It’s easy for a day out in London to leave you with an empty wallet, but you don’t need wads of cash to enjoy yourself in this town. In fact, with this list you don’t need any money at all: the alpacas, masterpieces, podium dancers, dinosaurs and much more besides can all be admired for free.
Things to do for free in London
In galleries lined with the prized possessions of kings and the everyday trinkets of peasants, the British Museum reveals stories of life, death and glory. Get a picture of how Native American cultures lived centuries ago, seek out the sport of a lion hunt in carvings circa 645BC and explore rituals of death and remembrance reflected in the decorated casket of the ancient Egyptian mummy of Katebet.
The IWM’s brand new First World War Galleries examine the politics and legacy of the 1914-1918 conflict, but also day-to-day life in the trenches. In photographs, artefacts like tins of food, and a collection of letters (many from fighters who never came back), the museum tells a powerful and moving story.
The Victoria and Albert Museum’s ceramics collection is the most extensive in the world. Grayson Perry might have revived an appreciation of the artform (see his handiwork here, alongside ornate pieces of the Medici age) but the collection shows how greatly valued ceramics have always been, from figurines crafted in Paris to soup tureens made in Chelsea.
For everyone from T-Rex-obsessed toddlers to budding paleontologists, the Natural History Museum remains the ultimate destination for matters pre-historic. A walk around the dinosaurs gallery, with its life-size models and skeletons, allows you to appreciate the sheer scale of these creatures, while the four animatronic displays reveal more about how they lived.
The Science Museum’s stunning new second floor gallery provides a chance to explore the imagination and creativity of invention as captured in photography and art. See a visiting exhibition or installation then kick back and discuss it over a coffee in the café.
Because it’s free to visit, even if you have just ten minutes you can nip into the National Gallery and see one great masterpiece on your way to somewhere else. Try Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’. Laden with symbolism, the painting also features the ‘anamorphic perspective’ technique popular in Early Renaissance art; the seemingly smudged image in the foreground becomes a human skull when viewed sideways on.
The Magna Carta, works of Shakespeare and Dickens, copies of The Beano – they all have a home at the British Library. However, you can also see original manuscripts handwritten by some of the world’s greatest musical talents. See early drafts by John Lennon of ‘In My Life’, ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ written on a piece of Lufthansa-headed paper.
Victorian south-east London was far more fascinating than most other parts of the capital thanks to tea trader Frederick John Horniman, who wanted to ‘bring the world to Forest Hill’. He began to collect specimens and artefacts of natural history and culture from all over the world to create his own museum in the late 1800s. The present museum opened in 1901 and the 130-year-old over-stuffed walrus is still its star attraction!
The Geffrye is a museum dedicated to the living room. Focusing on this heart of the British home and furnishing a series of lounges in period style from 1600 onward, it tells a fascinating story of fashion, taste and social change. The mid-century room circa 1955-1965 shows the beginnings of contemporary interior design and the Scandinavian influence. Look closely and you’ll probably see a chair or shelves your parents still own.
Medical research charity the Wellcome Trust created its free-to-visit gallery on the Euston Road to help foster a wider appreciation and understanding of medicine. Innovative exhibitions, talks and performance events reflect themes of medicine and the body in all kinds of creative ways, often through art. The permanent collections include risqué objects such as century-old porcelain fruit containing tiny models of couples enjoying an 'intimate moment.
Also known as the Toy Museum, this much-loved institution balances the need to protect priceless antique dolls and teddies behind glass with keeping its young visitors amused. While the adults get nostalgic over dolls house displays, children can raid the dressing-up box, play in the sandpit, do puppet shows and join craft sessions. There is also a shimmering, multi-textured ‘sensory pod’ for babies to prod and gaze at.
No one is allowed into Coram’s Fields playground unless they’re accompanied by a child. This small green space is a play haven, with playgrounds, sandpits and farm animals. In summer, children can splash about in water and the café is open, too. Surely the only place in Zone 1 where you’ll hear chickens and goats as you pass by on your way to work.
As the last athletes from the 2012 Olympic Games packed their kit bags and left, the trucks moved in to transform the Stratford site into Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Some of the 2012 venues still host events but there is public access to the Velopark and the Aquatics Centre, plus loads of space for cycle rides, waterside picnics and games in the Tumbling Bay adventure playground.
A great way to see upcoming talents, Comic Mondays is held in the bar at Theatre Royal Stratford East and is London’s longest running free comedy night. Sessions start at 8pm, with a full bill of stand-ups on a mission to make you smile. And if one of the comics doesn’t tickle your funny bone, you’ll still have cash in your pocket to buy a drink.
Almost every one of London’s top museums is free to visit, leaving you no excuse to plead ignorance in matters of natural history, science, fashion or world culture. It also leaves you with spare cash for the excellent special exhibitions at the V&A, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, and for dynamic live shows and 3D films at the Science Museum.