Let’s face it, London prices can be shocking. So it’s a relief to discover that a lot of fun can be had in London for free, or so little you’d hardly notice. Splendid royal spectacles, historic treasures, scenic strolls, and cool places to hang out are easy to find and don’t cost anything. Here are ten of the best.
1. See the Changing of the Guard at Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall. People line up outside Buckingham Palace but cognoscenti cut through St. James’s Park to Horse Guards for a better show. Trumpets, stallions, officers in polished brass breastplates and helmets — it’s a right royal do 11 a.m. daily and 10 a.m. Sundays.
2. Harrods Food Hall is retail theatre. So what if it’s a must-do on the tourist trail? There is simply nothing else like it. Take in the opulent displays and the art nouveau décor — tiles, brass, etched, stained and Tiffany glass displays — without spending anything. Predictably, most people buy a tin of souvenir tea but you can also nosh on sushi or Crispy Creme donuts.
3. Fly a kite in Richmond Park. It was a Tudor deer park and it’s still home to the Queen’s herds of red and fallow deer. The rolling hills, woodlands, and open meadows are just an Underground ride away from the West End. In the spring, one of the world’s best collections of azaleas and gigantic rhododendrons burst into bloom in the Isabella Plantation, at the center of the park. And just outside, the park gates, you can gaze at the view from Richmond Hill.
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4. Watch street theatre where it was invented. St. Paul’s Covent Garden, designed by Inigo Jones, is known as The Actors’ Church, because of its connection with London’s theatrical community. In May 1662, diarist Samuel Pepys, best known for his reports of the Great Fire of London, recorded the performance of an “Italian puppet play” on the church portico. It was, in fact, the first Punch & Judy show. London’s best licensed “buskers” still perform on the portico and the piazza in front of it.
5. Take in a free concert. Well-known jazz, classical, and world-music artists perform Saturdays in the National Theatre foyer, on the South Bank, around lunchtime and before theatre performances. A few doors down, in the foyer of Queen Elizabeth Hall, there are free lunchtime performances and “Commuter Jazz” most Friday afternoons at 5:15. You can also hear free lunchtime concerts of classical music most days at St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Martin’s in the Field, and St. James’s Church.
6. Cross a few bridges. Stroll south across Waterloo Bridge at dusk for a quintessentially London view — Parliament and Big Ben on your right, Somerset House, St. Paul’s and the newer glass and steel towers of the City on your left and the floodlit South Bank Centre directly ahead. Turn left and continue Thames side to Sir Norman Foster’s pedestrian Millennium Bridge. Look back over your shoulder for the best view of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
7. London has some of the finest parks in the world, and enjoying them won’t cost you a penny. 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.
8. Rub shoulders with the hoi polloi at Berwick Street Market in Soho, an old-fashioned food market in the heart of London’s media and entertainment district. There is no better place to watch the London demimonde — actors, media moguls, and advertising executives, art students, office workers, exotic dancers and members of the world’s oldest profession — mingle over punnets of strawberries and trays of wet fish.
9. Museum hop. You can get nose to nose with the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, enjoy 2000 years of glass making at the Victoria and Albert, check out five centuries of interior design at the Geffrye, or cower among the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum. All of London’s major museums are free every day.
10. Pretend you’re Mrs. Moneybags and do the gallery circuit on Cork Street. This short Mayfair avenue is lined with some of the savviest and most welcoming contemporary art dealers in London. Show enough interest and you might even be offered a glass of wine.
And Five Almost Free
1. Raise a pint of London beer in a Victorian pub. Fullers London Pride and Youngs Bitter are both local beers. Try them surrounded by circa 1890s etched glass mirrors and carved mahogany at the Argyll Arms, 18 Argyll Street, Soho, where a pint will set you back about £3.
2. Be a groundling at the Globe. In Elizabethan times, the mob joined the gentry at Shakespeare’s plays, milling about on the floor of the Globe while the upper classes sat in the covered seats. For £5 you can be a “groundling” during performances, rain or shine, during the Globe’s annual season, May through October.
3. Want to go to the opera? If you can’t nab a seat at the English National opera, the company sells standing-room tickets for the back of the Dress and Upper Circles at £5 each. Standing-room tickets with obstructed views for the ballet or opera at Royal Opera House in Covent Garden start at £4. Check box offices for details.
4. Take a ride into the future. A trip on the Docklands Light Railway, London’s newest public transportation system winds, above ground through the Docklands and some of London’s newest cityscapes. The “space age” stations match the mid-21st century look of the architecture, and all for the price of a Tube ticket.
5. Get a river view. Instead of paying top prices for the tour boats that ply the Thames, hop on one of London’s commuter boats for a completely different perspective. Schedules and lists of London piers are available at most Tube stations, or online. Fares start at £2.70.