Photograph by John Harper, Corbis
From David Bowie and Beckham to Charles Darwin and Dickens, London has captured the world with legendary figures since its founding in the first century A.D. But it's not only the city's celebrities rising to the top—the British pound is rising, too. Don't get knackered looking for cheap deals across the pond—London has heaps of free museums, attractions, and activities to delight all types of travelers, from posh, to business, to budget.
Housed in an 1897 building (originally a library), the Camden Arts Centre has been featuring works from famous and aspiring contemporary artists since the 1960s (with a face-lift in 2004), all of which you can see for free. On Wednesday nights the galleries are open until 9 p.m.
The free Chisenhale Gallery has 2,500 square feet of contemporary art space, and features four or five artists' exhibitions each year. Past works on display include those by Emma Kay, Nick Crowe, and Dan Perfect.
Explore the 18th-century Hogarth's House on Great West Road in London. Painter and satirist William Hogarth (1697-1764) lived in this house from 1749 until his death 15 years later. The house is now a free museum and features the most extensive permanent collection of his prints. One of his most famous prints, Gin Lane (1751), hangs here along with The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751). Although the House is currently closed, it will re-open in early spring 2009.
It's impossible to see all 330,000 pieces at the National Portrait Gallery at one time, but the museum's free admission is a good excuse to go back again and again. See classic portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, 207 portraits of Queen Victoria, 38 portraits of Paul McCartney, and 44 portraits of Diana, Princess of Wales.
The Tate Britain houses British works from 1500 to the present. Admire works by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), William Blake (1757-1827), George Mason (1818-1872), and Francis Bacon (1909-1992). Best of all, visitors can see them all for free. Check out "Late at Tate" on the first Friday of every month, when the gallery is open until 10 p.m. (free), and admission to special exhibitions is half price. Plus, peruse the Tate Modern's free collection of world-class contemporary masterpieces—including works by Picasso, Matisse, Dalí, Miro, Pollock, and Warhol.
Explore over 3,000 years of art and design at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Check out the museum's historical fashion collection, dollhouses from the 16th century, 2,000-year-old textiles, and over 500,000 photographs. The V&A is free and open every day, and stays open late (10 p.m.) on Friday nights.
The 314-year-old Bank of England has its own free museum of artifacts collected over the past three centuries, from old typewriters and calculators to caricatures and portraits of governors, and a life-size statue of William III. Kids will enjoy the interactive foreign-exchange desk.
Since first opening on January 15, 1759, with 71,000 objects collected by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), the British Museum has only closed its doors twice (during the two World Wars) in almost 250 years. Today the museum houses thousands of artifacts, from ancient Mesopotamian jewelry to Chinese jade from
Don't miss the Ceremony of the Keys, a 700-year-old tradition in the Tower of London. Every evening, the Chief Yeoman Warner locks the main gate to the tower and brings the keys to the Resident Governor. Plan ahead: Tickets are free but should be booked at least two months in advance. Apply for tickets by writing to the Tower of London (see website for specific instructions).
The crowd-pleasing Changing the Guard has been a British tradition since Henry VII (1485-1509). The handover is accompanied by music as the red-tunic-and-bearskin-hat-clad guards change shifts around Buckingham Palace. Best of all, visitors and passersby can watch at no charge. See the Guard Mounting at 11:30 a.m. daily May-July, and on alternating days August-April. To avoid the crowds at Buckingham Palace, see the Changing the Guard at Horse Guards Arch on Horse Guards Parade (11 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. on Sundays) or at Windsor Castle (11 a.m. Monday-Saturday April-July, and on alternate days, except Sunday, the rest of the year).
Pick up some decorating tips from the free Geffrye Museum, which exhibits English interior decor from 1600 to the present. Discover how rooms were decorated with different textiles, furniture, and paintings. Don't miss rare items like the oldest piece of English furniture to bear a trade label, the Christmas archive, and outside period gardens.
