London for Free
London is packed with free sights, experiences, concerts and walking tours. You just need to know how to find them.
Recently I was chatting with a Londoner who loves visiting New York because everything's so cheap. Got that? He thought America's priciest city was a bargain.
Just goes to show how expensive London can be. The amounts on price tags across the Pond may look the same, but they're in pounds, not dollars. At $1.87 to £1, that means many costs are nearly double.
The good news is that you could spend weeks in London without spending a shilling on sightseeing—and it's not just the sights.
One of my favorite London experiences is to settle into a time-polished pew at St. Martin-in-the-Fields and listen to a chamber orchestra fill the gorgeous, 280-year-old church with music...for free.
You needn't pay West End theater prices to see a performance in London. The city is packed with cultural institutions offering live entertainment for free or for a pittance. In addition to music, you can listen to political debates, attend lectures and art workshops, and get gardening tips from the greenest thumbs in Britain.
Museum Hop for Free
The flipside of London's high prices is that it also has the world's greatest concentration of free galleries and museums. There's no way to cover them all; here are the best of the best, with more listed on the page.
The British Museum is the world's greatest trove of artifacts from ancient Egypt, Abyssinia, Rome, and Greece and counts among its treasures the Rosetta Stone, which cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the Elgin Marbles, stolen from the façade of Athens' Parthenon (www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk).
The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square is packed with Old Masters—Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Vermeer (www.nationalgallery.org.uk)—while the adjacent National Portrait Gallery is packed with pictures of old Brits, including the only life portrait of Shakespeare (www.npg.org.uk).
The Tate Britain houses British artists' greatest hits (classics like Constable, Reynolds, and Gainsborough and moderns like David Hockney and Lucien Freud), while its sister space, the Tate Modern—installed in an old power station at the end of a footbridge across the Thames—is a smorgasbord of 20th century and contemporary art and excellent temporary exhibitions (www.tate.org.uk).
A shortlist of the rest: the V&A covers decorative arts and African and Asian arts (www.vam.ac.uk); the Museum of London traces the city's own fascinating history (www.museum-london.org.uk); the Imperial War Museum appeals to history buffs (www.iwm.org.uk), and the Photographer's Gallery displays the world's top photojournalists (www.photonet.org.uk).
Marketplaces make for some of the best free sightseeing: colorful carnivals of stalls and shops, barkers and customers, and an array of inexpensive street food.
Of course, they're only "free" if you avoid the temptation to buy anything—tough, when such great souvenirs are all around.
Unless you're planning to stuff a 200-year-old credenza in your carry-on, it's easiest to avoid impulse buying at the granddaddy of London markets, the famous Saturday antiques extravaganza lining Portobello Road (www.portobelloroad.co.uk).
If you can't find something at the daily Camden Market—the greatest flea market in Greater London—it probably doesn't exist in the U.K. (www.camdenlock.net/markets.html).
Sunday's Petticoat Lane, the clothing market with the perfect name, stocks everything from used merchandise to funky young fashionista apparel to haute couture overstock, slight irregulars, and last year's chic cuts (www.eastlondonmarkets.com).
Spitalfields, in the Cockney end of town, is the most bohemian of the markets, with artists' studios mixed among the food and knickknack stalls. Sunday is the busiest day, with more than 200 stalls operating. Thursday it becomes a fashion show for hip young designers (www.visitspitalfields.com).
Finally, you don't go to Smithfield to shop—unless you're in the market for a side of beef. The long, low buildings of London's main meat market make for and odd (and odiferous) morning of sightseeing, but provide a marvelous slice of daily London life. History, too. This site has been a slaughter ground for centuries; a plaque on the north side commemorates the spot where William "Braveheart" Wallace was drawn and quartered.
The real reason to visit, though, is the Fox & Anchor, a well-preserved Victorian pub at 115 Charterhouse Street (020-7253-5075). Meat cutters knock off work in the early morning, and this pub has a special exemption to the liquor laws allowing it to serve beer at breakfast. It costs about $12, but it'll last you through to dinner: fried eggs, bacon, sausages, beans, fried bread, a tomato, unlimited tea, and, of course, a pint of stout or bitter.
Churches & Recitals
London is odd: Its major museums are free, but its most famous churches (Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's) charge admission. No worries. Most others don't, and here are two particularly worth visiting.
Anchoring the northeast corner of Trafalgar Square near the (also free) National Gallery, St. Martin-in-the-Fields (011-44-20-7839-8362, www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org) is a perfect little 1726 church. If its grandly small spire looks familiar, it's because this church served as a blueprint for the American colonial style (think: New England). The church hosts a lunchtime series of free concerts Monday, Tuesday, and Friday at 1pm. (Before the performance, nip down to the cheap cafe in the crypt, where the tables are balanced atop worn tombstones).
Westminster Cathedral (011-44-20-7798-9055, www.westminstercathedral.org.uk)—not to be confused with Westminster Abbey, where all the famous dead blokes are buried—is London's Catholic cathedral, a typically flamboyant and inventive Victorian (1895-1903) imitation of Italian Romanesque architecture. There are regular free organ recitals; check the Web site for schedules.
