20 best free things to do in London

What can you do in London with no money? Surprisingly, quite a lot.

In addition to world-class museums – almost all of which have free admission – the city is home to beautiful parks, buzzing markets, stunning churches and phenomenal viewpoints. In fact, there are so many top attractions you should never get bored. Here are just 20 of the hundreds of free things to do in London.

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1. Stand in awe before the National Gallery’s masterpieces

Housing masterpieces by painters including van Gogh, Renoir, da Vinci and Michelangelo, the National Gallery is home to one of the world’s most impressive art collections and sees over six million visitors every year. Avoid the hordes by visiting on weekday mornings or Friday evenings. Whatever time you go, the permanent collections are always free.

Planning tip: Visit the National Gallery on a Friday, when you can wander the galleries after hours until 9pm.

2. Get lost at the British Museum

The British Museum is one of London’s top attractions and is absolutely free. It is bursting at the seas with enthralling (and occasionally controversial) artifacts from all over the world, from Egyptian mummies to samurai armor and Anglo-Saxon burial treasures to the Rosetta Stone. Remarkably, the 80,000 objects on display at any one time only make up 1% of the eight million objects in the museum’s possession.

3. Tate Modern provides food for thought

Located in what was once Bankside Power Station on the south bank of the Thames, Tate Modern is one of the city’s most loved attractions. You can enjoy the permanent collection, which includes works by Pollock, Warhol, Matisse and Picasso, for free. If museums and galleries are on your itinerary, winter might be the best time to go to London to explore them all.

Planning tip: For optimal museum hopping, you can ride the RB2 riverboat from Bankside Pier next to Tate Modern to its sister museum, Tate Britain, via Millbank Pier.

4. Picnic at Greenwich Park

Head to the top of the hill in the center of Greenwich Park, and you’ll be treated to a free view of the city: the spectacular skyscrapers of Canary Wharf loom up behind the 17th-century Queen’s House, and beyond, the Thames snakes its way into the heart of London. It’s a perfect spot for a picnic in the capital on a summer’s day.

5. Snap a picture of the Houses of Parliament

Home to the world’s most famous clock, Big Ben (officially the Queen Elizabeth Tower, but no one calls it that), the Houses of Parliament is a neo-Gothic wonder built in the mid-19th century. It’s a quintessential London sight, and UK residents are eligible for a free guided tour of the UK Parliament, while the rest of us can make do with an online one or pay £28.

Planning tip: Visitors may attend debates when Parliament is in session, but expect long waiting times. The best and busiest time to go is during the Prime Minister’s Question Time at noon on Wednesdays, though this is only offered to UK residents. Anyone may attend other debates free of charge.

6. Explore East London’s incredible street art

The ephemeral nature of street art makes it difficult to confidently say where you might find specific displays at any one time. However, certain areas of East London, notably Shoreditch, are famous for having particularly impressive graffiti. The side streets around Brick Lane always yield some decent artwork, as do Middlesex and Sclater streets.

Keep an eye out for free tasters in London’s Borough Market © Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB / Shutterstock

7. Nab the free samples at Borough Market

Having celebrated its 1000th birthday in 2014, it’s fair to say Borough Market is one of London’s more established haunts. Located under a maze of Victorian railway arches and open Monday to Saturday, Borough Market is stuffed with lovely food and food lovers, featuring cuisine from all corners of the world. It offers everything you need for a memorable grab-and-go breakfast or lunch but is also a good place for a simple wander (keeping an eye out for free samples).

Planning tip: Avoid the weekend crowds (especially on Fridays and Saturdays) and stroll through the market on a weekday. It’s open every day except Sunday with varied hours.

8. Go to the Museum of London to understand the city better

Off the radar to most visitors, yet one of the city’s great attractions, the Museum of London provides a walk through London’s various incarnations – from the geological history of the Thames Valley to the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants to modern-day bankers.

9. Kensington Gardens is full of delights

The delightful Kensington Gardens are home to a trove of treasures, including the Albert Memorial, the Peter Pan Statue, the Serpentine Gallery, the Round Pond and the Diana Memorial Playground. All are free to admire or visit, and when you’re done with the sights, you can wander along the tree-lined paths which crisscross the whole park. East and north of here is a string of Royal Parks, all free to enter: Regent’s Park, Hyde Park, Green Park and St James’s Park.

Planning tip: If you’re visiting between May and September, bring a bathing suit for a dip in the Serpentine Lido, London’s most popular public swimming area in the small lake between Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park.

10. Witness the Changing of the Guard

One of the best ceremonies in the city takes place every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 11am outside Buckingham Palace (and every day in the summer). Dressed in bearskin hats and red tunics, the King’s Guard will stomp around in time to music in a display of awesome pageantry as they switch responsibilities with one another.

