Family day out: The Horniman Museum, London
It always astounds me that I can drive for well over an hour and still not reach the opposite side of London from my home. In fact, it’s quicker for me to get to Oxford than south east London. Which is the only reason we haven’t visited the Horniman Museum before today.
For my complete set of tips on visiting London’s museums with toddlers and kids, check out my ultimate guide, as well as as well as the top 49 free things to do in London with kids
With a natural history museum, aquarium, lots of interactive fun and some animals in the gardens outside (plus the fact most of it’s free), the discovery that there’s also a temporary dinosaur exhibition meant all my daughter’s favourite things were under one roof.
So we piled into the car (still quicker for us than going by train) and put our navigational destiny in the hands of Google Maps (risky). And the Horniman was worth every minute of the drive.
From getting our stickers at the admission desk (me: jellyfish, Minnie: walrus) to buying a snapping monkey head on the way out (I’m not quite sure what came over me), it seemed perfect for kids.
There are lots of little touches – toddler steps in the aquarium, exhibits you’re encouraged to touch, and colouring at every turn – which just helped make every stop fun.
And while the museum initially seemed fairly small from an adult point of view, we were there for five hours and barely managed to see all the indoor galleries.
Getting sidetracked by unexpectedly bumping into a friend outside, we had to abandon our plan to visit the animals before making our return trip home too.
First stop was the dinosaurs. It’s a fun twist on the usual by focusing on dinosaur ‘families’ – so there were eggs and replica nests, as well as baby dinosaur skeletons too, not something I’ve really come across on our museum visits elsewhere and a twist on our usual perceptions of these extinct monsters.
Along with a replica of a near-complete dinosaur hatchling skeleton (Baby Louie), there was also one of T-Rex’s cousins, a thoroughly huge Tarbosaurus. But the winner for Minnie, was the discovery pit.
Designed to let children dig for eggs and bones, there are paintbrushes for precision archaeological excavation (or wild enthusiastic sweeping) plus supersize magnifying glasses to examine the finds.
Best of all for me, was the fact that the fake sand/earth was actually tiny bits of brown rubbery material – easy to sweep off, and unlike sand it didn’t get instantly rubbed into Minnie’s eyes.
After some brief digging, she got sidetracked filling the plastic pith helmets with these bits in an impromptu cookery session with a new friend.
The aquarium came a close second in excitement terms – Minnie flatly refused to even contemplate lunch until she’d visited both, finally eating well over an hour later than usual. For a three-year-old, you need to be pretty excited to put off the chance of a kids’ lunchbox and sharing my cake.
Again, it’s small but rather beautifully done. The tanks include British pond and fish life, starfish, seahorses and anemones, as well as tropical reefs and Amazonian creatures – a blue tree frog is hard to beat, I think.
Everywhere were quirky facts and clever designs, so the dull grey tench and bluey grey lobster got as much love as the neon bright fish darting through the coral.
And while Minnie kept a warily respectful distance, I was mesmerised by the jellyfish floating and pulsating in their blue tank, looking delicately transparent.
Finally only the lure of a cheese sandwich (or quiche Lorraine and lemon blueberry cake in my case) convinced her to leave the fish behind.
With single entry tickets, I had an iron-clad excuse why we couldn’t go back – but fortunately, a stuffed walrus was all the reason we needed to keep exploring.
The natural history section, with the famous overstuffed walrus at its centre, is packed with a variety of animals. I always find them slightly odd, in that frenzied Victorian taxidermy way, but it’s an incredible collection for kids to look at.
There’s even a dodo, although my lesson on the perils of hunting and extinction slightly backfired when Minnie assumed everything in the display cases was also wiped out.
Tucked away to one side sits the Nature Base with a few animals to stroke, including a fox and badger (more wariness from Minnie, who took some convincing to believe they weren’t just asleep) but also live bees and mice in special habitats.
Even more fun was being able to turn a wheel and see which animals and birds were awake at different points during the day, and hear their song and cries.
After this, we took the final galleries at speed: the African collections ranged from voudou to Egyptian sarcophagi plus fascinating masks and tribal regalia. I’d have spent longer here if I visited on my own but Minnie’s appreciation of bronze art from Benin is currently limited.
If I’d been more organised in advance, I’d have realised there were activity packs to download which I think she’d have liked.
