Best things to do in London for free: From Covent Garden’s street performers to the Natural History Museum

·11-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It feels like it’s been a very long time coming, but finally we’re here: summer in the city.

After so long under lockdown, now is the perfect time to get out of the house and tick a few things off your London bucket list. And best of all, it doesn’t need to cost you anything.

From galleries and landmarks to markets and parks, there’s a whole host of activities that will delight both the culturally curious and the wallet-conscious.

These are the things to do in the capital for those looking to save the pennies.

National Gallery

 (PA Archive/PA Images)
(PA Archive/PA Images)

It’s worth battling past the floating Yodas to get to the crown jewel of Trafalgar Square; the National Gallery. The formidable building sits resplendently behind the Fourth Plinth - always a talking point for art lovers - and contains some of the most famous paintings in the world. Here you’ll find works by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, Botticelli and Van Gogh - and you won’t be charged a penny to enjoy them. JT

Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN; nationalgallery.org.uk

Tate Modern

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Even the most skint amongst us will always be able to enjoy the popular activity of walking around Tate Modern and asking: ‘...but is it art?’ The contemporary art haven is one of the most popular venues in the capital, and no one visit is ever the same. A rolling programme of intriguing commissions from some of world’s most exciting artists means there’s always a surprise around the corner, while the permanent collection offers the chance to see art by the big guys, including Picasso, Matisse and Rothko. JT

Bankside, SE1 9TG; tate.org.uk

V&A

 (Peter Kelleher)
(Peter Kelleher)

With more than 2.3 million objects, multiple visits (and some comfy shoes) are required to get a handle on the V&A’s enormous collection. Whatever your passion, you’ll find part of its history here, with displays dedicated to fashion, furniture, sculpture, ceramics, jewellery and performance to name but a few. It costs nothing to get in, and you’ll leave feeling inspired by the endless possibilities of human creativity. JT

Cromwell Road, SW7 2RL; vam.ac.uk

Imperial War Museum

The draw of the Imperial War Museum is its overwhelming sense of truth; this is not a place that glorifies or celebrates war, it simply documents it. Conflicts since 1914 are covered – there’s a Spitfire, a 14 metre high V2 rocket bombs, a harrowing (and award winning) Holocaust exhibition. Modern day causes of conflict are included too, with various looks at the way, for instance, 9/11 has shaped the present world. The IWM is an impressive, occasionally overwhelming place. Far from being a hallway of dusty exhibits, it constantly re-examines the morality of war and peace, and our changing relationship to it. DE

Lambeth Road, SE1 6HZ, iwm.org.uk

Borough Market

 (John Stillwell/PA Archive/PA Images)
(John Stillwell/PA Archive/PA Images)

In truth, any trip to Borough Market is unlikely to end up being free because there’s too much that’s too tempting. It is a hive of some of London’s best producers and throbs with crowds looking to get their fix of fresh pasta, or cured meats, or coffee from countries you’ve barely heard of. The market runs all week offering everything from drinks to dry goods, beauty accessories to bakery specials (on Sundays it’s only open for produce shopping, rather than street food, from 10am to 2pm). Surrounding the market there are plenty of decent pubs, too. Still, half of the fun of Borough Market is simply wandering around it, finding the curiosities, exploring the unusual and unknown – and that’s completely free. DE

8 Southwark St, SE1 1TL, boroughmarket.org.uk

Portobello Road Market

 (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)
(Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

Wander down the iconic Notting Hill street like you’re a foppish man in a rom com. Portobello Road has everything from food stalls to vintage clothing, records to antiques. You don’t even have to buy anything, just enjoy the brightly coloured houses and wonderful atmosphere. Take a camera and snap away. ZP

Portobello Rd, W11 1AN, portobelloroad.co.uk

Science Museum

 (Plastiques Photography/Science Museum Group)
(Plastiques Photography/Science Museum Group)

Time to get educational. There’s something here for absolutely everyone with seven floors of exhibits, including the Apollo 10 command module and a flight simulator. The in-house cinema shows scientific films in 3D, where visitors can explore the depths of the ocean and never-ending outer space. ZP

Exhibition Rd, SW7 2DD, sciencemuseum.org.uk

Hampstead Heath

 (PA)
(PA)

