133 Free Cool Things To Do In London
Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London
Nightly ceremony to mark the locking of the Tower for the day
Tower Hill, City, London, EC3N 4AB
Tube: Tower Hill Station
Unfortunately, it does cost to visit the famous and historic Tower of London, however visitors can attend the Ceremony of the Keys, which takes place every evening in the grounds of the palace, for free. Every night the Tower of London is locked up by the Chief Warder who makes his way to the gates from the Byward Tower at exactly 9.53pm. Once all the Tower gates are locked, the Last Post is sounded by a trumpeter and the ceremony is concluded. This ceremony represents a 700-year-old tradition and lasts no more than 10 minutes. The Chief Warder represents the Yeoman Warders (more commonly known as ‘Beefeaters’) who have looked after the Tower since the 14th century. Today they perform the role of tour guide in addition to their ceremonial duties. You can’t just turn up, you need to plan this at least two (sometimes three) months in advance so this needs a bit of organisation to pull it off. To apply send two possible dates you can attend, in two or three months time, and a self-addressed envelope detailing names of attendees to: Ceremony of the Keys Office, Tower of London, London, EC3N 4AB. You can list up to six people from 1st April to 31st October, and up to fifteen from 1st November to 31st March.
Houses of Parliament
Visitors can watch parliamentary debates for free
Parliament Square, St Margaret’s Street, Westminster, London, SW1A 0AA
Tube: Westminster Station
Home to the two seats of Parliament – the Commons and the Lords – visitors are allowed free access to the Public Galleries in both Houses where they can watch debates when parliament is in session. You don’t need tickets in advance, but may have to queue (waiting times of one or two hours are usual). If you’re a UK citizen and would like to attend the popular Prime Minister’s Question Time (Weds 12 noon, when Parliament is sitting), you can apply for tickets from your MP or from a Lord. Overseas visitors and UK residents without tickets can queue, but ticket holders take priority. The building began life as the Palace of Westminster in 1042 as a royal residence under Edward the Confessor. The major structure to survive various fires, Westminster Hall was built between 1087 and 1100 and is one of the largest medieval halls in Europe with an unsupported hammerbeam roof. As well as listening to debates you can enjoy a free guided tour of the Houses of Parliament. UK residents can tour both houses for free throughout the year, but will typically have to apply to their MP or a Lord six months in advance. Overseas visitors can tour Parliament on Saturdays and during the Summer Opening when paid-for tickets can be bought.
Kenwood House (Iveagh Bequest)
A vast collection of famous paintings housed in an elegant setting
Hampstead Lane, Hampstead, London, NW3 7JR
Tube: Highgate Station
A rich collection of famous paintings are housed within the walls of this neoclassical villa perched by a lake on top of Hampstead Heath. Works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, Reynolds and Gainsborough form the property’s famous Iveagh Bequest. Handed down to the state by the house’s owner, brewing magnate Edward Cecil Guinness, admission to the house and its collection of artworks is totally free to the public. Remodelled between 1764 and 1779 by Robert Adam, Kenwood features a lavish library and elegant array of rooms which provide a fitting backdrop for this notable artistic collection. Spectacular views and woodland walks provide an equally becoming setting for the house itself. A series of outdoor music concerts take place in the grounds during the summer. While tickets to the concerts will set you back a pretty penny, you can often hear strains of music and glimpse the sparks of fireworks if you find a spot nearby.
Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court)
The most famous criminal court in the world is open to the public for free
Old Bailey, City, London, EC4M 7EH
Tube: St. Paul’s Station , Blackfriars Underground Station
Universally known as the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court of England is probably the most famous criminal court in the world and has been London’s principal criminal court for centuries. Today’s courthouses, opened in 1902, are built on the site of the famous Newgate Prison, home to some unsavoury characters and particularly public executions. Thankfully things are a little more civilised these days. While there is no public access to the precincts of the Central Criminal Court, public galleries are open for viewing of trials in session. There’s no access to under 14s and big groups are advised to contact Head of Security in advance. Case listings can be found on the Court Services website.
Oxo Tower and Gabriel’s Wharf
Free 8th floor viewing platform provides superb views
Oxo Tower Wharf, Bargehouse Street, South Bank, London, SE1 9PH
Tube: Temple Station
As you stare across the river at this bustling, stylish, multi-faceted venue, it’s hard to believe that this riverside warehouse was once a reprocessing plant for the Oxo Company, ripe for demolition only a few decades ago. The Oxo Tower now stands out, loud and proud, flanked by two green open parks and the colourful Gabriel’s Wharf, with a riverside walk guiding amblers up to its refurbished doors. One of the main attractions is the free viewing platform on the 8th floor which provides spectacular panoramic views over the city. There’s also free admission to the gallery@oxo exhibitions and the Coin Street Festival every summer. Visitors now come in their droves to explore the shops, restaurants, free galleries, cafes and studios that populate this once barren area. The best way to experience the Oxo Tower and Gabriel’s Wharf is as part of a leisurely riverside walk along the South Bank; taking in Tate Modern, the Globe Theatre and all the many pubs and sights that adorn the banks of the Thames.
Royal Opera House Covent Garden
Classical music building is free to explore
Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD
Tube: Covent Garden Station , Leicester Square Station
Home of the Royal Ballet and The Royal Opera, this impressive building in the heart of Covent Garden has been playing host to every major star of the classical music world since 1858. If you’re heavily into ballet and opera then this is the place to come for high-quality performances in grand surroundings. If you’re not, and just want to explore the building itself (especially Floral Hall – the building’s dramatic glass atrium) and get a small taste of what goes on here you can wander around the spectacular construction for free during the day. There’s also free chamber music every Monday, along with free jazz, free lunchtime concerts and recitals. Concerts start at either 12noon or 1pm and tickets can be booked online. In the summer, The Royal Opera House also broadcasts live opera and ballet to locations around London including Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden Piazza. The third theatre to be located on this site, most of the existing venue – with the exception of the auditorium, facade and foyer which are originals from 1858 – is the result of a detailed reconstruction in the 1990s.
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Hindu Temple)
The first traditional Hindu Mandir in Europe
105-115 Brentfield Road, London, NW 10 8LD
Tube: Stonebridge Park Station
Located in an unexpected and fairly barren area on the edge of north-west London, this amazingly spiritual and architectural gem is free to visit and well worth the trip out to the suburbs – in fact the bleak location makes the beauty and symbolism of the temple all the more spectacular. The first traditional Hindu Mandir in Europe, every one of the 26,300 individually carved pieces that make up its entirety were carved in India and shipped over to London. All of these pieces were then fitted together in just three years, between 1992 and 1995. Inside and out, this place is absolutely stunning. The stark white exterior, riddled with intricate detail and carvings, belies an opulent, colourful interior. Highly-fashioned pillars, domes, columns, carpets and ceilings provide the setting for some spectacular murtis rich with lavish thrones and royal attire. You don’t need to book in advance but please note that this is a place of worship, so shoes should be removed and no shorts or skirts shorter than knee length should be worn.
World famous auction house
34-35 New Bond Street, Fitzrovia, London, W1S 2RT
Tube: Oxford Circus Station , Bond Street Station
Founded in 1774, Sotheby’s is the world’s oldest art auction house. Sales today command record sums for items. Notable sales range from ‘Danseuse au Repos’ (Degas’ pastel of a ballet dancer) which set the world record for an artist at auction with a price of £17,601,500 ($27,930,020), to John Lennon’s Gallotone ‘Champion’ acoustic guitar which sold for £155,500 ($251,700) at a Rock’n’Roll memorabilia sale. Check the website for dates and details of individual auctions and then head over to witness some of them in action. It’s free to attend and you can often catch a glimpse of some truly historic items going under the hammer.
Excellent views of the city available from the top of the bell tower
Victoria Street, Westminster, London, SW1P 1QW
Tube: Victoria Station
London’s only example of neo-Byzantine architecture and principal Roman Catholic church, offers a magnificent campanile that emerges 274 feet into the sky. While 12 million burnished terracotta coloured bricks adorn the exterior, parts of the interior remain poignantly bare – a potent reminder of the lack of funding which plagued construction in 1895. Plain walls and simple candlelight form a stark contrast to the colourful mosaics and marbles, and Eric Gill’s nave detailing the fourteen Stations of the Cross. Walk or take the lift up (the lift is now charged at £5) the campanile for some spectacular views of the capital. Visitors are reminded that this is an active place of worship.
Charles Saatchi’s relocated gallery champions younger artists and is still free to all
Duke of York’s Square, King’s Road, Chelsea, London, SW3 4SQ
Tube: Sloane Square Station
The Saatchi Gallery re-opened on 9th October 2008 in the former military barracks of the Duke of York’s Headquarters. The 70,000 square feet represents a significantly larger space than its previous 40,000 occupancy at County Hall. Ousted from the Southbank site in 2005, the re-location of the gallery had long been speculated upon and hotly anticipated. The former ad man Charles Saatchi made the transition to the art world in the 1990s, championing young artists and buying in bulk the works of Young British Artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. In keeping with this trait, the gallery includes a dedicated space for emerging artists from the Saatchi Online website.
This art collection belongs to the British public and is free to visit
Trafalgar Square, Westminster, London, WC2N 5DN
Tube: Charing Cross Station , Leicester Square Station, Embankment Underground Station, Piccadilly Circus Station, Covent Garden Station
The National Gallery dominates over London’s Trafalgar Square as it dominates all other galleries in the city in terms of world renown. Some of the finest examples of European art, ranging from 1260 to 1900, are included among the 2300 paintings filling its halls and rooms. Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’, ‘The Hay Wain’ by Constable, and Jan Van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Marriage’ are just some of the major attractions. Works on display also include those of Botticelli, Monet, Constable, Van Gogh and Rembrandt. This really is the place to come for top quality artwork spanning a wide spectrum of styles and periods. From the Early Renaissance to the Post-Impressionists, every significant stage in the development of painting is represented in its collection, often by masterpieces. Originally established by Parliament in 1824, the collection belongs to the British public and every effort is made to encourage the public to visit, view and experience the art: free entry, free events, free talks and free tours support this ethos of encouragement and enthusiasm. Regular weekend activities include: guided tours at 11.30am, 2.30pm with extra tours at 12.30pm and 3.30pm on Saturdays, lunchtime talks on Saturdays at 1am, and Art Through Words sessions for visitors with a visual impairment at 11.30am on the last Saturday of the month.
National Portrait Gallery
10,000 portraits of everyone from statesmen to showbiz stars
St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE
Tube: Leicester Square Station , Charing Cross Station, Piccadilly Circus Station, Embankment Underground Station, Covent Garden Station
This isn’t the place to come for serious works of exceptional artistic merit – the overriding aim of the National Portrait Gallery is to reflect the status of the sitter, not the artist – but where else in London could you hope to find The Beatles, Henry VIII, Sir Richard Branson and JK Rowling all hanging out together? The appeal of this gallery (opened in 1856) rests simply in its comprehensive commemoration of British history from the late 15th century to the present day through the medium of portraiture. The sense of progression and the feeling of familiarity with many subjects are what make the gallery so appealing. Having said that, critically acclaimed self-portraits by William Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds and other notable British artists are also displayed alongside the 10,000 portraits of everyone from statesmen to showbiz stars and media barons. The collection represents Britain and is arranged thematically, starting with the Tudors and ending with present day politicians and pop stars. Look out for the only surviving portrait of Shakespeare taken from life in The Ondaajte Wing, the Hans Holbein cartoon of Henry VIII, the anamorphic portrait of Edward VI, and the sculpture of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in medieval costume. Photographs, caricatures, drawings and sculpture are included in the collection which also boasts 250,000 archived images. The National Portrait Gallery also hosts the annual Portrait Prize competition alongside ever-changing collections of contemporary work.
