The Best Free Things to Do in London
Updated: May 21
I'm extremely biased but, in my opinion, there is nowhere like London! I'm lucky enough to have grown up in this impressive, diverse and cosmopolitan city - a true mix of people and cultures, and a beautiful blend of old and new. No matter the season, London is always teeming with tourists, commuters and locals alike. However many times you visit, and however long you've lived here, there are hidden gems around every corner and constantly new things to discover.
Famous for its double-decker buses, the London Underground and Buckingham Palace, as equally talked about is the somewhat frequent rain ☔️ The heavens open over this great city approximately 156 days a year but don't let that deter you; there are plenty of indoor museums, shopping centres and viewing platforms to keep yourself busy whilst it drizzles outside (plus, many of them are free). And in the sunshine? It's almost worth experiencing the rain because London in the sun hits different! There is something magical about it. So come and see for yourself what all the London fuss is about. Read on for some of the best free things to do in London (in no particular order)...
1. A Walk Along The Thames
This had to feature, obviously. The Thames is rich with history, yet coupled with the most modern of skyscrapers! The Thames Embankment which is a road that runs along the north bank of the River Thames, is a great section, filled with street performers and food stalls. It's just a short walk from here to the lovely Trafalgar Square and nearby Covent Garden. And why not include The Mall, St James Park and Buckingham Palace in your visit? These are all near to each other and can be easily walked or cycled to! The iconic Big Ben and Houses of Parliament are also close to this part of the Thames - and you can then cross over Westminster Bridge to see Big Ben from the other side and reach the South Bank and London Eye 😍 You won't be short of bridges on the Thames - so be sure to check out Tower Bridge, Millennium Bridge and more! Top Tip: Tower Bridge is the one you want for those touristy drawbridge pics, not to be confused with London Bridge which, whilst offering nice views, isn't the famous one you see on London skyline photos.
2. The British Museum
This was voted number 15 in Lonely Planet's '500 Best Places on the Planet'! Pretty impressive to rank so high on a global list, so it kind of makes sense that this is one of the best (free) things to do in London. The building itself is beautiful - the imposing glass roof takes centre stage and is the first thing you see when you enter the Great Court (the main entrance to the museum). The idea for the museum was founded in 1753 when Sir Hans Sloane left his impressive collection of artefacts to the nation. Over time, the collection grew until eventually in the 1960's and 70's, the National History Museum and the British Library began to house the natural history specimens and manuscripts. The British Museum first opened in 1759 - it was free to enter then, and it remains free until this day. This includes access to all their regular exhibits (any special exhibitions usually incur a charge). Opening hours are 10.00am-5.00pm daily (Fridays until 8.30pm). If you want guaranteed entrance, be sure to book your free ticket in advance online. You can queue on the day but be mindful that weekends and bank holidays get pretty busy so you might be waiting a while.
This is where you'll find The Houses of Parliament (officially called the Palace of Westminster), which is a magnificent building where the two houses of the UK's Parliament - that's the House of Commons and the House of Lords - meet for political debates and government business. The building is the Seat of the UK Government and is instantly recognisable from the many silhouettes of London's skyline. The Palace of Westminster is made up of several buildings:
- Elizabeth Tower (also known by its bell - Big Ben)
- Victoria Tower (pictured below)
- Westminster Hall
- St Stephen's Chapel
- House of Commons
- House of Lords
Westminster Hall - built in 1099 during the rule of William II, it is the oldest building in the Westminster estate. It holds events of national significance and is traditionally used for the lying-in-state of monarchs. Most recently, the lying-in-state of Queen Elizabeth II took place here in September 2022. More than 250,000 people queued to walk past the Queen's closed coffin - and there was a dedicated YouTube livestream as well as a Twitter page detailing the length of the queue and the estimated hours it would take. Westminster Hall has also been used for important speeches from foreign heads of state, as well as for exhibitions of archeological importance.
Visiting Westminster Hall
You can book onto a guided tour of Westminster Hall, or, if you'd like to see it for free and have a more authentic experience, here's how: Check online to see when parliament is sitting and then turn up at Cromwell Green to be taken through security and then Westminster Hall and St Stephen's Hall (photos can be taken in both but not after this point). Be sure to look up at the ceiling inside Westminster Hall - the hammer-beam roof is incredible! You'll then be lead to either the House of Commons or the House of Lords for a unique experience to watch parliament debating. I was lucky enough to recently join my MP on a guided tour of the building - so seeing this place is something I highly recommend!
Westminster Abbey is a separate building nearby; it is a church owned by the royal family - and nearly all English monarchs have been crowned in this Abbey.
4. Hampstead Heath
I'm lucky enough to have Hampstead Heath (which runs from Hampstead to Highgate) on my doorstep. It makes for a lovely weekend wander and, with 790 acres of sprawling woodland and meadows, there are always different routes and sections to discover. You can even brave the waters and go for a dip in one of the swimming ponds! As it's so big, you can choose to visit one section or take in a few at one time. To break it down, these are the main parts that make up the Heath:
At 98 metres high, Parliament Hill offers beautiful vistas of the London skyline and is also a great spot for kite flying. It's a popular place to watch the sun setting and you'll be able to see notable buildings such as the Shard and the Gherkin in the distance. In the summer months, why not grab a picnic and head there to watch the sun go down.
Kenwood House and Gardens
Kenwood House, a former stately home, is a Sunday day-out in itself, with beautiful architecture and often exhibiting famous paintings. The gardens surrounding the house are also lovely, and you'll find a lake at the bottom of the hill.
Spaniards Road runs between the main part of Hampstead Heath/Kenwood and a smaller section called Sandy Heath. Depending on which place you cross between the two, you're likely to pass by the Spaniards Inn, a lovely London pub, which you can't really miss as it takes up one lane in the road! It's a Grade II listed building dating back to 1585 and was originally built as a tollgate on the Finchley border (there is a tollhouse opposite the main building). The inn gets a mention in Dickens' novel The Pickwick Papers, as well as Bram Stoker's Dracula.
The Hill Garden and Pergola
Technically outside Hampstead Heath, this is a lovely hidden garden just off the main road, which a lot of people don't know exists! It's a great afternoon visit for the family - with Georgian style architecture overlooking the Heath. It's free to enter and there is a pay and display car park nearby. Autumn offers orange leaves and spring brings wisteria! A must-visit all year round and one of my favourite free things to do in London.
Hampstead Heath Extension
Just past Sandy Heath, you'll enter into Hampstead Heath Extension. It's a lovely quiet section of the Heath and has a children's playground, as well as cricket/rugby pitches in summer.
In the winter months, Hampstead Heath can get pretty muddy so make sure to wear wellies or walking boots. In the summer it is just divine! And it's a firm favourite for dog walkers all year round. 🐶 So be sure to head here for one of the best free things to do in London.
5. