On a vast 5.7 hectare plot and housing 80 million specimens, this colossal and magnificent building is infused with the irrepressible Victorian spirit of collecting, cataloguing and interpreting the natural world. The Dinosaurs Gallery (Blue Zone) is a must for children, who gawp at the animatronic T-rex. Adults will love the intriguing Treasures exhibition in the Cadogan Gallery (Green Zone), which displays a host of unrelated objects, each telling its own unique story, from a chunk of moon rock to a dodo skeleton.
Also in the Green Zone, the Mineral Gallery is a breathtaking display of architectural perspective leading to the Vault, where you'll find the Aurora Collection of almost 300 coloured diamonds. In the Orange Zone, the vast Darwin Centre focuses on taxonomy, showcasing 28 million insects and six million plants in a giant cocoon; glass windows allow you to watch scientists at work.
At the centre of the museum is Hintze Hall, which resembles a cathedral nave – quite fitting, as it was built in a time when the natural sciences were challenging the biblical tenets of Christian orthodoxy. The blue whale skeleton you see on entering the hall has replaced the famous cast of a diplodocus skeleton (nicknamed Dippy), who made way for the colossal marine mammal (Dippy has gone on a long tour of the UK). The transfer itself was a painstaking engineering project, disassembling and preparing the whale's 4.5-tonnes of bones for reconstruction in a dramatic diving posture that greets museum visitors.
The NHM hosts regular exhibitions (admission fees apply), some of them on a recurrent basis. Wildlife Photographer of the Year, for example, with its show-stopping images, has been going since 1964.
A slice of English countryside in SW7, the beautiful Wildlife Garden (April to November), next to the West Lawn, encompasses a range of British lowland habitats, including a meadow with farm gates and a bee tree where a colony of honey bees fills the air.
The museum is transforming its outdoor spaces, enlarging the Wildlife Garden and creating a piazza in the eastern grounds.
From Halloween to January, a section of the museum by the East Lawn is transformed into a glittering and highly popular ice rink, complete with a hot-drinks stall. Book your slot well ahead.
More than five million visitors come each year, so queues can often get long, especially during the school holidays. Avoid the queues at the congested main Cromwell Rd entrance by aiming for the Exhibition Rd entrance round the corner.
The best time to come on weekdays is after 2pm when school groups leave; at weekends it's best to arrive as soon as it opens.