London is known, rightfully, for being one of the most expensive cities in the world, both for residents and for visitors. Hotels are pricy, meals equally so, and many of the top sights are outrageously priced (in my opinion). However, for those who travel on a budget, London also has a surprising number of amazing free things to see and do. Here is a list of some of my favorites.
This view, from the observation deck of the Tate Modern, is free!
Did you know that London has more museums than any other city in the world? Well, it does, and many – maybe even most – are free for visitors, although voluntary donations are certainly sought out and encouraged. (It is also worth mentioning that the free price tag typically only applies to the permanent exhibits and not special ones, which will have an additional admission.)
Any list of London museums has to start with the British Museum, home to one of the best and most diverse collections of antiquities in the world. The highlights are the Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles, but be sure to see the room full of mummies (displayed separately from the Egyptian exhibit) and a shockingly amazing room full of antique clocks. You could easily spend a couple of days in this overwhelming place. (Be sure to bring a water bottle as there are no drinking fountains in the museum.)
Art museums. There are a lot. If you like modern art, the Tate Modern is huge and diverse, as well as home to a lovely observation deck that is free to access and looks across the Thames at the city. If you enjoy more classic art, the National Gallery has a nice collection in a stunning building. Be sure to check out Van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers. Like sculpture and decorative art? The Victoria and Albert, lovingly called the V&A, has a wide range from Buddhas to Raphaelite biblical scenes to clothing and furniture from various English monarchs. There’s also the Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, and so many more!
One of my favorite museum experiences was the Museum of London. It traces the history of the city from prehistoric times to today, with incredible exhibits about Roman times, the London fire, and so many more. Appropriate for both kids and adults, it is easily worth a couple of hours. Be sure to check out the giant timeline of the city with quotations from the most famous residents and visitors!
These barely scratch the surface of free museums in London, but alone could easily take up most of a busy week!
The front of the V&A is gorgeous, and the museum is free!
While New York has Central Park, London has a number of large, beautiful, public green spaces. Start on the west side of the city, with Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (they are adjacent and connected to each other). Be sure to visit the Albert Memorial in Kensington, dedicated by Queen Victoria to her late husband, but £23 for admission to Kensington Palace seems excessive.
Abutting Buckingham Palace are the twin parks of Green and St. James, also lovely and tree lined. In the southeast, Greenwich Park beckons with impressively-antlered deer, foxes, and the Royal Observatory – the Planetarium side is free to enter.
While buying things in markets costs money, exploring interesting stalls and stores is free. Portobello Road is lined with everything from food stalls to antique shops, clothing vendors to second-hand electronics swap sorts of outfits. On the other side of town, Camden is quirky for its tattoo parlors, leather shops, and fresh orange juice stands, sprinkled among hip brands.
Portobello Road is quirky and cute.
The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace doesn’t happen every day, but when it does (and you can check the website for the schedule) it is incredibly popular. They suggest getting there an hour ahead of time for a good view. All I can say with certainty is that arriving as it is starting – my cousin was very late for breakfast prior – lends itself to a great view of the backs of other people’s heads, even on a Monday during the school year.
Another get-in-line-early activity is accessing the gallery for a session of Parliament in Westminster. As with the changing of the guard, Parliament isn’t always in session, so check their website.
With Big Ben currently scaffolded, perhaps the most iconic London site is Tower Bridge, not to be confused with London Bridge, it’s plain looking neighbor. While it costs to go to the top, a walk across is free, and provides some nice views of the next door Tower of London.
Walking across Tower Bridge is awesome!
While London remains one of the most expensive cities for tourists, even with the relatively weak Pound right now, these activities will help ease a little of the stress on your budget, making a visit much more cost-effective!
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