Go to the Gunnersbury Park Museum for a unique collection of archaeological artifacts from the boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow. The collection includes Roman pottery and medieval Penn tiles, as well as pharmaceutical glass and Chinese armorial porcelain donated to the gallery. The museum is open weekday afternoons, and is free to the public.
Learn about Britain's involvement in war at the Imperial War Museum on Lambeth Road. Highlights include permanent exhibits on the Holocaust, World War I, and World War II. Check out the Secret War exhibition, which details the Special Operations Executive and secret government agencies MI5 and MI6 from pre-World War I to the present (think invisible ink used by German spies, codebooks, and secret radios). Admission to the permanent exhibitions is free.
The free Museum of London has artifacts from prehistory (Bronze and Iron Age metalwork), to Roman and Medieval London, to today. Check out the museum's extensive fashion collection dating from 1700, which includes occupational and royal garments—civil and ceremonial uniforms of the church and court to the royal clothing of Charles I.
The University College London's Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology has 80,000 artifacts detailing Egyptian history from prehistory to the time of the pharaohs through the Islamic period. Notable pieces include one of the earliest linens (5000 B.C.), a fragment of the first calendar (2900 B.C.), and a dancer's bead-net dress from the Pyramid Age (2400 B.C.). The museum is free and moves to a new home (the Panopticon) in 2008.
The Pump House Gallery in Battersea Park is a contemporary art space with rotating exhibitions featuring artists like Dallas Seitz, Ben Cook, and Dutch photographer Hellen van Meene. The gallery is free and is open Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday, and bank holidays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
One of the biggest (and free!) collections of aircraft in the world is at the Royal Air Force Museum. Check out bombers from World War I in Bomber Hall, test the interactive Air Traffic Control exhibit and Aeronauts Interactive Centre, and discover what it feels like to fly in the Eurofighter motion simulator.
The home of London architect Sir John Soane has more than just a history of his work. Sir John collected hundreds of artifacts from ancient Egypt to the Renaissance to imperial China. His vast collection includes a sarcophagus of Seti I, a set of Pompeii bronzes, a 13th-century wooden patera from the Painted Chamber at the Palace of Westminster, and a Chinese painted scroll from 1721. This free museum is very popular (with waits up to an hour to get in), so try to visit early on a weekday.
If you can plan ahead, check out the BBC and apply for free tickets to tapings of radio (Hear and Now, BBC Symphony Orchestra) and television (Coming of Age, Strictly Come Dancing) shows.
Non-coulrophobias will take pleasure in the Clowns Museum, opened by Clowns International in the 1960s. The small, free, private museum has costumes, props, and a host of clown-related paraphernalia, including a large collection of eggs painted with the make-up design of famous clowns. Only open on the first Friday of every month.
See over 7,000 musical instruments and 250,000 natural history specimens at the free Horniman Museum. Visit the museum's aquarium, one of the oldest surviving aquariums in London, and on sunny days take a walk in the museum's 16 acres of gardens.
Sample London life at one of the city's 70 markets, all of which can be browsed at no cost. Petticoat Lane market has been in operation since the 1750s, and is one of London's most famous markets. Don't miss the antiques market at Portobello Road on Saturdays, or the Piccadilly Crafts Market in front of St. James Church.
Learn about Tudor life at Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge in Epping Forest, built for Henry VIII in 1543. The three floors exhibit Tudor cookware, carpentry, and costumes (kids can even play dress-up with Tudor clothing). Free to the public. Call ( 44 20 8529 6681) for special events like historical re-enactments and themed-craft afternoons on the first Saturday of the month. The lodge is a five-minute walk from the Underground's Chingford Station.
Overseas visitors can catch a debate and question time in both houses of the U.K. Parliament. Free tickets are given to U.K. residents to see the House of Commons, but overseas visitors can wait in line (up to two hours outside the St. Stephen's entrance) to be admitted for free if there is space available during the "summer opening." The Commons has a very lively Prime Minister's Question Time that is well worth the wait (especially to political enthusiasts and to those wanting to hear some of the best British profanities).
