Last week we had a day out at the Imperial War Museum in London. Although we’ve been to London numerous times, this was a museum we’d not previously visited or really knew much about.
In fact, we found the museum by chance when searching for cheap things to do near Waterloo. We had theatre tickets for the matinée performance of Witness for the Prosecution at County Hall and needed something to fill our morning.
Having already splashed out on theatre tickets, my budget for morning entertainment was low. So, I was really delighted to discover that the Imperial War Museum is free. Perfect! Even better, it is walking distance from Waterloo Station.
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Arrival at the Imperial War Museum
The IWM museum is housed in a magnificent building, which was previously the Bethlem Royal Hospital. This hospital was established in 1247 and later became the world’s oldest psychiatric hospital.
On arrival, we were met by two enormous naval guns standing guard in front of the museum. An impressive welcome!
The 15-inch guns were built in the First World War for two British naval ships, HMS Ramillies and HMS Resolution. We stopped for a quick photo, before heading inside.
Our visit to the Imperial War Museum
The museum is the world’s leading war museum and has one of the biggest collections of military equipment. It is one of five Imperial War Museums (IWM) in the UK.
As you enter, the first thing that strikes you is the Spitfire and Harrier planes suspended from ceiling. You’ll also spot military vehicles on the ground floor, plus one that appears to be crashing over the balcony.
Spread over 5 floors, the London IWM is divided into various exhibitions, with collections from the different wars. It has some permanent exhibits and some temporary exhibitions. As well as the two world wars, it has exhibits from the Falklands, Yugoslavia, Korea and more.
Starting with the two permanent exhibitions for WW1 and WW2, we spent about 2 hours exploring the museum.
In each exhibition you get a step-by-step guide to how the war started, the progress and impact. Display cabinets house momentos, badges, flags, and other keepsakes from war time. You’ll also see military equipment, weapons, ammunition, and uniforms.
As well as displays, there is plenty of video footage of war and those who served. Plus, you’ll get first hand stories from survivors about their wartime experiences. There’s numerous interactive activities for kids, so children can enjoy the museum too. We were there at Easter, so they did an food quiz, with a chocolate prize!
Before leaving we went in the holocaust exhibition. As you’d expect this was extremely harrowing and shocking. It wouldn’t be suitable for younger children, but was educational and enlightening for us and our teenagers.
We were all really impressed with the Imperial War Museum. We certainly didn’t see it all, but now we have a good excuse to return.
The museum is interesting, well-presented, and informative. Plus, like many of London’s museums, it’s free. You really don’t have to be an expert in history or war to enjoy it, though I imagine for history-lovers this place must be paradise!
Other things to do near Waterloo Station
After our visit to the museum, we headed to County Hall to see Witness for the Prosecution. This Agatha Christie whodunnit is rather unique, as the audience sit in the courtroom. Some are even part of the jury. It’s a fantastic murder mystery, with a typical Christie twist at the end (no spoilers here!).
It’s ideal for older children and you can get discounted tickets if you sit in the galleries. The courtroom is small, so you’d still get a good view of the show.
To complete our day out in London, we took a stroll along the South Bank. No matter how many times we visit London, I never tire of a walk here (even though it can get busy at times). You’ll get fantastic views across the river of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. You can also find many of London’s top tourist attractions, such as the London Eye, on this stretch of the river.
Know before you go
Where is London's Imperial War Museum?
The Imperial War Museum is in Lambeth, not far from Elephant and Castle. It is on the south of the River Thames and not far from some of London’s top attractions. The postcode for the museum is SE1 6HZ.
How to get to the Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum is less than a mile from London Waterloo station and takes about 15 minutes to walk. It is an easy route, which is mostly on Waterloo Road.
The nearest tube stations are Lambeth North (7 minutes’ walk) and Elephant and Castle (10 minutes’ walk), both of which are on the Bakerloo line.
The Imperial War Museum is open daily from 10am to 6pm. Admission is free, though they do welcome donations to support the museum.
You don’t have to book, though at busy times this would guarantee you don’t have to wait. I recommend going early or on a weekday to avoid the crowds.
Places to eat at the Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum has its own café, with inside and outdoor seating. They serve light lunches, such as sandwiches, pizzas, and burgers from 10am.
You’ll also find a good choice of places to eat on the Waterloo Road. We stopped at Wahaca Waterloo, which serves Mexican street food. They have a basement downstairs, so it is far bigger than it looks from the outside.
How long do you need to visit the Imperial War Museum?
We spent about 2 hours at the museum, but had probably only seen half the exhibits. There’s plenty to read and watch, so you could easily spend 3-4 hours.
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