For locals, it’s a well-known fact that many of the UK capital’s best attributes are completely free to enjoy. In London you can walk through two millennia of history, delve into a cornucopia of treasures, go on a music and art odyssey, and soak in some of the most iconic views on Earth – all without spending a single penny. Here’s where to start.
1. Get lost in London’s historic streets
One of the best ways to get a grasp of London’s immense history and diverse communities is to set off on two feet. The whole city center is walkable and its winding, twisting, turning streets are an adventure in themselves. Dozens of free walking guides are available online, pointing out notable landmarks and offering facts about the areas you find yourself in. When walking anywhere in London, don’t forget to look up; ancient gargoyles, detailed facades and old signage can be found at every turn.
Local tip: Movie fans should look up filming locations, everything from James Bond (Skyfall, Spectre and No Time To Die) and the Bourne Ultimatum to Love Actually, 28 Days Later and Les Miserables has been filmed in London.
2. Discover million-year-old dinosaur bones
The Natural History Museum houses some 80 million specimens under a spectacular Gothic structure. From a full skeleton of the largest mammal on Earth to ancient bones of those who once roamed the Earth, this magnificent collection of things from the natural world began more than 200 years ago and is entirely free to visit (pre-booking advised).
Local tip: Check the museum’s website for regular free guided tours and workshops.
3. See modern art greats
London’s free galleries are many, and boy they are good. Smaller spaces include the Serpentine Gallery – which has showcased big guns in the modern art world including Henry Moore, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Tomoko Takahashi – and the Saatchi Gallery, which celebrates contemporary artists on the way up. Then there’s the art-world Goliath that is the Tate Modern, housed in the striking old Bankside Power Station, with hundreds of works over seven large gallery floors from Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko to Nan Goldin and Tracey Emin.
Local tip: Roam a neon wonderland in a salvage yard in Walthamstow, God’s Own Junkyard is home to hundreds of electric signs.
4. Lounge around in London’s many parks
In summer Londoners head for the city’s 3,000 free parks. These glorious green social spaces are the places to get away from the bustle of the city, read a book, nature watch, picnic or lounge in a deckchair, but they also host numerous events – look out for free outdoor theater shows, guided nature walks, live music, movie screenings, sports tournaments, festivals and more on park websites.
Local tip: Visit Greenwich Park to stand at Longitude Zero (0° 0′ 0”), from which every place on earth is measured. Step over the Prime Meridian line to transport yourself into the east or west of the world in one step.
5. Watch street artists in Leake Street tunnel
This hidden passage in Waterloo is a vibrant 300m outdoor gallery of murals, graffiti and stencil art. This place has been legally designated a “free wall” meaning anyone can come and create a piece of art here. The standard is world-class, and passersby can view everything from giant portraits and political pieces to those in the image of New York 1960s subway graffiti. Banksy has been known to leave his mark here too. On most days you can watch artists live in action.
Local tip: Go on a self-guided street art walking tour through East London, including hotspots Brick Lane and Hackney Wick.
6. Catch the Changing of the Guard Ceremony
This iconic tradition at Buckingham Palace, dating back to the reign of King Henry VII, is free to watch. It’s essentially the formal change over of guards protecting the King’s palace (complete with red and black uniforms and tall bear-skin hats – worn to make them look intimidating in battle) and is full of pomp and in-sync marching. It takes place at 10.45am four days a week and lasts for around 45 minutes.
Planning tip: Get to the gates early for a good view, the area swells with crowds before the ceremony.
7. Catch a Covent Garden street performance
People have been delighting outdoor crowds in Covent Garden’s cobbled Piazza since the 1660s. Street performers here range from circus-style acrobatics to magicians and comedians. Just look for the crowds forming a circle, then join them to watch classic circus-style performances, from knife throwing on a unicycle to stilt walking on a wire. You never know what you’re going to get but there’s sure to be plenty of humor and peril.
Local tip: While it’s not required, it is courteous to tip your performers, even if it’s just a small amount of change – it’s how they make a living.
8. View thousands of pickled specimens
Fans of the peculiar and macabre should pay a visit to one of London’s most curious museums; the Hunterian Museum, named after 18th century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. It’s stacked with more than 2,000 preserved animals, plants, bones and body parts from eyeballs and organs to monkeys, birds, lizards and other creatures frozen in time in glass jars.
Planning tip: Note that the museum is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
9. Step inside these historic manor houses
See how the other half lived more than a century ago at one of London’s impressive manor houses. Arts and crafts celebrity William Morris lived with his family in a stunning 19th century Walthamstow Georgian mansion house next to Lloyd’s Park, now the William Morris Gallery. Visitors can wander the rooms in the formerly named Water House, and learn about his life’s works. In Hampstead Heath, meanwhile, the grand 17th-century Kenwood House is an impressive stately home with painstakingly maintained features, including ornate pastel-pink plasterwork in the Great Library, 112 acres of manicured gardens, and a seriously impressive art collection – spot works by George Romney, Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer.
Local tip: If you have a couple of pounds to spare, pay a visit to the secondhand bookshop with bargain reads, at Kenwood House.
10. Take in the city’s glorious views
Climb up the 300ft bluff on Hampstead’s rugged heath to Parliament Hill for soaring views over London and spot the Palace of Westminster in the distance. For awesome views of Canary Wharf’s modern financial district to the east, climb to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park. The Old Royal Naval College (dating to 17th century) sits in the foreground. Meanwhile, the foliage-filled atrium of London’s Sky Garden, on the 43rd floor of the famous “Walkie Talkie” building (at 20 Fenchurch St) is completely free and has floor-to-ceiling glass windows with views over the River Thames.
Local tip: Get up high on 5 November on a clear night to see the city erupt into fireworks during the annual Guy Fawkes Night celebrations.
11. Visit the gateway to the Wizarding World
North London’s King’s Cross Station is home to the gateway to Harry Potter’s Wizarding World, otherwise known as Platform 9¾. In tribute to the hit series, a sign has permanently hung above a trolley stacked with suitcases and an owl cage, as it half disappears into the wall. Potterheads can queue with other fans to snap a picture of them holding on to the trolley dressed in a Hogwarts scarf and holding a wand (graciously provided by the Harry Potter Shop next door).
Local tip: For more magic vibes, step inside the adjacent gothic St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, which could double as Hogwarts. Snap a picture of the grand three-tiered staircase, the setting of the Spice Girls Wannabe music video.
12. Explore a fine collection of treasures
The Victoria & Albert Museum is a wonderful cavernous place with 60,000 things created by human hands. Items range from century-old dresses to furniture and household objects. Book in advance onto the free V&A highlights tour for a guided journey around some of the museum’s most impressive pieces.
Local tip: Don’t miss a visit to the museum’s three opulent refreshment rooms, each elaborately decorated with features like gold, high-painted ceilings and stained glass windows.