London isn’t known for being inexpensive, but you can build a full (and amazing) London vacation out of free experiences! Free things to do in London vary from extraordinary, world-class museums to London-only experiences like Changing the Guard. Start planning your London vacation right now with these free things to do in London!
1. Changing the Guard & the Queen’s Life Guard
For a true taste of London’s royal spectacle, look no further than the spectacle of Changing the Guard. Every day, crowds gravitate towards the gates of Buckingham Palace to see the red-coated soldiers march through their paces while a military band plays. It’s a stirring sight that makes this not only one of the best free things to do in London, but a favorite for any vacation.
The Buckingham Palace ceremony schedule changes by season, but generally takes place mid to late-morning. For best viewing, especially in busy travel seasons, you’ll want to be outside the palace at least an hour early. Everyone wants a spot peeking through the Buckingham Palace railings, for the best view of the ceremony. But from the Victoria Memorial steps, you can also enjoy a view of the guards as they arrive and depart, the ceremony, and even the Household Cavalry riding past.
For a different experience, walk a few minutes down The Mall to the Horse Guards Parade, at the opposite end of St. James’s Park. Here, you can see the daily ceremony of Changing the Queen’s Life Guard. Mounted on gleaming horses and dressed in stirring regimental uniforms, the Life Guards take their post every morning and remain mounted at Horse Guards until late afternoon.
2. Sightseeing in Parliament Square & Westminster Bridge
London very conveniently keeps some of its most famous buildings all in one place. Some of the most important buildings you want to see are all standard items on any list of free things to do in London. Standing in the green park at the center of Parliament Square, you might well think you’re getting an overdose of London’s movie-star good looks. The Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the Supreme Court rise up around you, along with statues of great statesmen ranging from Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. (The first female statue is on her way!)
Pause to admire the stone friezes on the Supreme Court’s facade, featuring heraldic symbols, scenes such as King John and the Magna Carta, and the crowning of Lady Jane Grey (you can also go inside and view the library and artwork, including an 18th-century tapestry, on weekdays when the Supreme Court is open).
On the other side of the square, tilt your head back to gaze up at the ornate stonework on the Houses of Parliament. Want to go in? The public galleries are open Monday through Thursday when the Houses are sitting, so you can see public debates.
In between you can take a good look at the Gothic buttresses of Westminster Abbey. This stone church plays host to coronations and royal weddings. So while you can’t get inside for free, the eyeful you get from outside is pretty impressive.
Once you’ve seen the history surrounding the square, take a walk across Westminster Bridge. You’ll want a few selfies with that iconic view rising up behind you!
3. The National Gallery and The National Portrait Gallery
Occupying back-to-back space in Trafalgar Square, these two galleries are full of work by some of the greatest masters in history… and they’re free to enter. In The National Gallery, discover collections from the 13th-century to the early 20th-century. You’ll find famous paintings from artists like Botticelli, Raphael, da Vinci and van Gogh, all in galleries so gorgeous they’re works of art in themselves.
In the National Portrait Gallery, history is told in the portraits of the men and women who lived it. From world-famous paintings of the Tudor monarchs to Victorian silhouettes and 20th-century portraiture, the gallery displays paintings, sculpture, photography and other types of portrait related to British history and culture. Take a wander through the collections and spot Anne Boleyn, William Shakespeare, Queen Victoria and many more familiar faces.
4. The British Museum
London’s museums have been at the forefront of archiving collections from around the world for centuries. The British Museum houses artifacts from around the world inside its vast halls. From the massive stone figure Hoa Hakananai’a, originally found on Easter Island, to the marble slabs of the Parthenon frieze, the wonders of civilization are right here in London… and admission is free.
5. The Natural History Museum
At the Natural History Museum, nature is explored in detail. Walk into the Victorian central hall beneath the massive skeleton of a blue whale and you can explore the life and geology of the planet. And if the displays aren’t spectacular enough, the vaulted ceilings, relief sculptures on the walls, and the eight-story cocoon of the Darwin Centre should keep you pretty occupied.
