The British Museum

It’s hard to think of a place that we could have started our time in Europe that wallops your budget harder than London does. Regardless of where in the world you’re coming from, London is expensive, plain and simple. From the cost of a “cozy hotel room” (read: cramped) in a “local neighborhood with character” (read: dodgy), a ride on the Tube, a cuppa or a pint down at the pub, for all the things that London does well, it will also drain your budget alarmingly fast. And if your home currency isn’t the pound, then watch the prices inflate even more dramatically and your travel fund dwindle all the quicker.

By the time you’ve paid for unavoidable necessities, like lodging, transport and food, you may feel as though you don’t even have two pence left to rub together, never mind actually enjoy the city with. Although we were lucky enough to have friends with a spare bedroom while visiting London, coming from Asia we still had our fair share of sticker shock to deal with. Which is why we decided that during our time in London, we would do our best to enjoy the city without paying a single pence or pound on attractions or entertainment.

Given that London is currently the most expensive city in the world, you might expect that our miserly stance would result in us doing a whole lot of nothing and missing out on much of what the city has to offer. In actual fact, we were overwhelmed by the number of free things to do in London. Read on for activities and attractions that enriched our time in London without making us a penny poorer at the end of our visit, as well as tips & tricks for how to make your budget stretch when spending some money can’t be avoided.

Museums

If you are the kind of traveler whose idea of vacation bliss is hanging out in museums all the livelong day, then London may just be your paradise. It has some of the best museums in the world, but you’d never guess that based on the admission prices: all of the city’s major museums (and many smaller ones too) are 100% free! I admit, I am not really a huge museum buff, but I always say you can’t argue with free; to that end, we wound up visiting the following five museums during our time in London:

National Gallery

Home to an extensive art collection (both British and international) dating from the 1200s to the 1900s. The building dates back to the early 1800s and is worth a visit on this basis alone.

 

Tate Modern

Based in the erstwhile Bankside Power station (sister to the more famous Battersea Power Station), this museum houses London’s premier modern art (1900 onward) collection.

 

Natural History Museum

Stuffed to the gills with animals, minerals, dinosaur bones, and other artifacts that trace the evolution of our planet, the Natural History Museum’s entrance hall is a stately tribute to England’s grand past and worthy of a short visit in its own right.

 

Victoria & Albert Museum

Full of bric-a-brac & trinkets, the V&A is London’s preeminent art & design museum.

 

The British Museum

Dedicated to preserving and celebrating the history of human civilization and culture, half the fun at the British Museum is identifying all of the items that rightly belong in some other country! The central lobby is also wonderfully photogenic.

In the case of the Tate Modern & Natural History Museum, we simply popped in to take a few pictures before continuing on our way, but most of these museums are massive and have sufficiently large collections that you could easily spend a rainy day (of which London gifted us with many!) in any of them. What I especially love about free museums, however, is that you can spend as little or as much time as you feel is enjoyable and you never need worry that you got your money’s worth. It’s worth noting that many of the museums have special exhibits that require paid entry, but they all have large permanent collections that are completely free.

For a complete rundown of London’s free museums, we used this guide to compile our “must see” list. There are FAR more museums than what we managed to fit in. A few that we didn’t manage to fit in but that we believe would be worth a visit (and will certainly be at the top of our list on our next visit) are: Sir John Soane’s Museum, The Wallace Collection, and the Museum of London.

If at all possible, plan to visit free museums during the week; as you might imagine, the queues and crowds are substantially larger on holidays and weekends.

Churches

After experiencing temple burnout on more than one occasion in Asia, the churches of Europe were a refreshing palate cleanser and London certainly gave us plenty to choose from. Although the city’s two most famous churches—Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral—actually charge an admission fee, we found we were perfectly satisfied to simply gaze on these structures from the outside.

