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Top free things to do in London

( 19 February 2015 )

A day out in London needn't cost a fortune. There's plenty to do for free or very low cost, including plenty of museums, galleries and fascinating walks.

south bank london

With some of the finest museums in Europe and plenty of historic parks and buildings you'll be spoilt for choice in for things to do in London. What's more, most museums and galleries are completely free, and there's also plenty to see out and about on one of the many historic walks around the city. To help you decide how to plan your visit, here's a rundown of some of the best museums, galleries and other sights, sounds and tastes to experience in London.

1. Tate Britain

These exceptional art galleries, situated on the south and north banks of the River Thames respectively, house some of the finest artworks in the world - from Picasso to Monet to Warhol - yet they don't cost a penny to visit (except special exhibitions).

Tate Britain, as the name suggest, focuses on home-grown talent and must-see works of art including world-renowned artists such as Francis Bacon, John Millais, David Hockney, Chris Ofili, JMW Turner and others. Artworks are grouped according to movement – for example, post-war abstract, minimalism, surrealism – so you can head to your favourite genre first.

2. Queen Mary's Rose Gardens

A wonderful escape from the bustling city centre, these stunning, quintessentially English gardens, situated in Regent's Park, are home to one of the finest collections of roses in the country.

There are almost 400 varieties in all, some with wonderful names such as 'Lovely Lady' and 'Thinking of You'. Don't miss the focal point of the garden, the Rose Wheel – a series of ten planted beds that radiate out from a focal bed, surrounded by benches set into alcoves formed by climbing roses.

3. Changing of the Guard

Time it right and you can witness one of the world's greatest spectacles without taking your wallet out of your pocket.

Get you camera ready as the new guard arrives – wearing his iconic tall bearskin hat – at the forecourt of the Palace at 11.30 (daily from May until the end of July, and on alternate days for the rest of the year – see for details) from Wellington Barracks, accompanied by a band, before the ceremony is conducted on the Palace forecourt, and the old guard returns to the barracks.

4. Tate Modern

Tate Modern has a more international focus than Tate Britain, and more quirky, contemporary sculptures, film, installations and 2D artworks. The art is displayed in a thematic order instead of chronological, so traditional oil paintings can sit side-by-side contemporary sculptures. Key artists include Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Mark Rothko.

Wander around the exhibitions at your own pace, or join in one of the free daily guided tours, where a knowledgeable guide will enlighten you about international, contemporary and British art.

5. Evensong at Westminster Abbey

While the 700-year-old Abbey relies on admission fees from visitors to cover running costs, it never charges people who want to worship.

Visit during Evensong, arguably the most beautiful of services where the Abbey choir sings, which takes place at 5pm on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, plus at 3pm on Saturdays and Sundays. It's a wonderful way to experience the Abbey in the way it was intended -- as a place of worship and reflection.

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6. Museum Of London

It is astonishing that this great museum – the world's largest urban history museum with a staggering 1.1 million objects – is free for visitors, considering you could spend a whole day there. The collections, which range from prehistoric times to the present day, are constantly changing.

You can view everything from artefacts of pottery, bone and stone that were recovered during dredging operations in the Thames in the 19th century to clothing by London-based designers, including Vivienne Westwood. There are some brilliant temporary exhibitions too.

7. Foyer concerts at the National Theatre

Fancy tapping your foot along to some free jazz? Head to the Djanogly Concert Pitch, in the foyer of the National Theatre, early evening on a weekday (pre-performance) or at lunch time on a Saturday, and you can do just that, thanks to a series of free concerts.

The range of music is exciting and varied, including trumpet-led jazz bands, violin and piano duets, swing bands and even ukulele and guitar duets.

8. British Library Tour

The British Library has to be one of the world's greatest libraries -- ever wondered about the techniques used to care for the vast collections? Join a free 'behind the scenes' tour of the studios in the Centre for Conservation.

