British Museum Highlights: An Insider's Guide

Tour the British Museum with Context Travel

Tour the British Museum with Context Travel

Updated May 10, 2024

The British Museum is one of the oldest and most famous museums in the world. Its vast collections span the world’s civilizations and cultures throughout time. Here you can see wonders like the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, Egyptian Mummies, and The Lewis Chessmen. The British Museum is truly a must-see in London and offers a wealth of history, art and culture.

The museum itself is an item of history. When you stand in the museum's beautiful Reading Room, you’re in the place where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital and Mahatma Gandhi studied law.

What’s more, the British Museum has many notable artworks we explore on our tour, including works by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Monet. But with so much to see, it can be overwhelming to know where to start.

We’re here to guide you through some of the highlights of the British Museum and give tips on how to make the most of your visit, including the best times to visit, exhibits you can’t miss, and ways to avoid crowds. Whether you're a history buff, an art lover, or just looking for a fun day out — the British Museum is a destination you’ll never forget.

History of the British Museum

The British Museum was the first national public museum in the world, founded in 1753. Sir Hans Sloane, a physician, and collector, bequeathed his collection of over 71,000 objects from around the world to King George II. He had one condition —that all objects be made available to the public.

The collection was first housed in Montagu House, a mansion in Bloombury located in London’s West End neighborhood., This location quickly became too small to accommodate the collection as it grew. The museum was expanded with the addition of the Townley Gallery in 1807 and the King's Library in 1823.

Today, the British Museum is home to over 8 million objects, representing the history and developments of human civilization from its earliest origins to the present day.

Planning your visit

With so much to see, planning your visit to the British Museum in London can be a bit overwhelming. Here are a few tips and tricks to make the most of your time there.

  • Purchase tickets in advance online to skip long lines at the entrance
  • Use the museum's interactive map and app to plan your route and make sure to prioritize the exhibits you want to see.
  • Consider visiting during off-peak hours for a less crowded experience.

With a little bit of planning, you can enjoy the history and culture that the British Museum offers.

Is a Private Tour of the British Museum Worth It?

A private guided walking tour of the British Museum with Context is the best way to make the most of your visit.

A private guide will customize the tour to your interests and provide detailed knowledge and insights into the exhibits that you may have missed on your own. They can also provide insightful context on the artifacts, which will enhance your understanding and appreciation of the collection.

Private guides also allow you to skip long lines and crowds so you can fully immerse yourself in all the museum has to offer.

Guides help you have a deeper understanding of the museum’s collections, making your experience more memorable. It's an excellent option for families, couples, school groups, corporate events, or even just a group of friends.

This was the best way possible to get a look into a vast collection of art. The guide was personable, smart and broke things down into everyday language. The tour afforded us insights and stories to keep the art in context to its origin story, its place in history. There is absolutely no other way we could have received such a 1:1 experience. Five stars!

Robert, April 2024

What are the best Exhibits and Galleries to see?

Considering the museum’s 8,000,000 objects, it would be impossible to see everything in the British Museum’s collection — even with multiple days to explore this museum only. Some estimate it would take over 3,000 days to see everything in the museum’s collection.

It’s important to do your research beforehand and organize your top priorities for must-see exhibits and galleries. Here are our favorites:

The Rosetta Stone:

One of the most famous artifacts in the museum, the Rosetta Stone is an ancient Egyptian stone slab that helped scholars decipher hieroglyphics.

The Rosetta Stone was not discovered in the city of Rosetta, as the name suggests, but was found in the Egyptian village of Rashid

The Elgin Marbles:

These classical marble sculptures were taken from the Greek Parthenon in Athens and have recently been the subject of controversy and debate. They were acquired by the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire between 1801 and 1812.

Did you know that the Elgin Marbles were not carved by the ancient Greeks? They were created by a team of sculptors led by Athenian sculptor, Phidias, in the 5th century BCE as part of the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis of Athens.

Egyptian Mummies:

The British Museum has one of the world's largest collections of Egyptian artifacts, with over 100,000 objects on display in total. Their curatorial team also preserves a large collection of Egyptian mummies, including some that are over 3,000 years old.

Ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife and so they mummified their dead to prepare them for eternal rest. During a series of grave rituals, the deceased were prepared for eternal rest and buried alongside their personal treasures. it was also believed that “ka” was a spirit that accompanied the soul to the afterlife. To ensure the "ka" had sustenance, they would place small figurines of food and drink in tombs along with the mummy. Three of the most-frequently studied mummies in the museum's collection are: 

  1. The Gilded Lady, is believed to have lived during the 21st Dynasty, which dates back to around 1077-943 BC. her mask is made of cartonnage, a material that was created by layering linen or papyrus with plaster, and then painted and gilded to create a decorative surface. The mask is adorned with various symbols of protection and power, including the winged sun disk, the cow goddess Hathor, and the goddess Nekhbet.
  2. The Priest of God Amun, who is studied for his well-preserved linen wrappings and painted funerary mask. His wrappings are adorned with religious texts from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. This mummy was discovered in Thebes, Egypt, in the late 19th century and was acquired by the British Museum in 1891.
  3. The Lady of the House, is believed to be a woman of high social status, possibly a priestess or member of the royal family. Her funerary mask is adorned with a headdress that features a vulture and cobras, symbols of the goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjet who were believed to protect the pharaohs.

