‘Free things’ and ‘London’ are words which, at a first glance, don’t seem to belong in the same train of thought.
For London is one of those cities which, it seems, can be enjoyed fully only if you have large amounts of disposable cash.
People on a trip of a lifetime to the British capital can easily become overwhelmed by the speed with which their pocket money is spent. There is so much to see and do, so many places to eat at, such an incredible number of shops to explore that the pounds never seem to last long enough.
Add to this the exchange rate and you will easily be paying double and triple the prices you are used to back home. For example, a person who enjoys having top quality espresso in Italy for the humble price of 1.10 euros a cup, may have the shock of their life when asked double that for a coffee with a burnt aftertaste in London.
It is not surprising then that most people who have been to London sum their experiences with a curt ‘It was amazing, but so expensive!’. Although it doesn’t have to be like that.
London can offer so much for little or no money at all. Where else can you enjoy a walk along the cleanest river in Europe lined by some stunning architecture and then pop for free in a museum with world-class art? Where else can you sample food from all over the globe and then explore gardens fit for a queen without spending a penny, if you so wish?
The English have a saying ‘Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’. In its spirit and based on my 12 years spent living in the British capital, here is the first part of my fun and fabulous list of 50 free things you can do in London. I hope, all these tried and tested ideas will help galvanise you to have a great yet affordable time in one of the most amazing, exciting and stunning cities in the world.
1. Start your introduction to London by walking from London Bridge to Charing Cross along the river Thames. You will be rewarded with amazing views and will pass by some stunning landmarks (Globe Theatre, Tate Modern and St. Paul’s Cathedral to mention but a few).
2. Spend a leisurely hour at the vibrant Covent Garden and enjoy the open air performances by street artists and musicians set among the stunning decor of where once pineapple growing greenhouses stood in the heart of London.
3. Marvel at one of the biggest collections of paintings with free access in the world at the National Gallery at London’s Trafalgar Square. Originals by Canaletto, Turner, Velazquez, Constable, Van Gogh and hundreds of other English, Flemish, Italian, Spanish, French masters await you. Whilst there say hello to my favourite painting of them all – Michelangelo’s unfinished ‘The Manchester Madonna’.
4. Go to the top of Parliament Hill for Instagram-worthy iconic views of London’s skyline. See how many of its famous landmarks you can spot.
5. In winter set time apart to walk around central London to admire the fantastic Christmas decorations the city gets dressed up with from the beginning of November onwards. The window displays of the shops around town are also very imaginative. A special mention deserve Fortnum & Mason, Selfridge’s and Hamley’s.
6. In summer, have a picnic in the Rose Garden nestled within Regent’s Park. It is a place straight out of a fairy tale showcasing London’s largest collection of roses with approximately 12 000 rose plants and 85 rose varieties. When they are in full bloom, it is the most fragrant place on Earth.
7. Spend an afternoon at the Natural History Museum. Its splendid building is only eclipsed by its even more splendid collection. Dinosaurs, blue whales, precious stones, earthquakes and volcanoes – you will be both amazed and left speechless time and time again. For me the pinnacle of the museum is definitely the escalator to the Center of the Earth. Take a ride!
8. Catch a glimpse of the world’s top models, celebrities and fashion insiders, trendsetters and bloggers by hanging around the Saatchi Gallery during the bi-annual London Fashion Week.
9. Pet a goat, stroke a sheep or give a cute little rabbit a cuddle or two in an inner city farm. It is quite crazy, really. Right in the middle of The Big Smoke are nestled small working farms. They are a great place for children and adults alike offering close interactions with the animals, a possibility to learn about farm life and several seasonal events (the latter may be subject to a small fee).
10. Watch the Changing the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace every day in summer and four days a week in winter. The ceremony has remained unchanged for centuries and it is a colourful yet strictly regimented event giving you a glimpse of the splendour of the British royalty.
11. Sample your way around the foodie world by visiting the fantastic Borough Market and enjoying the free of charge morsels provided by the sellers. German sausages, French cheeses, British pies, Moroccan dips, Spanish olives… Everything your foodie heart desires, you will find it in this bustling market. It gets very crowded, but the food is worth it!
