London ranks alongside Tokyo, Oslo, Paris, Sydney and Zurich for most expensive global cities, so being able to sniff out free fun is a valuable skill. Thankfully, though, London has always maintained an egalitarian spirit, especially when it comes to free art and public spaces. (This is, after all, the city that made squatting cool.) No fewer than ten of Zone 1’s major museums (including The Victoria & Albert and The British Museum) offer huge yearly line-ups of free exhibitions. Even with its pricey quarters, London is a city of the people, and visitors should be advised not to equate cheap with cheap when writing up their itinerary. In fact, sticking to the freebies could land you a more authentic experience than you’d ever imagine: When the warmer months settle in there tends to be a greater divide in the paid attractions the tourists will line up for, and the hidden freebies that the locals know to pounce on. Maybe you’re in the mood for a meander, or to see what the conceptual artists are up to. Schedule your stay around these colorful activities and you could easily put that hard earned cash towards something different entirely: leveling up your accommodation? A cocktail worth its weight in platinum? We’ll leave it in your savvy hands.
Photo courtesy of EG Focus
London is most definitely not a city known for its skyscrapers. But, troublingly, it is a city with some of the most phenomenal views in Europe. And unless you’re willing to shell out £24.95 to go up the Shard, or make a reservation at posh Sushi Samba for a view from the Heron Building, you might find yourself stuck at ground level. At least you might have been, up until the One New Change building was erected in 2010. The six-storey building isn’t a colossus, but its sci-fi-smooth glass elevators bring you up close and personal to Saint Paul’s and Bankside views over the Tate and City. You can grab a blanket and a drink from the Madison Bar, or if you’re on a budget, wander the terrace for panoramic views and breathtaking photo ops.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: It’s a shopping center with a beautiful secret — most of the shoppers wouldn’t think to look up!
Arianna’s expert tip: Get your camera out when going up the glass lift — the ascent it within spitting distance of St Paul’s.
Read more about One New Change Roof Terrace →
Photo courtesy of Magnus D
The British Library might be one of the most academically imposing institutions on Earth, with 170 million archived items (including the Magna Carta, Da Vinci’s notebook, and the original scraps that Beatles songs were written on), and swathes of stressed out students roaming its bright interiors. But it’s also a dream for the frugal tourist, with most of its most famous items available for viewing in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery. The library also curates free exhibitions like “Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK” and “Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage”, exploring the role of European explorers in the Arctic.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The British Library prides itself on making its most valuable gems available to the public.
Arianna’s expert tip: Enjoy a coffee in the Last Word cafe in the front piazza
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Photo courtesy of Touching Cloth – New Material Night
London has dutifully churned out comedy giants like Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Saunders and John Oliver. But, like LA or New York, it’s also where newbies climb and claw their way through the ranks with bloodthirsty (or shoegazing) zeal, one zingy punchline at a time. And where else would you get to see the newest of the new material from young comedians other than at a free comedy night, the kind where both press and publicists are far from sight? Spitalfields pub The Water Poet offers up Touching Cloth: New Material Night, where rookies are invited to sign up and step into the spotlight. Hey, you might not be witness to the new Louie CK, but you’ll almost certainly leave with some stories to tell, and cred to bring back to your comedy connoisseur pals.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: London breeds some of the most innovative comedy on the planet (Claudia O’Doherty! Tim Key! The Demetrious!) — see it from the ground floor.
Arianna’s expert tip: Get there early to avoid the dreaded front row seats!
Read more about Touching Cloth: New Material Night →
Photo courtesy of Web We Want Festival
Cross over the river from Aldwych and you’ll find a city within a city. The Southbank Centre, with its sprawling temples to art and culture (Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room, the Hayward Gallery, The British Film Institute, and the Saison Poetry Library) would take a week to experience in its entirety. It’s where some of the biggest names in music and arts have performed, and where you’ll find free exhibitions and leisure spaces with some of the best views in the city. Bring snacks and grab one of the outdoor sunchairs, or peruse the book market outside the BFI. Watch the skateboarders in their underpass-skatepark (recently salvaged from demolition through petitioning) and take in the sights and smells of the Real Food Market. It’s the beating heart of the Thames, and absolutely cannot be missed.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: You’re bound to run into a Stephen Fry, Joni Mitchell, or Philip Pullman.
Arianna’s expert tip: Grab a seat on the fourth or fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall for views of the Embankment.
Read more about Southbank Centre →
Photo courtesy of rictulio
What is there to say about the Victoria & Albert Museum, the world’s largest museum of design and decorative arts, which hasn’t already been said by historians, artists, and the public since its opening in 1852? It’s a breathtaking triumph of curation and culture, and with free Friday Lates (bringing in DJs and bartenders for late-night entertainment on the last Friday of each month) it has kept far away from the ever-present danger of gallery-stuffiness. In 2015 the V&A housed ‘Disobedient Objects’, a gut-wrenching display of the shed objects and artifacts of protest movements in the last century. The V&A has come a long was since its eponymously Victorian past, and free entry to its permanent collections makes it truly unmissable.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The V&A takes the cake for majesty and structural magic.
