Free Things to See and Do in London

With three months in London we had lots of time to take advantage of a wide range of Museums, talks and walks, many of which I've discussed  on the blog and in my trip report  over at Fodor's. As I've mentioned, we found the Art Fund card indispensable and we enjoyed the programmes at both the Bishopsgate Institute and the China Exchange. 
However, I wanted to add a post talking specifically about free resources and  events, free museums, galleries and historic sites in London. There's a lot to  see and do that won't cost  you a penny!


 1. Free Walking Tours There are a multitude of great guided tours that you  pay for in London but there are also a number of free guided tours and walks.
  • How about a tour of the stunning Somerset House? The tour takes you beyond the public areas exploring the royal connections and architecture history of the building, you even get to see a small mineral bath next-door! Details and times here.
  • The newly coined Midtown district (we all know it as Bloomsbury and Holborn) is  promoting the area through a series of free guided walks, the subjects vary enormously but many of them look interesting. You can find more details here all walks leave from outside Holborn Tube. 
  • In addition to these guided options, you can also download   a number of excellent  free walking itineraries from the following sites.
  • There are an incredible number of walking maps and descriptions at this is a great place to start.
  • I enjoyed the women's  history app designed by UCL. Produced in collaboration with the Arts Council and the Women's History Library, Women's Walks is a wonderful free app you can download anytime. It covers a number of women's history topics and includes a walk focusing on suffrage.
  • The Royal Maritime Museum has developed a walk entitle Greenwich: A Transatlantic Slavery Trail a description, photos and route can be found here.
  • Tower Hamlets Council has developed a number of walking tours through the East End that they're put online. You can find them here, what about Stepping Out in Stepney or In the Footsteps of the Dragon? These walks can be downloaded in pdf format before you leave home and they will probably introduce you to areas of London that are unfamiliar.
  • The London Medical Museums website provides links to a number of medical themed walks including the "Development of Penicillin" and  another on the "History of Anesthesia". 
Time Out - While you have to pay for the online version of the magazine, the paper copy (complete with comprehensive listings and reviews) is now distributed for free outside Tube and train stations on Tuesdays. It's always worth a look and often lists free events!

2. Free Lectures there are so many going on in town! 

  • You can find an extensive list of daily lectures at the Not surprisingly public lectures are offered at the Universities, libraries, museums and non-profits.
  • There are lunchtime lectures at University College London, details and calendar here. This is a very varied program encompassing politics, history, science and the arts. The lectures are specifically designed to introduce the public to UCL's research work.
  • Gresham College claims to have provided free public lectures for 400 years which is pretty impressive. You can follow in the footsteps of history here!
  • I've attended a number of the free lectures at the  at the Guildhall Library. You'll need to book a slot on their Eventbrite page here. Topics vary enormously, but they are often either historical or London focused. 
  • I have used Eventbrite extensively to find events in London and it's a good source for free lecture tickets. This is where I booked tickets to hear the artist  Yinka Shonibari speaking at an African Studies event at SOAS. We also went to a lecture on "The Irish in London" at Kings College which I found via Eventbrite, you could also search the Kings website here. 
  • Among their engaging programs and courses the Bishopsgate Institute also offers occasional public lectures, again you'll need to book ahead.

3. Music and Arts - get out and about

  •  The Royal Opera House (ROH) offers a series of free  weekly lunchtime recitals. Tickets can be booked in advance but they are very popular and often sell out. However, while the online ticket allocation is limited more tickets are available on the day. Recitals are at 1pm on Mondays and further details can be found here.
  • There are wonderful daily guided tours at the British Museum and the V&A. Keep an eye on their online calendars  for free lectures too. Tickets are often requires for  curator lectures but they are free and bookable online, book early to avoid disappointment.
  • American Express offers free backstage tours at the National Theatre (NT)  for cardholders. You'll need to book in advance but it's great fun and quite fascinating to see the  enormous areas behind, and beneath, the stages. You can find more details and links here. The NT also offers an extensive program including a number of free talks.
  • There are quite a number of free lunchtime concerts offered in churches in London. A lot  of these churches are located in the City of London (the business district) and they including St Ann and St Agnes Church, St Lawrence Jewry near the Guildhall and the wonderfully atmospheric St Olave's, Samuel Pepys' parish church.  The St Olave's concerts run on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 1:05pm.
  • Just outside the city, St Brides on Fleet Street , a delightful place known at the journalist's church, has offered lunchtime concerts for more than 25 years. Their program runs on Tuesdays and Fridays at 1:15pm though there are no concerts in August, December or Lent. St. James' in Piccadilly has regular recitals on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 1:10pm. Right on Trafalgar Square in the heart of the West End St Martin's in the Field offers free 1pm concerts on Mondays Tuesdays and Fridays.  You can see the calendar with all details here
  • The Southbank Center  now has a Friday lunchtime series at 1pm. While most of the concerts in churches feature classical music the program at the Southbank is more varied, featuring folk, world music and jazz.You can find the current offerings here. 

4. Museums, Galleries and Historic Sites

Many of the major museums in London are government subsidized and their permanent collections are open without charge. This list includes many of the places on a "must see" list for London. 
The Museum of London
The National Gallery
The British Museum seen above
The V&A
The National Portrait Gallery 
The Tate
The Tate Modern
The Imperial War Museum

Free sites also includes smaller, regional or private collections that may be less familiar to you. I've blogged about the first four:

The Geffrye Museum
The Museum of Childhood
The Whitechapel Gallery
Sir John Soane Museum - my favorite small museum in London. 
Museum of the Docklands 

5. Admire the View: 
While you'll have to pay a lot to climb onboard the London Eye or to see the view from the top of the Shard, it is possible to see spectacular views of London for free. Yes, you could  climb Parliament Hill in Hampstead or  walk Primrose Hill but  why not do something much easier? Go to the top of the Walkie Talkie building (below) to visit the public Sky Garden. The image at the top shows the interior of the Sky Garden.

You'll need to plan in advance as you are required to book free tickets, but it's well worth the bother and the views over the city are fabulous. Details and photos here.
There are several good sites for views along the Thames including several venues on the Southbank; the bar at the Oxo Tower, the  third floor balcony at the National Theatre and the Tate Modern - which has a lovely balcony view  that takes in the Millennium Bridge and St Pauls, see below. 
However, one of my recent favorites is the newly opened public roof garden at  Jean Nouvel's  One New Change, a retail and office development right behind St. Paul's. The  roof terrace is open daily, and in addition to the bar and restaurant there is free public seating. They were even showing Wimbledon on the roof in June. As you can see below it was a sweet set up and all free. Just look at that view!
6. Markets:
Browsing the markets is of course free and there are lots of them in London including Borough Market, Colombia Road Flower Market, Broadway Market, Roman Road Market, , Brick Lane, the Spitalfields Market, Petticoat Lane and  of course Camden Lock which is just too crowded for me.
Well looking may be free but at the Columbia Road Market I ended up with these flowers, aren't they gorgeous?
There are lots more markets listed in this Time Out page. Here's some wonderful, fresh local British foods, scotch eggs and pies.
This isn't a comprehensive list, of course there are lots of churches and parks you can visit and it's free to walk the city, but hopefully this will help you find and do something you might not have known about.

If you're looking for more you may have too much time on your hands! But don't worry here are some more resources; the TimeOut Guide to 101 free things to do in London , The Guardian's list of 50 things to do for free that they recommend and finally here is the Londonist's take on the same which includes lots of walks.