“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” quipped Samuel Johnson all the way back in 1777. No truer statement has ever been made of old London town because it is hands down my favorite city on Earth. There’s so much to see and do you could fill a week with no problem at all. It’s no secret that London is an expensive city. Staying on budget can be easier said than done but when you find out how much free stuff there is to do, you can then figure out what things you should splurge on so you can stop worrying about how you’re going to afford a visit and just go!
First and foremost I have to put museums on the list. There are over 200 museums in London and there are a lot that are free! Even if you’re not like me and don’t want to spend all day inside a museum, they are one of the best free attractions in the city. Who doesn’t need a little culture in their lives every once and awhile? At the very least they make a good place to hide from that famous London rain.
Some of the best museums in the city are free including:
- The British Museum – home to a huge collection of ancient artifacts including the Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles
- The National Gallery – featuring all the masters of Western European painting including Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”
- Tate Britain and Tate Modern – classical, contemporary, and modern art
- Victoria and Albert Museum – largest museum of design and decorative arts
- Natural History Museum – full dinosaur skeletons and an entire room of gems and minerals
I would be remiss if I did not put the Churchill War Rooms on my list. Even though it’s not free, it’s one of the best museums I’ve visited and definitely needs to be mentioned. The museum comprised of the Cabinet War Rooms, the hidden bunker in the heart of the city that Churchill and his war cabinet used during WWII. Within the War Rooms is also the Churchill Museum, an exhibit dedicated to the Prime Minister and absolutely packed with more information than you could possibly imagine. The maze of tunnels under Westminster have been recreated to look exactly like they did during the second world war in a completely immersive experience. There’s even a cafe about halfway through the self-guided tour selling tea and coffee, as well as soup and other snacks. A perfect place to recoup and rest your feet, and imagine any of the army personnel working in the tunnels doing just the same.
Find a full list of free museums here.
See a Play
If you visit London and don’t see a play, did you even go? I studied abroad in London for a semester and I saw at least ten plays. I saw the same play 8 times because I loved it so much. The West End in London is like Broadway in New York City, home to hundreds of theaters. There’s a pretty even mix between plays that rotate out and plays like Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera that have their own dedicated theater and have been playing every night for twenty years. You’ll have your pick of all kinds of plays – comedy, tragedy, musical, puppet…
Just like theater productions in the United States, the tickets can sometimes be pretty pricey. But luckily for us thrifty travelers, there are alternative options. The most direct approach is to find tickets day of. When I was in London I did this all the time. If a show is not sold out the theater will sell tickets day of for a deep discount. Another option, if you don’t want to deal with running around to various theaters hoping for an empty seat, try the TKTS booth in Leicester Square. The booth sells day of tickets for multiple theaters. I haven’t tried this myself, let me know how it goes!
If you’re a Shakespeare fan, you MUST go to the Globe Theater for a performance. This modern day replica of the original theater where Shakespeare presented his plays for the Queen is an epic experience. Back in the day, the poor people in town would buy a “groundling” ticket for a penny and stand on the floor of the theater, like you would stand in the pit at a rock concert. Today, the Globe sells groundling tickets for £5. It might sound like standing for a two-ish hour play would be terrible, but it’s not. I saw the Taming of the Shrew and was so enthralled with the performance I hardly noticed. 100% worth it.
Grab a Pint
Ok, granted this one is not free, but grabbing a pint is the quintessential British thing to do. When researching this post I thought that there would be so many that it would be impossible to keep track, but apparently there is a lot of data on them. Brits love their pubs, go figure. Anyway, there are a ton so you’ll have no problem finding one to duck into. British beer is traditionally strong – whether it’s an India Pale Ale, bitter, or a porter / stout. But don’t worry – you’ll find a lot of foreign beers at most pubs as well, including lighter lagers like Stella Artois, Carlsberg, and even Budweiser. Swing into a pub after a seeing a play and you might even bump into some of the cast members like we did the last time we were in London. So cool!