6. Tate Modern and Tate Britain
Ready for a little more art? Head south of Parliament Square to the classical columns of Tate Britain, home to an impressive British art collection. Dating from the Tudor era to the 20th century, works by J. M. W. Turner, John Constable, William Blake, John Singer Sargent and George Stubbs are amongst the highlights here.
Tate Britain’s Modern collection lives down the Thames at the Tate Modern, where the cafe enjoys impressive views across the river to St. Paul’s Cathedral. You can take a boat (not free, but you can pay with your Oyster card at the pier) between the two museums. At the Tate Modern (housed inside an old power station), you’ll find one of the world’s leading collections of contemporary art. Galleries carved from the power station’s works, like the Turbine Hall, add to the modern feel.
7. The Wallace Collection
Does it feel like there are a lot of museums in London? There are, but London’s showers make for perfect museum weather. But when you need a change from vast halls and want something a bit more intimate, head to The Wallace Collection. This London townhouse is furnished with extraordinary art, porcelain and furniture, bringing a gilded age back to life.
Work on display here includes art by Victorian painter Edwin Landseer, famous for his depictions of horses and other animals; 18th century Sèvres porcelain vases, and even incredible medieval armor. (A great plus if you aren’t budgeting for the Tower of London, which has its own amazing armor display.) It’s truly an amazing addition to our list of free things to do in London.
8. The Royal Parks
London’s green spaces make gorgeous splashes of bloom and leaf across the urban landscape, and the Royal Parks are a huge contributor to this much-needed break from the pavement. When you’re looking for free things to do in London, don’t miss the Royal Parks. Of special note are Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Green Park, and St. James’s Park. Together, these four parks stretch from Kensington to Westminster and offer not just a quiet place to slip out of the city’s bustle, but history of their own.
Kensington Gardens is home to Kensington Palace, where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge live. It’s also where you’ll find the Albert Memorial, a stunning tribute from Queen Victoria to her late husband. There’s also a famous Peter Pan statue, art at the Serpentine Galleries, the mannered symmetry of The Italian Gardens and more. (Plus, look up when you hear a squawk and spot the park’s famous parakeet residents!)
Adjacent Hyde Park includes the historic Serpentine, where London’s fashionable once took their strolls and drives, as any good romance reader will tell you. The Diana Memorial Fountain, the Rose Garden and the Speakers’ Corner are other historical spots to note in this park.
Cross Hyde Park Corner and walk through the Wellington Arch and you can walk through Green Park to Buckingham Palace, passing beneath huge mature trees and past memorials.
Once past Buckingham Palace and its magnificent statues and gates, you can enter St. James’s Park. Stop on the bridge over the pond for a fantastic view past Horse Guards to Big Ben and the London Eye in the distance!
9. The Queen’s House
A distance away from the center of London in Greenwich, the Queen’s House marks a turning point in architecture, as well as housing iconic artwork such as the “Armada Portrait” of Elizabeth I (trust us, you’ve seen it in books) as well as exotic animals by George Stubbs. It’s a fitting subject for the Queen’s House, located in the heart of London’s maritime history.
The Queen’s House, completed in 1638, became the first Classical building in England and marked a change from the red-brick Tudor palaces of the time that would eventually spread across the country. Today, it’s a masterpiece of symmetry, with a beautiful spiral staircase (The Tulip Stairs) which were the first self-supporting spiral stairs in Britain.
10. Greenwich Park
Stretching up a hillside behind the Queen’s House, Greenwich Park is a green carpet of grass studded with fine old trees. From the heights of the steep hill you can look out over the symmetrical grounds of the Queen’s House and the National Maritime Museum and on to London’s landmarks. The hilltop is crowned by the Royal Observatory, where Greenwich Mean Time is measured from the Prime Meridian. Look down the hillside for dogs running and playing on the green lawns and imagine them as slightly larger animals; in 2012, the equestrian events for the London Olympics were held here.
That’s a lot of free things to do in London! You might just fill up your whole week without paying a single admission. And that’s a really affordable way to vacation in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities.