10 of the UK’s best free museums for October half-term and beyond

Educational days out with the family don’t have to cost a fortune. We’ve picked 10 of the best free museums for some inspiring adventures.

By Rhonda Carrier
Published 12 Sept 2022, 06:03 BST
Big Pit National Coal Museum, Blaenavon.

Big Pit National Coal Museum, Blaenavon.

Photograph by Getty Images

It’s no secret that family days out can often end up being rather expensive: transport and entry fees can easily hit £100, and that’s before you’ve even thought about food, drink and the inevitable wallet-hammering at the gift shop. Many of the UK’s best museums don’t cost a thing, however, so pack a picnic and head for one of the following free museums for some fantastic family bonding time. Many have rooms or outdoor spaces where you can eat your own food, too. While still free, some museums require advance online booking, so check before you travel.

1. The Royal Armouries, Leeds
Best for: ages seven-plus

Focusing on how combat has shaped society, art and culture through the ages, the Royal Armouries is always an intriguing visit, but add live events and reconstructions (including thrilling samurai demonstrations) and you have a truly epic day out. The 70,000-strong collection of arms and armour covers five floors of galleries surrounding a magnificent atrium, and also includes the world’s largest animal armour: 16th-century elephant armour and tusk swords from the Indian subcontinent.

2. National Science and Media Museum, Bradford
Best for: ages eight-plus

Exploring how image and sound technologies have transformed our lives over the past century, this museum includes the Wonderlab with its with live experiments, an Animation Gallery with original models, artwork and hands-on activities, and also hosts free school-holiday events. A highlight is the Pictureville Cinema, with three screens including an immersive IMAX showing science, nature and environmental films. Make time for the Life Online exhibition, too, which explores how the internet has shaped our world. 

3. British Museum, London
Best for: ages three-plus

Eight million items relating to human history, art and culture – and that’s just the permanent collection. A must-see on any trip to the capital, the British Museum is an iconic venue, but if its scale makes it sound daunting with younger kids, pick up one of themed backpacks (which include a version for under-fivess) or ask about the Museum Mission family challenge across the galleries. Highlights are many, but the Rosetta Stone (the key that unlocked the Egyptian hieroglyphs) and the Tree of Life (made in 2004 from decommissioned weapons from Mozambique) are top sights. 

4. Big Pit National Coal Museum, South Wales
Best for: ages 10-plus

Once a working coal mine, this fascinating venue north of Pontypool thrills children and adults alike with its subterranean tours, which allow them to don helmets and cap lamps for a guided stroll around the old tunnels, set 90m below ground. Head on to the former pithead baths for an exhibition that sheds a stark light on the difficulties and sacrifices endured in extracting coal from the earth. 

An armour demonstration at the Royal Armouries, Leeds.

Photograph by Royal Armouries Leeds

5. The Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum, Suffolk
Best for: ages seven-plus

This low-key option near the former airfield at RAF Bungay has fantastic volunteer staff who really take the time to bring history to life for younger visitors, offering the chance to try on gas masks and investigate the Anderson shelter. Many of the displays of aircraft and aviation-related artefacts have interactive elements, and there’s also an outdoor section of the museum, too, with large aircraft to discover and access to the lovely Adair Walk — a raised boardwalk through the wetlands to the River Waveney.

6. V&A, London
Best for: ages eight-plus

Sitting in the South Kensington museum triangle along with the Science Museum and Natural History Museum (both also free but often very busy), it’s worth making time for this iconic museum showcasing art, design and performance. There are compelling temporary exhibitions all year, including Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature, until Jan 2023, free activities every day and inspiring school holiday events and performances. Watch out for the opening of the Young V&A in east London in summer 2023. 

7. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
Best for: ages three-plus

This collection of explorer Augustus Pitt Rivers’ obsessive archaeological and anthropological acquisitions — including axes from Papua New Guinea as well as stuffed dodos and Mexican masks. It’s so full of mysterious nooks and crannies to explore, you can even borrow a torch to help you find its hidden wonders. There are trails designed to help families explore the museum together, with many tailored to under-fives, as well as free family guidebooks and regular workshops for getting hands-on with some of the exhibits. 

8. Blaise Museum, Bristol
Best for: ages 8-plus

This 18th-century mansion on the edge of the city makes for a fascinating day out: inside, you’ll be whisked away to a bygone era with displays of period costumes, Victorian decor, dolls’ houses, lead soldiers, toy train sets and puzzles and games, all painting a picture of how society lived through the ages. Out in the surrounding parkland, there’s the old dairy, orangery and kitchen garden to discover, with plenty of space for picnics and ball games, too. Ask the museum for a key to the Kings Weston Roman Villa for a nosey around Bristol’s only Roman bath, home to original mosaic floors. 

9. Falmouth Art Gallery, Cornwall
Best for: teens

This little gem on the Cornish coast punches well above its weight when it comes to the quality and range of the work on display, including piece by Old Masters, Impressionists, Surrealists and maritime artists, as well as children’s illustrators and contemporary painters. There’s also a quirky display of modern-day automata that delights younger and older visitors alike. The gallery is especially great for art-loving teens, but free family workshops include something even for babies and toddlers. 

10. National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
Best for all

From December, the major new exhibition Worlds of Wonder will explore the science behind Doctor Who — including time travel — in eight zones of immersive experiences and interactive gizmos. In the meantime, come for an array of exhibits about the natural and human worlds, including a vast whale skull, and for family galleries tailored to different ages (including Imagine for under-fives). Seeing the taxidermy remains of Dolly the Sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal, is a must

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