For the most part, ordering a beer in a pub is the same as in the US. You can sit at the bar, at a table or stand. They serve beers “on tap” from a keg and as well as in bottles. Some pubs will have wine or cocktails as well. The biggest difference is that as a rule, pubs in London close around 10 or 11 pm. Grocery stores also stop selling alcohol around the same time. In order to sell later the pub needs a different kind of alcohol license, so not all of them do.
For as big of a metropolis as London is, it has a surprising amount of parks, most of which are absolutely enormous. It’s wonderful though, because sometimes you need a break from the city. Parks are the perfect place to take a walk, have a picnic, or just a detour between high streets. Among the many green spaces these are some of the most popular (and biggest):
- Regent Park – close to Baker Street, Madame Toussad, Abbey Road and Camden Town
- Hyde Park – famous for the “speaker’s corner” and public concerts
- Kensington Gardens – in the same green space as Hyde Park but adjacent to Kensington Palace where Princess Diana and Prince Charles lived and where Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex currently reside
- Green Park – large open space next to Buckingham Palace
St James Park is my favorite of the major parks, as it offers some of the best views in the city, has a lovely man made lake where the royal swans live and is home to the world’s friendliest squirrels. These little devils will take food straight out of your hands and possibly try to jump on your head.
A trip to London is not complete without seeing the famous site of Buckingham Palace, Parliament and Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey. I still remember clearly the first time I exited the Westminster tube station under the shadow of Big Ben fifteen years ago. There’s something magical about seeing in person what you’ve only ever seen in pictures. The Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey are located in Parliament Square on the west bank of the Thames River. Westminster Abbey has a steep entrance fee of £20 but is free on Sundays when attending a service. I’m not sure how strictly parishioners are restricted from exploring the Abbey, but if you’re just interested in seeing the inside of it for free, attending a service might be the way to go. (this is also the case with St. Paul’s Cathedral, another popular attraction)
Probably the most popular free tourist attraction is the changing of the guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Something everyone should see once, hundreds of people line up in front of the gates and along the path leading to the palace to watch the famous red clad Queen’s Guard and regimental band march at 11 am sharp. If you will be attending, be sure to check the days here beforehand. Even if you don’t want to wait around for the event, Buckingham Palace is worth its own visit, if nothing else because you’re already in St James Park.
Further down the Thames is the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, both popular destinations. The Tower of London is probably the one attraction I’d encourage you to splurge for as it’s my favorite attraction in the city. The Tower has a long and harrowing history as the prison for betrayers of the Crown such as Henry VI, who was murdered as he prayed, and Anne Boleyn who was imprisoned and later executed by her husband, Henry VIII. The Tower is guarded by the famous Yeoman Warders, also known as Beefeaters. Your ticket covers access to all permanent exhibits including the Crown Jewels and a regular day tour given by one of the Yeomen. I’d highly recommend attending the Ceremony of the Keys, the 700 year old ceremony in which the Yeoman Wardens lock up the Tower for the evening. The ticket is free but you’ll want to reserve it as soon as you know you’ll be visiting London, because it can fill up to a year in advance!
And finally, if you’re a Potterhead like me, you’ll definitely want to make a stop at King’s Cross Station. The station where students board the Hogwarts Express is inspired by the real train station of the same name. Between Platforms 4 and 5 (the film stand in for 9 and 10) there has been a trolley stuck halfway in the wall. However, since the explosion of the Harry Potter fandom the station has elaborated the simple photo op into much more. The cart has a cage with a stuffed Hedwig, and other school supplies, and you can choose a scarf in your house color to take pictures in. There’s someone stationed there to take your picture when another person flips your scarf in the air to make it look like you’re running at speed into the wall. It’s silly, but totally awesome, too. If you can’t fit the Warner Bros Studio tour into your trip, this is an easy and free alternative.
These are just a few of many, many amazing things about London. There is so much to see and do, so many day trips from the city (like visiting Windsor Castle) that you could customize any number of different trips. I hope these tips have lessened any fear that you can’t afford a trip to London. There are many ways to keep your costs down, these are just a few ideas.
What are your favorite things to do in London? Drop me a comment below!