1. Make the most of the free museums
Believe it or not, most of Britain’s museums and galleries are free to enter, a government initiative that has been in place for well over a decade with the aim to make the country’s incredible cultural offerings accessible to everyone. From discovering two million years of human history and culture at the British Museum and amazing at dinosaurs’ skeletons at the Natural History Museum, to delighting in more than 2,000 paintings from masters such as Da Vinci, Botticelli and Van Gogh at the National Gallery and musing at world-renowned modern and contemporary art at Tate Modern, some of the best museums in the world are found in London, and you could spend days marvelling at the wonders on offer… for free!
2. Browse the city’s famous markets
Whether you want to pick up a souvenir from your trip, a bunch of flowers for a friend, antiques, clothes or simply delight in some of the city’s most delicious food, hitting London’s markets is a must. For trinkets and antique bargains, plus an incredible atmosphere, don’t miss Portobello Road Market. As one of London’s oldest markets and the world’s largest antiques market, Portobello Road is high on many visitors’ lists. If antiques aren’t your thing, no worries – there’s everything from live music and delicious food, to bric-a-brac and fashion stalls at this world-famous market. Just make sure you visit on a Saturday, when the markets really come alive. For incredible food, head to Borough Market, London’s oldest market. Open Monday to Saturday, it provides a wonderful glimpse into the London market scene, with speciality stallholders, fresh produce and artisan traders all selling their wares in this pocket of South London. We could wax lyrical about London’s amazing markets, but we’ll spare you hours of reading. Instead, be sure to add Brick Lane Market, Camden Lock Market, Broadway Market, Columbia Road Market, Maltby Street Market, and Old Spitalfields Road Market to your list too.
3. Visit Platform 9¾
Harry Potter fans can live out their dreams of visiting the most famous platform in the world. Start your wizarding adventures with a photo snap under the sign of platform 9¾ in King’s Cross Station. Head to Hogwarts by avoiding the crowds; visit as early as possible and out of school holidays to skip the queues.
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4. See the Changing the Guard
For some traditional British pageantry, head to Buckingham Palace on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Sunday to see soldiers on active duty from the Foot Guards perform the ceremonious Changing the Guard, when the New Guard takes over from the Old Guard. Check times and dates on the Household Division website to ensure you don’t miss out on seeing the famous bearskin hats and red tunics of the guard. Plus, you’ll get to admire Her Majesty’s residence from the outside, which is no less spectacular than getting inside the gates.
5. Watch Tower Bridge open
One of London’s most famous landmarks and an icon on the city’s skyline is Tower Bridge. Built between 1886 and 1894, it is considered an engineering marvel. Lucky for us it’s also still a working bridge, which means visitors can witness the lifting of the bridge (where the giant moveable roadways lift up for passing ships) if timed correctly. See the website for official lift times so you can plan your visit… and the perfect photo.
6. Appreciate East London’s street art
London’s street art scene is one of the biggest in the world; political art, incredible murals, vibrant artworks spanning whole buildings – the amount of world-famous uncommissioned street art in the city is unbelievable. Anonymous artist and political activist Banksy takes a lot of the limelight with his distinctive and instantly recognisable social and political commentary stencil art, but there are plenty of other incredible artists who have graced the streets of London with their talent. Although street art can be seen all over the city, the trend-setting, culturally diverse and edgy area of Shoreditch is a great place to start your journey into London’s street art scene.
7. Watch a debate in the Houses of Parliament
The Palace of Westminster, more commonly referred to as the Houses of Parliament, is the seat of the UK government. The building is one of the most photographed in the world, and is just as jaw-dropping inside as it is on the outside. You can of course pay to do a guided tour of the Houses, but for a free and engaging way to experience this UNESCO World-Heritage site, go to the public galleries and watch a debate in action – UK residents and overseas visitors can watch debates in both Houses from the public galleries for free. Just be prepared to queue.
8. See London from above
What better way to see one of the greatest cities in the world than from the skies? London’s skyline is one of the most iconic in the world, where buildings of historic significance sit side by side with soaring, glistening skyscrapers.
A lot has changed in London since structures were not allowed to be built higher than a fireman’s ladder (around 10 levels) to ensure important landmarks, most notably St Paul’s Cathedral, were not obscured. Now the city welcomes ultra modern skyscrapers to the midst, including Renzo Piano’s world-renowned Shard and other affectionately nicknamed buildings including ‘The Cheesegrater’, ‘The Gherkin’, and ‘The Walkie-Talkie’. While heading up to the viewing deck of The Shard will set you back more than £30 for an adult, why not soak up the city views with a drink at one of the restaurants or bars in the building? But for a truly free view from the top, head to the Sky Garden, London’s highest public garden. Housed in ‘The Walkie-Talkie’ building (officially: 20 Fenchurch Street), the Sky Garden is home to landscaped gardens and observations decks offering 360 degree views of the City of London. Entry is free, but you must book a ticket in advance as spaces are limited.
9. Stroll parklands
For such a sprawling, thriving metropolis, London is incredibly green – roughly 47 per cent of Greater London is green, which tends to take many first-time visitors by surprise. Among the reported 3,000 parks, green spaces and gardens in the city, eight are designated Royal Parks, which make up 5,000 acres of impeccable green spaces free for everyone to visit, every day of the year. Row a boat in Hyde Park, spot the free-roaming deer in Richmond Park, explore the beautiful gardens of Regent’s Park, or walk the paths of Kings and Queens in St James’s Park. As well as the Royal Parks, enjoy the beauty of well-known green spaces such as Hampstead Heath with its bathing ponds, and the canals of ‘Vicky Park’ (Victoria Park) in East London.
10. Do a free walking tour
There are plenty of free walking tour companies in London, including Strawberry Tours and Free Tours by Foot, where there is no upfront cost – but you can tip what you feel you’d like to give to your tour guide at the end. These are a great way to learn more about London’s history, culture and important landmarks.
11. Visit one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries
Brompton Cemetery is one of Britain’s oldest and most distinguished garden cemeteries, and is one of the Magnificent Seven; a collection of cemeteries opened around London in the 19th century to ease overcrowding of the city’s graveyards and to create more public green space. With around 35,000 monuments, many of historical importance, it is often understood as one of the finest Victorian cemeteries in the UK. It is also the final resting place of many notable people, including Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and cricket champion John Wisden. It seems one of the nation’s most beloved authors took inspiration from the cemetery too; the names of some of Beatrix Potter’s popular characters appear to have been inspired by some of the names on the headstones. Brompton Cemetery opens 7am daily, and is free to enter.
12. Wander London’s waterways
Canals lined with pretty houseboats are perhaps not what many visitors would expect in London. Originally built in the 19th century to transport materials and goods in and out of London, today London’s canals form a secret backbone to the city. The Grand Union Canal links London to Birmingham, while Regents Canal cuts across many of London’s most popular areas and attractions. Where these two canals meet near Paddington is the pretty oasis of Little Venice, where you can sip a coffee at one of the many delightful cafés, bars and restaurants and watch the colourful houseboats smoothly pass by.
Don’t forget to pre-book your airport transfer so you can get straight to exploring rather than waiting in a taxi queue. Think of all the free stuff you’ll get to see! For more tips and tricks to exploring the capital of the United Kingdom, check-out out our 24 Hours In London and 7 Tips For Travelling To The United Kingdom blogs.