Happily the centenary gallery, which looks back at the museum’s collections and collectors over the past 100 years, included several items from Burma to remind us of our recent trip. I did subtly shuttle her past the torture chair at the entrance though.
And lastly, the music galleries. If the instruments on display didn’t grab her attention too much (except the huge tuba), the chance to hear them play did.
With the collection displayed in front of you, you could scroll through the different instruments and select the ones you wanted to hear – perfect for a preschooler’s short attention span and desire to press buttons, but I loved being reminded of some of my travels through music as well as hearing a few more obscure instruments.
With the South Circular still to navigate, we had to skip the Nature trail and Animal Walk and barely saw a corner of the 16 acres of grounds and gardens – including a rather impressive view over to the Shard and the skyscrapers of central London.
The capital’s sheer size might not make it easy to venture to every corner, but this is one spot that’s easily worth the journey.
Need to know: Visiting the Horniman museum, London
If you’re wondering about Horniman museum parking, there’s none at the museum itself although there is a pay and display car park near the Sainsbury’s a few streets away. If you’re travelling on a weekday, you could be lucky and snaffle a free space on a nearby side street as we did.
If you can travel by public transport, it’s worth doing that – Forest Hill station is less than 10 minutes’ walk away, and you can catch a bus to take you right outside the museum.
Entrance to the museum and grounds is free, apart from the aquarium and temporary exhibitions. Aquarium tickets cost from £4.50 for adults, £2.50 for children and under-threes are free, with family tickets from £10.50.
Membership costs £36, which gives free unlimited entry – definitely worth picking up if you live a bit closer than we do. And you can buy tickets online even on the day, which will let you skip the queues at busy times: show the printed or electronic copy.
Temporary exhibitions, such as Dinosaurs: Monster Families (running to October 30, 2016) also have a separate cost.
There’s a cafe, toilets on two floors and baby changing, along with buggy parking inside and lockers (bring a £1 coin, which is returned afterwards). It’s worth noting that you can’t eat anywhere else inside the museum.
The museum is open from 10.30am – 5.30pm, with the cafe and gardens open earlier. The animal trail is open from 12.30pm to 4pm.
For my complete set of tips on visiting London’s museums with toddlers and kids, check out my ultimate guide
PIN FOR LATER: HORNIMAN MUSEUM LONDON WITH KIDS
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What a brilliant museum! Never even heard of it but it’s got that personal touch making it so child-friendly.
I think your phone photos are fab, by the way.
Thanks! I’ve been virtuously checking my camera for battery and memory card before leaving since I last forgot months ago – then dashed out yesterday and inevitably the first time I didn’t bother, it was left in the computer. Lots to photograph there either way.
I’ve never heard of this museum before! I have to say, it has got quite a funny name! It looks brilliant – I really must visit. My daughter would particularly love the dinosaur exhibition and how it centres around the family. I can’t believe it has an aquarium too. Ticks so many boxes! #citytripping
It’s fantastic – I kept coming across it on lists and in blog posts, so it’s been in my sights for a while. Worth heading over while the dinosaurs are on if you can.
We used to live near the Horniman and I loved it. Not been for decades, time for another visit methinks.
Still worth a visit as an adult too – the African collections looked fantastic (as I speed walked round)
I had to see what the Horniman museum is all about. That sounds like heaven for kids and probably adults too! It’s very interactive which is what’s missing from the other more popular museums. I wish we had these kinds of museums when I was a kid. Lol.
Same here! I’m sure they were a lot less fun – I definitely don’t remember being able to dig for dinosaur eggs…
I think the jellyfish picture is my favorite from this post. They are so beautiful in the water!
It looks like Horniman Museum is a fun place to visit. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you – they are stunning, aren’t they.
My best friend in UK lives really near the Horniman Museum so I have not only heard of it but also been…but only once and many years ago where the 16 yo was probably about 3. I don’t remember it being nearly as extensive as you describe and we certainly didn’t spend 5 hours there. In fact I doubt I’ve ever spent 5 hours in any museum, ever. Respect! But I do remember it being good and perhaps next time I stay with my friend I’ll suggest a revisit (not for the 16 yo but the 10 yo.).
I wonder how much it will have changed over the past decade or so – definitely still worth a visit. And those five hours did include lunch and quite a bit of colouring (plus some running around outside), but still managed to fill the time very easily.
