101 things to do in London: free things to do
Enjoy wonderful London experiences that won’t cost you a penny
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.
Discover great things to do for free in the capital
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.
- 44 Great Russell St, WC1B 3DG
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.
- Lambeth Rd, SE1 6HZ
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.
- Cromwell Rd, SW7 2RL
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.
- Cromwell Road, SW7 5BD
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.
- Exhibition Rd, SW7 2DD
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.
- Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN
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.
- 96 Euston Rd, NW1 2DB
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!
- 100 London Rd, SE23 3PQ
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.
- Kingsland Road, E2 8EA
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.
- 183, Euston Road, NW1 2BE
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.
- Cambridge Heath Road, E2 9PA
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.
- 93 Guilford St, WC1N 1DN
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.
- E20 2ST
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.
- Gerry Raffles Square, Stratford, E15 1BN
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.
- Various London venues
A weekend institution in east London, the Sunday flower market that lines Columbia Road is the hippest and one of the best places to buy flowers, bedding plants and even a banana tree if you’ve got the patio space at home. It goes on until 3pm in all weathers, but for the best buys you need to get there for 8am.
- Columbia Road, E2 7RG
A few blocks south of Tower Bridge, Bermondsey Square has been developed as a classy enclave of bars and arty hangouts. However, the Friday antiques market is no new arrival. For years it’s been a savvy spot for browsing vintage homeware, furniture and jewellery. The hardcore buyers show up when it opens at 6am but you’ve got until 2pm to surf the stalls.
- Corner of Bermondsey Street & Long Lane, SE1
There are stalls selling veg and new goods through the week, but on Saturdays Portobello Market is at its best. At the Chepstow Villas end of the road you’ll find the antiques and bric-a-brac stalls. Don’t be fooled by the fold-out tables, this isn’t cheap tat, there are some serious treasures here. For secondhand goodies, head further along the road, beyond the Westway.
- Portobello Road, W10
The ornate mock Tudor exterior and the warren of rooms and galleries are all part of the magical experience of a shopping trip to Liberty. Established in 1875, the original store sold fabrics and fine objets d’art from the Far East. Eclectic style throughout its fashion, beauty, gift and home departments continues to set rather than follow trends, with leading designers selling exclusive ranges through the store.
- Regent Street, W1B 5AH
For generations, an evening stroll to see the lights has been a Christmastime tradition. Switched on in early November, usually by a celeb who’s likely to draw a crowd, the lights in Oxford Street tend to be more modern and might even promote a new movie, whereas the Regent Street lights are usually classic and classy. Check out Selfridges’ beautifully dressed Christmas windows, too. Magical.
- Various West End locations
This celebration of West Indian culture and Europe’s biggest street party always takes place on August Bank Holiday. Sunday is family day, and on Monday the streets get especially crowded so arrive by tube then walk to Chepstow Road, Ladbroke Grove or Westbourne Grove. Sound systems on the street and in the squares are a big draw, but some of best DJ sessions feature at the warm-ups and after parties.
- Various Notting Hill locations
Holland Park has many great assets including sports facilities, play areas, woodland and an eco centre, but it also has a remarkable hidden treasure: a traditionally designed Japanese garden. Created as part of London’s Japan Festival in 1992, the garden has water features, Japanese trees and other pretty plants, and is carefully tended to ensure it remains a picturesque spot.
- Ilchester Place, W8 6LU
Teenagers may flock to Camden for stalls and shops crammed with goth essentials in 50 shades of black, but Cyberdog is a burst of colour with a space-age anti-retro philosophy. Its three-floor flagship store in the Stables Market is as much a club space as a boutique, with music pumping and wildly clad dancers gyrating on podiums to inspire your spending.
- Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road, NW1 8AH
There’s plenty of highbrow, sophisticated fun to be had in the redeveloped Granary Square, which is home to University of the Arts London and some seriously posh restaurants. Of course, if you’d rather, you can just strip down to your swimmers and cool off in the fountains. There are over a thousand in total, blocked off into four rectangular grids, which squirt and splash in choreographed patterns from 8am until late. Each of the jets is individually lit, so visit after dark for a stunning light show.
