There’s an old saying about London that most brand new expats know: “The city costs you ten quid before you even step out the door”.
After living there for a while, though, you start to see that London actually has a lot of free activities. Loads in fact. From museums to parks and fascinating street walks, London has plenty to offer families travelling on a budget.
Here’s eight of the best things to do in London for free (or really really cheap).
London has some of the best museums in the world. And many are actually free.
The British Museum, home to the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles, is free to visit and has free daily workshops for kids of all ages. Children also get free entry in the exhibitions. The museum is home to more than 4 million artifacts so you can spend an entire day here. Kids will love the Ancient Egypt exhibition. Mummies. Need we say more?
The Natural History Museum is a must for animal-lovers. In 2006, the museum acquired the largest collection of works by and about Charles Darwin in existence. The Darwin collection is a fascinating insight into evolutionary biology. Australians visiting the museum should also check out the huge collection of First Fleet artworks and artifacts from Captain James Cook’s voyages.
The head of Australian Indigenous warrior Pemulway is also thought to have been lost in the museum at some point. Pemulway led a war of resistance against British settlers in the Sydney area for more than a decade until he was eventually caught and shot in 1802. After his death, Pemulway’s head was bottled and sent to Sir Joseph Banks at the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1948 the museum acquired the surgeon’s collection of 3000 skulls. But to this day, no one is sure if any of them are the Australian Indigenous warrior.
The Science Museum offers a chance to explore the world of mathematics, science and engineering. Check out the Winston Gallery if your children need convincing of the need to study maths. Until 2019 the museum also has a fascinating, and relavanet exhibition on the rise of superbugs. Or head to the IMAX theatre to experience our planet as seen from the International Space Station.
The Victoria and Albert Museum is the place for families who love design. V&A houses everything from glass work to opulent art-deco design panels, furniture, architecture, jewelery and fashion.
London, on a clear day is simply magical. In summer you will find most locals head to the park, with small charcoal barbecues, a bunch of beers, a soccer ball and a frisbee. This fun local activity is totally free.
There are plenty of parks to explore in London. In the north, Hampstead Heath offers the chance to see real woodland and swim in the lagoons – or the outdoor swimming pool (a rare find in London). Primrose Hill may be small, but it has sensational views over the city and it’s a great place to fly a kite.
At Hyde Park, near Kensington Gardens, kids will love to splash in the Princess Diana memorial water feature. Trust us, adults are splashing too.
St James Park, Green Park and Buckingham Palace Gardens are stunning places to rest in the city.
In just about every suburb, you’ll find a wonderful little park. It would take years to discover all of them. And it won’t cost you a cent.
Trawling London’s markets is totally free, unless you buy something. For antiques (or nearly, sort-of-antiques) head to the famous Portobello Road market in Notting Hill. The market is open every day but the main markets with the antiques are on Friday and Saturday.
Spittlefields market in East London is home to artists, creatives. Expect to find great unique fashion, leather goods, jewelery and crafts. Work your way through the stalls then head on over to Brick Lane for a chai latte or Bangladeshi feast.
Borough Market on SouthBank is the place to go for delicious fresh produce. Everything from fresh meat, to cheese-makers, fruit and vegetables can be found here. Our great tip for winter? Try the hot apple juice.
Camden market is a teenager’s dream grown out the British punk culture. Expect everything from vintage, original fashion, to collectible action figures and workshops in poster-making.
4. Take a walk along Southbank
The walk along Southbank from Tower Bridge to Westminster Bridge is a must-do for any visitor to London. It offers views of the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye.
In between you will find Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, hip hotels, the incredible Tate Modern (more on that later), great cafes and restaurants, the Borough Markets and the National Theatre.
If you have time, and the energy in your legs, you can head over Westminter Bridge to the Houses of Parliament and towards Buckingham Palace. Or cross over at Waterloo and head into quirky Covent Garden.
5. Play Monopoly in real life
When you look at a map of London, it’s hard not to think of the names on a Monopoly board – Pall Mall, Park Lane, Mayfair, The Angel Islington, Bond Street, Oxford Street, Piccadilly, Coventry.. The list goes on. A great way to see London with kids is to take a game of Monopoly with you – and tick off the places that you see in real life. Each place has a unique character and it’s free and easy to explore the street life.
