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Saturday 2nd July 2022

The best free UK museums to have fun and learn on a budget

With Summer holidays fast approaching and you may be wondering how best to make the most of those days off.

Whether you are a young person or a family of four, the cost-of-living crisis is no doubt having an impact on your disposable income. Fortunately, most cities across the UK are home to hundreds of free museums and galleries that can provide hours of fun for anyone.

The museum and heritage industry took a big hit during the pandemic and have been keen to boost visitor engagement. A lot of places have done this by putting on new, exciting (and costly) exhibitions.

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Some spent the time remodeling their gallery space, and the price of entry reflects this. But luckily, most do this by offering free admission (with a suggested donation).

Below is a guide to free museums across the country that could provide you or your family with a great, but most importantly cheap, day out this bank holiday weekend.

1. Cardiff

Cardiff, the capital of Wales is full of many exciting attractions such as Bute Park and Cardiff Castle. Home to Cardiff Blues, the backdrop to Doctor Who and Sherlock TV series, the city has a lot to offer visitors. Cardiff is also home to one of the most unique museum experiences in the country.

St Fagans National Museum of History

This museum has been one of Wales’s most popular for many years, and it is easy to see why. The Museum stands in the grounds of St Fagan’s Castle and is home to over 40 original buildings from varying periods throughout history.

These buildings have been taken from all over the country and re-erected in the grounds of the castle. These include old farmhouses, post offices and schools that can provide a taste for what life was like in Wales over the years.

Costs to look out for

The museum is unfortunately located four miles west of Cardiff City Centre, this means some travel costs will be taken on. If you arrive by car it will cost £6 per day for parking. You can jump on the 320, 321 or the Easyway 32A bus for 25 minutes at £2 a ride.

There is free entry to the museum, but a lot of the workshops and experiences they have on offer are costly, so try not to let yourself, or your kids, sucked into the attractive add-ons as they can stack up quickly.

And by taking your own food and drink you can save a lot especially considering the unavoidable travel costs.

2. Edinburgh 

Scotland’s hilly capital, and it beautiful medieval Old Town is surrounded by Georgian architecture and home to Scotland’s crown jewels, so there is little need to persuade you of the obvious draws of the city.

With the reputation of a cultural hotspot which celebrates art in many forms, it is no surprise that the city is home to many impressive culture and heritage sites that attract people from all over.

The National Museum of Scotland

The National Museum of Scotland offers a world of discovery under one roof with four main galleries:

  • Art, Design and Fashion (home to Vivian Westwood, Picasso and May Morris)
  • The Natural World (home to Ching Ching the giant panda and 12 meter long Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton)
  •  Science and Technology (home to Freddy the Robot, Alexander Graham Bell’s box telephone and a large collection of bicycles and airplanes)
  • Scottish History and Archaeology (home to the Darien chest, The Lewis Chess pieces and artifacts relating the first 3 billion years of Scottish history)

Needless to say, the museum is full of endless possibilities and is a great space to explore the legacy of Scotland. The museum also is also host to many interactive exhibits and activities creating a family friendly environment with something for everyone.

Costs to look out for

The Museum is only a short 10-minute walk from Edinburgh Waverly station and so you can save a portion of money using public transport. Don’t forget the all-important rail card if you are traveling to Edinburgh by train.

The museum has two spots where food and drink are available. The Balcony Café sells savory plates a sweet treats with a toasted sandwich costing a whopping £9.50, while at The Brasserie a main meal goes for around £12.50. By taking a packed lunch or by planning to go and eat outside of the museum at a cheaper local restaurant you could be saving yourself a huge amount of money.

A reminder that the donation recommended by the museum is voluntary. You don’t have to pay it. A good idea is to bring any loose coins with you and so if you feel like you need to give a donation you can pop your loose change in rather than pay £5 or £10 on card.

Other free museums to visit in Edinburgh:

  • Museum of Edinburgh
  • Museum on the mound
  • Peoples story museum
  • Scottish National Portrait Gallery
  • Writers Museum

3. London

Sometimes it feels like London has enough heritage sights for you to visit one every weekend of the year. However, the cost of spending a day in London can be enough to turn you off it entirely. Luckily, of the hundreds of museums on offer, a sizable chunk are free or partially free for visitors.

Whatever you are after, London has it. World renowned paintings in the National Gallery, ancient Greek artifacts in the British Museum, innovative modern art in The Tate and specialist collections at the Sir John Soanes Museum. There is something for everyone!

