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With so much on offer in and around London, you could easily spend a week or even a month here and not be bored. However, with the pound still ranking fairly highly on currency charts, it is true that London can be quite an expensive place for many tourists around the world. You’ll be pleased to know, then, that you can experience many of the top sights in London for free!
1. Buckingham Palace
Yes, it does cost money to visit the state rooms of Buckingham Palace, but tickets can be limited and hard to get. Despite this, no trip to London would be complete without visiting the Queen’s official residence, so I have included it in the free section on London. Indeed, I have explored virtually the length and breadth of London, and been to Buckingham Palace multiple times with different people, but have yet to make it past the gate. The Changing of the Guard occurs daily at 11.30am from May-end July and on alternate days the rest of the year, weather permitting. You may like to time your visit for this immensely popular occurrence, but be warned, it gets very crowded and you should arrive early to nab a good spot.
2. Hyde, Green and St James’ Parks
I love that there is so much green space right in the heart of London, and 3 of the best are walking distance from Buckingham Palace. I find Green Park the most tranquil. Hyde Park offers a range of events and facilities, including Speakers’ Corner, where anyone can get on a soap box (literally) about any topic that is deemed lawful by the police. St James’ Park is a beautiful area to walk through en route to the next London icon listed below, with its lake, fountains and beautiful flower beds. Say hello to these guys as you go.
3. Parliament and Big Ben
Just as you can pay to tour Buckingham Palace, similarly you can also join a guided tour of Parliament for a fee. However, did you know that there are also free tours of the Elizabeth Tower (colloquially known as Big Ben, though this is actually the nickname given to the bell housed within the tower)? I didn’t, and I wish I’d known about it earlier because, alas, this tour is only available to UK residents, so I guess I’ve missed my chance to climb those 334 stone steps to go behind the clock faces and to see the mechanism room. Even the locals may find it difficult to join these highly popular tours, which book out 6 months in advance and need to be organised by contacting your local MP or a Member of the House of Lords. If you don’t get the chance to tour Parliament or Big Ben, you should still plan to see these icons on your visit to London.
4. Trafalgar Square
After visiting Big Ben, you can take a leisurely and pleasant stroll north along the west bank of the Thames to get to Trafalgar Square. Dominated by the 50m Nelson’s Column, which is guarded by 4 large lions, this busy square is a great place for you to snap a photo of a London bus, or just to relax and people watch. It is also a popular meeting place and gateway to many of the other London sights, including 2 great art galleries and St Martin-in-the-Fields to the north, Leicester Square and the entertainment district beyond that, and the Admiralty Arch leading towards Buckingham Palace at the southwest corner. I advise checking in at St Martin-in-the-Fields and obtaining a concert timetable if you have time. They host a range of free and paid concerts, and I found both the ambience and acoustics to be pretty spectacular.
5. National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery
I love that many of the curated treasures in London are free for all to enjoy, but if you have some spare change, do consider a small donation towards the upkeep of these places. There – public service announcement done.
The National Portrait Gallery is a great place to wander through to see who makes the cut as the creme de la creme of British society. My personal favourite art gallery, though, is the National Gallery, which houses such gems as Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, van Eyck‘s Arnolfini Portrait, and van Gogh‘s Sunflowers. I find the generously spaced layout and the fewer people here more peaceful and conducive to enjoyment of art than other more famous but overcrowded art galleries like the Louvre. Perhaps ironically, one of my favourite things to do when I was living in the UK was to walk into the National Gallery and straight to Georges Seurat‘s Bathers at Asnieres, depicting a leisurely scene on the Parisian river Seine. I don’t know why, but plonking myself in front of this painting just makes me feel like all is right with the world.
Both are open daily from 10am-6pm.
National Portrait Gallery open until 9pm on Thursdays and Fridays.
National Gallery open until 9pm on Fridays.
Closest tube stops: Charing Cross and Leicester Square.
6. British Museum
Continuing in the theme of great free collections and rainy day options, you’ll find the British Museum north of Trafalgar Square and past Leicester Square. Here, you’ll find numerous valuable antiquities such as the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering hieroglyphs, various sculptures from the Parthenon, and an Egyptian mummy gallery. The museum even offers free tours of the different collections throughout the day, as well as a hands on desk where you can handle some items. Check here for details. I especially love the museum’s Great Court, the largest covered public square in Europe with its spectacular glass roof and the Reading Room at the centre.
Open daily 10am-5.30pm, until 8.30pm on Fridays.
Closest tube stops: The British Museum is roughly central between Tottenham Court Road to the south, Goodge Street to the west, Russell Square to the north and Holborn to the east.
7. Victoria and Albert Museum
I feel I would be doing you a disservice by not mentioning the Victoria and Albert Museum. The world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, the V&A boasts a collection of over 4.5 million objects spanning 5000 years of art including textiles, ceramics, glass, jewellery, photography and medieval objects, housed in a lavish Victorian building with a stunning central garden, both of which are worth a visit in their own right even if you don’t have time to stop and admire the exhibits. If you have time to spare, I recommend the Dress Collection and the Cast Courts with its plaster cast reproductions of famous sculptures like Michaelangelo‘s David.
Open daily 10am-5.45pm, until 10pm on Fridays.
Closest tube stop: South Kensington leads you straight to the entrance of the V&A – just follow the signs along the covered walkways as you exit the station.
8. Tate Modern
At the risk of getting you all museumed out, I have to round up my discourse of fine British galleries with the Tate Modern. This old power station now boasts 88 galleries of modern art and, my favourite bit, a large central ground space for huge walk through installations. Seriously, even if you don’t have the time for Warhol, Picasso and Dali, just go and check out the seasonally changing ground floor installation. After all, you’ll probably be visiting St Paul’s Cathedral and wanting a photo of it from the Millenium Bridge like the one I took at the top of my post. Might as well walk the full length of the bridge to the Tate, right? If time permits, there are free guided tours at 11am, 12pm, 2pm and 3pm daily, each lasting about 45 minutes and highlighting a different collection as chosen by the guides.
Open daily 10am-6pm, until 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
Closest tube stop: The Tate Modern is roughly central between Mansion House to the northeast or Blackfriars to the northwest (I recommend crossing the Millennium Bridge to get there), and Southwark to the southwest.
9. To market, to market
I love vintage finds and antiques (probably why I love the V&A so much – quite frankly, it’s like a giant high end market!), not to mention handmade crafts and edible goodies, and for these reasons, I’m a real sucker for markets. London is home to some great markets. My favourite ones are the crowded but atmospheric Covent Garden Markets, foodie favourite Borough Market, and Portobello Road Market, depicted below, the world’s largest antiques market which is flanked by colourful buildings and also houses the delectable Hummingbird Bakery.
10. Take the train to Hogwarts
Well, not quite. And admittedly, this may not appeal to everyone. But as a bona fide, certified Harry Potter fan, I need to look out for all those other Harry Potter fans out there and draw your attention to King’s Cross Station, where you can find Platform 9 3/4, complete with a luggage trolley that you can walk through a wall with. Alas, my picture here got accidentally deleted years ago, and I haven’t found my way back since. It’s on my list of things to do. In the meantime, check out this great blog post on Harry Potter destinations around the world, which includes a fantastic picture of Platform 9 3/4.
Do you agree with the quote that “when a man is tired of London he is tired of life?” What are your favourite things to see and do there?
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