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 things to do here, you should never get bored. Here are the 20 best free things to do in London.
1. Gawp at the masterpieces in the National Gallery
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. More than six million people visit every year, but you can avoid the hordes by visiting on weekday mornings or Friday evenings. The permanent collections are always free, with numerous free tours available daily.
Planning Tip: Visit the National Gallery on a Friday, when you can wander the galleries after hours until 9pm.
2. Get lost among the British Museum's artifacts and antiquities
The British Museum is one of London's top attractions – and it costs nothing to enter. Bursting at the seams with enthralling (and occasionally controversial) artifacts from all over the world, visitors are treated to everything from Egyptian mummies to samurai armor via 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. Check out great contemporary art at Tate Modern
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. Its permanent collection includes works by Pollock, Warhol, Matisse and Picasso. While you'll need to pay for its one-off exhibitions, the vast majority of its art is free to see. Book ahead for the free tours available throughout the week.
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.
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4. Picnic at Greenwich Park
London brims with incredible parks, but head to the top of the hill in the center of Greenwich Park, and you’ll be treated to a spectacular free view of the city: the 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.
7. Seek out the statues and the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens
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, one of the best times to go to London, bring a bathing suit for a dip in the Serpentine Lido. This popular public swimming area in the small lake between Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park is one of the best places to take a dip in London.
8. 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.
9. Nab the free food 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. Keep an eye out for free samples.
Planning Tip: Try to visit the market from Monday to Thursday as it gets busy on Fridays and Saturdays. For a Sunday snack, try Maltby Street Market, a much smaller string of food stalls around a mile to the east.
10. Go face-to-face with history at the National Portrait Gallery
Reopening on June 23, 2023, the National Portrait Gallery is where the British came to put a face to the names of famous figures from the country's history before Google or Wikipedia. As such, the paintings are prized more for their subjects rather than their artists. Highlights include portraits of William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth II, the latter courtesy of pop art sensation Andy Warhol.
11. Fly through 5 billion years of history at the Natural History Museum
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. 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.
12. Appreciate 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.
13. Nab a spot at the Sky Garden (probably London's best free viewpoint)
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 the Sky Garden sell out quickly. They're available to book up to three weeks in advance.
14. 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.
15. Entertain the kids at the Science Museum
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.
16. Browse the stalls at Portobello Road Market
Located in the heart of charming Notting Hill – one of London's best neighborhoods – 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 market vendors don't accept credit cards.
17. Explore the treasure trove of curiosities at Sir John Soane's Museum
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.
18. Get all aristocratic at the 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.
19. Swim at Hampstead Heath
This enormous, ancient 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.