Arianna’s expert tip: On rainy days take the underground walkway from South Kensington tube station. It connects visitors to all of South Ken’s major museums.
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Photo courtesy of King’s Cross
So many thousands of Londoners and tourists move through King’s Cross Station daily that it’s easy to overlook the hidden square to the north — the one where art students and foodies, architects and canal-dwellers come to relax, have a drink, and watch some impressive fountain choreography. Granary Square is just that: a square which houses cult coffee favourite Caravan, much-lauded restaurant Grain Store, and one of Central Saint Martin’s primary campuses. It’s perfect for a day of culture, street-style-spotting (those design students sure can rock a black frock), or unapologetic laziness. The steps leading down to the Regent’s Canal are lined in astro-turf for most of the year, so stake out your napping spot early.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: It’s a haven of stylish calm just a stone’s throw from one of London’s busiest transit arteries.
Arianna’s expert tip: The fountains move in mysterious patterns throughout the day and night. Get there at dusk to watch them light up.
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Photo courtesy of David Holt
If the sun is out and you don’t feel like paying for one of the lounge chairs in Green Park (groan), hop on a northbound bus to Clissold Park. The centerpiece to idyllic family neighborhood Stoke Newington, the Victorian park houses four bodies of water, community animal enclosures, and the historic “House at Clissold Park”. On sunny days it will be awash with the young taste-makers of nearby Hackney and the cozied up families that seemed to colonize the neighborhood in the past decade. The animal enclosure alone would make a memorable — and totally free – day out with children. On display are rare deer and grumpy goats. For some cardio, join the joggers making their way around the park’s tree-lined circumference, or head to the tennis courts.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: There’s a hominess to Clissold Park that you won’t find in the more aristocratic biggies like Hyde Park. It’s nice to mix it up.
Arianna’s expert tip: Finish your day off with the local cuisine at one of the many Turkish restaurants along Green Lanes, south of the park.
Read more about Clissold Park →
Photo courtesy of The Hunterian Museum
The Hunterian Museum houses some of London’s most curious curiosities, selected largely from the personal catalogue of John Hunter, one of the earliest pioneers of medical surgery. Here, in one of London’s better hidden free museums, you’ll find eerie specimens of all types: human, animal, and wax, to name a few. The museum had a makeover in 2005, making its spookiness a sleekly immersive walk through some of medical history’s more morbid delights. The sights on display certainly aren’t for the faint-hearted (think veins, teeth, skulls, and various combinations therein), but the Hunterian Museum perfectly represents both London’s spirit of intellectual history and stylish morbidity. And entry is free!
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: It’s part of London’s less publicized history, and is a calm hideaway from the Covent Garden crowds.
Arianna’s expert tip: Bring your sketchbook and join the crowds of art and medical students who are eager to try their hand at naturalist doodling.
Read more about The Hunterian Museum →
Photo courtesy of Steph Gray
The Science Museum is often overshadowed by its neighbors: the behemoth Natural History Museum and the V&A, to be specific. But inside its doors is one of the most dynamic and cutting-edge series of exhibitions in London. Sure there are the kid-friendly staples: halls dedicated to space exploration and the 3D IMAX wonder-domes. But recently the museum has been reaching for a wider audience, putting on exhibitions like “Churchill’s Scientists”, a gallery of science photography’s influence on contemporary art, and Science Museum’s Lates, a free adult-only night that takes place on the last Wednesday of every month. Each night covers themes like sex, crime, and wearable tech.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: The Science Museum pinpoints science’s magical bridge between childlike wonderment and grown-up intrigue.
Arianna’s expert tip: Put that hard-saved cash towards their expansive gift shop, full of all the gadgets and gizmos a lucky niece or nephew could want.
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Photo courtesy of Loz Pycock
The Tate Modern is an imposing indoor gallery built within the disused Bankside Power Station. That in itself lends the place an entrancing heft, blowing up the spirit of modern artistry to industrial proportions. But if its vertiginous atmosphere wasn’t enough, the 3,400 square metre space of concrete flooring running underneath the main galleries was converted into a venue for projects in 2000. Louise Bourgeois, Ai Weiwei, and Anish Kapoor have all installed their own artistic visions into the otherwise blank space, and all you need to do to enjoy the displays is a step through the gallery’s doors — admission is absolutely free.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: It’s got to be a very special museum whose concrete floor is special enough to steal the show.
Arianna’s expert tip: Look for the sealed-up crack in the ground, where Doris Salcedo installed a giant gash in the foundation for her 2007 ‘Shibboleth’ piece.
Read more about Turbine Hall →