Westminster Abbey, London
Westminster Abbey, London

All of London’s churches are still active houses of worship, so if you are dead set on seeing the interior of Westminster or St. Paul’s but don’t want to pay the admission fee, you can always attend a service. We had intended to visit Westminster Abbey for evensong one evening, but didn’t manage to squeeze it in. Remember that only part of the church may be open to you during services and—whether you are a believer or not—you should behave respectfully at all times, but especially during a service!

Apart from the famous ones, London has many other beautiful churches that you may have never heard of but that are beautiful and well worth a visit (especially as they are free!). In particular, we enjoyed stopping by:

St Martin in the Fields

Right off of Trafalgar Square, so you really have no excuse to miss it!

 

St Bride’s

Another Christopher Wren masterpiece, this one is believed to have inspired the now standard “tiered” wedding cake shape.

St. Bride's Church, London

Temple Church

One of the oldest buildings in London, parts of Temple Church date all the way back to the 12th century. Consequently, it looks quite different from many of the city’s other churches and is the perfect place to let your imagination run wild with regards to Templar conspiracies!

 

Parks and Gardens

Although the weather in London didn’t really cooperate with us, perhaps it is its rarity that makes nothing so pleasurable as a sunny & warm day in the city. Not least of all because London has some wonderful parks and gardens. You had better believe that when it wasn’t grey and drizzly, we took every advantage of the picnic weather to laze about in the sunshine (and we were always in good company.)

We spent a substantial amount of time in St James’s Park, Kensington Gardens, Green Park (before a sudden thunderstorm sent us scrambling!), and a random park south of Brixton that we visited with friends but whose name now escapes me… but there are plenty of other parks and quiet green squares to escape the bustle of the city and relax within. Next time we’re back, I want to check out Richmond Park and Hampstead Heath, which are supposed to be fantastic for photographers.

Go For a Wander

London is a huge, sprawling city, and so although it is impractical to try to tackle the entire city on foot and strategic use of the Tube will serve you (and your feet) well, it is also a fascinating city with so many pockets that one of the best things you can do that will cost you absolutely nothing is to pick an area and just go for a walk. You’re guaranteed to see some interesting buildings—haters are gonna hate, but I think London architecture is fab—and will undoubtedly stumble upon some wonderful pieces of history. One of our favorite stretches to explore on this visit was Fleet Street—an area that dates back to the Middle Ages, and used to be known as the city’s newspaper hub as well as the Inns of Court. It’s largely filled with accounting firms and law offices these days, but it’s still intensely atmospheric and has plenty of great architecture to gawp at.

Additionally, plenty of London’s most famous sites are public places that you can freely wander about at any time of day. Stand in the center of Picadilly Circus and watch the black cabs and bright red double-decker buses swirl about you. Wander through Trafalgar Square, darting into the many free museums that circumscribe it. Stroll down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace where, if you time it right (and get there early!), you can watch the changing of the guards for free (albeit from pretty far away… To be honest, the horse guards parade, sounds way cooler.) Then skirt along St James’s Park as you traipse down Birdcage Walk, which will spit you out at the Thames right at the foot of the Houses of Parliament and the clock tower that is home to Big Ben. Hearing him chime the hour will leave no doubt that you are in London and costs absolutely nothing.

Whether the weather is nice or not, walk along the south bank for a fantastic view of the City (you’ll get atmospheric pictures either way!). You’ll pass Millennium Bridge (from the penultimate Harry Potter movie!), catch sight of St Paul’s massive dome and pass Shakespeare’s Globe theater—for £5 you can get “groundling” tickets, which will get you in to see a play, but you’ll stand the entire time and the theater is uncovered, so if it rains prepare to get wet! Pass by London Bridge, famous in name and nursery rhymes only, because the bridge you actually have in mind—the one trimmed in pretty robin’s egg blue—is Tower Bridge. Before you get there, check out a replica of the Golden Hinde (the ship that Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe in back in the late 16th century) and pop by Borough Market for a sandwich. Before you cross Tower Bridge, go take some pictures of the Shard, the tallest building in not just London, but the entire EU…

From the south bank of the Thames, London

These are but three areas to check out in Central London. Head to areas like Richmond, Brixton, Notting Hill, Kensington, Camden Town, or one of the many boroughs of East London to discover a completely different side of the city and truly appreciate why London is often called “a city of villages.”