Newport Street Gallery
Damien Hirst’s gallery won the Riba Stirling Prize, the UK’s leading architecture award.
Newport Street, Lambeth, London, SE11 6AY
Tube: Lambeth North Station
Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery has been built to bring his collection of over 2,000 artworks out of storage and on display to the public. Taking up the whole length of the Vauxhall street, the gallery – a combination of three listed buildings flanked by new buildings at either end – was designed by Caruso St John, the archtects behind the £45 million masterplan for Tate Britain’s 2013 facelift. It’s really six spaces in one which can used in different combinations to show Hirst’s private collection – which includes pieces by Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons and British artists Sarah Lucas and Banksy – in small or very large exhibitions. “It’s my Saatchi gallery, basically,” he told the Observer in a 2012 interview. “It’s a place to show my collection of contemporary art. It feels bad having it all in crates.”
Britain’s leading centre for contemporary photography.
16-18 Ramillies Street, Soho, London, W1F 7LW
Tube: Oxford Circus Station
Britain’s leading centre for contemporary photography – emerged from a 3.6 million pound redesign in May 2012 revealing the work of Irish architects O’Donnell and Tuomey. Relocating from Great Newport Street, its home for the past 27 years, to occupy a former warehouse built in Ramilies Street in 1910, the Photographers’ Gallery has three floors of galleries, a studio floor for education activities, a bookshop, cafe and print sales space. Best of all, it hosts a year-round programme of fantastic free exhibitions and events. At ground level the building has a glass wall that links its cafe to a little square outside where outdoor photographic displays are held. On the top floor a large window reveals views across Oxford Street and beyond. A visit to this long-standing gallery is always worthwhile and it’s annual Deutsche Borse Prize, the photographer’s equivalent of the Turner, is a must-see for anyone with an interest in photography.
Home of the long-running Summer Pavilion, the Serpentine is free all year round
Kensington Gardens, South Kensington, London, W2 3XA
Tube: Lancaster Gate Station
The Serpentine provides a platform for contemporary artists, both British and international, with changing exhibitions. There’s a permanent work comprising eight benches, a tree-plaque, and a carved stone circle by artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay in the grounds of the gallery which is dedicated to the Serpentine’s former Patron Diana, Princess of Wales. In July, the annual Summer Party is a highlight on the party circuit, attracting celebrities, fashionistas and models showing the latest designer dresses. Rather more artistically important is the Summer Pavilion; each year a distinguished architect is invited to build a temporary structure which sits alongside the gallery for the summer months. Often controversial and always a talking point, the Summer Pavilion is arguably one of the most interesting exhibitions that the Serpentine presents.
One of four Tate galleries in the UK and home of the Turner Prize
Millbank, Westminster, London, SW1P 4RG
Tube: Pimlico Station
Overlooking the River Thames, Tate Britain was originally founded through the philanthropy of the sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate. The Tate legacy now encompasses three other galleries around the UK, including Tate Modern also in London. Dedicated to showcasing Britain’s artistic talent, Tate Britain is home to the greatest collection of British art from 1500 to the present day. Since it opened in 1897, the collection has expanded to include works from Blake, Rossetti, Spencer and Stubbs. It also hosts the Turner Prize – the contemporary art world’s premier award. Turner’s Gallery (another tribute to the artist himself) is a virtual reconstruction of the room in which Turner showed his own paintings.
Europe’s most popular art gallery is free to visit
Bankside Power Station, 25 Sumner Street, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG
Tube: Blackfriars Underground Station
Housed in the former Bankside Power Station, Tate Modern pays homage to art from 1900 to the present day. Located along the banks of the River Thames, the gallery opened to great acclaim in 2000 and has since welcomed millions of visitors through its imposing doors. If you are visiting for the first time, you should approach from Blackfriars station, crossing Norman Foster’s ‘Blade of Light’ footbridge walking towards this spectacular modernist masterpiece with the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral behind you. The awesome Turbine Hall creates a stunning entrance and a vast space, used to display temporary installations on a grand scale. There are three levels of galleries enclosed by a spectacular two-storey glass roof that provides fantastic views of London and a great cafe. Full of the jokey eccentricities of contemporary art, it’s one of the few art galleries that children and teenagers will enjoy, but it also offers the full set of iconic twentieth century artists, from Matisse to Moore, Dali to Picasso. Justifiably the most popular art gallery in Europe.
Tate Modern: The Tanks
A striking extension to Tate Modern, with underground chambers and a free open air viewing platform.
Tate Modern, Bankside Power Station, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG
Tube: Blackfriars Underground Station
A dramatic new development at Tate Modern, we got our first glimpse inside The Tanks in summer 2012 – revealed as part of the Cultural Olympiad in the 2012 Olympics – before they were fully opened to the public in summer 2016. The giant underground chambers, previously used to store a million gallons of oil, now host new audio works, installations and film installations as well as performance art. The striking extension, which cost £215 million, consists of two large circular spaces for performances and film installations, and smaller rooms which retain the smell of their industrial past. There’s a room dedicated to Louise Bourgeois, a ground floor cafe and a restaurant. All very impressive. But the crowning glory is the free open air viewing platform on the top floor. Views over St Paul’s, the River Thames and Millennium Bridge compete with those into neighbouring luxury apartments. Obey the signs saying ‘respect the privacy of our neighbours’, if you can.
Art classes, workshops, talks and tours all on offer for free
Hertford House, Manchester Square, Marylebone, London, W1U 3BN
Tube: Bond Street Station
Free art classes and workshops, talks and tours, bring alive to visitors the varied works of art on display in Hertford House – the original family home of The Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace. European paintings, miniatures and sculpture, French 18th-century furniture, Sevres and Meissen porcelain, goldsmiths’ work and Oriental and European arms and armour combine to form one of the finest collections of art amassed by one family. Sir Richard Wallace – the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford – built up the original collection left to him by his father. Several Old Master paintings, notably ‘The Laughing Cavalier’, works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Reynolds, Rubens, Gainsborough, Titian and Romney make this gallery a worthy rival of others in the city. Renovations to the townhouse, which uniquely occupies the whole side of a garden square, include a glass-roofed courtyard – home to Oliver Peyton’s brasserie – four new galleries and educational facilities. The acquisitions, bequeathed to the nation by Wallace’s widow in 1897, are all free to view. There are regular tours during the week and weekend tours take place on Saturdays at 11.30am and Sundays at 3pm.
White Cube Bermondsey
At a massive 58,000 square feet White Cube Bermondsey Street is the largest commercial gallery in Europe.
144-152 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3TQ
Tube: London Bridge Station
Jay Jopling’s third – and largest – White Cube art gallery in London is located on Bermondsey Street and set in a former 1970s warehouse. At a massive 58,000 square feet White Cube Bermondsey Street is not only the largest art gallery within Jopling’s White Cube empire but also the largest commercial gallery in Europe. A timely opening during the 2011 Frieze art fair, on 12 October 2011, launched the gallery to the world’s richest and most influential art buyers. Designed by Casper Mueller Kneer Architects, the building has three principal exhibition spaces, substantial warehousing, private viewing rooms, an auditorium and a bookshop. The exhibition spaces are divided into the ‘South Galleries’, the principal display area, three smaller ‘North Galleries’, and the ‘9 x 9 x 9′ gallery at the centre of the building. Frequently changing exhibitions by contemporary artists of the calibre of Jopling favourite Damien Hirst are supplemented by an education programme, artists’ films and lectures. The first White Cube – one of the smallest exhibition spaces in Europe – was set up in Duke Street (1993-2002), not far from the current White Cube Mason’s Yard which opened in September 2006, six years after White Cube Hoxton Square opened in April 2000.
White Cube Hoxton Square
Free-to-view, cutting edge art in hipster East London.
48 Hoxton Square, Hoxton, London, N1 6PB
Tube: Old Street Station
A leading part of the ferociously fashionable East London art scene, White Cube Hoxton Square, the first of White Cube’s three London galleries, is invariably filled with some of the world’s most cutting-edge art. Owner Jay Jopling is as A-list as the artists he collects. Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Gilbert and George and his former wife Sam Taylor-Wood are all represented and their works shown at the three galleries and beyond. Occasionally, for really large exhibitions (like Gilbert & George’s Jack Freak Pictures), artworks are spread across two of the White Cube galleries at Hoxton Square, at Mason’s Yard and at the third and largest White Cube in Bermondsey – all of which are free to visit.
Britain’s first purpose-built arts gallery
77-82 Whitechapel High Street, Tower Hamlets, London, E1 7QX
Tube: Aldgate East Station , Aldgate East Underground Station, Aldgate Station
Designed in a distinctive Arts and Crafts architecture style by Charles Harrison Townsend, the Whitechapel, Britain’s first purpose-built arts gallery, is renowned both for the beauty of its light, airy space and for embracing the local community in its work. Founded in 1901, extensive refurbishment saw the gallery double in size when it reopened in April 2009. The gallery does not have a permanent collection, preferring instead to host a constantly evolving programme of works and there is always something free to see. Community projects and retrospective exhibitions now rest alongside landmark examples of contemporary work. The Pop Art ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition of 1956 is often hailed as the gallery’s most iconic event, although there are a number of other exhibitions worthy of note. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ was displayed here in 1938, Jackson Pollock had work exhibited at the gallery in the 1950s, David Hockney’s first show was held here in 1970 and Lucian Freud had a major exhibition in 1993. With its pillared supports and high ceilings, The Lower Gallery, in particular, is a fantastic exhibition space.
The spectacular British Museum building is home to a vast collection of world artefacts
Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London, WC1B 3DG
Tube: Tottenham Court Road Station , Russell Square Station, Holborn Station
The British Museum’s Great Court with its magnificent glass and steel roof by Sir Norman Foster is an exhibition piece in itself. And, like most of the galleries in the museum, it’s free to wander around and look up at in awe. In fact, over seven million objects from all over the world are housed in this impressive museum of human history and culture (many of the artifacts are stored underneath the museum due to lack of space). Founded in 1753, displays ranging from prehistoric to modern times were primarily based on the collections of physician and scientist, Sir Hans Sloane. Notable objects – all of which can be seen without spending a cent – include the Parthenon Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, the Sutton Hoo and Mildenhall treasures, and the Portland Vase. With such a wealth of objects to discover you may want to sign up for one of the free events that regularly take place including talks, films, performances and discussions.
Bank of England Museum
The UK’s central bank has a long and complicated history dating back to 1694
Bartholomew Lane, City, London, EC2R 8AH
Tube: Bank Station , Cannon Street Station, Mansion House Station, Moorgate Station, Monument Station
Housed within the Bank of England, this museum traces the history of the bank from its foundation by Royal Charter in 1694 to its role today as the nation’s central bank. There are gold bars dating from ancient times to the modern market bar, coins, and a unique collection of banknotes. There are also many items you might not expect to find – pikes and muskets used to defend the bank, Roman pottery and mosaics uncovered when it was rebuilt in 1930, and documents relating to famous customers such as Horatio Nelson, George Washington and the Duchess of Marlborough.
