It’s one of the world’s most expensive cities, but some of the best things in London don't cost a thing. Rachel Beard has the inside track on how to see the Big Smoke for free
Most of London's major museums and galleries offer free entry, so you can get a big fat culture fix without a hefty cover charge. Hit up the British Museum to see the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles and an impressive collection of mummies; the National Gallery for prolific portraits, or channel your inner geek at the Science Museum. Smaller, quirkier options include Sir John Soane's Museum, a townhouse stuffed with antiquities and artwork, Hackney's Geffrye Museum, a series of 18th-century houses that showcase British interiors from 1600, and the Horniman Museum, which takes taxidermy to a whole new level.
London's streets are bursting with landmarks and there are plenty of free self-guided walking tours that weave past blockbuster buildings. The South Bank is prime for strolling and littered with photo pit stops: you can snap the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye from this Thames-side swathe. In East London, join a street art walking tour to see how creative types including Banksy and Invader have made their mark on the local area, or take part in a guided nature walk around one of the Royal Parks.
Pack your sneakers (or trainers in these parts) for a free, guided run from Oxford Street's Nike Town to Regent's Park. Groups leave at 6:30 p.m. every Tuesday and there's a women-only option every Tuesday (choose between three-, four-, or seven-mile routes). For something a little more Zen, free Tai Chi sessions take place every Saturday between 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. in Regent's Park, or sign up for a 30-minute meditation sesh at Covent Garden's Inner Space to clear your head without emptying your wallet.
Check London Ears for tip offs on where to catch free gigs in the capital. Popular venues include Rough Trade East record store, Hackney's Shacklewell Arms and Dalston's hipster hang out, Birthdays. Free classical concerts take place at St Martins in the Fields most lunch times, and there are regular jazz performances on Friday nights at iconic London book store, Foyles.
If there are two things that Londoners take great pleasure in, it's books and booze; consequently, there are countless events that celebrate the written word in some of the city's finest watering holes. The aptly named Book Club bar in Shoreditch hosts a number of free monthly literary events; Brixton Book Jam is an eclectic gathering of bookish types in south London's Hootananny and the pun-tastic Girlfriend in a Comma combines poetry and acoustic music in a bar in Brick Lane.
Catch a free movie at The Scoop this summer, an outdoor sunken amphitheater with seating for 800 near Tower Bridge. The Garrison pub on Bermondsey Street hosts a free Sunday night film club where you can catch a cult classics and snack on free popcorn, or pop into the British Film Institute to tap into the archives and watch a free iconic Brit flick.
Snaffle free samples at one of London's food markets. Borough Market is home to fromageries, patisseries and artisanal food stalls and hosts regular demonstrations and classes on Fridays. On Saturdays head to Maltby Street, a lesser known alternative with stalls under railway arches near Tower Bridge hosting small producers, or taste gourmet goodies at Cabbages & Frocks, in the courtyard of St. Marylebone Parish Church, where English poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett wed.
Skyline views can come with a sky high price tag in the capital: Peering down from the London Eye or the Shard will set you back around $25 and $40 a pop, respectively. But you can get high for free by heading up to the Sky Garden, a leafy ‘floating’ terrace on the 35th floor of the Walkie Talkie building (book tickets online at least three days ahead of your trip). Hike to the top of Primrose Hill, Hampstead Heath or Greenwich Park: the views will take your breath away if the walks up don’t. Or venture south to Peckham, where pop-up campari bar, Franks, offers awesome vistas from the top of a multi-story car park. There's no cover charge so you can drink in the views even if you don't splash out on a pint.
Many of the city’s iconic buildings charge nada for entry. Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath is a neoclassical manor home to artworks by Turner, Rembrandt and Gainsborough; the Queen’s House in Greenwich is a former royal residence that dates back to 1616. For something a little different, apply for free tickets to watch the Ceremony of the Keys, a 700-year-old nightly tradition of locking up the Tower of London to guard the Crown Jewels. Tickets need to be requested in advance in writing.
Time a trip to coincide with a major event and the city will stump up the entertainment costs for you. In August, party peeps pound the streets of west London to celebrate all things Caribbean at the Notting Hill Carnival, Europe's biggest street festival; catch gigs, theater performances, comedy events and an awesome firework display at the Thames Festival in September; or nosey around some of the city's best buildings during Open House Weekend, where iconic landmarks like the Bank of England open up to the masses for a free mooch around.