“Oh London, I’d love to go but it’s just so expensive…”, something I have heard quite frequently over the past few years from friends and colleagues when they ask for recommendations and I make this suggestion. Admittedly its not known to be very cheap but there are many, many ways you can stretch your travel budget in this city.
One of the very best I can think of is mixing a whole lot of free, yet still world-class, attractions in with a few of the more expensive ones (like the Tower of London). And really with a little bit of research you could likely spend a whole week in London ONLY seeing the free sights and you’d still come home happy at all the very cool things you had seen and done.
Today I’d like to share with you more than 20 fun activities and sights you can do in London which are all for FREE!
One thing London is well known for is its world-class museums, but did you know most of them are free? Even the big one of them all- the British Museum with its great treasures such as Egyptian mummies, priceless vases, Aztec masks, and the Rosetta Stone.
With over 4 km of galleries it would certainly take more than a few hours to cover that much ground and really see the millions (literally) of ancient and modern objects the museum owns so this is one free London sight that can be visited over and over again.
To really get the most out of your visit the museum offers free daily ‘Eye Opener’ tours, lunchtime gallery talks, or Friday evening spotlight tours. Click here for more information.
With a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland is it any wonder they need to add 11 km of new shelf space each year? Can you imagine the hundreds (thousands?) of kilometers of shelf space in there already? This is a book lover’s paradise.
Actually the reading rooms are reserved only for researchers but visitors can enjoy lots of other treasures from the library’s archives, including some of the earliest printed Shakespeare plays, original Beatles lyrics, and the Magna Carta. Also beautifully displayed in the center is the King’s Library which is a glass-walled tower that holds a collection of leather-bound books from King George III. All of these things can be viewed for free!
To learn more about the library as you visit, Rick Steves also has a free audio tour (with map) of the British Library.
Overlooking the city you’ll find three great museums, an awesome place atop the hill for photos, and you can stand at 0° longitude.
For no admission price you can visit the permanent exhibits at the National Maritime Museum to see ship models and plans, maps, navigational instruments and even Lord Nelson’s jacket (still with the hole made by the musket ball that killed him at the Battle of Trafalgar).
Then it’s on to the Queen’s House to visit 22 rooms filled with beautiful art spanning 400 years, including a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I and the Great Hall ceiling.
Finally the Astronomy Centre at the Royal Observatory, with its 4.5 billion year-old meteorite (that you can touch) is free too. There are several other buildings at the Royal Observatory,and the Prime Meridian courtyard, that have an admission fee but between these three museums and the great view you will have lots to do for free. To get a free photo on the Prime Meridian look for the sign on the outside of the wall that surrounds the Meridian Courtyard- 0° longitude isn’t just inside the courtyard where you have to pay to wait in line for a photo!
All this for free AND it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Too cool!
London has several famous bridges that are beautiful, and all free to visit. There is the Millennium Bridge, also known as the “Wobbly Bridge“, that spans the river between the Globe Theatre and St. Paul’s Cathedral and is for pedestrians only. From here you can walk along the South Bank all the way to the Tower Bridge, which although not free to enter, it is free to admire its beauty and watch it lift if you plan ahead (lift schedule here).
When you’re in the Westminster area you can get great photos of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben from the Westminster Bridge. For a bit of fun check out the shadows that the decorative openings on the sides of the bridge make on the sidewalks when the sun is sitting just right in the sky. Oh my! *blush*
Finally check out a very unique architectural design in the Rolling Bridge– a pedestrian bridge at the Grand Union Canal at Paddington Basin that rolls up to allow boats through. If your visit doesn’t allow you to see it open or close you can see it in action on this YouTube video.
Related Post: An Iconic Symbol of London: The Tower Bridge
Changing the Guard
For lots of pomp, spectacle, and ceremony the Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace is the place to be and it’s free…just be sure to get there early so you can get a spot to actually see what is going on. This is the ceremony when the guards who protect the Queen come off duty to be replaced by a new roster of soldiers from the Household Regiment.
For smaller crowds (or even no crowd at all) you can catch the Inspection of the Guard at the Wellington Barracks that happens before these same guards head over to Buckingham Palace for the main event. These barracks are just east of the Palace along Birdcage Walk.
Related Post: Guide to Changing the Guard by Free Tours by Foot
Way back in AD 43 the walled town of Londinium was established by the Romans in the area now covered by the City to protect an important crossing over the Thames. The Romans filled their city with grand civic buildings and then built a massive stone wall to protect its inhabitants- pieces of which are still visible in places around the City.
Probably the most likely place you’ll see the Roman Wall is in the Tower Hill area as it is clearly signposted, but with many fragments visible you may have walked by some and not even realised it. For a great article by Historic UK on the wall and a map of places you can visit it click here.