Planning tip: If you miss the ceremony at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle also has its own Changing of the Guard.

11. Go face-to-face with National Portrait Gallery

Essential building works have closed the National Portrait Gallery until spring of 2023, but before Google or Wikipedia, this is where the British came to put a face to the names of famous historical figures from the country’s history. As such, the paintings are prized more for their subjects rather than their artists. Highlights include portraits of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth II, the latter courtesy of pop art sensation Andy Warhol.

Blue whale skeleton in the main hall of the Natural History Museum of London.
The Natural History Museum’s magnificent entrance hall © elRoce / Shutterstock

12. Natural History Museum will surprise and delight

Those Victorians sure liked to collect and catalog. This is one of the most compelling results: the Natural History Museum owns an outrageously large collection (around 80 million items) of all things nature in a lovely Gothic Revival building, which opened in the late 19th century. The main hall is dominated by an enormous blue whale skeleton; the wildlife garden is worth a visit too.

13. Appreciate the beauty within the Victoria & Albert Museum

Arguably the world’s best decorative arts museum, the V&A, as it’s generally known, has been open since 1852 and contains an incredible 4.5 million items. The first floor focuses on Asian (Japanese swords, ancient Chinese ceramics) and some European art, including plaster casts made from Michelangelo’s David (note the fig leaf created in the 19th century to protect the sensibilities of Victorian visitors). The Ardabil Carpet in the Middle East-focused Jameel Gallery is the world’s oldest, dating from Iran in the 1500s.

People enjoying the spectacular Sky Garden and bar situated on the top floor of 20 Fenchurch Street skyscraper.
Book the Sky Garden in advance for one of the best free views over London © DrimaFilm / Shutterstock

14. Sky Garden is (probably) the viewpoint in the city

Offering perhaps the best free vantage point in Central London, the indoor viewing decks and restaurants occupying the top three floors of 20 Fenchurch Street (known to locals as the “walkie-talkie”) are a great place to hang out without spending a penny. It is open daily; just book your free visit in advance.

Planning tip: Tickets for this breathtaking attraction sell out quickly, so don’t delay. They’re available on a weekly basis up to three weeks in advance.

15. Find out why St Paul’s Church is called the Actor’s Church

Not to be confused with St Paul’s Cathedral (a big attraction that comes with a ticket price), this church on the western flank of Covent Garden Piazza is also known as the Actor’s Church. The first Punch and Judy show took place here in 1662, and there are memorials to Charlie Chaplin and Vivien Leigh.

16. Browse the stalls at Portobello Road Market

Located in the heart of charming Notting Hill – one of London’s best neighborhoods to explore – atmospheric and energetic Portobello Road Market sells everything from vintage clothes and sumptuous street food to antiques. It’s busiest on Saturdays, but there’s always something going on (except Sundays, when only shops rather than stalls are open).

Planning tip: Bring cash, as some vendors at this market don’t accept credit cards.

Portobello Road, London
Follow the buzz at Portobello Road © giorgiogalano / Getty Images

17. Science Museum is great for small and big kids alike

The highly informative and entertaining Science Museum fills five floors with interactive exhibits. The Energy Hall highlights the first steam locomotives, which date from the early 19th century, while the third-floor exhibits, which include old gliders, hot-air balloons and flight simulators, are popular with kids.

Planning tip: If you’re traveling with young children, kids under five can enjoy the fun-filled basement and the Garden on Level 1, which includes a play zone and water-play area.

18. Sir John Soane’s Museum is a treasure trove of curiosities

Housed within the actual home of the prolific Regency architect Sir John Soane, this museum is full of the man’s personal effects and curiosities, creating one of London’s most atmospheric and fascinating sights. The house is largely as Soane left it upon his death in 1837, with Christopher Wren drawings and a lantern room.

A wild swimming women's group take an autumnal swim at Hampstead Heath ponds.
Head to Hampstead Heath for city views and a very cheap swim © Hollie Fernando / Getty Images

19. Swim at Hampstead Heath

This enormous, parkland is one of the best places to escape the city while simultaneously catching a fantastic view of it: the vista from Parliament Hill, which forms the southeast part of Hampstead Heath, is so impressive it’s actually protected by law. Elsewhere in the park, you’ll find a zoo, three swimming ponds (nominal charge, which is often ignored) and plenty of quiet spots for a back-to-nature-in-the-heart-of-London picnic.

Planning tip: Pond hours vary by season, generally staying open from 7am-2:45pm in the winter and until 8:45pm in the summer. The mixed-gender pond closes in the winter.

20. Get aristocratic at Wallace Collection

One of London’s best small galleries, hidden away just north of Oxford Street, the Wallace Collection is an enthralling glimpse into 18th-century Aristocratic life, set up in a lavishly restored Italianate mansion stuffed with 17th and 18th-century art.

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