London: the free art gallery guide

by Richard Oldale

London can be an expensive place to visit, but there is a wealth of culture in and around the city that need not cost a penny. Art lovers on a tight budget in the capital are simply spoilt for choice

When it comes to culture, London is one of the top destinations in the world. Not only is it steeped in history and home to famous landmarks and impressive architecture, but its major art galleries are free to enter. Better still, they offer free guided tours. Patrons are asked for voluntary contributions, but there is no obligation to contribute.

Both Tate Britain (on Millbank, close to Pimlico tube station) and Tate Modern (on Bankside, south of the Thames) offer free entrance to view their permanent collections together with guided tours at 11am, 12 noon, 2pm and 3pm. The tours take 45 minutes and feature works by the most renowned artists from the 15th century to the present day. Tate Modern has arguably one of the best collections in the city and includes works by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, plus Andy Warhol's pop art.

The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square has a vast collection dating back to the 13th-century. Free guided tours showcase the Italian Renaissance, the 17th-century Dutch masters and the galleries most famous pieces, Monet's The Water-Lily Pond and van Gogh's Sunflowers.

Another of London's most popular hotspots is the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea's ultra-trendy Kings Road. With a reputation as one of the capital's leading contemporary art galleries, the Saatchi provides a forum for provocative and innovative artists from around the globe.

One of the hidden gems of the city's art world is The Courtauld Gallery tucked away in the grandiose confines of Somerset House, on the Strand. The collection houses a surprising number of masterpieces such as van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Edouard Manet's famous  A bar at the Folies-Bergère. Free admission is offered only on Mondays from 10am-2pm with a guided tour at 1.15pm. Any other day, there is an entrance fee of £5 for adults and £4 for concessions.

The Wallace Collection at Hertford House in central London is one of the most intimate collections of artworks and memorabilia and has been endorsed by the eccentric British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. Admission to the collection is free of charge; to get the most from your visit, ask for the free headsets.

Where to stay

Finding a reasonably priced guesthouse or cheap hotel in London is not the easiest of tasks – but if you do enough digging, you will unearth a bargain. Many hotels periodically offer discount prices. If you want to stay in the city centre, expect to pay £40-plus for basic accommodation, though most places are perfectly adequate just for a base to sleep.

The two-star Bickenhall Hotel, near Baker Street, is perfectly situated for access to central London. Five minutes' walk from Hyde Park, it is at the hub of London's famous shopping district, close to the Wallace Collection and five minutes from Marylebone and Baker Street tube stations. Though rooms are modest, they are comfortable with such perks as satellite TV, facilities for making hot drinks, and a telephone. Reception operates 24 hours a day and the friendly staff are more than happy to answer any questions. A full English breakfast is included in the price.

For backpackers, there is no better place to stay than the Generator Hostel near King's Cross which and is ideally located for all the major tourist attractions. Situated in Tavistock Place, it is a five-minute walk from Kings Cross underground station, where all the major lines converge to get you around London easily. The hostel has a futuristic ambience and facilities include a canteen, internet access, a nightclub and a bar. Rooms and dorms are comfortable and safe, with fully working lockers. The staff are friendly and the chill-out area and bar are great places to meet like-minded people.

Alternatively, there are several EasyHotels  which, like the EasyJet flights by the same operator, are basic but deliver a reasonable and professional level of service. Two of the best-situated for getting around London are at Earls Court and Paddington. All are close to tube stations with easy access to the centre. Rooms are small and basic, with little storage space, but have comfortable beds, hot running water and a TV. If this is all you need, at £20 a night it's a bargain-hunter's dream. Breakfast is not included.

Where to eat

There are pubs, bars, cafés and restaurants galore in London. Several offer good food at a reasonable price, such as pubs in the Wetherspoon chain. If you are prepared to pay a little bit extra, the Jom Makan near Trafalgar Square offers excellent Malaysian dishes for £5 before 7pm. In the same area, the Albannach has an express lunch deal between 12pm and 5pm. The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) on The Mall also offers a burger-and-drink deal for £7.99.