As of 2013, the Tuesday lunchtime Mayfair Organ Concerts (www.londonorgan.co.uk/mayfair.htm)—free 40-minute organ recitals Tuesdays at 1:10pm (well, a £4 donation kindly requested—will alternate between the 1730 Grosvenor Chapel at 24 South Audley Street (011-44-20-7499-1684, www.grosvenorchapel.org.uk) and St. George's Church on St George Street.
There are dozens more venues like those. Programs are listed at www.organrecitals.com, www.theorganmag.com, www.concert-diary.com, www.cityevents.co.uk, and the insanely detailed lachlan.bluehaze.com.au/london_free_concerts_summary.html.
More Free Concerts
Churches haven't cornered the market on free music. The secret to finding gratis entertainment lies in trolling the events calendars at performing arts schools and institutes.
The Royal Academy of Music (011-44-20-7591-4314, www.rcm.ac.uk), one of the world's finest conservatories, gives free lunchtime and evening concerts several times a week. The offerings, which range from classical to experimental, are held in performance spaces at the campus and across London.
The Guildhall School of Music & Drama (011-44-20-7628-2571, www.gsmd.ac.uk) hosts multiple free performances and dirt-cheap theater productions throughout the academic year. On any given night, you might have your choice of a free concert—string ensemble in one hall, jazz trio in another, brass band in a third—or the option to splurge £7 for a double billing of Shakespeare (in October it was "The Tempest" and "Macbeth" back-to-back).
Morley College (011-44-20-7450-1889, www.morleycollege.ac.uk)—one of England's oldest adult education centers, founded in 1880—holds free Tuesday lunchtime concerts at 1:05pm, plus free lectures and art workshops.
Lauderdale House (011-44-20-8348-8716, www.lauderdalehouse.co.uk)—an arts and education center in a gorgeous 16th-century building in Waterlow Park—also offers free lunchtime concerts as well as inexpensive (£7-£12) cabaret, jazz, poetry, and classical performances.
As if you didn't already have enough to listen to at lunch, the Royal Opera House itself (011-44-20-7304-4000, www.royalopera.org) also stages free lunchtime recitals: chamber music and arias Mondays at 1pm, jazz Tuesdays at noon.
Dabble in Public Debate
If you think snide British hosts on reality shows are nasty, you should see their parliamentarians. It's free to come watch these proper MPs (Members of Parliament) hurl obscure insults and question each other's parentage as they discuss the issues of the day at British Parliament (011-44-20-7219-4272).
The show at the House of Lords isn't nearly as much fun as the verbal brawls that often take place in the House of Commons. Parliament is in session from mid-October through July, its Public Galleries open Monday 2:30-10:30pm, Tuesday and Wednesday 11:30am-7:30pm, Thursday 11:30am-6:30pm, and some Fridays. Line up at the St. Stephen's entrance.
For a more plebeian take on local politics, Speaker's Corner—the northeast corner of Hyde Park—is the traditional spot for public soapboxing in London (busiest on Sunday mornings). Anyone with a grievance to air, political theory to espouse, cause to champion, or alien abductors to warn us about can climb atop a crate and harangue the passersby.
London is as much a city of parks as it is of buildings. Brits—with their penchant for long walks and serious devotion to their gardens—love the greenswards and open spaces that make up 30% of London. Wandering any of the city's 194 parks is free, of course, but to really understand the British love of nature, link up with a group of local enthusiasts for the day.
You can join free gardening workshops and guided nature hikes led by the London Wildlife Trust (011-44-20-7261-0447, www.wildlondon.org.uk), or search the Web site of the Rambler's Association (011-44-20-7339-8500, www.ramblers.co.uk) for hundreds of walks, hikes, and rambles throughout the U.K. planned by its many member groups, most of whom welcome guests at no charge.
A Day in Greenwich
It only costs a Tube ticket to get out to Greenwich, the village whose Mean Time sets the world's clocks and whose Prime Meridian divides the Earth into East and West hemispheres. The story behind these and other scientific achievements make the free museum at the Royal Observatory (www.rog.nmm.ac.uk) well worth visiting—not to mention the chance to get your watch precisely on time and to straddle the hemisphere line.
Also free are the National Maritime Museum (see the coat in which Nelson was shot, bullet hole and all; www.nmm.ac.uk) and the Royal Naval College, a vast Christopher Wren building of 1696 (Nelson's body lay in state in Thornhill's impressive Painted Hall; www.greenwichfoundation.org.uk).
Greenwich’s only significant fee-charging sight, the Cutty Sark clipper ship of liquor bottle fame, will remain shrouded under a restoration tent until 2012; www.cuttysark.org.uk. Nearby sits the Gipsy Moth IV, the yacht in which Sir Francis Chicester completed the first solo round-the-world in 1966-67.
Shagged out from sightseeing, soak up the sun, play Frisbee, or nap on the vast sloping park below the observatory, full of grassy lawns and spreading shade trees.
The village of Greenwich itself is fun to wander and filled with some great pubs, though it's a trot down the Thames-side promenade to the best of them, the rambling, 150-year-old Trafalgar Tavern with a small terrace overlooking the wide river Thames (020-8858-2909; www.trafalgartavern.co.uk).