Who out there says there’s nothing to do in London?

Looking is Free (Even if Visiting Isn’t)

Although there are so many free attractions to fill your time in London, it’s true that there are plenty of big ticket attractions that come with the big prices you would expect. Things like riding the London Eye, touring Buckingham Palace, visiting the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey will cost you… a lot.

If you’ve always dreamed of visiting these places and feel your trip to London will be incomplete if you don’t get to see them, then you certainly should. However we personally felt that those weren’t critical to our enjoyment of the city and were more than content to simply view the exteriors of famous buildings rather than paying to visit them. There was so much to see and do for free that we personally couldn’t justify paying £18 (~$30US) per person to visit Westminster Abbey, £22(~$35US) per person to see the crown jewels in the Tower of London, or £26.55 (~$43US… advanced online ticket price!) per person to ride the London Eye. (And, of course, there are far more attractions in London that charge an admission fee—not all as steep as these, but still quite pricey nonetheless.) We got pictures we were happy with of all these things without paying a cent and that was good enough for us.

If you are dead set on visiting these places and tend to favor relatively packed touring schedule, there are passes you can purchase that give you free entry to a bunch of attractions that might be worth the money. Alternatively, to encourage domestic tourism, some attractions offer “2-4-1” entry upon presentation of a rail ticket. There are a bunch of hacks out there where people have calculated the cheapest ticket into London that should allow you to take advantage of this deal, and if you get a London travelcard that is issued from the rail station (read: NOT Underground stations and NOT Oyster cards) this is also eligible. We considered doing this to visit the Tower of London but—like so many things—we ran out of time. If you are interested in going this route, read the details outlined here. It can get complicated and there are many ways to screw it up, so read carefully!

Even being absolute misers and staunchly refusing to crack open our wallets for any of the city’s attractions, our days in London were always packed with sightseeing and activities and we never felt we were missing out. It’s easy to feel extremely poor and go very broke in London, but I still maintain that if you’re going to visit an expensive city on a budget, there are few places that deliver as much London does for free.

Now it’s your turn! Tell us: What’s your favorite free thing to see or do in London? If you were on a strict budget while visiting the world’s most expensive city, which of these things would you most like to see for yourself?

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

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Read comments (36)

  1. September 24, 2014 at 7:19 pm
    Sep. 24, '14

    The best things to do in London are free- I miss the Museums, the Parks (especially Richmond Park), wandering the Thames Path, visiting Markets and just walking around admiring the architecture. I think the couple of attractions that are worth spending money on are the Tower of London, London walks (usually about £10 and lots to choose from) and the interior of St Pauls (love the whispering gallery) and attending a show on the West End. I am definitely finding Sydney a lot more expensive than London although for both cities, if you live there for a while you find out about the deals and discover the good, cheap eats. Groupon is a fantastic way to get a good deal too 🙂
    Katie @ The World on my Necklace recently posted..The one where I was held up at knifepoint in a Gay Bar in Berlin

    • September 25, 2014 at 12:10 pm
      Sep. 25, '14

      Our time in Europe was skewed a bit more towards free attractions than it might have otherwise done had I not already been to several of the places we visited. As I’d been to London several times, I’d done many of the standard paid attractions, so I really left it up to Tony to decide which—if any—of those he wanted to go to. I agree that the Tower of London is a great (albeit pricey) attraction, and I did enjoy my visit to St Paul’s too. I’ve seen several shows while in town as well, but nothing was calling out to us this time (and Toronto has its fair share of big shows as well).

      Good call on Groupon—we have definitely gotten out of the habit of checking sites like that, but you’re right that great deals can be had.

