Free family day out in East London

by benwest1

Want to spend a day in London without breaking the bank? This guide reveals a host of East London attractions that are completely free - and well away from the crowded, well worn tourist track

A day out in London can be prohibitively expensive, especially for a family. Fortunately, the UK capital is large and diverse enough to offer a huge choice of things to do that are completely free, and there are plenty of budget eaterie and accommodation options, especially outside the centre.


Most visitors to London are aware of the top sights, such as the British, Science and Natural History Museums, Madame Tussauds and the Tower of London. Whilst some are free to enter, many of the top tourist attractions have hefty entrance charges, and most become impossibly crowded at peak times.


For a refreshing, more tranquil change that is also likely to be far kinder on your wallet, head for East London. There’s a wealth of attractions in close proximity to each other that will delight both adults and children alike.


First off is the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (Cambridge Heath Road, E2 9PA; 020 8983 5200; open 10am-5.45pm daily; stacked with toy nostalgia by the pram-load. Being both a branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the national collection of childhood-related objects means that this is a top-notch museum, displaying hundreds of toys, games, clothing, dolls and dolls houses through the years.


Its cafe, the Benugo, provides hot dishes, salads, sandwiches, pastries and cakes, as well as coffee, hot and cold drinks, wine and beer. More details at


It is just a short stroll to another excellent free museum, the Geffrye Museum (Kingsland Road, E2 8EA; 020 7739 9893; open Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm;, containing reconstructed room displays showing homes from before 1600 to the present. Located in elegant almshouses overlooking pretty gardens (including a herb garden open 1 April - 31 October during museum hours) visitors walk through a series of period rooms from 1600 to the present day.


Its excellent Geffrye Restaurant offers cakes, bagels, sandwiches, salads and lunches. For something more exotic there is a choice of Vietnamese restaurants along the Kingsland Road, although the one next door to the museum, Song Que (020 7613 3222) at number 134, has had very mixed reviews of late.


Between these two museums you can stroll around Haggerston Park, which is bordered by Queensbridge Road, Hackney Road and Goldsmith's Row. Facilities include a children’s play area, BMX and athletics tracks, and football and basketball pitches.


It also contains Hackney City Farm (1a Goldsmith’s Row, E2 8QA; 020 7729 6381; open Tues-Sun 10am-4.30pm;, which is again free to enter. Residents include pigs, calves, goats, sheep, a donkey, ducks, chickens, rabbits and other small animals and birds. There is also a garden and the eternally popular Frizzante Cafe, serving Mediterranean food.


Opposite the farm is Columbia Road ( As well as its famous flower market on Sundays from 8am to 3pm, where the road is packed with endless plants and punters, it has around 60 independent shops selling anything from antiques to vintage clothes and artworks, jewellery and gardening goods - a window shopper’s delight. Opening times vary. There are also some great cafes, pubs and restaurants.


Columbia Road is just a short distance from Brick Lane and its huge selection of inexpensive Indian restaurants. Other culinary options here include the 24-hour Beigel Bake at 159 Brick Lane, with prices starting at under £2.00. Spitalfields Market has lots of food stalls and inexpensive cafes and restaurants - as well as its vast  selection of clothes, furniture, cds, antiques, books, jewellery and other items. Be sure to admire Hawksmoor’s magnificent Christ Church on Commercial Street, which is open to visitors on Tuesdays 11am-4pm and Sundays from 1-4pm, and often at other times too. Some of the local streets, like Fournier Street, adjacent to the church, contain some impossibly attractive 18th-century houses.


Older children will appreciate another free attraction in the vicinity, the  Whitechapel Gallery (77-82 Whitechapel High Street, E1 7QX, 020 7522 7888; open Tues-Sun 11am-6pm, until 9pm Thursday;, which has recently been completely revamped into a snazzy major showcase of modern art. 


For very contemporary local accommodation try the Hoxton Hotel  (81 Great Eastern Street, EC2A 3HU) with rooms from £59.00 and a quarterly prize draw to win a one-night stay for £1.


The clean and comfortable Days Hotel London Shoreditch (419-437 Hackney Road, E2 8PP) has rooms from £73.00, and there are regular offers.


If you wish to congratulate yourself on all the cash you have saved during the day by splashing out on a swanky nearby hotel, try Bethnal Green’s new Town Hall Hotel and Apartments (Patriot Square, E2 9NF), a Grade II listed building with double rooms from £290.00, there is a 50% discount until 31.08.10. There’s a pool, gym, restaurant and bar.


 Ben West has written for numerous newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Daily Mirror, The Financial Times, The Spectator, Harper's Bazaar, Tatler, GQ, Vogue and Readers’ Digest. He co-wrote The Rough Guide to Family Fun in Ireland and his other travel books include London For Free (Pan), Fun for a Fiver in Amsterdam (Pan) and Cameroon (Bradt Guides), the first and only dedicated guide to that country in English.