Wandsworth High Street has been a main London thoroughfare for over 500 years. At no cost, visitors can learn about Wandsworth Town on two 30-minute cultural heritage walks. The town center walk includes a stop at a 1908 cinema (the oldest in London) and the oldest brewery in Britain: Young's Brewery opened in the 16th century and continued brewing beer until 2006.
Enjoy two-for-one cocktails and free admission at Nectar Bar and Club Sunday-Thursday. DJs play a mix of tunes each night, (from "Just Chillin'" Wednesday nights to samba funk on Thursdays) while guests wine and dine off the Italian menu.
London-Eating.co.uk has the latest restaurant listings and up-to-date offers (two for one, 50% off, £15 or less, free drinks) on restaurants all around London, so be sure to check out the website for the most up-to-date dining deals.
You can find up-to-date-food and drink specials at Top Table.
When the weather is nice, pack a picnic and take the kids to Aldenham Country Park in Hertfordshire. The 175-acre (71-hectare) woodland has playgrounds, a toddler area, and a small livestock farm, but the highlight of the park is Winnie the Pooh's "100 Aker Wood," complete with all the homes of Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Christopher Robin, and of course, Winnie the Pooh. Admission to the entire park is free (there is a small parking fee, but the park is accessible via public transit).
The free Bromley Museum has temporary and permanent exhibits showcasing area history. Learn about Bromley-born author H.G. Wells and archaeologist Sir John Lubbock, the first Lord Avebury. Kids won't want to miss the "Your Place!" exhibit (the museum's most popular), which has activities, books, games, and clothes from the 1950s to today.
Near the British Museum and Russell Square Underground station, family-friendly Coram's Fields has picnic areas, a wading pool, sports fields, a pet's corner (with ducks, sheep, and goats), and many organized activities for kids. Admission is free, and no adult can enter the park without a child (ensuring that the park really is a place for families).
The Cuming Museum celebrates culture and history through a variety of artifacts from around the world (a Hawaiian feather cape from Captain Cook's explorations, an Egyptian mummy mask from 400-300 B.C.), collected in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Cuming family. The museum first opened in 1906, and has three galleries (with plenty of hands-on activities for kids), all of which have free admission.
Attached to Hampstead Heath is Golders Hill Park, a free park with lots to offer. Enjoy lunch at the park's café or pack a picnic. Adults can bring tennis rackets and have a match on the courts, but the kids will enjoy the small animal enclosure, with wallabies, flamingos, goats, and deer.
Near Queen Elizabeth Hospital is a free haven for parents with animal-loving children. Hackney City Farm has larger farm animals like calves, sheep, goats, donkeys, and pigs, but also small animals like rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, ducks, and chickens. The farm's Frizzante café was voted Best Family Restaurant in 2004 by Time Out London.
Kids under 16 get in free (with paying adult) to the Kew Bridge Steam Museum, which houses the world's largest collection of steam engines and chronicles London's water usage over the past 200 years. Take the kids for a ride on the Waterworks Railway (Sundays, March-November), and don't miss the chance to hunt for wildlife with a radio-controlled sewer robot and scope for treasure like a sewer "tosher" (scavenger).
Developed to promote creativity and learning of cultures, the London International Gallery of Children's Art is a must-see for travelers with children. The gallery highlights children's work from around the world, and even has workshops and courses for kids to make their own art. The gallery is free, and is open Tuesday-Thursday (4 p.m. to 6 p.m.), and Friday-Sunday (noon to 6 p.m.).
Just outside London is Spitalfields City Farm, a free community farm where kids can enjoy petting a donkey, sheep, goats, and a pony. The farm's volunteers provide educational activities for kids, and teach them where milk and eggs come from, as well as how to take care of the animals.
