A trip to the U.K.’s capital doesn’t have to break the bank.
London is one of the most dynamic and exciting urban playgrounds on the planet. The only drawback is that you typically have to pay — steeply — to play. Home to high-minded mixology, five-star hotels, Heston Blumenthal (and, oh yeah, Buckingham Palace and the Parliament), the U.K.’s capital isn’t just evocative of aristocracy, it basically helped coin the phrase. And that sort of living comes at a cost, of course.
But this landscape is nothing if not varied. You actually don’t have to drop too much quid to really enjoy yourself here. In fact, you can do and see so much without spending any pence at all. We’ve queried frequent visitors and longtime locals to compile this list of the best free things to do in London. Just remember to pack your own umbrella so you won’t need money for that, either.
Take a tour of a different St. Paul.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of the city’s most-visited attractions. And it is definitely not free. But St. Paul’s Church in the West End is another story. Dubbed the “Actor’s Church” because of its proximity to — and association with — the neighboring theater district, this nearly 400-year-old edifice is steeped in history. The first-ever “Punch and Judy” puppet show took place at its front steps in 1662. Inside, you’ll find memorials to prominent players of the stage, including Charlie Chaplin, Vivien Leigh, and Boris Karloff.
Explore East London street art.
As a global hub of graffiti art, the entire London landscape is scattered with masterful murals. But much of it is concentrated in East End neighborhoods such as Shoreditch and Spitalfields. You might get lost if you stroll alone, so it helps to have a guide. Strawberry Tours, in partnership with London With a Local, has got you covered. The company operates two-hour walking tours alongside masterful pieces from names no less notable than Banksy, El Mac, and Space Invader. The trips convene twice a day from the Shoreditch High Street overground station at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tips are welcome.
Enjoy Instagram ops at the House of Parliament.
This is an obvious one because you simply cannot come to London without snapping a photo of the iconic Palace of Westminster. And since you’ve come all this way, you might as well do it right. For the perfect snap, you’ll want to include the Thames at its feet and Elizabeth Tower — often referred to by the nickname of the 13-ton bell it houses, Big Ben — overhead. Walk to the south side of Westminster Bridge and you’ll enjoy the ideal vantage point.
Stroll the canals.
Forget Amsterdam — many visitors to London have no idea the city is home to its own enviable collection of canals. The star of the show is undoubtedly Regent’s Canal — an 8.6-mile artery that runs from its namesake park near Paddington station eastward and then south into the River Thames. Narrowboats line its idyllic waters, where ducks and other assorted fowl come to frolic. Free of any vehicular traffic, it’s also a preferred pathway for joggers and bikers.
Visit Portobello Road market.
London is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to open-air fairs, but Portobello Market on a Saturday is the crown jewel. It’s actually several markets in one, brandishing antiques, vintage clothing, furniture, food, and a smattering of bric-a-brac all in an easy day’s stroll. And you’ll be entertained all the while by buskers and street performers.
Book a view from the Sky Garden.
London’s highest public garden occupies the top three stories of a Rafael Viñoly-designed skyscraper affectionately known as the Walkie Talkie. Peering out and over the Thames from the heart of the city, the Sky Garden affords breathtaking views inside and out. And access is completely free of charge, seven days a week. However, space is limited, so be forewarned that tickets are released every Monday, and remember to cancel your tickets if you’re unable to make your reservation.
Check out The National Gallery.
Looking for free museums? Well, London has plenty of them. Whatever your specific interest, there’s seemingly an entire edifice devoted to it. The National Gallery, however, offers a cross section of everything in one locale. With an art collection spanning the Middle Ages to the 20th century, you can admire works from Da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Van Gogh within minutes of one another. Also, marvel at how the British pronounce the Dutch master’s name, Van Goff.
Join candlelight tours of Sir John Soane’s Museum.
A visit to Sir John Soane’s Museum will be memorable on any occasion. Soane was named the professor of architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806 and amassed an enviable collection of art and artifacts, all of which you can now marvel at while exploring his home. On the first Tuesday of every month, the premises stay open until 9 p.m., and you can explore all the nooks and crannies by candlelight.
See the changing of the guard.
Royal pageantry can pop up anywhere and any time in London, home to the British monarchy. But the changing of the guard is an example you can set your watch to. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 10 a.m., soldiers in red coats and bearskin hats march from St. James’s Palace to Buckingham Palace accompanied by a live soundtrack. Forty-five minutes later, they relieve the previous guard in a traditional ceremony that has stood for centuries. Arrive early to claim the best view.
See live music at Wembley Park.
Wembley Stadium is the second-largest venue in all of Europe, capable of holding up to 90,000 concertgoers. For a far more intimate affair, check out the adjoining Wembley Park, a green space that hosts a live music program between April and September every year. Supported by the mayor of London, the series encourages up-and-coming talent to take to the stage, showcasing their work in front of a warm and receptive crowd.
Head to Brompton Cemetery.
Established by an act of Parliament in 1839, this historic park and garden is still a working cemetery today. It houses 35,000 gravestones and monuments, but people don’t just come here to pay their respects to the departed. It’s also a popular setting for viewing wildlife and serves as a serene — if not somewhat spooky — side tour while exploring the surrounding Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Laugh at Angel Comedy Club nights.
Laughter is the best medicine, and Angel Comedy Club hosts free showcases every night at 8 p.m. It all started in 2010 by the suitably charming Barry Ferns. Today, rarely does a night pass without Ferns getting in front of the mic as the resident emcee or hanging in a back corner to ensure the evening runs smoothly. From improv to open mic nights to established comedians testing their material, there’s always a laugh to be had.
Relax at the Kyoto Garden in Holland Park.
Holland Park is a great place to unwind in central London, with 22.5 hectares of green space that includes tennis courts and a children’s play area. But what really makes this spot stand out is the Kyoto Garden, an authentic Japanese garden created and donated by the Chamber of Commerce of Kyoto in 1991.
Watch the pelicans feed at St. James’s Park.
With incredible flora and fauna, plus an exquisite variety of birds, St. James’s Park is a wonderful city escape. But what sets this central bed of green apart and makes it worth a visit happens every day at 2:30 and 3 p.m., when the well-loved resident pelicans are fed a feast of fresh fish.
Ogle at Olympic Park.
You might not witness baton passing at turbo speeds or cyclists spinning around the perimeter track as you could at the 2012 Olympics, but the purpose-built Olympic Park is working hard to remain relevant. There’s a series of poems inscribed at landmarks around the park; walk around and find Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” Carol Ann Duffy’s “Eton Manor,” or Jo Shapcott’s “Wild Swimmer,” among others.
Spend time at Spitalfields City Farm.
There’s nothing more grounding or comforting than taking a moment from the daily urban grind to be around animals and wildlife. Originally set up by volunteers in 1978, Spitalfields City Farm still relies on volunteers to run its day-to-day operations and care for its furry and feathered creatures. With donkeys, sheep, ponies, goats, and cows, it’s the city’s most central farm.
Experience the Bank of England Museum.
Review 300 years of English history and the backstory of the country’s currency at the Bank of England’s on-site museum. There’s everything from cartoons to tools to the banknotes themselves, all of which tell the tale of England’s economy. Who knew one could have so much fun handling, but not spending, money?
Go window shopping on Pimlico Road.
It’s lined with shops and cafes, but Pimlico Road is also dappled with the most delightful design, commercial galleries, and furniture stores in the city, all of which are worth exploring for an afternoon. Make sure to check out Humphrey Carrasco, which offers an enviable stock of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century furnishings.
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