Wow! The Horniman is on my list of the best museums in London for children for good reason. What an amazing amount of things you managed to do here. So much fun for children of all ages and I love how interactive Minnie’s experience was. That fox really does look asleep, though. The photos are great too! You might want to consider crossing the river… #citytripping
The fox is very lifelike – she was convinced that if she stroked it, he’d suddenly wake up (even after I demonstrated, she was a bit wary). Don’t think I’d persuade my husband (N London born and bred) to ever live south, but it’s definitely worth heading over to visit the museum.
another great London museum!:)
We are spoiled for choice!
The Horniman is a bit of a favourite with my crew all year round. The gardens are great for lazy summer days and the view is absolutely amazing. I find the taxidermy section a bit creepy but the kids seem to love it. If you visit on a Saturday there is also a lovely farmers market in the grounds which has a Sri Lankan curry stand.. with hoppers and sambal.. yummy!
Now that’s a good reason to go back at a weekend – mmmmm. And it’s funny how kids never seem to mind the taxidermy collections, I know my daughter’s been quite happily accepting of a few now which I’ve found slightly odd.
I had no idea this museum existed! With my husband, we always say we should take a trip to London with the kids and go to the Natural History Museum, but this sounds like a great one – and something a bit different for us adults too!
Definitely a nice alternative if you’re looking for something smaller/varied too – I do love the Natural History Museum too, but this should be the right side of London for you as well.
wow, never heard of the Horniman museum -thanks for sharing and sounds like you had a brilliant day. loads to do for little ones 🙂 #citytripping
So much to do – I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem unless you know south east London but one that’s well worth discovering.
I’ve never heard of this place before but sounds fab – off to check out more about it!
It is – definitely worth a visit.
I have to admit I haven’t heard of this museum but it looks amazing. What a great day out
So much fun – great for littler kids as well.
This looks like great fun! I’ll have to add this to my itinerary the next time we are headed that way. I have one that is completely obsessed with aquariums! haha.
There’s something about aquariums, I think – I do love them too, but my daughter is obsessed.
I’ve often written about the Horniman Museum for work but never actually visited it myself; it looks like a fantastic way to spend the day and so much to see and do. Definitely one to add to the list for the next time we are in London. #citytripping
I always seemed to keep reading about it (and occasionally writing about it for work too) so it was great to actually go and check it out.
Looks pretty interesting. I am really into Natural History Museums, so, I think I will enjoy this one (and the nerd inside me will enjoy it more). I feel what you say about the long drives in metropolitan areas. Here in Los Angeles it is almost impossible to get from one place to another in a decent amount of time.
It’s nice sometimes to see the smaller museums, I think – still more than enough to keep us amused but without seeming overwhelming. And I can imagine LA is even worse to get around!
Wish I would have known about this before we traveled with the kids to London. Looks like a fantastic way to entertain the kids for an afternoon. I love that it had an aquarium- those are my fav. I could watch fish swim all day long. #citytripping
Next time…! It’s a great place, and a lovely (little) aquarium too.
There’s so much to do for free, what a great place. I’m not sure I’ve heard of it before – I’m sure I would have remembered with a name like that! I’ve forgotten my memory card during a few recent trips too. It’s actually a bit of s relief not to have to keep switching between camera and phone 🙂 #citytripping
It’s amazing isn’t it – and even the paid sections aren’t that expensive, especially by London standards. And you’re right, between remembering to take photos on my phone for Instagram, maybe some video, ‘proper’ photos with my DSLR, any notes, looking after my daughter and enjoying myself, it’s nice sometimes to forget one! 😉
Sounds like a great museum for kids – it creates a positive, educational and fun experience for them 🙂 #Citytripping
Absolutely – I’m sure I’d have enjoyed some museums more as a kid if they’d been more fun then.
We visited the Horniman Museum a few months ago and I was really impressed with how much there is to do there for little ones. The aquarium is well put together and we spent quite a lot of time at the Nature Base. The sound garden outside is lovely too! This is another place I hope to go back to, especially now that I know about the dinosaur exhibit which Little T would really enjoy. #CityTripping
It’s fantastic isn’t it – we did have a very brief stop in the Sound Garden too, although didn’t have chance for the Nature Base either unfortunately. And definitely worth heading back before the dinosaurs finish if you can.
Like the jellyfish! Just don’t want them near 🙂