Led by British Library conservators, they give an fascinating insight into the techniques and methods used to care for the collections (booking recommended).

9. Walk from High Barnet to Cockfosters

This three-and-a-half-mile stroll will take you between the two tube lines, and gives you a chance to see the scenery and history in between them, including plenty of green space and historic blue plaque buildings.

You'll see some stunning sights, including a fabulous lake and some breathtaking views of Canary Wharf, 15 miles away.

10. Borough Market

Located in a vast open-air space under a Victorian-style warehouse roof, this is London's oldest food market (more than 250 years old) and has to be one of the best in the world.

Arrive early, on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday and while away the morning sampling your way around the endless stalls.

What can you expect? Everything from fresh seafood and cured meats to pies, ground coffee, ales and homemade cakes (look out for the brick-sized brownies, they are out of this world).

11. Sir John Soane's Museum

This amazing house at Lincoln's Inn Fields was designed by the great Sir John Soane, architect of the Bank of England, to live in, but also as a setting for his antiquities and works of art.

Free to visitors, it houses over 30,000 architectural drawings (including both drawings by Soane and those by earlier and contemporary architects that Soane collected), antiquities, Neo-Classical sculptures and works by Hogarth, Turner, Canaletto and Piranesi.

12. The South Bank

From the London Eye and Globe Theatre to Millennium Bridge and Southwark Cathedral, it's amazing how many landmarks you can see along this stretch of the River Thames without paying a penny.

Top tip: download a free walking tours of the South Bank area, which explore "intriguing pockets of architecture and history" along the Thames.

13. British Museum

For those interested in culture and art, head to the British Museum on Great Russell Street near Holborn. This is one of the oldest and most fascinating museums in the world, and it's completely free to enter (with a suggested donation of £5). Visitors usually make a bee-line for the mummies, Lindow Man, the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial or the Rosetta Stone.

One of the most interesting permanent exhibitions is 'Living and Dying', which explores how people throughout history have diagnosed and treated diseases.

14. Science Museum

With seven floors of hands-on, entertaining exhibits, such as a flight simulator and the Apollo 10 command module, there are plenty of fun and educational things to see and do at London's famous science museum.

The Exploring Space gallery is one of the best, with full-scale models of the Beagle 2 Mars Lander and a three-metre-high Spacelab telescope.

The Dana Centre, where you can experience free lectures on modern science issues, is for adults only.

15. Neal's Yard

Accessed through Neal’s Yard Lane, a narrow curving and high-walled passageway off Monmouth Street, Neal’s Yard suddenly opens out in front of you, its painted murals vibrant in the sunshine. Within, waiting for you to find them, are Neal’s Yard Remedies Store, Neal’s Yard Dairy and the Wild Food Cafe, as well as other cafes and retail areas.

Back in the seventies this area would have been used for refuse collection, more than likely infested with rats and as such did not appear on any map. It was scheduled for being demolished when a certain Nicholas Saunders discovered it and decided to use the location as the base for his new whole foods business.

Interestingly, Neal’s Yard was formerly called King’s Head Court but Saunders renamed it after Thomas Neale, the wealthy businessman who created the Seven Dials, the district Neal’s Yard is now located in. And the rest, as they say, is history.

16. Royal Air Force Museum

The RAF Museum on Graham Park Way is free to enter, although parking charges apply and donations are encouraged. There's plenty to see and do here, stroll through the many hangars and marvel at 100 years of flight technology, including plenty of historic planes and aviation artefacts. 

17. Old Camden Town

There are plenty of things to explore in Camden, many of them – strangely – beginning with C: Crescents, Cafes, Crafts, Canals, Catacombs, and Cobblestones. Have a wander around Camden Lock – London's most bustling market and pop into one of the many cafes and eateries.

18. Natural History Museum

Famous for its permanent dinosaur exhibition, the Natural History Museum boasts a collection of the biggest, tallest and rarest animals in the world.