  2. September 25, 2014 at 12:10 am
    Sep. 25, '14

    I remember loving the free museums in London! When we were there we really did things as cheaply as possible, and so the only thing we shelled out for was the Tower of London because I was so intrigued with it’s murky past. I think London is a perfect city to just wander. All your posts are making me want to get back to England a lot sooner than I would’ve guessed!

    • September 25, 2014 at 12:12 pm
      Sep. 25, '14

      I’m so glad our posts are making you see England in a new light! We definitely did not find that all European cities were equally good at catering to poor budget travelers so, in retrospect, I appreciate all that London offers for free all the more.

  3. September 25, 2014 at 4:41 am
    Sep. 25, '14

    That’s awesome that most of London’s museums have free admission. I’m always impressed when big cities offer cultural attractions at an affordable rate. When I was in Bogota I took full advantage of the free museums. And I found myself spending much more time learning about the country’s art and history than I typically would have simply because the museums were free. I’m also a huge fan of walking around. I think it’s the best way to explore a city. If I ever find myself in London again I will totally do lots of walking! The architecture looks amazing and I think I’d be endlessly entertained just wandering around the streets 🙂
    Justine recently posted..My Love-Hate Relationship with El Nido, Philippines

    • September 25, 2014 at 12:15 pm
      Sep. 25, '14

      Because I’m not a huge museum buff, I definitely prefer when they are free as I find I am more likely to enjoy them and spend time in them than I otherwise would.

      London is a great city to walk, although it is way too big to tackle entirely on foot. Still, we would often take the Tube somewhere and then just wander around for hours. The Tube is definitely convenient, but you miss out on a lot if you’re constantly traveling underground.

  4. September 25, 2014 at 10:43 am
    Sep. 25, '14

    Great post Steph & Tony! How wonderful to see our beloved London promoted so well. It was a total pleasure to guide you round – I like to think I’m an excellent walking guide! And all I cost is lunch! :o)

    P.S. Think you went to Brockwell Park in Brixton

    Love you both and miss you xx

    • September 25, 2014 at 12:17 pm
      Sep. 25, '14

      I have no doubt that having you as our guide was part of what helped us tumble so madly in love with London! Was so wonderful to get to see it with a local by our side; whenever we think back on our happy days together, it always brings such big smiles to our faces.

      (Also, I think you are right: I do believe it was Brockwell Park that we visited!)

      Miss you tons and we hope that life is lovely out in the English countryside!

  5. September 25, 2014 at 11:24 am
    Sep. 25, '14

    On thing I love about London is that so many great museums are free to enter. I have been in many of the one you mentioned more than once and I think my favourite ever is the Tate Modern. In fact every time I’m in London, no matter how long I’m there for, I must visit the Tate Modern, it’s simply awesome!
    Franca recently posted..Ohlala – A French Vegan Brunch in Berlin

    • September 25, 2014 at 12:18 pm
      Sep. 25, '14

      I am not surprised to hear that the Tate Modern is your favorite London museum. We are not the biggest modern art lovers, hence why we only stopped by briefly, but for fans of that style I have no doubt it’s a great treat!

  6. September 25, 2014 at 11:31 am
    Sep. 25, '14

    Sometimes the most enjoyment comes from finding free activities. You don’t worry about getting your money’s worth, you don’t worry about if you made the right decision to go, you get to just experience whatever you’re doing and focus on enjoying that. I completely understand reasonable entrance fees for upkeep and improvements, but not having to pay one can make an attraction better, in a way.

    And when we’re talking about a place like London, free is the greatest word in the English dictionary!

    • September 25, 2014 at 12:20 pm
      Sep. 25, '14

      Exactly. I find that I more often enjoy free activities than paid ones because I am much more forgiving and find I am not always worrying about whether I am getting my money’s worth. I have no problem paying a donation here and there, but again, it’s nice to pay what you think something is worth and not what you are told you must pay!