The British Library
Full of literary treasures and fascinating facts, plus plenty of quiet corners for book-browsing
96 Euston Road, King’s Cross, London, NW1 2DB
Tube: King’s Cross Station , Euston Station
With over 150 million items, a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland, artwork by artists such as Antony Gormley and Eduardo Paolozzi, and a host of historically momentous works – including the Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio and the Lindisfarne Gospels – a guided tour around the British Library is essential if you only have time for one visit. This is, after all, the largest public building constructed in the United Kingdom in the 20th century and, as such, warrants a guided tour around its cavernous spaces. While the library has a lot to offer the casual visitor – exhibition galleries (mostly free) special exhibitions, events, films, musical performances and poetry readings – if it’s your first visit it’s a good idea to let an experienced guide navigate you through the main treasures that call this place home. These guides also really know their stuff and will open your eyes to this gargantuan repository. Of particular interest is the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest dated printed book, and the only surviving copy of ‘Beowulf’. The King’s Library – a three-storey glass tower – forms the centre-piece of the building both architecturally and in terms of its historic acquisitions. With 65,000 printed volumes, The King’s Library refers to King George III, whose personal collection is on display here. Some of the tours include access to the reading rooms, access to which is usually limited to those with passes. While it is free to explore this iconic building, paying for a tour is more than worth it if you only have a few hours to take everything in.
Imperial War Museum
Providing insightful documentation of conflict, from the First World War to the present day
Lambeth Road, Elephant and Castle, Southwark, London, SE1 6HZ
Tube: Lambeth North Station
Occupying the former Bethlehem Hospital for the Insane (‘Bedlam’), the Imperial War Museum is the national museum of 20th-century conflict. Founded in 1917, it not only contains a fascinating display of the vehicles and weapons of war, but also makes an in-depth study of the social effects of conflict. From the M4 Sherman tank, the V2 rocket and Polaris missile, to the walk-through recreation of a front line trench from the Somme, the Imperial War Museum represents all facets of fighting and its aftermath. Both World Wars are chronicled with thought-provoking displays of painting and poetry from Sassoon to Wilfred Owen, and a reconstructed air raid shelter and Blitzed street from 1940. The sights, sounds and smells have been carefully recreated to really bring the experience to life. Over 15,000 paintings, 120 million feet of cine film and 30,000 posters make this a unique collection.
Museum of London
This museum tells the story of the London, from prehistoric times to present day
150 Wall, City, London, EC2Y 5HN
Tube: Barbican Station , St. Paul’s Station
Experience the real flavour of London life from the prehistoric to present day at this modern museum boasting over 1.1 million objects – many rescued from archaeological digs or discovered during building works in the City. A chain of chronological galleries guides visitors through the history of this ancient city; 47,000 objects from Roman London pave the way with buckles, brooches and belt-fittings to the medieval period, 17th-century glassware leads onto vivid Victorian street scenes, interiors and shop fronts. From the skulls of those thought to have been massacred by Queen Boudica to boots worn by the Duke of Wellington, Queen Victoria’s Parliamentary robes and paraphernalia from the Suffragettes’ Movement, the history of London and its inhabitants is brought back to life with startling intensity. Don’t miss fragments of the old London Wall located just outside the museum.
National Maritime Museum | Queen’s House | Royal Observatory
The world’s largest Maritime Museum is situated in the Greenwich World Heritage site
Park Row, London, SE10 9NF
Tube: New Cross Station (East London line closed. Bus service operates)
National Maritime Museum
Located in the heart of historic Greenwich, the National Maritime Museum houses the most important collection of objects relating to the history of Britain at sea. The collection dates back to 1823 when a National Gallery of Naval Art was established, featuring some 300 portraits, paintings and artefacts. The museum occupies a former asylum and hospital school, and enjoys fantastic views of the Thames from its elevated position. With the addition of the covered Neptune Court, the museum now boasts galleries dealing with topics ranging from navigation, naval exploits and Nelson, to exploration, the ecology of the sea and emigration. Visitors can try their hand at signalling and gunnery, explore the expansion of the Empire or just revel at the power, majesty and romance of the sea through poetry, painting and photography. Admission to the Museum is free, but you may want to splash out on tickets to the Cutty Sark or an exhibition.
As far as royal residences go this is a modest palace – an appealing, but simple, bright white, classical, Palladian villa flanked by colonnades. Its understated appearance, however, belies its immense historical significance. Built in 1616 by Inigo Jones for Anne of Denmark – the wife of James I – Queen’s House was the first neo-classical building seen in England. Originally conceived as a hunting lodge and addition to the Palace of Greenwich, it also acted as a bridge spanning the public road to Deptford, which divided the park in two. Despite revolutionising Jacobean architecture the house, itself, didn’t get finished until 1635 when it became home to Charles I and his Queen, Henrietta Maria. The house went on to survive tumultuous times. Queen Anne died before it was completed, shortly after Civil War broke out and Oliver Cromwell stripped the Stuarts of the residence and its many treasures. It is now used by the National Maritime Museum to exhibit paintings of illustrious seafarers and historic Greenwich. The Stuart ‘Tulip Staircase’, purported as the first spiral staircase in Britain, has been reinstated and takes its name from the beautiful floral patterning on the wrought-iron balustrade. Some faded painted panels remain on the ceiling of the royal bedchamber while the cuboid Great Hall is swathed in impressive computer-enhanced copies of Gentileschi frescos. For the valiant among you, Queen’s House is notoriously haunted and photos of shrouded figures ascending the spiral stairs are thought to be legitimate. Admission to the house is free.
This museum of time and space was built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675. It marks the site of the Greenwich Meridian – the base point for World Time and the site of Longitude 0. If you time it right, you can watch the timeball drop at 1pm each day. The National Maritime Museum, at this site since 1937, and Royal Observatory have accumulated over 2 million objects about the sea, ships, astronomy and time. Visitors can also see the Astronomer Royal’s apartments, the famous Harrison timekeepers (1735-60) with computer simulations, intricate instruments, Wren’s Octagon Room and the largest refracting telescope in Britain. In 2007 the £15 million Peter Harrison Planetarium opened, a beautiful cone-shaped addition to the Royal Observatory designed by architects Allies and Morrison. This 120-seat, state-of-the-art facility replaces the small and out of date planetarium in the dome of the South Building. Admission to the Observatory’s Astronomy Centre is free, but if you want access to other areas and the Peter Harrison Planetarium there will be small fee.
Natural History Museum
Educational, exciting and larger than life. The Natural History Museum is truly unforgettable
Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London, SW7 5BD
Tube: South Kensington Station , Gloucester Road Station
An 8-metre long giant squid, a walrus from Hudson Bay overstuffed by a London taxidermist in the 1880s, the skeleton of a Triceratops, a life-size Blue Whale and a sea cow are just a few of the 70 million items to call this exciting, interactive, life and earth science museum home. The permanent galleries show exhibitions on topics as diverse as: Dinosaurs – the ultimate prehistoric exhibition; Creepy-Crawlies – guaranteed to have you scratching in seconds; Human Biology – the must-see exhibition about the evolution of the species; and The Power Within – an examination of the earthquake experience. The Vault – a permanent exhibition of gems and rare meteorites – contains some famous, historic and priceless jewels. For those wanting to explore further a visit to The Darwin Centre is highly recommended. Book in for one of their free regular lectures and demonstrations and you’ll see the how the museum’s work is not just about preserving the past but conserving for the future. In warmer months the tranquil wildlife garden (open April to October), offers a further free attraction where you can get closer to nature. All galleries are free, although you may have to pay for some temporary exhibitions.
Full of hands-on exhibits and mind-boggling artefacts, plus a 3D IMAX Cinema
Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London, SW7 2DD
Tube: South Kensington Station
Home to one of the world’s most magnificent collections of science, industry, technology and medicine, the Science Museum is one of London’s most hands-on and interactive museums. Funded by the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851, it started life in the 19th century as part of Prince Albert’s grand scheme to promote industrial technology. Today, it occupies a purpose-built building and contains some 300,000 objects, covering the entire history of Western science, technology and medicine. Displays are designed to encourage interaction with certain areas aimed at specific age groups. In the Launchpad gallery, for example, visitors are invited to learn about forces and motion with exhibits that make physics fun for children aged between 8 and 14 years. There’s a whole host of scientific things to discover, from how aircraft are built to morphing your face to see how you’ll look in 10 years’ time. The monthly Science Museum Lates are also free – offering adults a chance to enjoy the museum free of charge as well as free from marauding kids.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
Take a stroll through time at Sir John Soane’s extraordinary home
13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Holborn, London, WC2A 3BP
Tube: Holborn Station , Chancery Lane Station
An appealingly higgledy-piggledy treasure trove of artefacts, this extraordinary house elegantly located on Lincoln’s Inn Fields is well worth an exploratory rummage. Lurking in nooks and crannies within the sprawling rooms and halls of neo-classical architect Sir John Soane’s former residence are over 30,000 architectural drawings and antiquities. Works by Turner, Canaletto and Piranesi feature in the painting collection, with William Hogarth’s eight canvasses of ‘A Rake’s Progress’ forming the centre-piece. Each of the many spaces in this museum has its own strong identity and appeal. From the domed ceiling of the Breakfast Room and the Gothic library, to the study with its Roman architectural fragments and the two courtyards crammed with ancient stonework, this is a house of diversity and architectural merit. One of the most intriguing rooms is the Picture Gallery. Here, Canaletto’s magnificent Riva degli Schiavoni, looking West, takes centre stage. Look out for the alabaster Egyptian Sarcophagus of Seti I dated 1370 BC appropriately located in the basement ‘Sepulchral Chamber’.
Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum
Expansive, elegant. Spend a day browsing the V&A’s art and design collections
Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London, SW7 2RL
Tube: South Kensington Station
With over 145 galleries to explore and over 4 million items, the V&A is one of the most influential museums of decorative and applied arts in the world. It was originally founded in 1852, with the aim of enthusing and educating British manufacturers and designers. It is now home to a stunning collection of European, Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Islamic artefacts ranging from ceramics, glass, metalwork and sculpture to costume, armour, weaponry and furniture. The gallery also houses the national collection of the art of photography, the oldest photography collection in the world. Visitors can delve into the fascinating dress collection that features samples from historical dress to 21st-century haute-couture or examine the celebrated Arts and Crafts interiors of the Morris and Gamble Rooms. The gallery is often cited as housing the greatest collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture outside Italy, while the British Galleries – which opened to great acclaim in November 2001 – are unique in their exploration of British design from Chippendale to Morris, Adam to Mackintosh. Highlights include the Great Bed of Ward as mentioned in Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, and James II’s wedding suit. The building itself – a mix of Victorian and Edwardian design – also presents a truly formidable display. The Cast Courts (two great halls housing the museum’s impressive collection of plaster casts), in particular, form a major focal point of the museum – with their high glass roof, elevated corridors and walkways.
This striking museum has a free, permanent exhibition as well as regular free pop-up shows.