Established in the mid-19th century, 200-acre Battersea Park is home to a lake, sporting facilities, riverside promenade, fountains, and the Battersea Park Children's Zoo. Don't miss the large main fountain, which operates from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March-November, and the crystal fountain, which operates on the hour for 15 minutes. The park is free, but there is a fee for the Children's Zoo.
Used as hunting grounds by Henry VIII in 1536, the free 350-acre Hyde Park now has a playground, sports facilities, and the Lookout, an education center where kids can learn about nature. Be sure to stop at the Diana Memorial Fountain, erected in 2004. The design of the fountain reflects the Princess of Wales's life: The fountain's water flows in two directions before it meets a calm pool.
On a sunny day, stop by the 18th-century Kenwood House by Hampstead Heath. The house served as Lord Mansfield's home during the 18th century, and its lavish gardens are worth a visit. While there is a fee to take the guided tour, exploring the house and grounds on your own is free. Pathways wind through butterfly gardens, and the site's woods are home to ancient trees, woodpeckers, and rare species of insects.
The Romans built the London Wall around their port town of Londinium when they occupied Britannia from A.D. 50 to 410. Parts of the wall are still standing and can be seen (at no cost) near the Museum of London, Tower Hill, and Barbican Estate.
Wandsworth Common is a 175-acre park with a lake, tennis courts, lawn bowling, sports pitches, and a children's playground. A fee is required to fish in the lake, but the rest of the park is free to visit.
Explore 1,140 acres of Wimbledon and Putney Commons, a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) home to dozens of species of flora and fauna. Explore the park's nine lakes and ponds and an archaeological site dating to the Paleolithic age ("Caesar's Camp"). The 1817 windmill and museum (admission ₤1), includes an extensive woodworking tool collection. Admission to the commons is free.
Ride the Tube to Oxford Circus / Piccadilly Circus for some free authentic rhythm and blues. Ain't Nothin' But . . . the Blues Bar has free admission to its club Sunday-Wednesday, Thursday (before 9:30 p.m.), and Friday-Saturday (before 8:30 p.m.). Check out the "blues jams" on Sundays, and the open mic sessions on Saturday afternoons.
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama has a wide range of free music concerts available to the public. From percussion and jazz groups to chamber music and opera ensembles, the extensive list of events is sure to please any budget traveler.
Parisian chic meets country at Jerusalem on Rathbone Place. Downstairs is a dark, gothic pub where music pumps nightly, and comes complete with a "Dress-Up Booth" with costumes for themed nights. Admission is free on Thursdays, when DJs spin from 9 p.m., and on Fridays and Saturdays before 10 p.m.
The Scoop is an 800-seat sunken amphitheater at More London that hosts free theater, concerts, and film screenings in the summer.
St Martin-in-the-Fields, a church (with English- and Chinese-speaking congregations) in Trafalgar Square, has free lunchtime concerts (doors open at 12:30 p.m.) featuring a variety of local classical music performers (Beethoven Piano Society of Europe, Royal College of Music, guitar trios, and saxophone quartets). Perfect for a relaxing, rainy afternoon. Donations are accepted.
Theatre Royal offers free nightly entertainment in its Theatre Royal Bar. Take the train to Stratford Station and enjoy comedy nights every Monday (8 p.m.) and the last Sunday of the month, poetry readings on the first and third Sundays (7:30 p.m.), and live music every night of the week—all for free.
For More Information
All around London, there are blue plaques commemorating famous people—from the real (Karl Marx, Charles Dickens) to the fictitious (Sherlock Holmes), who lived or worked in the building where the plaque is located. Some 700 plaques are spread throughout London, and each offers a free piece of the city's history.
Southbank Centre has lots of free events throughout the year, from outdoor installations to gallery openings to concerts. Check the website or stop by Southbank Centre (get off the Underground at Waterloo or Embankment stations) for more free events.
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