One of the best military history museums is in London – the Imperial War Museum. For any WWII history buff, it’s a must-see while visiting the British capital!
The Imperial War Museums are actually made up of five different museums – the flagship IWM London, Churchill War Rooms, HMS Belfast, IWM Duxford, and IWM North.
The main location in London was founded in 1917 and moved to its current location in a former psychiatric asylum in Southwark in 1936. It is the premiere museum to learn about England’s roles in World War I and World War II along with more recent combat missions. The museum itself became involved in wars when it was damaged during the Blitz and when it became the target of an IRA bomb in 1992.
I love learning more about military history, World War II in particular, so on our recent trip to England, we visited three out of the five IWM facilities! I had visited the IWM London in 1996 and remembered the visceral feeling I got walking through its exhibits, especially the WWI trenches. The museum was even better than I remembered!
When you walk into the free museum, your eye will immediately be drawn to the soaring atrium and its displays of war vehicles and airplanes. Kids will especially love running around the space.
Don’t miss the military jeep dangling above you!
Enter the World War I gallery to begin your tour. Note the exhibits with a red dot are part of the family trail.
These galleries help you understand what led to the “war to end all wars.” We read every plaque, and my son especially loved the hands-on activities.
It was fascinating to learn about horses on the battlefield and how the trenches were built.
We found this exhibit about how you measure up to the typical British recruit really interesting!
Kids will enjoy learning about games of the time and how they were used to teach about the war.
The displays of uniforms and weaponry were fascinating.
My son became interested in Ireland’s struggle for independence, which took place during the war.
He loved playing games on naval strategy to avoid U-boats.
We, of course, felt proud in the exhibits about the Americans entering the war. I was impressed by the letter from King George V given to each American soldier!
The trench exhibit is the one I remembered from 26 years ago, and it was just as affecting today as it was then.
The Second World War galleries were recently renovated and combined with the Holocaust galleries to make for a comprehensive look at Britian’s role in defeating the Axis powers. The gallery begins with a look at how the war started and England’s fortuitous escape via Dunkirk.
I especially loved the exhibits about the homefront with almost all Britons being sorely affected by the threat of bombings and rationing.
This home bomb shelter was fascinating to see – it would house a family of four!
There was also a display about an air raid shelter used by many British citizens in their backyards.
I always enjoy linking exhibits to a historical fiction book, so I was happy to see a display about Virginia Hall, the subject of one of my favorite books from last year, The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck (affiliate link).
After reading Kate Quinn’s The Rose Code (affiliate link) about the code breakers at Bletchley Park, I was especially fascinated with the displayed Enigma machine!
We learned more about the war in the Pacific, including the interesting factoid of Japanese soldiers wearing unique shoes which allowed the Allies to track them easily.
We were actually visiting the museum on the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, so it was especially poignant to learn more about it.
We could have spent hours in the D-Day section and the end-of-war exhibits.
Next you’ll enter the important yet heartbreaking Holocaust galleries. The IWM advises you to skip it with children younger than 14. My son was 13 and was fine, but please use parental discretion.
The agreement signed between Hitler and Prime Minister Chamberlain is especially hard to read.
After you exit, you can learn more about modern-day conflicts, including the nuclear era and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
There is a piece of the World Trade Center displayed.
During our visit in the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee year, there was an excellent photo exhibit about the Queen’s service during WWII. Not content to hide behind palace walls, the teenage future queen became a mechanic and truck driver for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).
Don’t miss the excellent gift shop as you leave!
Outside, be sure to see the colorful piece of the Berlin Wall displayed in the park.
The IWM London is an excellent place to take older kids to learn about Britain’s involvement in World War I, World War II, and modern-day wars. For any military or history buff, it’s a place not to be missed on a visit to London.
- Cost: Free
- Recommended: ages 10 and up (14 and up for Holocaust galleries)
- Tour time: 1 – 1.5 hours
- Gift shop located onsite and online
- Transportation: The museum is on the south bank of the River Thames, an easy walk or cab ride from Westminster. Near Waterloo Train station, it’s a short walk from the Lambeth North or Elephant and Circus tube stations.
- Dining options: There is a small museum cafe onsite, and the park and playground surrounding the museum make a perfect picnic spot. Walking towards the Elephant and Castle tube stop, there are several pubs along the way. Or walk back towards the Thames to the Southbank Centre Food Market on the Jubilee walkway.
- Nearby Hotels: See my London guide for ideas of lodging in London. Hotels near City Hall or Waterloo are closest.
- Nearby attractions include: Florence Nightingale Museum, London Eye, Sea Life Aquarium, and Jubilee Park and Garden
Books to Read:
See my Bookshop.org shop where I list my favorite WWII books for additional recommendations.
All images below are Amazon affiliate links.