12. See where iconic scenes were filmed. From Portobello Market which served as an evocative backdrop to the captivating love story in ‘Notting Hill’ to the premises where the slap-your-thighs-laugh-out-loud big fight between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant took place in the first ‘Bridget Jones’ film, you can see the London locations where cinematic history was made.
13. Visit the ‘Actors’ Church’. St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden has a long connection with the men and women of the performing arts, hence its sobriquet. Inside it you will find the memorials of many illustrious actors, playwrights and directors. The church has its own theatre company(!) and a garden which is a peaceful oasis amid the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden.
14. In winter enjoy a free carol concert at Trafalgar Square right in front of the huge Christmas tree which the British people receive as a gift each year from the capital city of Oslo as a thank you for the British support of Norway during the Second World War.
15. See where the British Prime Minister lives. ‘10 Downing Street‘ is the worldwide famous address of the official residence and the office of, currently, Mrs Theresa May. A huge grid and uniform policemen block the access to the street itself, but people crowd on the pavement right in front of it to steal a glimpse of the house and the cars which drive in and out the very important people who make the world go round.
16. For a weekend every year you have the amazing chance to explore for free some of the most architecturally stunning buildings in London, most of which are not open to the public the rest of the time. ‘Open House London‘ is the capital’s largest annual festival of architecture and design. Click on the link to find out when its next edition will be held.
17. Cross Oxford Circus diagonally just like the famous Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, Japan. Oxford Circus is where two of the biggest shopping streets in the world – Oxford St. and Regent St. – intersect and, in consequence, it is one of the most congested crossings on the planet. Over 80 million pedestrians navigate it every year. In order to allow people to cross with ease, the crossing underwent a makeover in 2009 and it is now possible to cross it both diagonally and straight ahead.
18. See or take part in a London skate – a regular marshaled event through the streets of the British capital. Have fun and make friends!
19. Cheer at London’s big parades. Like the Lord Mayor’s Show – a splendid parade with an 800-year long history celebrating the annual election of the ambassador of the City of London. Expect thousands of performers, a river pageant and some spectacular fireworks. London’s New Year’s Day parade is another huge free event which would be a shame to miss. Held along the streets of Central London, it features dancers, acrobats, cheerleaders, marching bands and historic vehicles from all over the world. The atmosphere is festive and lighthearted and the parade is definitely worth it to get up early for on the first day of the New Year.
20. Cross as many of the London bridges as you can. They offer you fabulous viewpoints towards the river and the city skyline, plus each one has a story to tell. Don’t miss Tower Bridge, London Bridge, Parliament Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Millennium Bridge and Hungerford Bridge (my favourite!) to name but a few.
21. Get really close to wildlife. Squirrels in Greenwich Park will let you feed them from the palm of your hand. St. James’s Park will offer you an encounter with its pelicans, whereas peacocks roam the lovely Holland Park. Richmond Park tops them all though as it gives you the opportunity to glimpse large herds of deer peacefully grazing on its greens. Seeing them is a wonderful experience.
22. Visit the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich to discover the naval history of Great Britain. Its Painted Hall is often called the ‘Sistine Chapel of the UK’ and is recognised as the greatest piece of decorative painting in England.
23. See how an iconic British TV show is made. Free tickets to be in the audience of entertainment, political and talk-shows are regularly announced online. Do your research and you could see an eminent journalist or a popular host interview world leaders and famous stars.
24. Spot a member of the British Royal Family. Official engagements are published up to eight weeks in advance and there is even a searchable online database for you to find out when and where to catch a glimpse of The Royals and The Queen.
25. Visit an ethnic food shop. You will feel suddenly transported thousands of miles away and will have the opportunity to explore a different culture whilst remaining firmly on London land. For me there is something wonderful in being surrounded by foodstuffs I have never tried before and which I don’t even know how to prepare and eat. I love the Chinatown branch of SeeWoo and its huge cash and carry operation in Greenwich where I could spend hours on end marveling at the amazing food.
Now click here to read the second part of this list!
Also, let me know which of the above things you would love to do during your visit to London. Or which ones you have already ticked off your list, if you have already been to the British capital.
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