Any stay in the UK capital’s a great idea, of course (especially for pleasure) and of all the areas in the city you might fancy calling home while you’re here, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more interesting and stimulating one than the hugely historically resonant City of the London. Not least because, essentially the oldest part of the metropolis, it’s simply brimming with fantastic and fascinating museums to lose you and yours in for an hour or two…
(Charterhouse Square EC1M 6AN/ open 11am-4.45pm Tuesday-Sunday)
A rare chance to step inside a somewhat closeted world – and discover a slice of eerily dark London history – this one-time Carthusian monastery that was originally established in the 14th Century has since been home to up to 40 or more men from poor backgrounds in its almshouses, which have been existence for at least the past four centuries. Having opened its doors to the public for the first time in all those years last winter, its biggest draw for visitors is surely the fact its site originated as an enormous plague burial ground (from which choice human skeletal remains are on show) – way back in 1348. As a medieval Black Death cemetery then, it’s believed 50,000 people were buried here. Yes, really.
Clink Prison Museum
(1 Clink Street SE1 9DG/ open 10am-6pm Monday-Friday; 10am-7.30pm Saturday-Sunday)
Notable as the prison from which the nickname for all prisons in the UK was derived (‘the clink’), the original Clink was established on this museum’s site way back in the 13th Century and operated for more than 500 years, finally closing its doors in 1780. It may just be the oldest prison for either gender in the entire country and, believe it or not, was run by the clergy; the Bishop of Winchester, no less. Dedicated to recreating the conditions and general vibe of the original jail, the Clink museum then is a popular family-friendly attraction located just behind the South Bank, showcasing torture devices once used and telling grisly tales of the fate of the prison’s inmates down through the centuries.
Dr Johnson’s House
(17 Gough Square EC4A 3DE/ open 11am-5pm Monday-Friday)
If you’ve ever picked up a dictionary to discover the meaning of a word or its correct spelling – or, indeed, used a spell-check on a computer – then you owe the subject of this venue a debt. For it was Dr Samuel Johnson who, in 1755, compiled and published the first proper English dictionary, an achievement for which he’s still lauded today. That’s far from all for which this highly distinguished ‘man of letters’ is celebrated, though; he was also a prolific author of poems, essays and novels. This building then, in which he lived for 11 years in the mid-18th Century, is a museum dedicated to his memory, career and life, containing as it does artefacts including paintings and prints he accrued during his lifetime, personal effects and various exhibits.
The Foundling Museum
(40 Brunswick Square WC1N 1AZ/ open 10am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday; 11am-5pm Sunday)
Featuring a fascination combination of original period-dressed interiors, inspiring and beautiful artworks and thought-provoking artefacts, this museum celebrates the establishment that its building once contained; The Foundling Hospital, the first institution to concern itself with the care and education of homeless and disadvantaged children in Britain, ensuring it also was the UK’s first children’s charity and its first public art gallery. Opened in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram (after whom the public space Coram Fields is also named), the ‘hospital’ and its work benefitted greatly from a pair of iconic patrons, artist William Hogarth and composer George Frederic Handel; the former encouraging his contemporaries to donate their artworks and the latter giving annual benefit performances of his epic Messiah composition.
(St. Mary Overies Dock, Cathedral Street SE1 9DE/ open 10am-5pm daily)
Resting today in a Bankside dry dock (on the south bank of The Thames in the heart of the city and so easy to get to from the London City Suites Montcalm Brewery), this full-size replica of the flagship sailed by iconic Elizabethan privateer and naval captain Sir Francis Drake may not be the real thing, sure, but has something of an illustrious history all of its own. Upon completion of its construction in the early 1970s, it circumnavigated the globe, during which it even starred in a feature film, and continued its sailing life by visiting all manner of locations throughout the world, before returning to Blighty and making its present venue its own just over 20 years ago. Since then, it’s served as a thoroughly tactile museum, hosting a whole roster of educational events all-year-round.
Jack the Ripper Museum
(12 Cable Street E1 8JG/ open 9.30am-6.30pm daily)
Although debate still rages as to the identity of the legendary serial killer who murdered several ‘ladies of the night’ across several weeks in the late Victorian era of East London, that hasn’t stopped the area recently acquiring its very own museum dedicated to the enigmatic and barbarous figure. With its wilful attempt to recreate the setting of the East End district in which ‘The Ripper’ operated in 1888 – featuring life-size waxworks, in addition to mock-ups of the bedroom of one of the hapless victims and the interior of the local police station – this venue seeks to bring to life the consternation and fascination this murky event in the capital’s history generated. Artefacts on display include the whistle, notebook, handcuffs and truncheon of a police constable who was first on the scene at one of the killings. For sure, this place isn’t not for the faint-hearted– but ideally located should you be staying at the London City Suites hotel, that’s for sure.
London Transport Museum
(Covent Garden Piazza, 39 Wellington Street WC2E 7BB)
If your little ones are fascinated by things that go, then this is the attraction to make a beeline for. Celebrating the history of public transport in the UK capital in splendid fashion, it’s jam-packed full of old-fashioned buses, trams, charabancs and Tube carriages; all of them beautifully preserved and many of them available for motoring enthusiasts to clamber about on and get an idea of what getting about in yesteryear was really like. The venue is also home to a vast and fascinating collection of original prints and posters for the city’s public transport network, encompassing buses, trams and Overground and Underground trains.
The Museum of the Order of St. John
(St. John’s Gate, St. John’s Lane EC1M 4DA/ open 10am-5pm Monday-Saturday)
A grand, old stone gatehouse from the 16th Century from which an order of knights (yes, the Order of St. John) travelled to the Holy Land to fight the Crusades, has in recent years been transformed into a museum to tell the Order’s fascinating history – and how, via fighting for Christian interests and setting up hospitals (effectively places of refuge) abroad, it grew to become what we now know as the St. John Ambulance organisation – through a combination of dynamic, interactive displays and family friendly activities and a centuries-old collection of priceless artefacts, trinkets and objects.
The Postal Museum
(15-20 Phoenix Place WC1X 0DA/ open 10am-5pm daily)
This is the permanent home for the collection of all manner of historical examples and curiosities tracing the history of the UK’s official postal service (or Royal Mail), which in fact dates all the way back to the 16th Century reign of King Henry VIII – it was made fully available to the public by King Charles I in 1635. Located near Clerkenwell’s Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, this newly opened museum comprises two sections, one of which is essentially an extension of the London Underground network, but excusive to Royal Mail (it was the first stretch of electric railway in the UK) and the second a small but dedicated museum, which contains terrific artefacts, including special ‘what if’ postage stamps that would have been released for public use had Scotland won football’s World Cup in 1978.
Two Temple Place
(2 Temple Place WC2R 3BD)
Something of a wilfully playful, neo-gothic pleasure palace, this remarkable, eye-catching building may be used a great deal today as a wedding and party venue, but it really must be seen to be believed by as many people as possible; reason, indeed, then to take advantage of its public openings at different times of the year to showcase some of the best publicly-owned British art in existence. Built for the extraordinarily wealthy tycoon, William Waldorf Astor, its opulence and off-kilter-look is as much its appeal as the exhibitions it plays host to – take, for instance, the statues of Shakespearean characters dotted about and, in its Great Hall, the sculptures of major historical figures, such as Mary, Queen of Scots, Anne Boleyn and, yes, Pocahontas. That said, you get the measure of the place’s witty sense of grand yet whimsical interior décor as soon as you step through the front door, thanks to being faced with a pair of cherubs, one of whom appears to be speaking on a telephone – fitting perhaps, as the venue was the original buildings in London to be fitted with one.