities, it's notable for its shape, which resembles a giant eight-story cocoon. The building houses the museum's entomology and botanical collections, as well as Archie, its famous giant squid.

Another highlight is the Attenborough Studio, a multimedia attraction featuring regular showings of historic films and documentaries from the museum's vast film archives.

7. After Hours & Late Night Visits

After hours in the Central Hall with a blue whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling
After hours in the Central Hall with a blue whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling | Thomas Quine / photo modified

One of the most interesting times to visit the Natural History Museum is after the crowds have dispersed at the end of the day. These unique nighttime visits to the Central Hall and other galleries include opportunities to enjoy the museum's food and beverage outlets.

Occasional "sleepovers" are also available and often include a sumptuous three-course meal, live music, and movies. Sleepovers for kids are also available.

The Behind-the-Scenes Spirit Collection Tour

One of the best tour options available at the Natural History Museum focuses on the spectacular Darwin Centre's Zoology building. The Behind-the-Scenes Spirit Collection Tour takes you on an exploration of the building's nearly 17 miles of specimen- and book-stacked shelves, including items collected by Charles Darwin.

The tours are suitable for kids over eight. For those wanting to go it alone, handheld guides are available with content suitable for both adults and children.


What's Nearby?

There's no shortage of excellent visitor attractions within walking distance of the always-popular Natural History Museum. One of the nearest is the superb Victoria and Albert Museum (aka the V&A). Covering nearly 13 acres and containing 145 galleries spanning some 5,000 years of art, the V&A's permanent collections include ceramics and glass, textiles and costumes, silver and jewelry, ironwork, sculpture, prints and photos.

The Science Museum is also close by. So, too, is England's most famous concert hall, the Royal Albert Hall, built in 1871 as a memorial to Queen Victoria's husband.

A little further afield (but no more than 25 minutes' walk) is Buckingham Palace, the London residence of the Royal Family, the Houses of Parliament and Hyde Park, covering some 350 acres - London's largest open space.