One of the city’s wildest green spaces, Hampstead Heath spans a huge proportion of north London. Stroll across the grass and clamber through the gnarled trees or take in the view of London from atop Parliament Hill. If you fancy a dip, the lido is on one side of the hill and the bathing ponds on the other. Just make sure you’re prepared: they’re very cold. ZP

Hampstead, NW3 7JP, cityoflondon.gov.uk

Houses of Parliament

 (Chequeredlnk/Pixabay)
(Chequeredlnk/Pixabay)

You’ll have to pay to take a tour of the Houses of Parliament, but there are other ways to get in if you just want to look around. Debates in the Commons or Lords have public viewing galleries, which you can queue up for on the day, and you can stay for as long as you like. You can also request tours or a free ticket from your MP but these are very limited. Expect airport style security, so no sharps or liquids. ZP

Westminster, SW1A 0AA, parliament.uk

Street performers in Covent Garden

 (Keith Ellwood/Flickr)
(Keith Ellwood/Flickr)

The best seats in the house can get pretty pricey in Covent Garden. Unless, that is, you step outside the auditoriums and into the market square, where street performers have been entertaining crowds since the 17th century. From comedians to escapologists, opera singers to mimes, you can get a front row seat for free. AB

Covent Garden, WC2E 8BE, coventgarden.london​

Hyde Park

 (Garry Knight/Flickr)
(Garry Knight/Flickr)

When a park is home to a few Princes and a Duchess or two, you know it’s going to be good. As well as green spaces abundant enough to dodge the crowds, you’ll find historic monuments to explore, fountains to both splash about in and admire, myriad art installations, and free exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery a short walk away from its namesake lake. Now that’s a walk in the park. AB

Hyde Park, W2 2UH, parks/hyde-park">royalparks.org.uk

Sky Garden

 (Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive)
(Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive)

If a trip up to the stunning viewing gallery of one of London’s tallest buildings sounds like a pocket drainer, think again. Situated inside a glass oasis at the top of the “Walkie Talkie”, Sky Garden is London’s highest public garden, filled with greenery and boasting panoramic views of the capital. It’s totally free to head up there, but you’ll need to book in advance, with post-lockdown visits starting up again from July 29. AB

20 Fenchurch St, EC3M 8AF, skygarden.london

Trafalgar Square fountains

 (Elliott Brown/Flickr)
(Elliott Brown/Flickr)

As one of London’s best known landmarks, we all know Nelson’s Column, but there’s much more to Trafalgar Square. Designed by Sir Edward Lutyens, its fountains offer a great spot for a mid-city repose, flanked by statues of historical figures and whatever piece of cutting edge contemporary art is currently on the Fourth Plinth. Afterwards, we recommend rubbing a lion statue's nose for luck (or something like that). AB

Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN, london.gov.uk

Natural History Museum

 (UNSPLASH/Daniel Rauber)
(UNSPLASH/Daniel Rauber)

London is blessed with weird and wonderful museums, but for sheer majesty, you can’t beat the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. It’s home to over 80 million items, from billion-year-old meteorites to the great hulking whale skeleton that looms over you as you enter. There’s more than enough to keep the kids enthralled and the adults entertained.

Cromwell Road, SW7 5BD; nhm.ac.uk

Abbey Road’s zebra crossing

 (Skitterphoto/Pixabay)
(Skitterphoto/Pixabay)

More than half a century after The Beatles took that iconic photo walking over the zebra crossing outside Abbey Road studios, people are still trying to recreate it. It’s not the wisest move to attempt to emulate the photo — to get the exact shot, you need to stand in the middle of a pretty busy road — but you can stand on the pavement and get an almost-as-good picture for the ‘gram. Once you’re done re-staging rock history, there’s a gift shop to visit and a graffiti wall that you can leave your own message on. There’s even a camera filming the crossing, streaming the footage live on the internet. Check the website after your visit and rewind back to the time you were there, to catch a glimpse of yourself on the famous white lines. JE

3 Abbey Road, NW8 9AY, Watch the live streamhere: abbeyroad.com/crossing

Visit one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries

 (TuendeBede/Pixabay)
(TuendeBede/Pixabay)

