Is London calling you? Events like the Royal Wedding, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the upcoming 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games only seem to add to the allure of this world capital. With all the recent media coverage, it’s hard not to daydream about the many experiences London has to offer.
The city may be famous for many things — but being a budget destination isn’t one of them. Thankfully, there are many free and inexpensive experiences that can help balance your travel budget. We’ve rounded up some top picks:
Admission to many major museums in Canada can run you up to $25 per person, but London offers plenty of free places to learn about Britain’s roots. You can’t go wrong starting with some of the famous names like the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum and the Museum of London. For the youngsters and the young at heart, the Victoria and Albert Children’s Museum — home to an impressive collection of toys — the Natural History Museum and the Grant Museum of Zoology. (Yes, they’re all free!)
However, many of the city’s lesser-known museums are also worth a look, and you’ll find some unique opportunities — like the Anaesthesia Museum and the London Sewing Machine Museum. Many museums chronicle a particular aspect of London’s history, such as the National Maritime Museum, the Imperial War Museum and the Museum of the London Docklands.
If you’re looking for places to delve into knights and chivalry, another free site to try is the Museum of the Order of St. John. Redeveloped last fall, the museum tells the story of the “Knights Hospitaller” from its 11th century roots to the founding of St. John’s Ambulance. The Temple Church has a modest admission fee compared to Westminster Abbey.
Big or small, London’s galleries have an impressive collection of fine art stretching back through history. In Canada, you can expect to pay for the privilege of seeing master works by the likes of Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Turner and Van Gogh. Like many of its museums, London’s famous galleries are free to the public. If you’re a people person, see famous faces dating all the way back to medieval times at the National Portrait Gallery.
You could easily spend your entire trip in the halls of the National Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern — but the city has more to offer. The William Morris Gallery is set to reopen again this July, and Hogarth House is home to an impressive collection of the artist’s engravings. If your tastes run more towards contemporary art, add the Whitechapel Art Gallery to your list.
Of course, London’s many monuments and architectural gems are always on hand for a photo op.
Sometimes you just have to see art and history in its context, like impressive collections in opulent homes and impressive gardens. Many of these sites charge admission, but visitors can purchase a National Trust Touring Pass that allows you free access to over 300 sites across Britain. A seven-day pass goes for £23 per person or £41 per couple and 14-day passes go for £28 and £50 respectively. (With admission rates normally ranging £5-9, the pass can pay for itself pretty quickly.)
Among the many places you’ll have to choose from near London: Carlyle’s House (home of a famous and wealthy Victorian couple), the George Inn (the last remaining galleried inn in the country) and 2 Willow Road (a unique Modernist home built in 1939.) Ham House and Garden is everything you’d picture a proper English manor to be: richly furnished with restored formal gardens.
Winchester Palace (former residence of the bishops of Winchester) and The Geffreye Museum (dedicated to the history of great interior rooms) are also open to guests, free of admission.
Top attractions at a discount
What would a trip to London be without a look at the famed Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Windsor Castle or the many museums and galleries that aren’t free? How about behind-the-scenes tours of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the National Ballet, or a river cruise down the Thames?
Many experiences are worth paying for — but you don’t have to pay full price. The London Pass gives you free admission to over 55 top sites in the city. You can purchase 1, 2, 3 and 6-day passes ahead of your trip, and even upgrade to include transportation. You’ll want to do some math ahead of time to see if it’s worth the savings. For instance, if you can only squeeze two experiences into a day, the £41.40 1-day pass may not be such a bargain. However, the 6-day pass at £89.10 can translate to savings if your itinerary includes some pricy places — like Westminster Abbey at £16 or Buckingham Palace for £18.00.
Of course, the pass includes other perks too — like discounts on dining and entertainment, and being able to “skip the line” at tourist hotspots.
Parks and green spaces
Hyde Park, Bushy, Greenwich Park, Regent’s Park, St. James’s Park, Richmond Park… There’s no shortage of ways to enjoy the outdoors and the sunny weather. These large parks aren’t just places to enjoy artful green spaces and playgrounds — they host a variety of amenities and activities for all ages.
For example, Regent’s Park isn’t just about the formal splendor of the Queen Mary’s Gardens (not to mention the other four themed gardens). It also features an Open Air Theatre with free performances and fairs, and is home to the London Zoo. With sports fields, playgrounds and walking trails, it’s the perfect place to burn off some energy. The view of the city from the top of Primrose Hill is worth the hike.
And if you’re looking for a way to trim your dining expenses, you can’t beat a picnic — though open-air cafes are a mainstay at many of the city’s parks. Not all park events are free, but there’s no charge to kick back and relax.
For more information on events, amenities and activities, visit The Royal Parks.
If you really want to get up close and personal with nature, it might surprise you to know the city is home to a working farm, the Mudchute Park and Farm. Admission to the farm is free, and you can arrange an “animal encounter” for a hands-on experience. Stick around until 4:00 pm and you can help round up the animals for bedtime.
Comedy, cinema, concerts and theatre are just a few of the inexpensive activities you can find around the city — if you’re willing to do a little digging and try out smaller venues. For example, the Arcola Theatre has “pay what you can” tickets on Tuesday nights. The Theatre Royal Stratford East holds free comedy nights every Monday, as does the Marie Lloyd Comedy Box in Hackney Empire.
For a musical look at the city, tap into free concerts, recitals and street performers.
If you love film, catch a free outdoor screening at sites like The Scoop (London’s permanent outdoor theatre), the Horniman Museum and Gardens and the BP Summer Screen at the Royal Opera House. The Roxy Bar and Screen has a little something to suit every taste, but expect to pay for recent flicks.
Naturally, you won’t want to miss the most iconic free show of all: the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace every day at 11:30 am.
Of course, this list is just a small sampling to get you thinking. Where you can find out about more free and inexpensive activities? Try:
The Official London City Guide
London For Free
If you’re looking for opportunities across Britain, download Lonely Planet’s free eBook Recession-Busting Britain: best free experiences through your favourite eBook store (such as iTunes, Kobo, Kindle or Sony).