It's a well-known fact that spending time in London also means spending money, lots of money. But it doesn't have to be that way - here's how to make the most of your time in London...for free!
London: England’s capital city and the heart of the country in many ways. Everyone is drawn here at some point for some reason; be it economical or recreational, work or play. However, visitors and residents alike are obliged to pay heavily for the privilege of spending time in the city. This is just something you have to accept. Or, is it?
In the form of an extensive walking tour, this guide will reveal exactly how to enjoy all the main sights and attractions without spending a single penny. That’s right, London, for free.
The start and finish point on this tour will be the thriving commuter hub of London Bridge. If you can visit Thursday to Saturday, you’re in for a treat. One of the most popular foodie stops in London, Borough Market (8 Southwark Street, SE1 1TL; +442074071002; www.boroughmarket.org.uk/), is tucked away beneath the railway arches. A bustling hive of activity after 11am, the produce is largely organic and homegrown, and all very tasty – the perfect place to indulge in free samples at the beginning of a long walk.
Heading west along the South Bank, a couple of minutes' stroll will bring you to the Tate Modern (Bankside, SE1 9TG; +442078878888; www.tate.org.uk/modern/). Located within the imposing structure of the former Bankside Power Station, the Tate Modern is the most-visited modern art gallery in the world. Best of all, the permanent collection and the headline-grabbing temporary exhibitions are free.
Continue moving alongside the river, soaking up the sights and sounds of the South Bank; street-performers, breakdancing troupes, adolescent skateboarders, open-air book-browsing – take your time and breathe it in. There are often free exhibitions and events in the Southbank Centre too (Belvedere Road; +442079604200, SE1 8XX; www.southbankcentre.co.uk) – don’t be shy about poking your head in and having a nose around.
Nearby Westminster Bridge provides some of the best viewing angles for the most iconic of London sights – Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament (SW1A OAA; +442072193000) – so have your camera handy as you head across.
Once you’ve successfully landed on the north bank, continue directly into Parliament Square. Bask for a while in the grand seat of UK democracy, before making the short dash across the square to Westminster Abbey (20 Dean's Yard, SW1P 3PA; +442072225152; www.westminster-abbey.org/). There is much to admire in the intricate, gothic exterior, but don’t linger too long – one of London’s blockbuster attractions is just around the corner.
Surrounded by the lush expanse of St James's and Green Parks, Buckingham Palace (www.royal.gov.uk/theroyalresidences/buckinghampalace/buckinghampalace.aspx) simply demands attention and admiration. Make the most of your visit by arriving in time for the ‘changing of the guards’ ceremony (daily at 11.30am in the summer, alternate days the rest of the year).
Exiting Green Park by the north west corner, head past Hyde Park Corner and continue along Knightsbridge until you are greeted by the dome-topped Royal Albert Hall (Kensington Gore, SW7 2AP; +442075898212; www.royalalberthall.com/) – another London building recognised the world over.
The aptly-named ‘Exhibition Road’ runs south along the eastern side of the RAH and is where you’ll find London’s most concentrated collection of treasures. The Science Museum (SW7 5NH; +442079424242; www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/), Natural History Museum (SW7 5BD; +442079425000; www.nhm.ac.uk/) and Victoria & Albert Museum (SW7 2RL, +442079422000, http://www.vam.ac.uk/) are all located along this wonderful stretch of road. Best of all, it’s free admission all round, and there’s enough to keep you entertained for an entire day.
Hyde and Regent's Parks
Heading north again, Exhibition Road merges into Hyde Park (http://www.royalparks.gov.uk/Hyde-Park.aspx). Combined with the adjacent Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park covers over 250 hectares – occupying more ground than Monaco. Visit on a Sunday in order to catch Speakers' Corner in full flow. A mesmerising mix of theatre and public debate, Speakers' Corner is the living embodiment of free speech. Anyone can turn up with a soapbox and start orating – interesting ‘characters’ are guaranteed.
Exit Hyde Park via Speakers' Corner, rush past the bustling temptation of Oxford Street (not somewhere suited to a free tour) and head east on Euston Road until you reach a genuine national institution. The British Library (96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB; +441937 546060; www.bl.uk/) is a bibliophile’s fantasy – housing more than 14 million books on 388 miles of shelf space. There’s always at least one fascinating exhibition inside, and it’s free entry.
Keep your brain switched on for the next stop: backtracking slightly towards Euston station, but then heading south towards the British Museum (Great Russell St, WC1B 3DG; +442073238000; www.britishmuseum.org/). The museum itself is simply huge, showcasing more than seven million invaluable artefacts from around the globe; the spoils of Britain’s once far-reaching empire. It’s obvious why this is the most-visited museum in the UK. Dedicate at least one day to exploring the vast interior.
East of the centre
South of Holborn station, you’ll find the four Inns of Court – Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, Middle Temple & Inner Temple. All London barristers operate from one of these Inns – full of grand architecture, winding pathways and secluded, green spaces – but anyone can wander around and pretend to be important.
It’s only a short hop east to another of London’s truly must-see sights - the towering dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral (St Paul's Churchyard, EC4M 8AD; +442072468357; www.stpauls.co.uk/). Its sheer scale and grandiosity dominates the skyline here and leaves a lasting impression on all tourists. It costs £14.50 to visit for purely sightseeing purposes but attending a daily service is free and, regardless of your religious outlook, the hushed worshippers and harmonious choir combine to create a wonderful atmosphere.
If you haven’t yet satisfied your appetite for museums, make a quick detour up Edward Street to the Museum of London (150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN; +442070019844; www.museumoflondon.org.uk/). Inside, the evolution of this great city is intricately documented, from prehistoric times right up to the 21st century.
For the final leg of this tour, stroll through the ‘Square Mile’ – the beating heart of the city’s economy and full of great juxtaposing architecture; from the grand columns of the Royal Exchange, to the gleaming, glass-walled ‘Gherkin’ – until you reach the north-end of London Bridge. Saunter across to the other side, and you’re back where this epic, economical sightseeing expedition began.
Eating and sleeping
This comprehensive walking tour proves that you can experience all the main sights and attractions in London for free, but there is no way you‘ll be able to cover everything in one day. So, let’s look at some of the best budget options for bedding down:
- Royal Court Apartments (51 Gloucester Terrace, W2 3DQ) – self catering flats, right next to Hyde Park. Double room with en suite and kitchenette from £70/night.
- Two hostels very popular with youngsters in the Euston area are Clink 78 (78 King's Cross Rd, WC1X 9QG) and Generator Hostel (Compton Place, off 37 Tavistock Place, WC1H 9SE). Both £17/18 for a bed in a large dormitory.
You often get more for your money south of the river:
- Days Hotel Waterloo (54 Kennington Road, SE1 7BJ) is a great budget choice. Double room with en suite from £69/night.
- For those who put a higher premium on comfort rather than price, I’d recommend London City Hotel (200a Borough High Street, SE1 1JX). Double en suite from £95/night and only five minutes south of London Bridge.
If you don’t mind staying in a stranger’s house, it’s worth checking out www.couchsurfing.org – a volunteer-based, worldwide network connecting travellers with locals who offer free accommodation.
If you stay self-catering, there are a number of express supermarkets located on the route of the tour where you can stock up on grub. My top recommendation for a high-quality, low-cost restaurant would be Leon (www.leonrestaurants.co.uk). Try the Moroccan meatballs (£5.95) or the sweet potato falafel wrap (£3.70). Two outlets are right on the route of our tour – Bankside (7 Canvey Street; +442076200035) and Cannon Street (86 Cannon Street; +442076239699).