Visitors to London tend to be well aware of the fact it’s blessed with a great selection of the old and the new; the historically and culturally resonant and the technologically ground-breaking. Indeed, with all its centuries-old Royal connections on the one hand and modern art galleries, vibrant shopping outlets and state-of-the-art cinemas, theatre shows and restaurants on the other, it’s easily one of the world’s most popular cities with tourists.
However, for those who like the idea of combining the best of both worlds when it comes to what the UK capital offers, they might fancy mixing it up by stepping inside one of its military museums, each of which takes a considerable and considered look at the nation’s history in warfare and the hardware it employed to fight overseas and defend itself at home…
Imperial War Museum
Undoubtedly one of the great London museums (up there with, yes, the illustrious British, Science and Victoria & Albert Museums in Bloomsbury and South Kensington, respectively), the Imperial War Museum – located just south of the river, between Southwark and Elephant and Castle – is a comprehensive, fascinating and moving commemoration of modern warfare; from the brutal carnage of the First World War, through the totality of the Second World War and more recent conflicts such as those in Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf, right up to the present day. Particular highlights include the opportunity to walk through an affecting reproduction of a WWI Western Front trench and the haunting Holocaust Exhibition. Perhaps the thing that’ll stay with you most, though, is the giant digital counter that you can’t fail to miss on entry, which tots up the number of war dead since and including WWI – it’s always ticking upwards, adding one more person approximately every second.
National Maritime Museum
Another too often overlooked gem of London, this Greenwich-based museum dedicates itself to recording, informing and celebrating everything associated with the nation’s naval and maritime history. It boasts terrific interactive activities to engage the young ones – such as the opportunity to be a ship’s captain for a few minutes thanks to the ‘All Hands Gallery’ – as well as the priceless exhibit that’s the jacket the illustrious Lord Admiral Nelson wore when he was downed at the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars. Check out the bullet-hole created by the shot to his chest that proved fatal.
Churchill War Rooms
A subterranean labyrinth to be found beneath House Guards Parade in the very centre of the capital, this eminently popular attraction was, during the Second World War, the heartbeat of British power, as it was from here the legendary Winston Churchill and his closest advisors directed the nation’s war effort throughout the globe – and where his Cabinet met (the assumption being that the above-ground Downing Street wouldn’t be safe enough while London endured heavy, continuous bombing). The War Rooms themselves are kept almost exactly as they were left when vacated at the conflict’s conclusion in August 1945, while an atmospheric tearoom is the perfect accompaniment to a tour of this iconic PM’s one-time HQ, as is the Churchill Museum next door that details the life and times of the man himself.
Household Cavalry Museum
Just a few steps away from the Cabinet War Rooms is this museum dedicated to the history and day-to-day activity of The Household Cavalry, which comprises the several troop squads based at House Guards Parade that perform the Trooping of the Colour on a daily basis. It offers visitors a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what it takes to keep up the very British and equine-related pomp and pageantry that’s so associated with London’s Westminster area and Buckingham Palace. Who could resist checking out the troopers as they work with and care for their steeds or even try on one of their helmets? A visit to both this museum and the War Rooms could form part of a Royal focused-day should you be planning a short-break in London – especially if you’re looking to stay somewhere within easy reach of all Central London’s attractions, such as at the Park Grand London Paddington hotel or Paddington Suites London.
If you cross the river at Westminster, you’ll find yourself faced with the terrific tourist-trap that’s the South Bank and if, from here, you stroll towards London Bridge you’ll discover docked at the bankside the impressive and imposing HMS Belfast. In its heyday an important vessel in the British Royal Navy’s World War Two fleet, this ship was involved in the legendary and history-pivoting D-Day landings of June 1944; nowadays it’s a major attraction enjoyed by thousands of people every month. Not only does it contain information about its chequered history, but you can also check out its various different areas – the engine rooms, the sailors’ mess and the ‘bridge’– all the while considering what it would be like living (and waging war) on-board the ship, cheek by jowl with 950 other souls!
Royal Airforce Museum London
Finally, although situated a little way out of the centre in Hendon, in the north-west of the city, for enthusiasts of aeronautics – and the role that’s played in warfare down through the decades – this place is an absolute must and well worth the trip. Detailing the British Royal Air Force’s history from its emergence in World War One right through to today (in fact, from the first ever balloon flight to the modern Eurofighter jet), it’s located in the former Hendon Aerodrome, ensuring it regularly houses an awesome collection of more than 100 separate aircraft, in addition to serving up an interactive centre and an inspiring and fascinating audio-visual look at the iconic Battle of Britain, which was fought in the nation’s skies during the Second World War.