224-238 Kensington High Street, Bankside, London, W8 6AG
Tube: High Street Kensington Station
In 2016 the Design Museum moved from its long-standing home at Shad Thames to a venue three times the size, the former Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington High Street. The Grade II* listed building has been transformed by a design team led by John Pawson to include the Swarovski Foundation Centre for Learning, 202-seat Bakala Auditorium and a dedicated gallery to display its permanent collection, accessible free of charge. Within the collection – which started in 1982 as the pioneering Boilerhouse Project in the V&A – are designs that have shaped the modern world from fashion to furniture, product and graphic design, digital media, transport and architecture. The collections, both permanent and temporary, trace the history of design developments, from the origins of mass production to contemporary works. The permanent exhibition and regular pop-up shows are free to visit.
Free Outdoor Events
Come rain or shine, festivals and celebrations are held outdoors in London all year round
Central , Westminster, London, WC2N 5DS
Tube: Charing Cross Station , Leicester Square Station, Embankment Underground Station, Piccadilly Circus Station
Positioned at the heart of the capital, Trafalgar Square is a natural home for protests, marches and celebrations. It’s also where a number of free outdoor events, hosted by the London Mayor, are held throughout the year. Festivals marking London’s multicultural mix start with Chinese New Year celebrations in January and end with carols around a huge Norwegian pine tree in December. Celebrations for St Patrick’s Day, St George’s Day, Vasisakhi and Diwali take place in between with music, dance and street theatre making these colourful spectacles. When the occasion warrants it a big screen is erected here broadcasting major events live including the Olympics, Wimbledon Charity matches, the First Night of the Proms and VE Day celebrations. Even if you don’t manage to time your visit to coincide with one of the free festivals, Trafalgar Square is one of London’s top free attractions. Overlooked by Lord Nelson, with the National Gallery on one side and the fountains in the middle, people flock to this pedestrianised space to sit on the great bronze lions and take in the buzz of the city. It’s always interesting to see what’s on The Fourth Plinth, Britain’s most prominent site for contemporary sculpture. Each work is allocated 12 to 18 months on display and the commissions are always exciting, sometimes controversial and a great showcase for modern art.
This huge, multifaceted arts hub puts on a range of free cultural events
Silk Street, City, London, EC2Y 8DS
Tube: Barbican Station , Moorgate Station
One of London’s two largest arts centres and bastions of culture, the Barbican Centre does its best to allow everyone to enjoy the arts, even if you can’t afford the usual ticket price. Alongside paid for events there free concerts, talks, exhibitions, events, music and festivals which regularly take place throughout the year. You’ll also come across free exhibitions, live music, or talks. If you’re lucky you’ll hit off a major arts celebrity confiding to a small crowd in some odd corner of the building. Don’t be put off by the mass of concrete and confusing corridors which can be tricky to find your way around, this is one of the most impressive and dynamic cultural sites in London and its free events are certainly worth seeking out.
This thriving riverside arts complex hosts tons of free entertainment
Belvedere Road, South Bank, London, SE1 8XX
Tube: Waterloo Station , Embankment Underground Station
At the Southbank on Fridays and Saturdays, the Royal Festival Hall hosts free lunchtime concerts in its central bar; there are free book readings and recitals at the Poetry Library on the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall; and in the summer you can see certain performances for free as part of the E4 Udderbelly festival. Go to the Southbank Centre’s ticketing website to find listings of all the free events. A stroll along the Southbank is free too: browse among the bookstalls, take in the terraces and see the skateboarders – a happy architectural accident has made this complex the best spot for skateboarding and BMXing in the capital, meaning it is loved by London’s counter-culture as much as by its highbrow elite.
Mid-week hilarity (and a little humiliation) all for the price of a pint
66-68 Rivington Street, Shoreditch, London, EC2A 3AY
Tube: Old Street Station
While you may have to pay for the privilege of seeing well known comedians there are hundreds of aspiring funnymen (and women) who are quite happy to deliver their one-liners for free. A good place to start is the renowned Comedy Cafe on a Wednesday night when ‘New Act Night’ sees eight acts (as opposed to the usual four) on stage, so even if someone is really struggling they’re not on long enough for total humiliation. On a good night you can see some utterly hilarious performers without paying a penny. In the past the Comedy Cafe has been a much loved hang-out for comedic geniuses such as Eddie Izzard, Mark Lamarr and Jo Brand. Who knows, you may spot the next Russell Brand before they become famous. Another good source of free comedy is the pub – or more specifically, the room above a pub. London has more than its fair share of these. The Queen’s Head, close to Piccadilly Circus, is just one example of a pub mixing pints and jokes at their absolutely free comedy night. On Mondays at the Carnivale just off Whitchapel Road are ‘Comedy Bin’ open mic nights where you get to see new comic talent for the mere price of a pint. Cheers!
Pay a visit to Southwark Cathedral for serene surroundings and free lunchtime recitals
Bridge, Bankside, London, SE1 9DA
Tube: London Bridge Station
Some of London’s most beautiful churches and cathedrals provide stunning acoustics for organ recitals and classical concerts, some of which are free. Southwark Cathedral, London’s oldest Gothic church (dating back to c1220) hosts free lunchtime concerts with organ recitals taking place on Monday lunchtimes and Tuesdays afternoons and there are regular choral services allowing the cathedral’s fine Lewis Organ to display its magnificence. The cathedral is also open during the day for visitors to explore and includes a chapel commemorating John Harvard, benefactor of Harvard University. Similarly, St James’s Church Piccadilly is well known for its lively programme of events and while some of the evening concerts do require an admission fee the 50-minute lunchtime recitals are often free (with a suggested donation). In the heart of London, overlooking Trafalgar Square, the roof of St Martin-in-the-Fields is often raised by the sound of religious and classical music ringing out with its choral scholars among those performing gratis. Candelit concerts are held from Thursday to Saturday and there are free lunchtime recitals on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. All profits go to support the work of the church, with its particular ministry to the homeless.
Free Street Theatre
Join the crowds who gather to watch free entertainment in Covent Garden Piazza
Where Covent Garden Market meets the Piazza place there is a large open-air cobbled area where free street theatre, music and performance art take place on a regular basis. Miming and juggling acts are staples, alongside spontaneous displays of magic, music and dance. There are also free big-screen relays of Royal Opera House concerts and ballets during the summer. If you are in the mood for spending some money, the 40ish market stalls sell a variety of quality goods: antiques, craft items, pictures and handmade clothing making this a great place to browse for gifts.
Free Celebrity Spotting
Forget L.A. London is swarming with celebs just waiting to be spotted
If there’s a big film premier in London, it will be in Leicester Square. With Trafalgar Square to the south, Piccadilly Circus to the west, China Town to the north and Covent Garden to the east, Leicester Square is right in the thick of the West End and it’s seen more celebrities than The Ivy. Surrounded by the city’s largest cinemas, the square is often bedecked with the latest blockbuster paraphernalia ready for the stars to stroll down the red carpet later that evening. Premieres happen on a regular basis and attract sizeable crowds, staking out their position in the square well before the red carpet is rolled out, hoping to get a good spot from where they can glimpse their beloved idols (and their outfits). The premieres typically begin at seven o’clock in the evening but it’s best to turn up at least a couple of hours early so you can get that perfect celeb-stroking spot.
Discover some up and coming acts at London’s best open mic nights
Regular gig going can be a very costly hobby but some concerts can be enjoyed for nada, nothing, absolutely free. Sure, you may be taking a gamble on some unknown, unsigned band but what’s to complain about? It won’t set you back a bean. You’ll need to research when and where these up and coming bands are playing but good venues to check include pubs and clubs like Ain’t Nothing But Blues Bar, The Lock Tavern and the Notting Hill Arts Club who stage regular free gigs and open mic nights. Just beware of time restrictions like ‘free entry before 10pm’ or gigs taking place during the day. At Notting Hill Arts Club, for example, they’ve partnered with record label Rough Trade to showcase bands for free on Saturday afternoons. You can also catch bands performing at the Rough Trade London stores, Rough Trade East and Rough Trade West, several times a week. You’ll need to secure a wristband to get in – they’re handed out for free an hour before the gig on a first-come-first-serve basis. Or, if you genuinely like the band you’re going to see, buy their album on the day and you’ll get free entry to the live show. If jazz is your thing your really shouldn’t miss Ray’s Jazz Cafe at Foyles bookshop. Alongside the books and CDs for sale you can catch regular live jazz sessions for free when musicians have an album to launch in the specialist section of this charming Charing Cross Road bookshop. In the summer months London has several fun festivals where the music is free – Notting Hill being the most famous. The warmer weather brings with it another good source of free music: London’s bandstands. Many of these pretty wrought iron pavilions have been restored so they’re fit to serve their original purpose. Clapham Common, for example, home to London’s oldest and largest bandstand, serves up a mix of musical styles including opera, jazz and folk, all for free, from June to September.
Londoners are a noisy bunch, head to Speakers Corner for some very free speech
Not strictly classed as “entertainment”, this bastion of British free public speech and free assembly can prove one of the most absorbingly unique, theatrical activities the city has to offer. Located on the corner of Park Lane and Cumberland Gate, opposite Marble Arch tube, Speakers’ Corner is the spiritual home of the British democratic tradition of soapbox oratory. Every Sunday since the right of free assembly was recognised in 1872 in the Royal Parks and Garden’s Act, people from all walks of life have gathered to listen to speeches about anything and everything… and to heckle. From Socialism to Sunday trading, sausages to space invaders, the opinions aired here are varied and fascinating. While Karl Marx, Lenin, George Orwell, and William Morris have all used this spot to express their ideals and beliefs, your average speaker isn’t quite as high profile. The coherence of the speakers also varies greatly, but as a whole it makes for great street theatre. Come and watch, come and heckle, or, if you have a burning desire to share your opinions with the world, come and spout – take something to stand on and start pontificating. Although Sunday morning is the best time to visit, speakers can also be found on the corner throughout the week.
Many London venues provide regular free lectures, talks and discussions
Talk is free at most of London’s esteemed institutions. Free lectures frequently take place at well known venues like the Southbank Centre and the Barbican and at the city’s prestigious art galleries and major museums. The Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Royal Academy of Arts, National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery all offer free talks often given by respected art historians, experts on their given topic. Similarly, London’s museums provide stimulating food for thought for nothing – almost all of the daytime talks at the British Museum, for example, are free. At the Science Museum, the Dana Centre opens up the world of science (for adults only) while at the nearby Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre you can sign up for free talks on the natural world. It’s not just the large institutions that dabble in free debate, smaller venues like the Rich Mix Centre and the Wellcome Collection are also worth checking for free talks, lively lectures, debates and discussions. Book signings are another good bet for getting gratis access to well known literary figures and talking heads. Bookshops including Foyles, Hatchards, Daunt’s and Waterstone’s are all well known for their author events, and if there is a charge you usually get a glass of wine thrown in so they’re as good as free. Whoever said talk is cheap?
Free Walking Tours
Explore London by foot on one of these educational walking tours.