It may sound a bit sinister, although it’s actually anything but. London is home to a selection of stunning cemeteries, known as the ‘Magnificent Seven’. During the Victorian era, Londoners realised they had run out of space to bury their loved ones so built seven new private plots - which were the first of their kind. The spaces in question include Kensal Green cemetery, West Norwood cemetery, Highgate cemetery, Abney Park cemetery Nunhead cemetery, Brompton cemetery and Tower Hamlets cemetery. LT

Across London

Vauxhall City Farm

 (Katie Collins/PA Archive)
(Katie Collins/PA Archive)

This spot is a little slice of the countryside, right in the middle of the city. It’s home to over 14 different types of animal, including ducks, pigs, horses and even alpacas. There’s smaller creatures too for petting, such as guinea pigs and rabbits. It’s a great place to bring the kids for a fun day out in the city. Entry is free but donations are welcomed. LT

165 Tyers St, SE11 5HS​, vauxhallcityfarm.org

Columbia Road Flower Market

 (Laura Lean/PA Archive)
(Laura Lean/PA Archive)

Come rain, wind or shine this east London gem is open every Sunday from 8am-3pm. Take a stroll through the botanical paradise that is Columbia Road as traders set out their blooms to sell. There's all kinds of floral goodies to look out for from herbs and shrubs to flowers and houseplants. It's the perfect setting for a weekend walk through town. LT

Columbia Rd, E2 7RG, visitlondon.com

God’s Own Junkyard

 (Duncan Holmes/Flickr)
(Duncan Holmes/Flickr)

This showroom in Walthamstow is the late neon artist Chris Bracey's personal collection of work. Walk around the small space taking in the vibrant displays of neon signs. It really does contain all sorts of goodies, from Soho club signs to ones that have featured in Hollywood films - there's even a cute little cafe for taking a pit stop. Just don't forget to Instagram this one. LT

Ravenswood Industrial Estate, E17 9HQ, godsownjunkyard.co.uk

Old Spitalfields Market

 (Shutterstock / Graphical_Bank)
(Shutterstock / Graphical_Bank)

This lively east London market has an eclectic mix of stalls that will satisfy any shopper. It’s open seven days a week, so naturally it’s one of London’s busiest shopping destinations. There are antiques, clothes, jewellery - you name it, they’ve got it. Entry is completely free too so just rock up and have a wander around. LT

16 Horner Square, E1 6EW, oldspitalfieldsmarket.com​

Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross

 (Spixey/Flickr)
(Spixey/Flickr)

Every true Harry Potter fan visits this coveted King’s Cross hotspot for a pic in front of the now iconic Platform 9 3/4. If you visit unprepared, don’t worry because there’s a cute little Warner Bros shop right next to it which sells all the merch – Gryffindor scarves, wands and Nimbus 2000s included. Sad thing is you have to pay for a shot if you go in the day. Advice: go at night. Wink wink. LA

Euston Rd, N1 9AL, kingscross.co.uk

British Museum

 (British Museum)
(British Museum)

One of the world’s oldest museums, The British Museum, houses a vast collection of antiquities that spans millennia. In fact, the collection is so big, only a smidge of it is actually on public display at any time. If you’ve only got an hour to kill, must sees include the Parthenon Sculptures, the Rosetta Stone, lion hunt reliefs and the stunning Oxus treasure. LA

Great Russell St, WC1B 3DG, britishmuseum.org

South Bank

 (Philip Toscano/PA Archive)
(Philip Toscano/PA Archive)

Art, culture, indie bookstalls, Instagrammable views and an endless supply of booze and street eats: the South Bank is one of the best places for you and your mates to hang out in London. If you go at night, our advice is simple: grab a bike (or just use your legs) and whizz down Embankment all the way down to Tower Bridge. It’s the quintessential free sightseeing London experience. LA

Southbank, SE1, southbanklondon.com

East London street art

 (Khfalk/Flickr)
(Khfalk/Flickr)

East London is a hub of creativity. Its music venues are some of the best in the city, the galleries are superb and there’s a whole lot of incredible street art. It’s ever-changing — new murals pop up and then disappear without warning — but it’s always a pleasure to wander to streets, seeking out the best. The buildings of Shoreditch are covered with the stuff, so that’s a good place to start, but Hoxton, Hackney, Bethnal Green and all the various places in between are ripe for exploring. JE

Across Shoreditch

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting