For a city that is so frequently described as wildly unaffordable and almost offensively expensive, there is an astoundingly high quantity of free things to do in London that will absolutely not break the bank. Between world-class museums and quirky attractions known only to savvy locals, here is the very proof that despite its reputation, London truly needn’t be costly.
The best parks and gardens in London
- St James’s Park: Watch the pelicans, first introduced in 1664 as a gift from the Russian Ambassador, being fed every day at 2:30pm next to Duck Island Cottage at the oldest of the capital’s eight Royal Parks. Also present in St. James’s Park are woodpeckers, owls, blackbirds, foxes and bats.
- Richmond Park: Both a National Nature Reserve and London’s largest Site of Special Scientific Interest, bucolic Richmond Park is home to healthy and prolific herds of red and fallow deer; stags and bucks that have roamed freely here since 1637.
- Kensington Gardens: My absolute favourite park in central London. From the Italian fountains of Lancaster Gate to the lush expanses by Kensington Palace and the Serpentine’s swans and barges, everything here is idyllic.
- Primrose Hill: the 213-feet high hill is set in one of London’s most affluent locales —Primrose is the place to stalk incognito celebrities — and offers great views of the London skyline; the perfect place munch on a picnic and indulge in people watching. Visit the world’s oldest scientific zoo just south if you’ve got time!
Kyoto Japanese Garden in Holland Park
Concealed in the tranquil centre of the park’s 22.5 hectares, the Kyoto Japanese Gardens are arguably one of London’s best-kept secrets. They were donated by the Chamber of Commerce of Kyoto in 1991 and designed by a prominent Japanese garden expert, who included a small waterfall, a foot bridge, and of course, iconic koi carp.
Chiswick House Gardens
The highly underrated West London Neo-Palladian villa, completed in 1729 by the third Earl of Burlington who drew inspiration from his Grand Tours of Italy, is remarkable enough on its own; but the real star here are the grounds, which are home to the most primitive example of the now highly acclaimed English landscape gardens.
In the shadow of Museum of London stands a little-known oasis with a rather distinctive feature: the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, a series of memorial tablets dedicated to ordinary people who died while saving the lives of others and who might otherwise be forgotten.
Sitting atop one of the highest points in London, Hampstead Heath is one of the largest — 320 hectares to be exact — and oldest public parks in the capital. It’s a popular place with locals for picnics on Parliament Hill, from which the view over London is protected by law, for a swim at the Lido, for an outing at the luxuriant and flowery pergola, for a visit of the stately Kenwood House or for a lengthy stroll along the rolling hills and woodlands.
Free museums & art galleries in London
Note that most museums and art galleries offer free guided tours, based on specific collections or simply their most popular highlights.
Best Free Art Galleries In London
- National Portrait Gallery: Opened in 1856, it houses precious portraits of historically important and famous British people. Highlights include the most famous portrait of William Shakespeare, a painting of the Brontë sisters, a naive sketch of Jane Austen, the famous Ditchley portrait of Queen Elizabeth I and a moving life-size sculpture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in medieval costume. One of my top personal favourite free things to do in London.
- Wallace Collection: Arranged into 25 small galleries, it comprises a world-famous range of fine and decorative arts from the 15th-19th centuries established from the private collection mainly created by the Marquess of Hertford.
- National Gallery: Sitting directly on the northern edge of Trafalgar Square, this classical museum is often said to have one of the greatest collections of paintings in the world with works by masters such as Van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet, Raphael and Rembrandt, to name a few.
- Tate Modern: Houses worthy collections of international modern art from 1900 to the present day in the iconic former Bankside Power Station in Southwark.
- Saatchi Gallery: One of the pillars of contemporary art in London with a history of actively seeking controversial, provocative exhibits and artworks.
Best Free Museums in London
- Natural History Museum: Welcome to Darwin’s former playground—indeed, many specimens found inside this London landmark building were collected by the scientist himself. The total collection comprises 80 million items within five main collections: botany, entomology, mineralogy, palaeontology, and zoology. The NHM is famous for its award-winning dinosaur skeleton exhibit.
- Sir John Soane’s Museum: Formerly the home of acclaimed architect Sir John Soane (responsible for the Bank of England building, notably) this intimate and at times bewildering museum has been untouched since Soane’s death 180 years ago, filled with curiosities and artworks he picked up while travelling in the 1800s.
- Museum of London: Documents the abundant — it houses more than six million objects — and dynamic history of London from prehistoric to modern times, focusing on various social aspects and the habits of Londoners through time.
- Victoria and Albert Museum: Founded in the 19th century by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the V&A is now the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, spanning 5000 years of art through 145 galleries and over 4.5 million objects.
- National Maritime Museum: Welcome to the leading maritime museum of the United Kingdom! Part of Greenwich’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, the museum documents the history of the Royal Navy and the most evocative seaborne expeditions of British colonial history.
- British Museum: As one of the world’s most iconic museums, the British Museum some of the most significant artefacts pertaining to human history including the Rosetta Stone, the disputed Elgin marbles, a colossal bust of Ramesses II, mummies, and casing stones from the Great Pyramid of Giza.
- Geffrye Museum: Self-described as the ‘museum of the home’ and set in beautiful 18th-century listed almshouse, it recounts the history of English middle-class homes from 1600 to the present day through multiple perspectives.
- Science Museum: A highly interactive and innovative museum dedicated to science and technology. Highlights include an earthquake-simulation platform, Stephenson’s Rocket and Apollo 10 command capsule.
- Imperial War Museum: Not the most uplifting museum to visit but perhaps the most riveting one nonetheless, it explores stories and key moments from various wartime experiences of the British Empire.
- Wellcome Collection: Definitely London’s quirkiest museum! It displays an unusual blend of medical artefacts and innovative artworks exploring “ideas about the connections between medicine, life and art”. The café also serves a fun little afternoon tea.
Markets in London
Columbia Flower Road Market
Bustling flower market flanked by over 60 independent, quirky Victorian shops. Give it a go, even if you don’t intend on buying flowers; the photos and the atmosphere are both well worth it. Open every Sunday from 8am to 3’ish.
London’s oldest market —a ripe 1000 years old— features dozens of foodie stalls. A great place to watch locals and purchase gourmet gifts. Note that the market is only open from Wednesday through Saturday.
Portobello Road Market
Popular with both tourists and locals alike, Portobello Road Market is a bit of an institution in London. Although the market is open every day of the week aside from Sundays, the main event happens on Saturdays, rain or shine. The market has pretty much everything you can imagine, from vintage jewellery to not-so-vintage tea cups and saucers, as well as quirky royal memorabilia and cheesy London souvenirs. But what makes the market truly unique is the juxtaposition of these incredibly diverse trinkets next to the boldly coloured townhouses that Notting Hill is so famous for.
Free things to do in London
Greenwich Prime Meridian
Where east truly meets west! Greenwich is home to the prime meridian, which you may know as the GMT timezone or the 0° longitude — now marked by a stainless steel strip where tourists can take photos with one feet on each side of the world.
Choral Evensong at St Paul’s
Can’t afford the pay the rather hefty entry £18.00 fee for St. Pauls? Come and watch the acclaimed St. Pauls choir perform the choral evensong instead and enjoy the unparalleled acoustics of this historical cathedral. Be respectful of worshippers, though, and refrain from taking photographs.
The best way to explore London from Maida Vale to Hoxton, in my humble opinion, is to wander aimlessly along the bucolic Regent’s Canal, one of the city’s most underrated attractions: marvel at mansions, take a stroll in Regent’s Park, eat at Camden Market, embark on a cruise. You can even shop for second-hand books on the word on the water barge!
Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross
If you’re a fellow Harry Potter fanatic but can’t afford to visit the studios in North London, make a bee line for King’s Cross and the purposefully-built Platform 9 ¾ where you can have your picture taken while grabbing the trolley and with a gold-and-burgundy scarf around your neck, à la Harry. Conveniently located next to a Harry-Potter-themed gift shop.
Changing the Guard
Clearly, you won’t be the only one in line for what is one of the most popular free things to do in London, but the ceremony is nonetheless a quintessentially British activity, famous for its protocol and pageantry. The ceremony lasts 45 minutes and takes place daily at 11:30 from April until the end of July and on alternate days for the rest of the year, weather permitting.
Tour Somerset House
Get better acquainted with the fascinating history of vastly under-appreciated Somerset House, the sprawling quadrangle Neoclassical Palace bordering the River Thames in Aldwych. Free tours are offered several times weekly.
Ceremony of the Keys
Perhaps one of the longest-lasting traditions in Britain — taking place each and every night at exactly 9.53pm, without fail, for at least 700 years — the ceremony of the keys at the Tower of London is essentially the traditional locking up of the main gates and securing the fortress by the tower’s symbolic Beefeaters. This is a free activity but due to the popularity of the ceremony, tickets need to be booked as far as possible in advance.
Crossing the famous Abbey Road
Local residents will hate me for suggesting this but I guess that’s the price to pay for choosing to live in such a musically-significant part of London. What used to be the main thoroughfare to get to nearby Lord’s Cricket Ground became a pilgrimage site of sorts in 1969 when the Beatles spontaneously shot their now-emblematic album cover right outside the studios where they had just finished recording it. Look on both sides of the road and stay safe! Definitely a must-do free things to do in London for music fanatics!
St Dunstan’s in the East
Built in 1100 (with extensive features added by illustrious Sir Christopher Wren in the 1700s), the Church of England parish church was largely destroyed in the 1941 London Blitz; only the tower, steeple, and north and south walls survived. The ruins now house a tranquil garden overgrown in ivy and climbing flowers, a well-kept secret among locals and a testament to London’s incredible resilience.