A great way to discover London is through one of the many free walking tours that are available, enabling you to get up close and personal with the sights while also learning about the history and culture behind them. Golden Tours offer three free London walking tours, including a Covent Garden Walking Tour, exploring one of the city’s most vibrant and popular areas; a Royal Walking Tour, enabling you to walk in the footsteps of Prince William and Catherine Duchess of Cambridge and see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace; and a Beatles London Walking Tour, which takes a stroll back in time and looks at the places where the band used to play and record. Further free tours include the two and a half hour Free Tour of London with Sandemans New Europe, taking in sights such as The Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square and 10 Downing Street; a City and Southbank Walk by Free London Walking Tours, taking in the South Bank; and London’s Ghostly Haunts Walk, which showcases London as the most haunted city in the world. The tours are free but still need to be booked in advance and gratuities are common and always welcome.
‘London’s Larder’ is a must for food fanatics, bring empty bellies and deep pockets.
Southwark Street, Bankside, London, SE1 1TJ
Tube: London Bridge Station , Borough Station
Nestled in-between Borough High Street, Bedale Street, Stoney Street and Winchester Walk lives “London’s Larder”, more formally known as Borough Market. This gourmand’s delight is London’s oldest food market and boasts a mouth-watering range of fresh food stalls under its Dickensian wrought-iron roof. Italian cheeses, Morecambe Bay shrimps, Spanish foods and much more. Atmospheric, lively and mouth-watering this foodie’s paradise is a definite must on a Saturday morning. Savvy shoppers take care to browse around for the best deals – just because it’s a market doesn’t mean it’s cheap and some of the delicious goods can leave you feeling out of pocket. Do a little window shopping before you buy and you’ll find there are plenty of goods to be had at reasonable prices.
Brick Lane Market
One of London’s most diverse markets, great for street food, vintage clothing and people watching
Brick Lane, Spitalfields, London, E1 6RL
Tube: Aldgate East Station
Brick Lane Market is pure East End London, which means Jewish bagel shops, Bangladeshi curry houses, Indian sari silks – and Cockneys crying out their wares. This chaotic, bustling market is halfway between jewel and junk heap. It has a loud carnival atmosphere on a warm Sunday afternoon and attracts lots of young Londoners, in search of second-hand furniture, unusual vintage clothes and bits of this-and-that. Plus an opportunity to strut about in their Sunday finest, and possibly even get papped by a style scout. Finish off your outing with an inexpensive Sunday lunch (probably curry) in a local restaurant. The joy of this market is that you never know what you’ll find, anything from cheap leather clothes and old magazines to Art Deco furniture – with a lot of old junk in between.
Cabbages and Frocks Market
There’s plenty more than just frocks and cabbages at this Marylebone market
St Marylebone Parish Church Grounds, Marylebone High Street, Marylebone, London, W1U 5BA
Tube: Baker Street Station , Regent’s Park Station
Every Saturday a welcome addition comes to Marylebone, making a weekend stroll up the pretty high street an even more attractive proposition. On Saturdays the Cabbages and Frocks Market takes over the grounds of Marylebone Parish Church to the north of Marylebone High Street. The brainchild of the organisers of the London Fashion Designer Sales, there’s a good mix of stalls selling everything from oils and balsamic vinegars to handmade jewellery. Hidden among the vintage clothes you can, if you’re lucky, find some genuine designer gear at knock down prices. Much of the food on sale is organic with macaroons from Masayuki Hara (formerly at the Caviar House) and Moroccan bedouin food from Abdul (ex-Momo’s). Enjoy cappuccinos and cupcakes or take it all in with a freshly squeezed fruit cocktail.
Columbia Road Flower Market
Columbia Road is a real experience, the crowds, the boisterous market traders, and the best blooms in London.
Columbia Road, Tower Hamlets, London, E2 7RG
Tube: Bethnal Green Station
Lined with chic boutiques, every Sunday this historic street fills with a bright patchwork of hundreds of flower stalls. Columbia Road is the capital’s most colourful and sweet-smelling market. Flowers, shrubs, bedding plants and other horticultural delights are all for sale. As well as cut flowers, there are topiary trees, pot plants, hanging baskets, bulbs and bouquets turning the street to blossom. The 52 stalls and surrounding shops sell everything to cater for that English obsession – gardening. With most of the traders being based in Essex, many of the plants and flowers are grown and produced locally. The market is open from 8am to 3pm – the best bargains are to be had towards the end of the day when prices reach rock bottom and the competitive sales pitches from the stall holders reach new volumes. There are plenty of attractive cafes, pubs and authentic sea-food stalls where you can make a pit-stop if you get peckish. If flowers don’t take your fancy, there’s some really interesting art, crafts, antique and fashion boutiques to browse. If getting there by Tube, Old Street is the best station to go to, turn left on exit, walk along Old Street into Hackney Road and after 200 metres turn right onto Columbia Road. You’ll smell it before you see it.
Thousands of Londoners flock to Greenwich for arts, crafts and antiques.
College Approach, London, SE10 9HZ
Tube: New Cross Station (East London line closed. Bus service operates)
Greenwich boasts a number of glorious markets offering a variety of traditional, hand-crafted goods, antiques, clothing and food stalls. The craft market is held at College Approach and the antique market is off Greenwich High Road. The craft market offers a colourful collection of exotic arts and crafts. Established in 1849 there are 120 stalls stacked with distinctive goodies. Wooden toys, model ships, trendy clothes, handmade jewellery and wonderful accessories are some of what is on offer. The market is also bristling with young designers. The antique market consists of all manner of stalls to entertain, from crafts to vintage clothing and a good selection of food to enjoy from curries to burgers. Finish your market tour off with a walk along the river or the park.
Historic covered market in the heart of the city, great for perusing and snacking.
Whittington Avenue, off Gracechurch Street, City, London, EC3V 1LR
Tube: Monument Station , Bank Station, Liverpool Street Station
Leadenhall Market is a restored Victorian covered market that sells traditional game, poultry, fish and meat. Although there has been a forum (marketplace) on where Leadenhall Market stands today since the first century AD, the current wrought iron and glass building was designed in 1881 by Sir Horace Jones (architect of Billingsgate and Smithfield markets). Close to the Lloyds of London building and the Bank of England, it’s a popular place for city workers on lunch break so the best time to visit is early lunchtime as it gets very busy by 1pm. It’s open Monday to Friday from 11am-4pm and is found in Whittington Avenue, off Gracechurch Street Leadenhall is not only a scenic marketplace which makes for a lovely stroll around, it also sells some of the finest food in London.
Petticoat Lane Market
Head to Petticoat Lane Market for knock-off designer bags, bargain fashions and a bit of haggling.
Between Middlesex and Goulston Streets, Spitalfields, London, E1 7HT
Tube: Aldgate Station , Aldgate East Underground Station, Aldgate East Station, Liverpool Street Station
Petticoat Lane is London’s world-famous Sunday market and sells mainly clothes for men, women and children, from street-cred clubwear to over-orders of designer goods and last year’s must-haves. One of its specialities is leather wear at the Aldgate East end and there’s bric-a-brac, household goods, in fact everything you could possibly think of plus some other bits and bobs too. The market is held in and around Middlesex Street on Sundays from 9am to 2pm, with a smaller market open on Wentworth Street from Monday to Friday. Confusingly, Petticoat Lane doesn’t actually exist any more – we have the Victorians’ prudishness to thank for that, wishing to avoid any reference to undergarments they changed the name to Middlesex Street in 1846. With more than 1,000 stalls lining the streets on a Sunday bargain hunters come in their droves, it’s a great scene worth the trip even if you’re not shopping. Nearby areas of interest include Brushfield Street where the old Spitalfields Market is held and which offers more in the way of quality. Petticoat Lane may be London’s biggest street jumble sale but for bargain hunting, with a bit of haggling thrown in, it’s the original and the best.
Portobello Road Market
Portobello Road is the world’s largest antique market and a firm favourite with tourists.
Portobello Road, Notting Hill, London, W11 1LU
Tube: Ladbroke Grove Station
The famous Portobello Road antiques and flea market in Notting Hill takes place every Saturday although there are also stalls from Monday to Friday. Running from Chepstow Villas to just under the Westway, it is a colourful, dynamic stretch of London that oozes trendiness and fun. On Saturday, it’s huge, with over 2,000 stalls, selling everything from books to bric-a-brac and lace to Limoges – everything from fresh fruit, fashion and exotic cooking ingredients are on sale. Thousands of people mill around browsing second-hand clothing stalls or choosing outlandish material. For those who have the patience to search, there are some fantastic bargains. This really is the place to shop-and-eat and then shop some more while soaking up the boho atmosphere. It is best to go in the morning, by the afternoon you will find yourself getting a little flustered winding your way through the crowds.
Eclectic and quirky jewellery, clothing, crafts and antiques. The perfect antidote to the high street.
1 Crispin Place, Spitalfields, London, E1 6DW
Tube: Liverpool Street Station
Nestled in the heart of the City, in the shadow of Christ Church, Spitalfields Market marries market stalls with modern shops and restaurants. Where the delightful old covered market used to be, just off Brushfield Street if you’re coming from Liverpool Street Station, you’ll find stalls alongside glass fronted shops. The stalls are the place to look for something original, of excellent quality and value for money. Sundays are by far the busiest, with over 150 stalls operating. On weekdays between 10am and 4pm the markets’ varied stalls are quieter, except at lunchtime, when the choice of eating places attracts the young City crowd. There’s so much to do and see here – and plenty of interesting one-off shops with character surrounding the covered market too. Spitalfields has evolved, combining the appeal of the old market with the new so you get brands like Canteen, Agnes B and Benefit behind the large glass fronted stores happily sitting next to sole traders selling quirky clothes and homemade chocolate brownies from their market stalls.
Several markets wrapped into one canalside shopping experience.
Camden Lock Place, Chalk Farm Road, Camden Town, London, NW1 8AF
Tube: Camden Town Station , Camden Town Station
Camden Market is actually several markets wrapped into one fun, funky canalside shopping experience. There’s a wide array of goods to view ranging from antiques to clothes (vintage and new) crafts, accessories and furnishings. Indeed just about everything and anything you could conceivably want, but probably not need. The main markets to head for include Camden Lock Market, Camden (Buck Street) Market and Camden Antiques Market where you can find a wide variety of goods including clothes, crafts, antiques and jewellery. The best days to go are Saturday and Sunday from 8am-6pm – as long as you don’t mind crowds; some shops and stalls are also open on weekdays. This is a huge weekend tourist attraction and a great shopping experience, as interesting for the diversity of people as for its mixed bag of stalls and multicultural food on offer. Sundays, in particular, tend to be mega-crowded.
Not to be confused with the Camden Markets, these back street stalls are actually found
Camden Passage, Islington, London, N1 8EE
Tube: Angel Station
Hidden down a cobble-stoned Angel backstreet a whimsical collection of odds and ends have been gathered together on a selection of market stalls. Intermingled among elegant antique shops and restaurants, it is very easy to spend a day perusing through the muddle of goodies. The antique shops themselves are the real hidden gems of Camden Passage. There is a much admired doll and toy dealer, a specialist long case and mantel clocks vendor and the ‘Georgian Village’ is full of ornate glass and precious china. There are also some high quality vintage clothing and jewellery stalls to be found. Most of the traders are specialists, they know their stuff and can be a lot of fun to chat to. Strive to find the bargains; prices can be high so haggling is essential. Many of the smaller shops and stalls are only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but the larger antique furniture shops may open on other days if visitors ring the bell. Every Sunday Camden Passage hosts a popular farmers’ market selling a range of locally grown organic foods.