The Lewis Chessmen:

These 12th-century chess pieces, made of walrus ivory and whale teeth, are some of the most intricate and well-preserved examples of medieval ivory carving. In 1831 they were discovered in Scotland on the Isle of Lewis, but scholars believe that they were created in Norway.

The Assyrian Lion Hunt Reliefs:

These large stone reliefs are considered some of the finest examples of ancient Near Eastern art. They date back to the 9th century BC and depict the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal and his companions hunting lions. The reliefs depict the king and his warriors hunting lions and were discovered in the king's palace library in the ancient city of Nineveh.

Special Exhibitions at the British Museum

The British museum hosts several special exhibitions and events throughout the year, including talks, workshops, and performances. The British Museum currently has a variety of exhibits running, showcasing artifacts and art from different cultures and civilizations.

Their next Special Exhibition opening in 2024 will be Michelangelo: The Last Decades. The curatorial team has organized an exhibit that studies the last thirty years of the artist's life, from his last famous works to the poems and intimate letters that show his relentless desire to constantly challenge himself.  

Special exhibits at the British Museum are an incomparable treasure that offers unique context on the lives of the world’s people across time.

Food and Amenities at the British Museum

The British Museum offers a variety of dining options for visitors. These include:

  • The Great Court Restaurant is located in the heart of the museum and offers a casual dining experience with a Mediterranean-inspired menu.
  • The Court Café is located in the same area and is perfect for a quick bite or a coffee.
  • Both restaurants offer indoor and outdoor seating and have views of the museum's iconic Reading Room.

You’ll also find several shops within the museum selling a wide range of gifts, souvenirs, books, and art materials.

For your convenience, the museum offers a coat check, restrooms, and baby-changing facilities for visitors. The galleries are fully accessible for visitors with mobility issues, with wheelchair access and audio guides available for loan.

Click here for more information and a map of the museum.

Tips for Visiting the British Museum

Visit during off-peak hours: The British Museum is typically less crowded early in the morning or later in the evening. Try to plan your visit during these times to avoid crowds.

Take advantage of guided tours: The British Museum offers a variety of tours, led by knowledgeable guides, that can help you learn more about the artifacts located there. We recommend booking a tour with Context for a more in-depth, curated experience while visiting. Private tours are available for a more personalized experience, along with Context small group tours where you can connect with fellow travelers while visiting.

Prioritize your must-see items: With so much to see at the British Museum, it's important to prioritize what you want to see most. Make a list of the exhibits and artifacts you're most interested in and plan your visit accordingly.

Take a break: The museum is huge, and it's easy to get overwhelmed. Remember to take breaks and rest when you need it.

Go to the lesser-known galleries of the British Museum: We suggest starting with these:

And then you should also be sure to leave enough time to explore these off-the-beaten-path collections too:

  • The Enlightenment gallery | Featuring 18th-century scientific instruments, including telescopes, microscopes, and clocks.
  • The Coins and Medals gallery | Hosting a large collection of coins, medals, and other numismatic items from ancient to modern times.
  • The Asia Pacific collection | Comprised of art and artifacts from the Pacific region, including Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands.

Take advantage of the museum's facilities: The museum has a variety of facilities, such as a café, a restaurant, and a gift shop, that can help you make the most of your visit.

How many people work at the British Museum?

The museum is a world-renowned institution with a global team of staff and volunteers. Among them are curators, researchers, educators, conservators, librarians, scientists,support staff, and more. Recent documents show that nearly a thousand people are employed by the British Museum.

The British Museum‘s team is organized into several departments, each responsible for a different aspect of the museum's collections. The main departments are

  • Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
  • Ancient Egypt and Sudan
  • Ancient Greece and Rome
  • Asia
  • Coins and Medals
  • Egypt
  • Europe
  • Greece and Rome
  • Islam
  • Prehistory and Europe
  • Prints and Drawings
  • Science and Medicine

The museum also has several cross-departmental research and curatorial teams, as well as a number of support departments that handle education, conservation, and visitor services.

Is 2 hours enough for British Museum?

Two hours may not be enough time to fully explore the British Museum, as the museum has a vast collection of over 8 million objects from around the world.

The museum is open from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm daily, and it usually takes visitors at least three hours to see the majority of the museum's permanent galleries.

If you’re traveling with children in London, we highly recommend our shortened British Museum Tour for Kids, led by local licensed archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians.

It is possible to see some of the main highlights of the museum in two hours if you plan your visit carefully and prioritize which galleries and exhibits you would like to see.

It is also a good idea to review the museum's map and plan your route in advance to make the most of your time. Click here to learn more about planning your visit to the museum.

What is the most visited artifact in the British Museum?

It is difficult to determine the most visited artifact in the British Museum, as the museum does not release specific visitor numbers for individual artifacts. That said, some of the museum's most popular and well-known objects include the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, and the Mummy of Katebet.

Our Key Takeaways

The British Museum is a true treasure trove of human history.,Is is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in ancient civilizations, the development of human history, art, politics, and culture.

The museum's vast collection spans continents and ways of life, , truly offering something for everyone.

With so much to see at the British Museum, it can be challenging to prioritize what to do first.   It is best to go with a private Context Travel Guide who will customize the tour to your interests and provide in-depth knowledge and insights into the exhibits that you may have missed on your own.

With a private guide, you'll be able to skip the long lines and crowds, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the museum’s many exhibits. Whether it’s your very first visit to the city or you call London home, the British Museum is a destination that you won't want to miss.

Additional Resources to plan your perfect visit to the museum: