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Free (and Almost Free) in London

The exchange rate may sting, but there’s one conversion that’ll never change: £0 = $0. Here are our picks for the top free things to do in London.

Free Art

Many of London’s biggest and best cultural attractions are free to enter, and the number of museums offering free entry is staggering. Donations are often more than welcome, and special exhibits usually cost extra.

Major Museums

British Museum
Imperial War Museum
Museum of London
National Gallery
National Portrait Gallery
Natural History Museum
Science Museum
Sir John Soane’s Museum
Tate Britain
Tate Modern
Victoria & Albert Museum
Wallace Collection

Smaller Museums and Galleries

ICA Gallery
Whitechapel Art Gallery
Courtauld Permanent Exhibition (Monday only)

Free Concerts

St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Martin’s in the Fields, and St. James’s Church, have regular lunchtime concerts, as does St. George Bloomsbury on Monday, Hyde Park Chapelon Thursday, and St. Giles in the Fields on Friday. There are regular organ recitals at Westminster Abbey.

Of the music colleges, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, the Guildhall, and the Royal Opera House have regular recitals, the Trinity College of Music, holds recitals at lunchtime on Tuesday.

For contemporary ears, the area outside the National Theatre on the South Bank (known as the Djanogly Concert Pitch) reverberates to live world music weekdays at 6 PM, and on Saturday at 1 PM and 6 PM. Another regularly excellent venue is the Spitz bistro and gallery, in Spitalfields market, which has free live jazz and classical gigs four times a week; get there early to bag a table.

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(Almost) Free Theater & Opera

Sloane Square’s Royal Court Theatre, one of the United Kingdom’s best venues for new playwriting, has restricted-view, standing-room-only tickets at the downstairs Jerwood Theatre for 10 pence (yes, £0.10), available one hour before the performance.

The Battersea Arts Club (BAC) has pay-what-you-can night on Tuesday for many of its shows. If all seats have been sold, the English National Opera sells standing tickets for the back of the Dress and Upper Circles at £5 each. Check at the box office.

Standing tickets with obstructed views for the ballet or the opera at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden start at £4.

Free (and Almost Free) Movies

Free outdoor screenings of cult films (such as Donnie Darko and Pulp Fiction) have become a London summer institution: pack a picnic and stake out your spot early.

The Prince Charles Cinema in the West End shows weekday matinees for £3.

Free Offbeat Experiences

Go to the Public Record Office in Kew or Islington if you have a few hours to kill and want to track down some ancient branch of the family tree. Even if you don’t have any leads, browsing through sheaves of ancient ledgers is great fun.

If you came to London for spectacle, take a trip to a trial at the Old Bailey, the highest court in the land. Stories more twisted and compelling than anything on screen, strange costumes and wigs, command performances — it’s true drama, without the West End ticket prices.

London has some of the finest parks in the world, and enjoying them won’t cost you a pretty pence. Keen ornithologists can join free bird-watching walks in Hyde Park, while dedicated strollers touched by royal nostalgia can take the 7-mile Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Walk through Hyde, Green, and St. James’s Parks.

Although London’s street markets are not in the habit of giving away merchandise for nothing, it’s free to browse their stalls, taking in second-hand booksellers under Waterloo Bridge, fishmongers in Borough Market, and funky jewelry designers in Portobello.

For human interest, you can’t beat Covent Garden for its marvelous array of street performers and buskers, whose unlikely skills — imitating statues, balancing footballs on their noses, juggling fire, playing the banjo with their teeth — can hold any crowd’s attention.

There are free spectacles throughout the year, but one of the most warmly enjoyed is Guy Fawkes’ Night (November 5), when parks throughout the country hold spectacular fireworks displays: Alexandra Palace and Ravenscourt Park are two of the best.

On New Year’s Eve thousands of revelers descend on Trafalgar Square and the South Bank to watch more free fireworks. The Underground usually runs all night, and is free into the new year.

Finally, set aside some time for random wandering. London is a great walking city because so many of its real treasures are untouted: tiny alleyways barely visible on the map, garden squares, churchyards, shop windows, sudden vistas of skyline or park. With comfortable, weatherproof shoes and an umbrella, walking might well become your favorite free activity here.

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