Stroll down the canal on a Saturday morning to this delightful market, grab a cappuccino and admire the local fashionistas
East, Hackney, London, E8 4PH
Tube: Bethnal Green Station
Broadway is a great little market that is expanding rapidly and enjoys a tremendous reputation, especially with young and cool East Londoners. Positioned nicely between Regent’s Canal and London Fields. It’s worth the trip down there as there’s a tremendous variety of interesting goods and some great opportunities for people watching. There’s also a good selection of organic food including rare breed pork, veal and venison, seafood and fresh fish, handmade cheese, butter and buttermilk, fair-trade coffee, and organic breads, cakes and pastries. Health products are sold alongside vintage clothing from the 50s, 60s and 70s, including USA streetwear. Broadway has a tradition in enabling the city’s people to eat; livestock would travel through what is now Broadway Market from London Fields, the last common grazing area, before their final stop at Slaughter Street in Brick Lane or East Smithfield. Broadway was also one of the original chartered open markets in London, a thriving marketplace some thirty years ago. It’s good to see it firmly back on the map.
Ridley Road Market
One of East-London’s least gentrified markets, loud, smelly and full of character.
Ridley Road, London, E8 2NP
Tube: Highbury & Islington Station
This mixed market has a strong emphasis on food, catering for a wide variety of tastes from Afro-Carribean fruit and veg to Asian spices and plenty of fresh fish too. But it’s not just the place to go for affordable food, Ridley Road Market also offers cheap clothes and household goods from a six pack of knickers to washing up liquid. Best of all, though, is the excellent selection of exotic food – quality varies from stall to stall so make sure you shop around.
200-acre open space with boating, ponds, sculptures and art
Albert Bridge Road, Battersea Park, Battersea, London, SW11 4NJ
Tube: Sloane Square Station
Situated on the south side of the Thames, facing Chelsea, Battersea Park caters for everyone within its 200-acre space. Firstly, there’s lots of water – a lake for boating, ponds for admiring the wildlife, and the Thames along one side for general gazing purposes. Then there’s art – the Pump House Gallery (free admission) has regular exhibitions and there are many sculptures dotted around the park itself. Next comes sport – with all-weather pitches, tennis courts and a place to hire bicycles there’s no excuse to be lazy. Children get a great deal with their own adventure playground and zoo, while a majestic Peace Pagoda bestows an air of calm and tranquillity to the typically action-packed surroundings. Wildlife thrives here with birds, animals and plants happily cohabiting within the grounds.
Bushy Park & The Longford River
Second largest of the Royal Parks at 1100 acres
Park Office, White Lodge, The Stockyard, Hampton Court Road, Hampton, London, TW12 2EJ
Tube: Hounslow Central Station
Just north of the celebrated royal palace at Hampton Court, Bushy Park is the second largest of the Royal Parks. On the surface, the park appears simply to be a vast, rural expanse of exceptional wild beauty but of little historical significance. The lush grass, wooded copses and winding rivers do, however, hide an interesting past. A settlement for over 4000 years, a number of interesting items have been extracted from the park – archaeologists unearthed a Bronze Age burial mound and barrow here, the contents of which now reside in the British Museum. A keen eye for detail can make out the traces of medieval field boundaries, in existence before Henry VIII turned the area into one huge deer-hunting ground. More recently, during both World Wars, the park was used as agricultural land when Britain was suffering food shortages, and as the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force. The Longford River looks perfectly at ease in its surroundings, flowing leisurely through the park, but it is in truth a 13 mile artificial waterway, built in the time of Charles I to divert water from the River Colne to Hampton Court. History aside, these days Bushy Park is simply a wonderful place to get outside, walk away an afternoon and watch the sun slide spectacularly behind the horizon. The park’s most notable feature is Chestnut Avenue; the mile long thoroughfare designed by Sir Christopher Wren is flanked on either side by majestic rows of horse chestnut trees and leads to the 17th century ‘Diana’ Fountain. Anglers can try their luck in the three ponds and there are facilities for a host of other sports including rugby, football, horse-riding and hockey. Formal plantations of trees mingle with wildlife conservation areas and big mounds of bracken hiding herds of deer. Combine a walk in the park with a visit to Hampton Court (though the walk is free you will have to pay an entry fee to the palace). Leave by the Lion Gate, stop off for a refreshing pint in the King’s Arms pub just outside before you cross the road and enter the park via the Hampton Court Gate. Walk towards Hampton Wick and take the train back from there.
The wildest of London’s parks covering 790 acres
Highgate Road, London, NW3 7JR
Tube: Hampstead Station
The wildest of London’s parks, Hampstead Heath has fields to run in, long grass to roll in, woods to hide in and, most famously, ponds to swim in. In north London this is THE place to get back to nature. Strewn with picnickers, cyclists, families and the rest, the heath is large enough and has enough copses, hills and mounds that a quiet spot is never far away. ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ author, CS Lewis, lived near Hampstead Heath and local folklore asserts that it was its picturesque rises, ponds and woodland glades which inspired his mystical land. Parliament Hill is a beacon in the midst of this sprawling expanse of natural beauty. Its summit provides a view of the city almost in its entirety. Spot the famous dome of St Paul’s juxtaposed by the ultra-modern Canary Wharf in the distance. This is the perfect kite-flying spot. Hampstead Heath is renowned as a rich conservation area and parts of it are designated as areas of scientific interest by English Nature. Hoards flock to the refreshing waters of the heath’s celebrated ponds in the summer months whilst in the colder months it’s more rewarding to while away an afternoon feeding the ducks or exploring the lush woodland, bogs, hedgerows and grassland. The heath doesn’t look quite as rural as when Constable painted it, but nonetheless, it is as close to rural as you’re going to get in a capital city.
At only 54 acres its perfect for an intimate picnic or romantic stroll.
Holland Park Avenue / Kensington High Street, Holland Park, London, W8 6LU
Tube: Kensington (Olympia) Station
Pretty, petit Holland Park is the ideal location for those wanting to escape the clamour of the city but who don’t want to travel too far out of the centre. Tucked away in one of London’s most elegant districts, the park offers small, cosy grassy knolls, cooling woodland glades, wild ponds, pavilions, an open expanse for games and general frolicking, playgrounds for older and younger children and a cafe. Small, but perfectly formed, this lovely park is perfect for an intimate picnic or romantic stroll. There are beautiful woodland trails, manicured lawns and formal gardens, the Kyoto Japanese Garden with its resident Coi, and a fantastic ice cream stand in the middle. Opened in 1952, Holland Park used to be a private estate belonging to the Earl of Holland. During the 19th century Holland House attracted high profile visitors from various walks of life, from the politician, Lord Palmerston, to the poet, Lord Byron. The former ballroom of Holland House is now the stylish (and pricey) Belvedere restaurant, while the orangery and ice house host temporary exhibitions. In the summer open-air opera and theatre concerts are held in the grounds, you may have to pay for these but seeking out the pretty peacocks roaming around is free.
350 acres form one of London’s best-loved parks
Rangers Lodge, Hyde Park, London, W2 2UH
Tube: Knightsbridge Station
Technically two different parks, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are in practical and historical terms one huge, merging expanse. Almost every kind of outdoor pursuit takes place within its 625 acres all year round. Horse-riding, rollerblading, swimming, boating, tennis, cycling, bowling and putting are just some of the formal activities catered for, while informal games of cricket, football, rugby and rounders regularly sprout up in the ‘Sports Field’ on the south side of the park. A number of famous London attractions are also housed within this central space. Hyde Park boasts the Speakers’ Corner and the Serpentine lake, lido and art gallery, while Kensington Palace, the Italian Gardens, Peter Pan statue, Albert Memorial and Princess Diana Memorial Playground characterise Kensington Gardens. Both spaces have strong royal associations. In 1536, as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII recalled Hyde Park back from the monks of Westminster Abbey and began using it for hunting. In 1728, George II’s wife Queen Caroline engineered the introduction of water to the park by channelling a stream to create the Long Water and Serpentine. Public use of the park was banned in the 18th century and then only introduced years later to a contingent of “respectably dressed” folk. The situation now couldn’t be more different. From formally dressed horse-riders to scantily clad sunbathers, this area attracts and welcomes everyone. Its central location means it lures in folk from every walk of life and, as a result, is one of the most colourful, dynamic and fascinating green spaces in London. A full complement of events including free guided walks, concerts, workshops and entertainments complete the picture.
Kensington Roof Gardens
A 1.5 acre expanse overlooking Kensington and the rest of London
99 Kensington High Street, Kensington, London, W8 5SA
Tube: High Street Kensington Station
Kensington Roof Gardens is Now Closed.
Now more a clubbing and “event” venue, these extraordinary Roof Gardens are still accessible to the general public during the day if there are no functions taking place (ring to check before your visit). Hidden on top of the old Derry and Toms (later Biba) department store, one hundred feet above Kensington High Street, visitors wishing to explore the gardens just need to go to the reception and sign in – entrance is through an ordinary looking door down a side road on Derry Street. Once you emerge out of the lifts a 1.5 acre expanse with spectacular views opens up to you. The gardens are divided up into three distinct areas; traditional English, formal Spanish and Tudor. The English garden, with its wild woodland theme, appears the most extraordinary, considering its position on top of an office block. Over 100 trees (all of which are under a preservation order), a stream and garden pond with flamingos and ducks combine to create a magical environment that defies its unique elevation. Fountains, vines and palm trees define the Moorish idyll, while the Tudor garden provides a delicate contrast with roses, wisteria, ivy and leafy arches. This really is one of London’s secret treasures and worth the small effort required to arrange a visit.
Elegant park designed by John Nash – covers 410 acres
Park Office, Storeyard ( Inner Circle), Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4NR
Tube: Regent’s Park Station
Another of London’s spectacular John Nash creations, Regent’s Park is a huge, thriving green expanse in the heart of the capital. Consisting of two circular areas (an Inner and Outer Circle) the park is bordered by stunning, stark white stucco terraced houses – also designed by royal architect, Nash. At one time a hunting ground for the ever-ebullient Henry VIII, the Prince Regent (later King George IV) commissioned Nash to transform the land in the early 19th century. Now most famously associated with London Zoo – positioned over on the north-east corner of the park – an open air theatre, ornate bandstand, large boating lake, huge mosque and 100-acre sports field add to its many attractions. The rest of its 410 acres consist of vast open parkland interspersed with formal, landscaped gardens. Dating back to the 1930s, Queen Mary’s Gardens are still regularly and fastidiously tended, while the Rose Garden now bursts at the seams with over 30,000 flowers. Primrose Hill lies at the north of Regent’s Park, merging and rising to a peak to offer fantastic views over Westminster and the City. A number of pretty eateries populate Regent’s Park, while Primrose Hill is heaving with trendy cafes and bars. This is a great place for almost every kind of outdoor pursuit. If you’re visiting the zoo or theatre (you’ll have to pay for these), make sure you schedule in a couple of hours to explore this elegant, rural recreation area – and it won’t cost you a thing.