- Off Goods Way, N1C 4AA
If you somehow plan your visit to miss the many exhibitions, art shows, gigs and film screenings that take place at Somerset House, there’s still plenty to do at this peaceful West End enclave. Top of the list should be enjoying a cold drink in the Edmond J Safra Fountain Court and – if it’s warm enough – having a splash amid its array of graceful jets. In December and January, a huge Christmas tree and ice-rink pop up, with mulled wine stalls completing the festive romance.
- Strand, WC2R 1LA
Having been forced out of the premises where it spent the best part of a century by Crossrail, London’s biggest independent bookshop moved into a shiny new home in June 2014. The 107 Charing Cross Road site boasts eight levels of bookshelves, an events space, art gallery, café and a nifty interactive search tool that makes tracking down books an absolute doddle. It’s also an incredibly beautiful shop just to stroll around. Take that, internet!
- 113-119, Charing Cross Road, WC2H 0EB
Whether it was to bring the audience closer to the action or just because they hadn’t invented chairs yet, back in Shakespeare’s day theatregoers would spend performances on their feet. At the Globe theatre on the South Bank the tradition continues, with 700 standing tickets released for each performance. Not only do these tickets cost a very affordable £5, they also offer the best view of the show – assuming you’re not incredibly short, that is.
- 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT
If you’re looking for the most appropriately named room in all of London, this could be it. Having just emerged from a major renovation, Kenwood House – an eighteenth-century stately home located on Hampstead Heath – is looking smarter than ever, with special care shown to its most opulent bits, such as its sprawling library or ‘Great Room’. Visiting is free, as are the official Kenwood House iPhone and Android apps, with which visitors can take their own audio tour.
- Hampstead Lane, NW3 7JR
Greenwich Park and Richmond Park have deer, Clissold Park has goats and Holland Park has peacocks. In St James’s, the crowd-pulling wildlife is, believe it or not, pelicans. The baggy-beaked birds were first given to the park in 1664 as a gift from the Russian Ambassador (pelicans being the seventeenth-century equivalent of a bottle of Jacob’s Creek and some Ferrero Rocher, presumably), and can be seen chowing down on fish (and the odd pigeon) by the park’s central lake.
- The Mall/Birdcage Walk/Horse Guards Parade, SW1A 2BJ
Londoners’ nostrils have a pretty hard time of it, what with the traffic, the bin lorries and the lack of public loos. On balance, though, we really can’t complain, especially considering that we’ve got free and unticketed access to one of the country’s largest collection of roses in Regent’s Park. Queen Mary’s Gardens are home to around 12,000 roses of more than 85 varieties, including the unique Royal Parks rose. The fragrance is fantastic throughout the year, but visit in early June to see the blooms at their best.
- Chester Rd, NW1 4NR
Every summer, Hyde Park’s Serpentine Gallery invites a different so-hot-right-now architect to design a temporary outdoor space for visitors to lounge around in. Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Ai Weiwei are among the more famous names to contribute work, which often makes the increasingly amorphous architecture of the city’s financial centre look like reserved office blocks by comparison. Perhaps in tribute to the surrounding parkland, Chilean architect Smiljan Radić’s contribution (pictured) for 2014 looks like a massive pebble.
- Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, W2 3XA
Fans of fairytales and folk art would do well to seek out this one-of-a-kind tree stump, located next to the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground. Nearly a millennium old, the stump has elves, fairies and other diminutive characters carved and painted on its surface. In the late ’90s, famous fan of the oak Spike Milligan raised funds for its restoration, which saw it secure Grade II-listed status. There can surely be few garden gnomes that command such respect.
- W2 2UH
Sir John Soane’s Museum in Holborn takes its name from the architect whose sprawling art collection it houses (he built the Bank of England, so wasn’t short of a few bob). Among the museum’s biggest crowd-pullers is a series by fellow Londoner William Hogarth entitled ‘A Rake’s Progress’, which, in eight scenes, charts the downfall of a young man who inherits and squanders a fortune.
- 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP
A postcard-worthy view of the city’s skyline isn’t the only reason to visit Primrose Hill – it’s surrounded by posh cafés and frequented by some of London’s friendliest dog walkers, making this well-kept annex of Regent’s Park a great place to people-watch. When the sun goes down, though, it really is all about that view, so pack a picnic, set your camera to ‘panorama’ and play ‘spot the landmark’ as London is bathed in an awesome orange ligh.
- Primrose Hill Rd, NW1 3NA
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