Everyone knows there are free concerts and plays open to the public during the summer months in London, England, but did you realize there are many fun free activities all year round? Here are seven completely free things to do in London that I found particularly intriguing or have done myself and enjoyed, regardless of time of year. These are my favorites, even though there are many other excellent tried and true ideas for free fun in London, such as strolling through Hyde Park, people-watching at Trafalgar Square, or window-shopping on Oxford Street.
For each fun free activity in London, I provide enough detail to get you started, although double-checking routes, times and days of operation is always wise before you go. I assume that you will be getting around the city primarily via the London Underground. Where available, I give a website address so you can access further details and up to date information.
Walk across the Millennium Bridge (and back)
This 100 percent pedestrian bridge across the Thames had some engineering difficulties when first constructed (it swayed too much), but is now fully operational. It links the financial part of London near St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Southbank at the Tate Modern and near Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The views from the bridge are stellar and the modern steel bridge itself is called Norman Foster’s “Blade of Light.”
Underground: Mansion House (Blackfriars is closed until late 2011)
Feel tiny by walking underneath a gigantic table at the Tate Modern.
Absolutely the best way to approach the Tate Modern is from the Millennium Bridge, which leads directly to the former Bankside Power Station converted to a modern art museum in 2000. The exhibit I found most memorable was American artist Robert Therrien’s oversized (2.5 times the usual) dining table and chairs, rendered in expresso wood with every detail. The whole point of the installation is to make a point about scale as art and it works! I will warn you that the temptation to climb up onto one of the chairs is very strong. Even though this is one of the most popular art galleries in the world, admission is free to the permanent exhibits. Don’t miss the turbine hall where exhibitions on a even grander scale are displayed.
Open year-round 7 days per week except December 24-26
Watch British criminal justice in action at the Old Bailey.
Did you always wonder if English barristers and judges really wear white wigs with long curls in court even now? You can obtain an answer to this question and many others by observing criminal court proceedings at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court. Although the current building dates to 1907 (with a number of signicant renovations since), there has been a courthouse on the same site since Medieval times. The site is at the intersection of Old Bailey Road and Newgate Street, only a few hundred yards from St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Visitor galleries are generally open to the public 10:00 am through 4:00 pm Monday through Friday. However, no cell phones, cameras, food, or bags are permitted in the building and no storage for these items is provided.
Underground: St. Pauls
Join the studio audience for a BBC television or radio show.
Although there is a charge for the BBC studio tour, you can become part of a studio audience for a BBC show without any cost. I have even heard rumors that certain out-of-work Britons are being hired to sit in studio audiences for some talk shows. I would not bank on that, but you can get free tickets if you plan ahead. Venues vary and some are outside London. While you are at it, you could apply to appear on any number of shows from Antiques Roadshow to Young, Dumb, and Living Off Mum!
Browse at Harrods Food Halls, which stock everything from fresh meat and produce to the most expensive luxury food gifts.
I still remember my first visit to London in 1980 when I saw huge cuts of meat hanging from the ceiling in the Food Hall. The range of foods available is staggering. This is definitely worth a visit and browsing is free. The remainder of this elegant department store is also available for browsing. Among the products available for purchase: gold bullion. The store’s “guidelines for visitors” include the following admonition:
“Ensure all clothing is clean and presentable and that shoes are worn whilst in the store.” That sounds reasonable.
The store is located at 87-135 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge. Hours are Monday through Saturday 10 am until 8 pm, noon to 6 pm on Sunday. The store is open on Bank Holidays.
Underground: Knightsbridge, South Kensington
Take in a free lunchtime concert at the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields.
This storied Anglican Church has a rich musical heritage, including hosting Handel and possibly Mozart as visiting organists in the 18th century. Professional caliber classical concerts at lunchtime feature pianists, string quartets, guitarists, and other soloists, choral and chamber groups.
St Martin-in-the-Fields is at the northeast corner of Trafalgar Square. Doors open at 12.30 pm for a 1:00 pm start. Lunchtime concerts normally take place on Monday, Tuesday and Friday. No tickets are required.
Underground: Charing Cross, Leicester Square, Embankment.
Look for Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Rail Station.
This is a must activity for any Harry Potter fan. If you find it, you’ll have a wonderful photo opportunity. In the Potter books and films, the Hogwarts students and their families travel right through a brick wall to reach Platform 9 ¾. If you are a Muggle, as I am, you may find that somewhat challenging. While you are there, enjoy the bustle of travelers going every which way at this major urban rail station in the heart of London.
Underground: King’s Cross/Pancras
These seven ideas are but the tip of the iceberg–some of my favorites and perhaps some ideas you had not expected. None are limited to a particular time of year. At all times, the entire city is jam-packed with opportunities to find something, learn something, experience something, connect with British history and culture, and just have a wonderful time without spending a single pence. If you have particular favorites among free activities in London, I hope you will share them as comments on this article.
Finally, I highly recommend the book listed below as one of my sources: 1000 Things to do in London for Under 10 GBP, published by TimeOut Guides, which makes fascinating reading even if you have time to do only a few of the activities listed. The Old Bailey visit and BBC audience ideas came from this book; the others came from my own experiences in London.
1000 Things to do in London for Under 10 GBP, a TimeOut guide, 2009