See a life-sized Blue Whale, a 40-million-year-old spider and the large Diplodocus cast which dominates the vaulted central hall.

Entry is free but special exhibitions require tickets.

19. Highgate Village

Despite being located just a few stops up the Northern Line, Old Highgate has been described as a "country village nestled round an old pond". It's one of the most expensive areas of London to live in, but it can also provide a low-cost day out if you enjoy just walking around, taking in the sights.

With stunning Georgian architecture and beautiful views across London, Highgate was once home to Coleridge and Dickens and its Victorian cemetery is now the resting place for many notable people, including Douglas Adams, Karl Marx, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, Bert Jansch

20. Millbank

Discover the bridges, palaces and ceramics that lie between Pimlico and Parliament. You are likely to see MI6 on the Albert Embankment, what was Millbank Prison, and the Tate Gallery.

21. Walk City Hall to Canary Wharf

Just over three miles long, this walk will take you over Tower Bridge, heading past St Katharine Docks and following the Thames Path.

You'll see some beautiful views of the river when crossing Limekiln Creek to Canary Wharf.

22. The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection is to be found nestled just off Manchester Square and a few minutes’ walk from accessible tube stations on Oxford Street, Marylebone Village or Baker Street.

Once inside the building, you will be enchanted by the exquisite collection of 18th and 19th century art works once belonging to Richard Wallace, the son of the fourth Marquess of Hertford.

One of the most well-known paintings you can find displayed here is that of the Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals; it's not known who this enigmatic gentleman was but his face is destined to be recognisable to all as he smiles out from the canvas. Also amongst the vast array of art treasures within these walls you will discover numerous paintings by such famous names as Rembrandt, Velázquez, Rubens and Canaletto, displayed in all their glory.

After viewing the themed exhibits on each of the floors you might well be looking forward to taking some kind of refreshment or dining al fresco in the Wallace Collection’s superb glass-roofed courtyard and sculpture garden.

23. Harrods

The renowned and distinguished Harrods department store in Knightsbridge is well worth a trip. Opened in 1834 by Charles Henry Harrod, this impressive and iconic green-canopied building takes up the whole block. You can while away a chunk of your time visiting each and every one of its seven floors offering both luxury and everyday items. If you are lucky enough you might even catch the sales.

The motto of Harrods is Omnia Omnibus Unique, All Things for All People – and you are surely going to find something that delights you in this store. As you proceed, you might even come across an art installation here, an Egyptian mummy there, an Italian tenor round one corner, a flamenco dancer round another and refreshments at each turn. And who knows what you might bring home in your green and gold Harrods bag? Happy shopping!

24. Liberty's


Keeping to the department store premise, another one on your must-visit list has to be the enchanting Liberty’s department store. Stepping into this quaint place, set back off Regent Street, you feel as though you have time-travelled into some sort of pseudo-Tudor period, with its black beams and wonky floors, interestingly juxtaposed with modernistic furnishings, knick-knacks, luxury goods, women’s and children’s wear, household goods, furniture, beauty items - the list of items for sale in this wonderful building goes on and on.

Definitely one to tick off your ‘Visiting London’ list.

25. Little Venice

Take a walk along Regent’s Canal and view the pretty scenery of the canal banks, the elegant houses of Maida Vale and finally end up in Camden.

Little Venice is also home to many cosy waterside cafes, pubs and restaurants, so how about a making a well-deserved pit-stop in one of these lovely venues. Sit cradling a drink and nibble on crisps whilst admiring the pretty barges that pass by and engaging in a relaxing spot of people-watching? You might even be lucky enough to catch a puppet theatre or a fringe comedy, you never know. This area is known for its theatrical entertainment.

26. National Gallery

Located in Trafalgar Square, London's National Gallery is a vast space, filled with Western European paintings from the 13th to the 19th centuries. You can get lost here among the masterpieces by Van Gogh, da Vinci, Botticelli, Constable, Picasso, Renoir, Titian and Stubbs.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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