 The Victoria & Albert Museum

The V&A is the world’s largest museum of applied and decorative arts with over 2.27 million objects. There is so much to see you could spend a whole day there.

Some of the highlights include a selection of Raphael cartons, the collection of fine jewelry including the Darnley ring, Furniture used by King Henry VII and costumes worn by Fred Astaire. The Museum itself is beautiful, complete with a tranquil courtyard in the center of the museum.

Costs to look out for

The V&A is located in South Kensington, the cheapest way to travel there is via Tube.  The museum is a 15-minute walk from South Kensington Tube station which you can access via the Circle or District line.

To travel there from any of the major stations in London would cost on average £2.50 per person. Don’t forget, if you are traveling into the city by train, use a railcard for a third off fares.

South Kensington is a lovely area, it is also an expensive one. Therefore, you can save a lot by bringing drinks and food with you. Alternatively, if you are planning on going out for food or drinks, I would recommend looking online for vouchers beforehand.

Lots of chain restaurants such as Pizza Express and Prezzo often have promotional deals on and chain bars like All Bar One and Simmons have long happy hour deals.

The suggested donation is completely optional and so don’t feel pressure to pay for entry.

Other great places to visit in London:

  • Museum of London
  • National Army Museum
  • Natural History Museum
  • Science Museum
  • The British Museum
  • The Design Museum
  • The Foundling Museum
  • The Museum of the Home
  • The National Gallery
  • The Sir John Soanes Museum
  • The Tate Britain
  • The Tate Modern

A few more top tips to look out for when spending the day at a museum is the gift shop. The gift shop is a prime location for spending money!

The tempting prints and tote bags are often overcharged and cheaper when bought outside the museum.

If there is something you see that you really love, have a quick search online before you buy as that £25 Van Gogh tote bag could be only £10 somewhere else.

4. Manchester

Manchester, home to British music icons and two of the world’s best football teams, the city has a lot to offer any visitor. Naturally, a city full of as much culture as Manchester has some pretty great museums, many of which are completely free.

Manchester Art Gallery

Manchester Art Gallery is one of the city’s oldest heritage sites and home to many works of local and international significance. The gallery is strongest in its collection of Victoria art. 

It is home to John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, George Frederic Watts The Good Samaritan and a vast collection of Manchester’s own Henry Tidmarsh drawings. Located in a listed building on Mosley Street in the city center it is a great spot for a day out.

The gallery highlights a lot of work by Manchester’s own artists and works depicting the city. It is a celebration of where Manchester sits in the fine art world and as an institution is very keen to promote discussions around their collection and its place in society.

Costs to look out for

The museum is accessible via St Peter’s Square and Piccadilly Gardens tram station but if you are coming into the city via Victoria station, it is only a 16-minute walk to the gallery and from Piccadilly only a 14-minute walk.

If walking isn’t an option, the best way to get the most out of your money is to buy an off-peak day travel card. For an adult this will cost £1.90 for the day and for a child it will cost 90p.

If you are under the age of 30 travelling into the city via train, don’t forget to use a railcard to save a third off your ticket.

Another way to keep costs down is to bring food and drink with you, especially if you are a family. A typical meal out in Manchester will cost £10-15 per person and so bringing some sandwiches and a coffee in the flask along with you could save a huge chunk of money.

Watch out for the suggested donation when entering the museum. Although a donation would be a great help to the gallery, it isn’t compulsory so try not to fall into the trap.

If the Manchester Art gallery doesn’t float your boat the following places are also free to enter:

  • Imperial War Museum North
  • John Rylands Research institute and Library
  • National Football Museum (free for city of Manchester residents only)
  • Peoples History Museum
  • Science and Industry Museum
  • The Whitworth

All in all, in the UK we are very lucky to have so much history at our fingertips, and for free! The value of a day out discovering secrets of the past, exploring new and exciting ideas and looking at the art and culture that has shaped our society is an invaluable experience for anyone.

Why not try a museum near you this bank holiday weekend, and not spend and arm and a leg doing so.

Photo by Amy-Leigh Barnard on Unsplash

Alice Clegg

Alice is a graduate who has recently made the move to the big smoke but still longs for the £3.50 pints of Norwich. In her free time, she can be found at a gallery, a gig or in the pub with friends and occasionally, doing some wild swimming.

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