42 Ways to See London for Free
The notoriously-pricey London may be home to the British Royal Family (net worth: <$500 million), but you don't have to be an heir to any throne to enjoy the best live music events, world-renowned museums, and fine food and drink the city has on offer. Here, we track down entirely on-the-house options for penny-pinching travelers everywhere.
A Brooklyn-based writer and editor, Chelsea's work has appeared in Matador Network, The Huffington Post, the TripAdvisor blog, and more. When not planning her next trip, you'll usually find her drinking way too much iced coffee (always iced—she’s from New England) or bingeing a Netflix original series.
Explore the Great Outdoors
London may be a sprawling urban metropolis, but unlike our beloved NYC, it isn’t lacking in public parks or vast outdoor space. While grade-A picnic spots are aplenty, we suggest taking to Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, and Bushy Park, where post-lunch a lengthy mid-afternoon stroll is in order.
Speaking of walks, even if you’re not a Beatles fan (we’re trying not to judge) you’ll likely want to snap a shot of yourself crossing the now-iconic Abbey Road in Camden. Then, for a real workout, head for the Thames Path, a 184-mile stretch that ambles along the river from the Cotswold hills to the Thames Barrier in Greenwich. The national trail can easily be divvied up into manageable routes – like the 7.5-mile Greenwich to the London Eye path which takes you under the Tower Bridge and past many of the city’s architectural grand dames.
For a somewhat eerie, somewhat romantic romp, you can admire funerary architecture at the Highgate Cemetery where Victorian and Tudor Gothic-style chapels, stones, and monuments mark the final resting place of Karl Marx, George Eliot and some 170,000 others.
Make Time for Must-See Monuments
Let’s be real, what’s a trip to the Big Smoke without seeing the top sights? While we don’t suggest spending your whole trip on the touristy bits, we do encourage a hackneyed insta or two in front of Big Ben, the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye, the Globe Theater, and Trafalgar Square. The perpetually-crowded attractions are popular for a number of reasons, not limited to spellbinding Gothic Revival, English Baroque and Elizabethan architecture, and rich histories dating back centuries. Ample time should also be spent exploring the gargantuan grounds of the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. Free guided tours take you around the complex through the traditional Hindu temple (hand-carved from Italian marble), the cultural center (carved from Burmese teak) and a highly-sculpted neo-classical English garden.
Inflate Your IQ at a Museum or Two
Barring the putting on of a fake British accent, there are plenty of ways to feel cultured in London. The city has a wealth of museums both conventional and eclectic, and lucky for us, a dose of refinery doesn’t require dipping into deep pockets. Stop by the British Museum to peep the Rosetta Stone; the Science Museum for interactive technology exhibits; the National Gallery for Van Gogh’s Sunflowers; the Natural History Museum for botanical and zoological galleries; the Tate Modern for Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych; and the Victoria and Albert Museum for royal jewels, all completely free of charge.
For something a little off-the-beaten-art-path, try out God’s Own Junkyard, a showroom of both new and retro neon signs. On your own, you can also always go on the hunt for original Banksy graffiti. While his stenciled murals are becoming harder and harder to find, you can still them hidden around the city if you know where to look.
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Ball Out on Free Food and Drink
There’s no better food than free food, right? While it’s often hard to come by, whether wandering around your own hometown or aimlessly abroad, London is batting a thousand in the free samples game. You can practically piece together a whole meal; start by munching on fresh produce at the historic Borough Market, followed up by farmhouse cheeses from Neal’s Yard Dairy, test out the craft suds at BrewDog Camden, and then satisfy your sweet tooth with experimental small-batch chocolates at Paul A Young Fine Chocolates. For a more one-stop deal, hit up Fortnum & Mason’s or Harrods where charcuterie, pastries and even shrimp, are yours for the taking.
Live it Up with Live Music and Entertainment
Finding free shows and live music performances are totally possible, you just have to know where to be and when (and that’s where we come in). The working, Gothic Revival-style Union Chapel hosts Daylight Music sessions on Saturdays and previous gigs have included tunes from the London Bulgarian Choir and the Guildhall Saxophone Ensemble. St. Paul’s Cathedral also hosts a daily Choral Evensong during their service that attracts visitors from around the world.
If you’re more for DJs than choirs, the over 21 crowd takes to Hootananny Brixton late every night, but in-the-know freebie seekers go Sunday-Wednesday when there’s no cover charge. Gratis shows usually skew towards DJ beats, hiphop fusion, reggae, and funk, but they also sneak in complimentary comedy sets every Friday night.
For something a little more subdued, sift through The Forge’s event calendar. Tucked between ticketed funk festivals, African jazz jams, virtuoso bass players, and storytelling sessions, you’ll find that the Camden venue throws patrons a bone with free early admission to particular shows. Bell Square, an outdoor performance space in Hounslow, also puts on a broad array of admission-free shows and temporary art installations – think flame throwing, French acrobatic acts, street theater, Argentine tango – every other Saturday.
Focus on Fun For the Whole Family
Some classic London events just can’t be missed – especially when traveling with kids who, once they’re older, will complain from here to eternity that you robbed them of experiencing x,y and z on that long-gone vaca. One such must is the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. The 45-minute traditional ceremony – full of choreographed pageantry and trumpet fanfare – is held on alternating days throughout the year. Watching the Tower Bridge open is another absolute, just make sure you check lift times before claiming a prime spot somewhere along the North Bank of the Thames.
Calling all Potterheads! Book it to King’s Cross Station to have your photo taken at Platform 9 ¾ while you try your best to break through to the Hogwarts Express. As for kiddos who were born after the eruption of the late-90’s Harry Potter fandom, the V&A Museum of Childhood – with collection upon collection of toys, dollhouses and games – is certain to have something to pique the interest of every age group (and admission is free 24/7).
If your tot is fond of all things outdoors, then Mudchute Farm and Park is a tip top choice. The 32-acre East London farm has daily meet and greets with their 25 horses and ponies, as well as scheduled events like pumpkin carving competitions all which are blissfully free of charge.
Practice Self-Control On a (Window) Shopping Spree
Saunter down to the Southbank Centre Christmas Market – this November through January – and you’ll find a pop-up, wooden chalet market brimming with mulled wine, artisanal bites, handcrafted trinkets, and live performances. While a full meal or souvenir will cost you – strolling through the festive event is completely free. To keep the holiday spirit high, continue on to Hyde Park’s six-week-running Winter Wonderland, where ice sculptures, more than 200 Bavarian shopping stalls, huge fire pits (for marshmallow toasting and keeping yourself toasty) kick the winter season into full swing.
For more window shopping, head to Alfies Antique Market – London’s largest indoor market hawking vintage fashions, Victorian antiques, and collectibles of every kind – or to the Uxbridge Road Craft Market where you can wander through stalls of clothing, jewelry, homeware and other trinkets.
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