At 2500 acres this is the largest Royal Park in London
Park Office, Holly Lodge, London, TW10 5HS
Tube: Richmond Station
Only 30 minutes or so from central London, this is English countryside as you might imagine it depicted in a glossily illustrated Robin Hood story: mighty oaks, a thousand years old, dense forests, dinky copses, rolling hills, majestic fallow deer and burrowing rabbits. Covering almost 2500 acres, Richmond Park is the largest Royal Park in London. With such a large space it’s hard to know where to start when visiting. A tall brick wall surrounds the entire park so you need to first work out which gate you are going to use to enter and then plan your route from there. The best way to enter is via Richmond Gate, heading first for King Henry’s Mound. The park’s position on the edge of town affords it some fantastic panoramas of the capital – King Henry VIII’s Mound is the place to head for uninterrupted views all the way to St Paul’s Cathedral. Wherever you choose to roam – via the ponds and Deer Park or circumventing the many lodges, make sure you end up at the Isabella Plantation. Heavily wooded and wholly organic, the Isabella Plantation bursts with massive mounds of azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias and really is truly magical. Apart from a couple of roads running around the edge of the park (traffic is highly regulated and, for the most part, unassuming) the park has changed little since the reign of Charles I. Responsible for park’s enclosure and the introduction of deer, Charles I sought sanctuary in Richmond during the plague. These days the park performs much the same function, offering a calming sanctuary from the pressures of city life. Enjoy.
St James’s Park
Spread across 58 acres this colourful, central park has a thriving bird population and lake
Horse Guards Road, St James’s, London, SW1A 2BJ
Tube: Westminster Station , St James’s Park Station
St James’s Park with Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens forms an unbroken line of greenery that stretches over three miles from the Houses of Parliament to Olympia. On the park’s borders St James’s Palace and the Queen’s home Buckingham Palace stand proud, offering some stunning views from within its lush peacefulness in the heart of the city. A true retreat, it’s hard to believe that St James’s was a swampy watermeadow in centuries past. Now, rolling lawns stretch out around the lake, which is home to ducks, geese and pelicans. In the summer months visitors can catch a concert, loll in deckchairs (for a small fee) or dine alfresco with a picnic or on the terrace of the park’s restaurant.
Guildhall Art Gallery
Although most of London’s galleries are either in the West End or East End, one of its most rewarding can be found sandwiched between the two, within the Square Mile. Guildhall Art Gallery contains an impressive collection of canvases and sculpture, many depicting scenes from the City’s history. A statue of Margaret Thatcher, made of stone not iron, stands guard in the corner. As an added bonus, the basement houses the remains of the Roman amphitheatre, discovered beneath the gallery in 1988.
• 5 Aldermanbury, EC2, 020-7332 3700, cityoflondon.gov.uk. Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12pm-4pm
The college has been doling out free lectures for more than 400 years, since Thomas Gresham set the ball rolling in his will of 1597. The college now arranges 140 talks a year on every topic from law to divinity to astronomy. Although the organisation is styled as a college, and lectures are normally delivered by professors, it’s a very open place aimed at the general public. Most of the events come from within the charming Barnard’s Inn Hall, parts of which date back to before even Gresham’s time.
• Barnard’s Inn Hall, EC1, 020-7831 0575, gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events
Window-Shopping on Pimlico Road
It’s lined with shops, cafes and ideal stops for ladies who lunch, but Pimlico Road is also dappled with the most delightful design, commercial galleries and furniture shops in the city, all of which are worth savoring for an afternoon. Potterton Books London stocks rare and antique titles, while Humprey Carrasco offers an enviable stock of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century furnishings.
Bermondsey Square Antique Market
You might not be in the market for an antiquity, but from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. every Friday, Bermondsey Square is a fascinating place to unspool an afternoon. From hulking pieces of furniture to delicate jewelry, it’s all here and worth a look.
St Bride’s Church
Nicknamed “The Journalists’ Church”, thanks to its associations with nearby Fleet Street, St Bride’s has a much older history than the printed word. A place of worship has probably stood on the site since the 7th century AD. The current church was built in 1672 by Christopher Wren following the great fire of London. Its famous steeple is said to have inspired the first tiered wedding cake, in happy resonance with the church’s name. The crypt conceals a fascinating exhibition of the church’s past, including Roman remains and medieval glass.
• Fleet Street, EC4, 020-7427 0133, stbrides.com, Mon-Fri 8am-6pm, Sun 10am-6.30pm
New London Architecture
Loom Godzilla-like over a giant model of London at this ever-excellent temple to the capital’s built environment. The plastic model stretches a dozen metres, taking in the Docklands and Olympic Park in the east, and stretching as far as Battersea in the west. The walls, meanwhile, are plastered with information about proposed new buildings for the capital. This place often gets left out of the guidebooks, but it’s one of the best starting points for getting an overview of London.
• The Building Centre, 26 Store Street,WC1, 020 7636 4044, newlondonarchitecture.org. Open Mon-Fri 9.30am-6pm, Sat 10am-5pm
It’s a pretty amazing building that can claim 14 Nobel Prize wins and the discovery of ten chemical elements. The Royal Institution has, for more than 200 years, served as a leading centre of science, nurturing the careers of Michael Faraday and Humphry Davy. Although its regular lectures normally involve a fee, the small basement museum is always freely open. Here you can see various contraptions and instruments from the RI’s past – including the world’s first thermos flask – and watch genuine scientists going about their business in the nanotech lab.
• 21 Albemarle Street, W1, 020-7409 2992, rigb.org. Open Mon-Fri 9am-6pm
All Hallows By The Tower
While millions of tourists flock to the Tower of London, another historic building lurks just yards away. The church of All Hallows dates back to Saxon times. Although the current building is largely a post-war reconstruction, you can still see remains, including an arch, from more than 1,000 years ago. The crypt contains a small museum, including a model of Roman London and the baptism record of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania.
• Byward Street, EC3, 020-7481 2928, allhallowsbythetower.org.uk. Open Mon-Fri 8am-6pm, Sat-Sun 10am-5pm (except during services)
Closed Until 2021 Just across the square from Sir John Soane’s Museum lurks another free cultural centre. The Hunterian Museum is named after John Hunter, one of the first people to apply scientific method to surgery. Hunter’s collection of skeletal remains, diseased organs and other anatomical curiosities is not for the squeamish, but those with a fascination for the human body will find much to get their teeth into, so to speak.
• Royal College of Surgeons, 35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2 020-7869 6560, rcseng.ac.uk/museums. Open Tue-Sat 10am-5pm
This tiny park within the Square Mile is something of a cliche in lists of “secret” or “unusual” things to do in London, but its recommendation bears repeating. The reason for its popularity lies in a Victorian memorial to people who died while trying to save others. This wall of tragic heroes was created in 1900 by George Frederic Watts. The memorial was recently updated for the first time in 78 years, with the addition of a plaque for Leigh Pitt, who died rescuing a drowning child in 2007.
• King Edward Street, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postman’s_Park
Grant Museum of Zoology
The Grant Museum must rank as first among equals in London’s generous offering of quirky museums. It serves as a teaching museum for zoology students at University College London, but is also open to the public. The recently updated premises are crammed with zoological curiosities, including a bisected pregnant cat, a giant penis bone from a walrus and a jar full of pickled moles. The museum is also noted for its regular free screenings of cult or forgotten movies featuring animals or monsters, usually followed by a complimentary glass of wine and tour of the museum.
• 21 University Street, WC1, 020-3108 2052, ucl.ac.uk/museums/zoology.
Open Mon-Fri 1pm-5pm
The South Bank isn’t entirely given over to professional concerts and high-brow culture. A popular skate park lurks beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with enough ramps and raised surfaces to keep a couple of dozen skateboarders and BMX riders happy. It’s also a popular spot for graffiti artists who can hone their skills without being collared. Even if you’re not a skater, the spectacle is worth a diversion. Nearby, on the north-east pontoon of Hungerford footbridge, is a “skateboard graveyard”, into which broken decks are pitched.
• Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, SE1, 020-7960 4200, southbankcentre.co.uk
Although many of London’s museums and galleries are free, it’s a little harder to find theatre or cinema that doesn’t come with a ticket price. One hotspot for gratis performance is The Scoop. This sunken space seats 800 and can be found beside City Hall, close to Tower Bridge. During summer months, the amphitheatre is in use almost every evening, hosting live music, plays, film screenings and keep-fit classes. While you’re in the area, take a look inside City Hall where a spiral ramp leads down to small gallery spaces, a cafe and a giant map of London. The security can look a bit fearsome, with airport-style scans – but don’t worry, you have every right to go in.
• City Hall, 110 The Queen’s Walk, SE1, 020-7403 4866, morelondon.com/scoop.html
The famous courtyard and vast Georgian building alone are worthy of a visit, but seek out the two elegant staircases, the balcony views of the Thames, and the small basement gallery. In the summer, the dancing courtyard fountains are a joy. In the winter, an ice rink takes over. Occasionally, the house’s catacombs are opened for art installations and performance. The house also contains the Cortauld Gallery of impressionist paintings, tho’ an entrance fee applies here.
• The Strand, WC2, 020-7845 4600, somersethouse.org.uk. Open Mon-Sun 10am-6pm
The British Film Institute’s swanky South Bank complex has much to explore, including two excellent bars, cinema screens, a well-stocked film store and a small exhibition space. Its greatest treasure, however, is the Mediatheque. This suite of wide-screen computer booths offers free access to thousands of archive TV shows, films and documentaries, including plenty of material about London itself. Book ahead or simply turn up at a quiet moment.
• Belvedere Road, London, 020 7928 3535, SE1, whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/default.asp. Open Tue-Fri 12 noon-8pm, Sat-Sun 12.30pm-8pm
See the world’s oldest dinosaur sculptures at Crystal Palace Park. Situated in Southeast London, the park is a place for all. A place for learning about beekeeping, training, health and overall well-being. You’ll find a quiet spot to read a book, contemplate your love of London or enjoy any number of activities and events.
See what life was like for the poor and destitute of London’s East End during the late 1800s in the Ragged School Museum during Victorian times. The museum has several gallery areas, a reconstructed Victorian classroom and a Victorian East End kitchen displaying its own collection of historical object.
Take your pain away with a visit to The Anaesthesia Museum, this quirky attraction charts the history of anaesthesia from 1846 to the present day.
Browse old sewing machines at the London Sewing Machine Museum. The feature attraction is a machine given to Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter as a wedding present.
Camley Street Natural Park
Camley Street natural park is two acres of serenity among this turmoil. A series of ponds and reed beds nestling up against the Regent’s Canal offer a welcome haven for birds and small mammals, as well as passing pedestrians.
• 12 Camley Street, N1, 020-7833 2311, wildlondon.org.uk, open Sun-Fri 10am-5.30pm
Central St Martin’s
The other interesting development at the back of King’s Cross is the new home for Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design. The art school moved into the complex in late 2011, bringing new life to an 1851 granary building, which has been tastefully converted for its new function. The old building is a public space with regular displays of art and performance pieces. Outside, leaping fountains and a stepped terrace leading down to the canal make for an attractive setting. And you’re only a short walk to the Guardian HQ, round the corner in Kings Place.