6. Check the time in Greenwich
The home of the Prime Meridian Line, Greenwich in London is where time begins. Or at least where is is measured from. Everywhere else in the world is plus or minus Greenwich mean time.
At the Royal Observatory in Greenwich you can stand with a foot in both the “East” and “West” Hemispheres of the world. Admission to the Royal Observatory’s Astronomy Centre which houses three state-of-the-art modern astronomy galleries is free. But you will have to pay if you want to see the planetarium, Flamsteed House, the Time Galleries, the Meridian Line Courtyard and the Meridian Building. But it’s not that much. It’s $9 for children and $17 for adults.
Greenwich also has a proud maritime history and you can tour the Cutty Sark and the Old Royal Naval College.
7. Inspiring galleries
London’s art galleries contain some of the world’s most incredible artworks.
The first pick for families would have to be the Tate Modern on Southbank. The Tate Modern is free, the cloakroom has free stroller parking, they have baby-changing facilities and free family visitor hosts in school holidays.
Built in a former power plant along the banks of the Thames, the Tate’s cavernous Turbine Hall usually hosts a mind-bending sculpture or interpretive artwork.
Kids will love sketching their own works of art at the Drawing bar in the Boiler House. Once your work of art is complete it will immediately be projected onto the wall.
The Boiler House also hosts the Start Display – an art display room curated to encourage young guests to stop and think about art, how it make them feel and why the artists has made certain choices in their work.
If you head up to the cafe you’ll also have an amazing view over London. It’s worth the cost of the coffee.
The Tate Britain has exhibitions from the Impressionists, Picasso, Virginia Wolf and more. It is the premiere gallery for British artists. There’s plenty to do for kids in this free gallery. They can make a robot, attempt a Picasso drawing or try their hand at animation. Admission is free.
The National Gallery in London is the place to see the works of European masters, many of whom teenagers would have studied in art class. Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillere – all major traditions of Western European painting from the late medieval period to the Renaissance are here. Admission is free.
The National Portrait gallery contains 11,000 portraits in paintings, drawings, miniatures and sculpture and more than 240,000 photographs and negatives. This one is best for teenagers and lovers of art. Admission is free.
8. Search for street art
Teenagers in particular will love London’s cool street art. It makes for great Instagram backgrounds.
Our favourite has to be Ben Wilson. He turns discarded pieces of chewing gum into works of art. His artworks are so tiny that you may miss them. The best place to spot his work is on Millenium Bridge – there’s up to 400 of them here.
London is also famous for memorial street art. Pop culture shrines can be found all over the city. You can celebrate the life of Amy Winehouse in Camden by admiring artworks from Pegasus, Bambii and Icarus. In Brixton a stunning memorial dedicated to David Bowie is constantly surrounded by flowers and tributes. In Shoreditch there’s a tribute to George Michael and you’ll find a stunning tribute to Prince in Turnpike Lane.
Keep a look out around the city for the work of ROA – the artist who created The Crane in Brick Lane. ROA’s trademark black and white animals can be found all over the world.
Street artist Space Invader is another one to look out for. Space Invaders’ pixelated computer game characters invite players to collect points by finding his hidden artworks.
If you’re walking around the canals – keep a look out for artworks by Jonesy. His art sells for thousands of dollars and features in galleries around the world – but in East London you can find dozens of them for free. You will just have to make sure you look up. Many have been spotted on top of posts.
Of course, there’s always the mysterious artist Banksy. Bansky has dozens of artworks around London. The tiny rat can be found where Tooley Street meets the underpass at London Bridge. The Graffiti Area policeman walking a poodle can be found on Rivington Street in Shoreditch. Banksy’s falling shopper – Shop till you drop – can be found on Bruton Street in Mayfair.
Travel allows you to get outside your bubble. It makes you realise there are other ways to do things, and that’s OK. Plus, I am a huge fan of skiing and for the best powder – you need to head overseas.