  7. September 25, 2014 at 12:08 pm
    Sep. 25, '14

    Thank you for this round up – I have been to London several times, but never realized that all of the museums are free! (I know says much about me being a good tourist, eh?) The last time I was there, I LOVED visiting the flower market on Columbia road. I came back with gorgeous peonies for my hotel room and a flower pot to plant cat grass for my cat at home. ) Also I found the prices to be quite reasonable at the market compared to the general sticker shock of say a coffee with a breakfast sandwich running over $15. Anyway, I am bookmarking your recommendations for our future visit to London town!
    Jenia from HTL recently posted..Month 13 Roundup

    • September 30, 2014 at 8:58 am
      Sep. 30, '14

      We had friends recommend the Columbia flower market to us, but we weren’t able to squeeze it into our already packed Saturday morning. We’ll definitely make sure to check it out next time!

  8. September 25, 2014 at 11:39 pm
    Sep. 25, '14

    great guide! I’m bookmarking this for my next trip to the UK!
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..This is India! (seventeen)

    • September 26, 2014 at 9:54 am
      Sep. 26, '14

      I hope it proves useful! There is so much to see & do in London, it’s actually kind of crazy!

  9. September 26, 2014 at 7:52 am
    Sep. 26, '14

    I haven’t been to London in years. We always talk about going for the weekend, but when it costs the same as a week somewhere else, we just can’t seem to do it. You have some really good tips here…
    Corinne recently posted..Gibraltar Postcard

    • September 26, 2014 at 9:55 am
      Sep. 26, '14

      I can definitely understand your dilemma, especially since lodging is not cheap in London. But it is nice that there are so many free things to see and do to help balance your budget!

  10. September 27, 2014 at 6:16 pm
    Sep. 27, '14

    Great work! I know I will return to London one day and try to fall in love with it – and this guide will be my friend! Thank you!!
    Tim | UrbanDuniya recently posted..The Start Of An Era: 20 years on, Friends still entertains

    • September 29, 2014 at 4:21 pm
      Sep. 29, '14

      Even if you don’t fall in love with London (it’s ok… I forgive you!), at least this list should keep you very busy! 🙂

  11. September 27, 2014 at 11:57 pm
    Sep. 27, '14

    I think one of the best things about London is that you can do so much there for free. Andrew and I were shocked to find that so many museums around the world charge admission, even in wealthy places like New Zealand and Australia; museums, like libraries, should be accessible to everyone! One of my favourite things to do in London is take a picnic to one of the amazing parks and dog walk/spot; we did a lot of that this summer while we were house/dog sitting and it was awesome and totally free. There are also many free festivals such as Notting Hill Carnival and the Thames Festival. I have been meaning to see a £5 play at the Globe for years now and still didn’t manage it this summer – next time!
    Amy recently posted..The Hidden Treasures of Tainan

    • September 29, 2014 at 4:23 pm
      Sep. 29, '14

      I agree that I really believe that museums should be made accessible to as many people as possible and it is SO nice that so many of London’s museums are free. I don’t think we would have been able to visit so many (or any!) of them if we had had to pay an entry fee. And it’s great that there are so many beautiful parks and festivals that can be enjoyed for free. I know that London is a pricey place, but once you’ve taken care of your requisite costs, there really is so much that can be enjoyed without spending anything else.

  12. September 29, 2014 at 5:25 am
    Sep. 29, '14

    How many days were you in London? You really packed it in! I’ve been contemplating a solo trip to London so it’s nice to know I can make the most of my time there without breaking the bank. Though, I’ll probably spend all the money saved by the free attractions on food 🙂
    Heather recently posted..The Best Meals We Ate in Tallinn

    • September 29, 2014 at 4:25 pm
      Sep. 29, '14

      We managed to stretch our time in London to 9 days which was awesome. By far the longest I have ever been in the city, but still not enough time! Despite all we managed to do, we missed out on far more.

      And really, skimping on admissions/activities in order to funnel that money into food is the best possible budgeting!

  13. September 29, 2014 at 3:52 pm
    Sep. 29, '14

    Such a good list Steph and yes, there are loads of things to do in London for absolutely no money at all!

