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The country's largest museum and one of the oldest and finest in the world, this famous museum opened in 1759 and boasts vast Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, Roman, European and Middle Eastern galleries, among others. It's London’s most visited attraction, drawing 5.9 million people annually. Don't miss the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics; the controversial Parthenon sculptures, taken from Athens' Acropolis by Lord Elgin (British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time); and the large collection of Egyptian mummies.
Other must-see items include the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo Ship Burial relics and the winged bulls from Khorsabad.
Begun in 1753 with a 'cabinet of curiosities' sold to the nation by physician and collector Sir Hans Sloane, the collection mushroomed over the ensuing years partly through acquisitions, bequests and plundering the empire. The grand Enlightenment Gallery was the first section of the redesigned museum to be built in 1823.
The light-filled Great Court, restored and augmented by architect Norman Foster in 2000, has a spectacular glass-and-steel roof, making it one of the most impressive architectural spaces in the capital. In the centre is the Reading Room, currently closed, where Karl Marx researched and wrote Das Kapital, and where Mahatma Gandhi was a cardholder.
The museum is huge, so make a few focused visits if you have time, and consider taking one of the free tours. There are 14 free 30-minute Eye-opener tours of individual galleries each day. The museum also has free 45-minute lunchtime gallery talks (1.15pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday), an Around the World in 90 Minutes tour (£14; 11.30am and 2pm Friday, Saturday and Sunday) and free 20-minute spotlight tours on Friday evenings. Audio and family guides (adult/child £7/6) in 10 languages are available from the desk in the Great Court.