AT FIRST GLANCE, VISITORS TO LONDON MIGHT WORRY THAT THE CITY IS PROHIBITIVELY EXPENSIVE. AND WHILE THEY'RE NOT WRONG—DINING AND OTHER EXCURSIONS IN THIS BRITISH CAPITAL CAN QUICKLY ADD UP— THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT NO CITY IN THE WORLD HAS MORE OR BETTER FREE THINGS TO DO THAN LONDON.
Words by DAVID BAKER/AIR MALTA| Extract taken from January's 2021 il-Bizzilla Magazine | Read more here
In addition to world-class museums – almost all of which have free admission – the city is home to beautiful parks, lively markets, captivating cemeteries, stunning churches and phenomenal viewpoints. There are just too many to list in any one article, but we have endeavoured to put together a compilation of the not-so-obvious places you can visit.
With Big Ben under wraps for a few years and who hasn’t seen Buckingham palace, here are a few alternative suggestions designed to save you your pennies, starting with something for the culture vultures.
One of the best ways to decide what to do is to strap on your most comfortable shoes and take to the streets of London in of any number of wonderful walking tours, where you'll get to see some of London's finest sightseeing spots and a whole lot more.
Whether you’ve got a day, an afternoon or just an hour to spare, you can be sure to find a tour that suits. From meanders around Camden’s artful streets and an exploration of the East End’s criminal past to tours that’ll take you to sample the capital's finest food and drink.
Once you’ve done a tour you can hone your choices, starting with something for the culture vultures.
The National Gallery houses is home to one of the world’s most impressive art collections with many masterpieces by renowned painters including van Gogh, Renoir, da Vinci and Michelangelo. It attracts over six million visitors every year, so our tip to avoid the hordes, is by visiting on weekday mornings or Friday evenings. Whatever time you go, the permanent collections are always free.
Don’t be confused between the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. They are two very different offerings. Before Google or Wikipedia, the British came here to put a face to the names of some of the country’s most famous historical figures. As such, the paintings are prized more for their subjects, rather than their artist, although one portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, comes courtesy of pop art sensation Andy Warhol.
An equally impressive art gallery is the Tate Modern, located in what was once Battersea Power Station on the south bank of the Thames. It too houses permanent collections, which includes works by Pollock, Warhol, Matisse and Picasso. For a little respite, the upstairs cafe has wonderful views of the River Thames and the building itself is amazing.
Big isn’t always beautiful. One of London's best small galleries, hidden away just north of Oxford Street, you’ll find the Wallace Collection, an enthralling glimpse into 18th-century aristocratic life, set up in a lavishly restored Italianate mansion stuffed with 17th and 18th century art.
At the other end of the spectrum, but nonetheless impressive, is East London street art. The short-lived nature of street art makes it difficult to say with confidence where you might find specific displays at any one time. However, certain areas of East London, notably Shoreditch, are famous for having particularly impressive graffiti. The side streets around Brick Lane always yield some decent artwork, as do Middlesex and Slater streets.
Back under cover, the British Museum is one of London's top attractions, and of course, one of the main reasons for its popularity, is because it is again absolutely free. It is bursting at the seams with enthralling artefacts from all over the world, from Egyptian mummies to samurai armour and Anglo-Saxon burial treasures to the Rosetta Stone. A little-known fact is that while there in the region of 80,000 objects on display at any one time, these only make up one percent of the eight million objects in the museum’s possession!
Down the road at the Natural History Museum, you can add a few zeros to the size of the collection. An outrageously large 80 million items of all things to do with nature are available for pleasure and education, in a lovely Gothic Revival building, which opened in the late 19th century. Today’s exhibits come about because of the Victorians’ love of collecting and cataloguing.
A wildlife garden is open March to November and the main hall is famously dominated by an enormous blue whale skeleton. From natural history to science, the highly informative and entertaining Science Museum fills seven floors with interactive exhibits. The Energy Hall highlights the first steam locomotives, which date from the early 19th century, while the third-floor exhibits, which include old gliders, hot-air balloons and flight simulators, are popular with kids.