    I used to live in London and my absolute favourite thing was the river. Totally free. And all the museums and galleries. Again free. The other thing to do is to walk around. There’s just so much to see and lots of free entertainment at Leicester Square and Covent Garden!

    Walking tours are free and lots of newspapers and magazines can be picked up outside the train station also free of charge so that you can see what’s on. There’s always lots of competitions for the day (from the Evening Standard), and if you ring up and mention the code if it’s either free or pittance. While I was living in London, you could visit various fringe theatres on a Monday by donating whatever you had and loads of pub comedy nights were free too.

    If you had a student card or “looked” like a student, you could go to any of the university bars and have a pint for £1.00, sometimes less. The Prince Charles Cinema at the corner of Leicester Square had midday film matinees for £2.00. You could also apply to be a “film critic” and watch movies for free. And every now and then you could go to a top restaurant and have a two-course lunch or dinner, including a glass of wine for just £10.00. I did that myself this year. Classy or what?!

    Ah, London. I misssssss you!
    Victoria@ The British Berliner recently posted..Go to Bangkok or go to Chiang Mai. Just do it!

  14. October 2, 2014 at 10:09 am
    Oct. 2, '14

    There are some awesome tips here! I knew some of the museums were free but I didn’t know all of them were! That’s so cool. Also, whoa, check out those dark clouds!!
    Karyn @ Not Done Travelling recently posted..Paddling To A Revelation In Phang Nga Bay

    • October 2, 2014 at 10:28 am
      Oct. 2, '14

      There are so many museums in London and not all of them are free, but pretty much all the major ones are, which is SO NICE. Especially when the weather doesn’t care to cooperate with you, which—as you can see from our photos—it didn’t!

  15. October 2, 2014 at 2:30 pm
    Oct. 2, '14

    This makes me want to go to London- such exceptional museums!
    Marina @ Garlands in Paris recently posted..After the Rain

    • October 5, 2014 at 7:53 am
      Oct. 5, '14

      Yeah, I’m not even a big museum person and even I can’t resist the museums in London. What’s especially nice is they aren’t all just about art, but offer plenty of different areas to explore based on your own interests!

  16. October 22, 2014 at 2:46 pm
    Oct. 22, '14

    I can’t believe that London is the most expensive city in the world now, I knew it was bad but…! Completely agree with you and do feel very lucky for the museums. The British Museum is still one of my favourite in the world, there’s something so special about the rotunda library.
    Maddie recently posted..How can you afford to travel? a.k.a our most asked question

    • October 27, 2014 at 5:00 pm
      Oct. 27, '14

      London is definitely expensive, but it is so nice that there are so many free things to do, ones that most other cities would certainly put a premium price tag on. I’m not a big museum person, but the British Museum is definitely one of the most impressive ones I’ve ever been to.

  17. December 1, 2015 at 2:45 pm
    Dec. 1, '15

    My favorite free activity in London is head to and walk around football grounds. I’ve only done so at three in London – Stamford Bridge (Chelsea), Upton Park (West Ham United) and the Emirates (Arsenal). Visitors can take tours of just about any ground in London but they aren’t free. But I remember walking around the Emirates just prior to an Arsenal was just breathtaking because the red half of North London was buzzing with excitement.
    Rashaad recently posted..Home Sweet Home – Graduation

    • December 6, 2015 at 3:06 pm
      Dec. 6, '15

      We aren’t football fans (U.S. or UK!), however that sounds like a really fun and interesting thing for fans of the game to do, and a unique way to tour London for sure! The next time we’re in the UK, we have promised friends we will check out a cricket match, so perhaps we should add footie to the list too. 🙂

  18. February 29, 2016 at 4:02 am
    Feb. 29, '16

    Well, the best part about London attractions is definitely its museums and galleries. The National Gallery and The London Museum are my favourite. I spent two years studying next to the London Museum and have spent countless hours wandering along its expositions. Best time of my life!

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