• 1 Granary Square, London N1, csm.arts.ac.uk
Alight at Colindale tube station and follow the signs to this superb collection of military aircraft. The sprawling museum contains so many magnificent flying machines that it would be fruitless to attempt it all in one visit. Just as you’re beginning to tire, you’ll encounter the mighty Vulcan bomber, dominating the corner of the main hangar like a giant obsidian moth. Even the most ardent pacifist would boggle at its presence.
• Grahame Park Way, NW9, 020-8205 2266, rafmuseum.org.uk/london, open daily 10am-6pm
Old St Pancras Churchyard
This tiny green space and church pack more historical punch than many spots in London. Early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft was married and buried here. Her daughter Mary declared her love to Percy Shelley over the grave (she, of course, went on to become Mary Shelley). Sir John Soane (he of the museum) is also buried here, and his unusual grave inspired the red London phone box. A young Thomas Hardy exhumed numerous St Pancras graves to make way for the railways. The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night was partly filmed here. Oh, and it also happens to be one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in the country. Phew!
• Pancras Road, NW1, victorianweb.org/art/architecture/london
Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge
A trip up to Chingford, on the northern fringes of London, offers the pleasant option of a walk in Epping Forest. But before you do so, take a peek in this rare Tudor survival on the edge of the woods. Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge dates to her father’s reign in 1543, when the increasingly corpulent Henry VIII sought greater luxury while out hunting. Modern-day visitors can learn about the Tudor kitchen and imagine taking pot shots at the deer of Chingford Plain. The small venue is especially geared up for families, with regular activities and events, and a well-stocked dressing-up box for the little ones. The View, a new interpretation centre, with community room, exhibition space and gift shop, opened this summer.
• Ranger’s Road, E4, 020-8529 6681, cityoflondon.gov.uk, open daily 10am-5pm
Tate Britain, Millbank
London’s premier gallery for British art spans the centuries, collecting canvases from Hogarth, Constable and Gainsborough, but also displaying more recent art from the likes of Gilbert & George. Tate Britain is particularly noted for its extensive collections of Turners, housed in a specially created wing. Look out for the impressive second world war bomb damage on the southern exterior wall.
• SW1, 020-7887 8888, tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain. Open Sat-Thur 10am-6pm, Fri 10am-10pm
Hogarth’s House, Chiswick
This dainty little house was the country retreat of noted English painter William Hogarth. What the artist would make of the place these days, given the roaring road junction next door, is not difficult to imagine. Still, at least they had the grace to name the junction the Hogarth roundabout. Inside the house, you’ll see period furniture and a good collection of Hogarth prints. Chiswick House Gardens and conservatory are just around the corner, and free to visit.
• Hogarth Lane, Great West Road, W4, 020 8994 6757, hounslow.info/arts/hogarthshouse. Open Tues-Sun noon-5pm
The residence of the Bishops of London in Fulham traces its origins back to Anglo-Saxon times. This unrivalled history is told in the palace’s free museum, which also includes a fascinating scale model of the site. Outside, explore the delightful gardens, which include the remains of the longest moat in England. The adjacent Bishops Park and riverside walk are also worth a look.
• Bishop’s Avenue, SW6, 020 7610 7169, fulhampalace.org. Open Sat-Wed 1pm–4pm (palace), Mon-Fri 10.15am–4.30pm (walled garden), dawn to dusk (botanical gardens
Dana Centre, South Kensington
During the day, the Dana Centre is an under-used cafe-bar hidden behind the main access routes to South Kensington’s museums. Come the evening and it turns into an adults-only venue for discussion about science, technology and culture. The Dana Centre is well-known for its creative approach to engaging the public with difficult ideas. Most events involve eminent researchers interacting with the audience in unusual and inventive ways.
• 165 Queen’s Gate, SW7, 020 7942 4040, danacentre.org.uk. Open 10am-5pm, or 9pm on event evenings
Geffrye Museum, Hoxton
What would your living room have looked like 100 years ago? 200 years ago? This Hoxton museum explores how tastes in English home furnishing have changed over the centuries, from 1600 to the present day. A series of mock interiors are chronologically arranged along the length of a row of early 18th-century almshouses. An outdoor herb garden completes the picture, while a modern wing offers temporary exhibitions.
• 136 Kingsland Road, E2, 020-7739 9893, geffrye-museum.org.uk, open Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun and holidays noon-5pm
Museum of London Docklands, Canary Wharf
The MoL’s eastern outpost covers the history of London’s docks. It’s one hell of a story. Somehow, the museum manages to pack in the rise and fall of the British Empire, the formation of the Royal Navy, the horror of the slave trade, the firestorms of the second world war, the death of the docks in the 1960s, and the massive redevelopment of Canary Wharf and the wider riverside since.
• West India Quay, E14, 020-7001 9844, museumoflondon.org.uk/docklands, open daily 10am-6pm
Spitalfields City Farm
London has more than a dozen city farms dotted around the inner boroughs. All of them offer a family-friendly taste of rus in urbe and a chance to meet domesticated animals. The Spitalfields farm is one of the more central options. It also distinguishes itself with the annual Oxford-Cambridge Goat Race, which takes place annually on the same day as the more famous boat race.
• Buxton St, E1, 020-7247 8762, spitalfieldscityfarm.org, open 10am-4.30pm
Valence House, Dagenham
London is replete with small, local museums. One of the best area-specific examples can be found in the borough of Barking and Dagenham. These parts of London are often overlooked by visitors, but are steeped in social and cultural history. Valence House tells their story with aplomb, inside a largely medieval building that retains part of its moat.
• Becontree Avenue, RM8, 020-8227 5293, lbbd.gov.uk, open Mon-Sat 10am-4pm
Changing the Guard
For a display of sheer pomp and ceremony see the Changing the Guard ceremonial outside Buckingham Palace. This is where one member of the Queen’s Guards exchanges duty with the old guard. Both guards are dressed in traditional red tunics and bearskin hats, and the ceremony is set to music. To catch the ultimate royal experience, stand outside Buckingham Palace at 10.45 and again at 11.40 to watch the mounted Guards ride out of the palace and down The Mall.
Get Your Neon-Fix At God’s Own Junkyard
Located on an industrial estate in the uber-cool North London neighbourhood of Walthamstow, God’s Own Junkyard is miraculously still something of an insider tip that even many Londoners don’t know about. Dedicated to the life’s works of neon artist Chris Bracey, the warehouse is full of incredible restored and bespoke neon signs that have featured in everything from Hollywood blockbusters to Soho sex shops. This truly is an incredible place, and definitely one of the coolest free things to do in London. Afterwards head to the Junkyard’s brilliantly named ‘Rolling Scones Cafe’ for a cuppa or pop next door to warehouse-turned-gin palace Mother’s Ruin.
Walk through Hyde Park – No trip to London is complete without a walk through Hyde Park.
104 – 107
Hang With Some Famous Locals
No, we’re not talking about Madame Tussauds! *cough, rip off, cough* If you want to hang out with some of London’s most colourful (former) residents for free, then head to the city’s graveyards, where you’ll find writers, actors, politicians and even Victorian lion-tamers. From Karl Marx to Sir Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the city is packed to the rafters with famous graves.
But it’s not all about the celebs – the cemetries in London are pretty amazing in their own right, full of gorgeous architecture, tranquil woods and centuries of history. It may sound a little morbid, but apart from being free, London’s cemeteries are also a great way to get away from the crowds and enjoy some alone time. In our opinion, the best cemeteries in London are Highgate Cemetry in North London; West Norwood Cemetry in South London and Brompton Cemetry in West London. If you get a chance, you should also pay a visit to the gardens of St Pancras Old Church. This tiny cemetery in a forgotten corner of King’s Cross hides one of the weirdest London attractions: the Hardy Tree. The tree is surrounded by rings of tightly concertinaed graves and is the work of Thomas Hardy, who was helping make way for new train tracks before he found fame as an author.
Covent Garden – Explore the old market, watch street performers, hear musicians. Plenty of free fun to be had in Covent Garden. Being in Covent Garden is free as are street performances; however, expect to spend money.
Walk along the Thames – Smell the fresh river air and listen to the Thames lap along the shore.
Evensong Church Service – You have to pay admission to get into most of London’s cathedrals, but if you go to evensong service you can get in for free. St Paul’s Cathedral Evensong is wonderful. You’ll adore Westminster Abbey Evensong, too.
Cross Tower Bridge – It’s a free thrill for all tourists to cross the bridge. Wait around, and you might even see it open and close. Check out the bridge lift times before you go.
Walk through the Woolwich Foot Tunnel – Cross one of the oldest tunnels under the Thames – get off a the DLR stop King George V and walk to the entrance. It’s a wee bit eerie walking through the tunnel under the Thames but cool nonetheless.
Pollocks Toy Museum – Toys from around the world – great place for the kids. The museum and small toy shop are housed in two historic buildings in London’s Fitzrovia. Collection of mainly Victorian toys.
View London from Primrose Hill – Admire the view from London’s Primrose Hill. It’s not just a view but excellent views of the London skyline.
Walk through the City of London on a Saturday or Sunday – The Square Mile or City of London is practically abandoned on the weekends. Check out the cool architecture and enjoy the quiet streets.
See the London Stone – Check out the Roman Stone from where all distance from London was measured located at 111 Cannon Street.
Touch the Roman Wall – Throughout the city of London you’ll see traces of the original Roman Wall fortification. There’s large pieces around the Museum of London.
Check out Picadilly Circus – See the iconic bright lights and the famous statue of Eros. If you want to avoid the crowds, go in the wee hours of the morning when London is asleep.
Musicians in Covent Garden Apple Market – On the lower levels of the Market, there’s usually musicians busking while people eat.
Wellington Arch – One of two triumphal arches in London. The Wellington Arch was built as an original entrance to Buckingham Palace. It later became a victory arch proclaiming Wellington’s defeat of Napolean.
Marble Arch – The second triumphal arch in London and worth a visit if you want the real story of Marble Arch.
Visit Platform 9 3/4 – Doesn’t really exist, of course, but station authorities have set up a fake entrance for Harry Potter fans at King’s Cross Station.
Visit St Pancras International – Admire this beautiful station, watch Eurostar trains arrive and depart, and visit the statue of the couple kissing.
Harrod’s Food Hall – Browse quail eggs, cava, and custom-made cakes in the sumptuous food halls in Harrods.
Walk along the South Bank – Walk from Westminster Bridge to Waterloo Bridge to the Tate Modern then onto Tower Bridge, and see a huge part of London. It’s all there – all of London – waiting for you.
Walk through Richmond Park – An escape to the great outdoors in Richmond Park with its wide open spaces, grasslands and deer herds.
Canals of Maida Vale/Little Venice – See London’s waterways and cute boats where people actually live.
Abbey Road Crosswalk – Become a traffic hazard, and have your own Beatles pictures taken.
Explore Blue Plaques – Look closely on old buildings, and you’ll see lots of blue plaques, which offer some history about famous people who lived there. Make a list of your favourite people then go explore.
Listen to Big Ben Chime – Stand in Parliament Square at noon and wait for Big Ben to make its music. I stand across the Thames at midnight to be taken into the next day.
Walk Through Greenwich Foot Tunnel The tunnel opened in 1902 and has recently been refurbished. It is a public highway and free to walk through. There are spiral staircases and lifts at each end.
St Dunstan In The East You’ll feel secluded in this gem of a church garden, except the church was bombed during World War II so it’s a hollowed out oasis today.