If you like decorative arts, the Victoria & Albert Museum or V&A as it's more affectionately known is for you. It has been open for over 150 years and contains yet another staggering number of items– some 4.5 million (but not all on display at once, for if they were you’d never leave!)
The first floor focuses on Asian (Japanese swords, ancient Chinese ceramics) and some European art, including plaster casts made from Michelangelo's David (note the fig leaf created in the 19th century to protect the sensibilities of Victorian visitors). The Ardabil Carpet in the Middle East-focused Jameel Gallery is the world's oldest, dating from Iran in the 1500s.
Off the radar to most visitors, yet one of the city's great museum attractions, is the Museum of London. It provides a walk-through London's various incarnations – from the geological history of the Thames Valley to the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants to modern-day bankers.
The final selection in the museum category is the Sir John Soane's Museum, housed within the actual home of the prolific Regency architect.
This museum is full of the man’s personal effects and curiosities, creating one of London's most atmospheric and fascinating sights. The house is largely as Soane left it upon his death in 1837, with Christopher Wren drawings, a lantern room and slaves' chains. Aim to go on the first Tuesday of the month, when the home is lit by candles.
London’s museums and galleries are from ‘stuffy’ but if you feel the need for some fresh air – and Spring is a great time to be outside in London – there are plenty of free options to enjoy.
If you want an overview of this magnificent city, head to the top of the hill in the centre of Greenwich Park and you’ll be treated to a spectacular free view: the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf loom up behind the 17th-century Queen’s House, and beyond, the Thames snakes its way into the heart of London. It’s a perfect spot for a picnic in the capital on a summer’s day.
There’s another major free attraction to be found here. The Meridian Line in Greenwich is the dividing point between the eastern and western hemispheres – Longitude 0°. You can stand on the Line at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park with one foot in each half of the earth.
Another vantage point to view the capital is the Sky Garden or ‘walkie talkie’, as it is known to locals. The precise location is 20 Fenchurch Street where the famous enlarged glass dome is dedicated to three storeys of exquisitely landscaped public gardens and London's most exclusive social spaces, including observation decks and an open-air terrace all of which provide a great place to hang out without spending a penny. It is open daily, but you’ll need to book your (free) visit in advance.
While you are up there see if you can see Hampstead Heath. This enormous, ancient parkland is one of the best places to escape the city while at the same time catching an amazing view of it: the vista from Parliament Hill, which forms the southeast part of Hampstead Heath, is so impressive it’s actually been protected by law. Elsewhere in the park you’ll find a zoo, three swimming ponds (nominal charge which is often ignored) and plenty of quiet spots for a back-to-nature-in-the-heart-of-London picnic.
You can also picnic in the delightful Kensington Gardens which are home to a trove of treasures, including the Albert Memorial, the Peter Pan Statue, the Serpentine Gallery, the Round Pond and the Diana Memorial Playground. All are free to admire or visit, and when you’re done with the sights, you can wander along the tree-lined paths which crisscross the whole park. East and north of here is a string of Royal Parks, all free to enter: Regent's Park, Hyde Park, Green Park and St James Park.
From the peace and quiet of the London parks, experience the hustle-bustle of the markets, which are ideal shopping destinations for everything from food to flowers, modern art to antiques, and clothes to curios. Visit sprawling markets such as Spitalfields, Camden Market or Portobello Road, or find gifts from local designers and artisans at the likes of Greenwich Market. If you're a foodie, check out one of the many food markets in London, including lively Borough Market.
Having celebrated its 1000th birthday in 2014, it’s fair to sayBorough Market is one of London’s more established haunts. Located under a maze of Victorian railway arches and open Monday to Saturday, Borough Market is stuffed with lovely food and food-lovers, featuring cuisine from all corners of the world. In truth, any trip to Borough Market is unlikely to end up being free because there’s too much that’s too tempting! But with a strong will and by keeping an eye out for free samples) it can make a good place for a simple wander.
And there you have just a small selection of things to see and do in London that won’t cost you. There are seriously so many more which I have had to leave out, which you can easily discover for yourself.
I have left the best for last though. For if there is one thing I would always include, and you should too, it is to witness the Changing of the Guard - one of the best ceremonies in the city and an occasion that epitomizes the best of British pageantry.