Search East London for the best street art
London’s Shoreditch (and East End in general) is nothing short of a mecca when it comes to street art – not to mention hipsterism and curry houses, but that’s a story for another time. Having been graced by the works of Banksy, Stik and Invader to name a few, Shoreditch has become a must-do for anyone with a keen eye for art and, possibly, an Instagram account.
Explore famous filming locations
London has been the set of hundreds of movies and TV shows over the decades, some of which are more evocative than others. Here are a few of my personal favourites:
- Harry Potter: Millennium Bridge, Reptile House at London Zoo, Piccadilly Circus, Westminster tube station
- Notting Hill: Notting Hill Bookshop, The Ritz, 280 Westbourne Park Road, 91 Lansdowne Road
- Sherlock: Speedy’s, St. Bart’s Hospital, Gerrard Street Chinatown, Hungerford Bridge
- Love Actually: St Luke’s Mews, Selfridge’s, Oxo Tower Wharf
- Bridget Jones: The Globe Pub Borough Market, Shad Thames, Royal Exchange Buildings, Royal Courts of Justice, Clink Wharf Apartments
Take in the free views of London
The Shard and the London Eye both offer sprawling views of the capital city town but neither of them comes cheap. Here are a few places when you can catch unusual but most importantly free views of London:
- Sky Garden: Entry to the observatory deck is free of charge but advance booking is mandatory, up to three weeks in advance.
- One New Change: There is a lovely rooftop terrace atop the shopping centre with the best views of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
- Royal Festival Hall: Take the singing lift (!) up to the fifth floor where a little-known balcony with views of the Thames awaits.
- Tate Modern: Enjoy views of London’s North Bank from one of the many terraces, restaurants and cafés on various floors of the Tate.
- OXO Tower: Admire the view from OXO Tower Brasserie without having to pay a dime! Simply exit the lift and take a sharp right before you get to the restaurant door; there’s a small terrace at the end of the hallway.
Tour the London mews
Arguably one of the most Instagram-friendly free things to do in London! These colourful cobblestone alleys were always meant for the most affluent nobility, as they were built as service streets behind the large terraced houses across London and served as a parking lot of sorts for carriages during the 17th and 18th centuries. The 433 surviving mews are no longer home to stables but instead to some of the most enviable, and therefore costly, properties in a city already infamous for its jaw-droppingly excessive housing costs.
The best mews in London? St. Lukes Mews, Warren Mews, Colville Mews, Queen’s Gate Mews, Kynance Mews, Holland Park Mews, Montagu Mews West, Eaton Mews, Atherstone Mews, Ladbroke Walk, Ennismore Gardens Mews, to name a few.
Come pay your respects to Karl Marx and George Eliot at Highgate Cemetery, one of the most significant burial grounds in London with its Victorian features, outstanding architecture and dense vegetation. Don’t miss the stunning Egyptian Avenue! Accessing the East Cemetery is free of charge and there is a free guided tour on the first Saturday of each month.
Welcome to the second largest library in the world, with approximately 14 million books and volumes within its walls. In addition to receiving a copy of every new publication produced in the UK and in Ireland, the British Library houses several invaluable, notable works such as the Diamond Sutra (the world’s earliest dated printed book), the Codex Arundel (one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks), two Gutenberg Bibles, Shakespeare’s First Folio, two 1215 copies of Magna Carta, Beatles lyrics handwritten by John Lennon, a manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground by Lewis Carroll and even the personal copy of Anne Boleyn’s New Testament translated in English by William Tyndale in 1534.
Find the best Blue Plaques
One of most underrated free things to do in London! The Blue Plaques, hemmed by English Heritage, these historical markers aim to link the people of the past with the buildings of the present by commemorating and honouring notable men and women that influenced the course of London’s history in some shape or form — including Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Vincent Van Gogh, Captain James Cook, Samuel Johnson, Frederic Chopin, Ian Fleming, Benjamin Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Vivien Leigh, John Lennon, Samuel Beckett, Dame Agatha Christie, Charles Darwin, Freddie Mercury and Sir Winston Churchill, to name a few.
Started in 1866, the Blue Plaque scheme is thought to be the oldest of its kind in the world. There’s a really cool app you can download and use as a guide through the memorable streets of London. For a full list of Blue Plaques in London, check out Wikipedia’s entry.
Discover you stand-up comedians at the Angel Comedy club every night of the week with their rigorously-vetted open-mic comics, from improv to solo acts — you might get lucky and catch a top comedian testing new material. It’s all technically free, but if you liked the show, a voluntary donation is always welcome.
Take a free walking tour of London
There are so many different companies offering free tours of London that it’s actually quite difficult to choose! Strawberry Tours, New Europe Tours, Free London Walking Tours all do a pretty decent job, from lavish Kensington to artsy Shoreditch. Tours are all free but if you had a nice time and learned something, it’s customary to leave a tip at the end.