One of my very favourite ways to see a new city, or any city really, is by taking a walking tour. The guides are typically very knowledgeable and enthusiastic and you can get to see some places that are a little off the beaten path that you wouldn’t have realised have neat stories to tell. London has no shortage of great walking tours for all kinds of themes and areas of the city- and some of them are free!
Options include a 2.5 hour walking tour of all the main sights of London by Sandemans (they have tours all over Europe so could also be used in many other cities you may visit).
After you’ve seen the big attractions you can dig a little deeper into the history of London with Free London Walking Tours options such as ‘Jack the Ripper‘, ‘Royal London’, ‘Fire, Pestilence and Plague‘, or ‘Debauched London! Bankside, Brothels & Beer’. What fun! I want to do them all!
If you want to do a walking tour on your own time you know my man Rick Steves has got you covered, with two tours in fact- ‘Westminster Walk‘ and ‘Historic London: The City‘. Just download them to your phone on his Audio Europe app, put on your comfy shoes, and head out!
If you need a break from all the walking then people watching in London is the way to go and there are oodles of places to take in the sights and sounds of the people that make up (and visit) London. Some recommended places to do this for lots of action are:
- Trafalgar Square– London’s favourite public space used for rallies and celebrations. It is full of art and people!
- Piccadilly Circus– If the ultimate buzz of activity is what you’re after then Piccadilly Circus is the place to go. It’s people on top of people, and especially around the Statue of Eros.
- Leicester Square – (pronounced like “Lester”) is where to go if you want to people watch or catch a movie at one of the many theatres around the square- like the Empire that was once a Victorian music hall and now houses several movie theatres and the MTV UK studios.
- Covent Garden– THE place to go in London for street performers of all types. Some a bit cheesy, but some are fantastic and we’ve been known to stop on more than one occasion to see what antics they get up to.
There are likely hundreds of churches in London, and many of them are free, but the big name ones like St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey have pretty expensive admission fees. So why are they on the list? Because you can still visit them for free by attending a worship service or Choral Evensong.
No you won’t be able to freely wander Westminster Abbey’s side chapels and Poet’s corner, or climb the beautiful dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral but you will get a different experience as you join local people to enjoy each church for the purpose they were built and listen to the music as it resonates around you.
Enjoy Parks Like the Locals
I can assure you it is NOT always dreary and raining in London so on a visit you will almost certainly have time in the sunshine to enjoy one, if not many of it’s outstanding parks, which are of course…all free!
There are eight Royal Parks in London and countless other parks and squares. A few to check out are:
- Hyde Park & Kensington Gardens– Laid out separately, but now hard to tell where one starts and the other ends, this is the place to come for playing sports, swimming, picnicking, and open-air concerts. Personally I thought just relaxing with a book and watching the people go by was an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. Hyde Park is home to the famous Speaker’s Corner and the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain while Kensington Gardens features the Italian Gardens, Albert Memorial and the Peter Pan Statue.
- St. James’ Park– A Royal Park right in front of Buckingham Palace, this park is a good one to visit if you’re in the area for the Changing the Guard, or want to have a stroll and see the pelicans. Yep, pelicans!
- Russell Square– Situated near the British Museum, this city square is a great one to come to around lunchtime to see the locals enjoying their mid-day break from work and getting outside. It is also the home of one of only thirteen Cabman’s Shelters remaining in London.
- Grosvenor Garden– This little park could easily be missed but worth a little wander for the very neat statues it holds. My very favourite was the Alien that definitely caught our eye and made us wander in to the garden for a closer look. This piece has since been moved but take a quick peek here and see if anything new has popped up or landed to take its place.
Photos with Icons
With so many cool icons in London how can you not get out and about to get some photos with them?
- Hop in a red phone box and pretend to call home (if there is an actual phone in it).
- Get a shot of a double-decker bus as it pulls up to pick you up.
- Do the walk across Abbey Road (burst mode works well if there is only one person to walk across as it kind of looks like an action shot then).
- And then get a video of yourself in front of Elizabeth Tower as Big Ben chimes the hour. Come on, you know you want to!
All fun shots to have from your time in London. And of course, they are all free!
Did you know there were was so much fun to be had in London for free? Believe it or not there is actually a TON more to see and do (for free!); I’ve barely scratched the surface in this post. So if you’ve already been and visited most (or all) of these places already do stay tuned. I’m working on a huge list of free sights and attractions in London. You’ll be able to visit London for years without running out of ideas for fun and free things to add to your London itinerary!
Over to you! What are your favourite tips and tricks to make London a more affordable city to visit?
This post is part of my London Love series.
For more information on common (and some not so common) sights in London, as well as itineraries to help you plan your time, please visit my growing collection of posts in London Love.