Friday, May 19, 2006

Favourite London Freebies

London may be the third most expensive city in the world but it can not be faulted for its rich offering of free entertainment. In fact, digging into this topic I am amazed at the almost limitless things to do in this town that are hugely entertaining and easy on the purse.

Let’s start with the museums: the British Museum, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Britain and Modern, the Museum of London, the Victoria and Albert, the Natural History Museum, the Wallace Collection, Sir John Soanes Museum, Kenwood House, and many, many more. I’m not much for Math, but I counted 63 museums in London that don’t charge for entry and I suspect there are more out there. Most of these places also offer free or nominal cost films, tours, concerts, lectures and workshops which make for a whole lot of free activities.

In addition to its free museums, London has some of the loveliest parks you will find in any city in the world filled with no-cost or inexpensive things to see and do. Most of the larger parks, such as Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Holland Park, Regents Park, Battersea and Richmond Park have well equipped playgrounds, lakes with boats you can rent, cafes and even historic building and art galleries. Many of the parks offer guided walks, such as the Peter Pan Walk in Kensington Gardens.

For example, yesterday, I had a fine walk through Kensington Gardens en route to the Serpentine Gallery for modern and contemporary art which until May 21 has an admission free exhibition of works by Ellsworth Kelly. The combination of the park in full spring bloom, the elegant small gallery and sparse and thought provoking artwork put a very fine spin on what had started out as a grey and grumpy day. After the Gallery, I walked home via the refurbished Albert Memorial, an amazing example of “high Victorian gothic extravaganza”. All in all, an engrossing couple of hours that cost me nothing.

As well as the great museums, libraries and parks, London has fabulous markets where you can savour the exuberant street life and many fine examples of antiques, clothing, collectibles, food, jewellery and much more. And there is the added benefit that almost everything on offer costs far less than what you find in the boring old chain stores.

London is estimated to have over 100 markets ranging from the famous and crowded Covent Garden (with loads of free entertainers hoping to be discovered) and Camden Market as well as Borough the foodies paradise and Billingsgate for fish, Bermondsey and Portobello for antiques, Columbia Road for plants and flowers, Petticoat Lane for clothes, Brick Lane for “treasures and trash” and Leadenhall for a taste of Victorian times. Napoleon thought he was insulting the English when he described them as a nation of shopkeepers unfit for fighting but I would argue that it is precisely in the markets where you come to appreciate the dynamism and diversity of this society.

London churches are also wonderful places to visit. Sadly, both St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey now feel the need to charge tourists £9 and £10 respectively, but London has many fine examples of churches dating from Norman times through to the modern era which do not charge and offer an interesting, uncrowded experience. Some of my favourite London churches include Southwark Cathedral, St Bartholomew-the-Great (you saw it in Four Weddings and a Funeral), the Brompton Oratory, All Saints Margaret Street and Temple Church which is currently under siege by Da Vinci Code groupies. Both St Giles in the Fields and St James in the West End offer free concerts and Westminster Abbey has free weekly recitals by top organists at 5:45 every Sunday. For something out of the ordinary, visitors are welcome to visit the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Temple in Neasdon, north London, the only traditional Hindu mandir outside India which Reader’s Digest once called the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

And finally, there are historic buildings and what can only be described as “one offs” that do not charge for access such as the Houses of Parliament and the Guildhall, where the Guilds who controlled London in earlier centuries met. For a more Dickinsian view of London, visitors over the age of 14 can visit the Old Bailey Criminal Court to view court sessions. Science enthusiasts can hang out at the Dana Centre and music fans can sample the nightly concerts in the Foyer of the National Theatre.

Actually, I now realise that I have only begun to scratch the surface of free things to do in London. One of the most useful resources I have found to keep tab on freebies is the website which is well organised and comprehensive. In fact, I’m now on a mission to find and report on the best value entertainment that London has to offer and to continue to do damage to London’s reputation of being unaffordable.


  1. Wonderful article. One can spend days in London just walking around and popping in and out of many of the sites you mentioned. Watching and listening to a trial in the Old Bailey, or musicians in Covent Garden, or jugglers along the street in Greenwich are fond memories that cost nothing but made my visits to London seem priceless.

  2. It sounds like you are due a return visit?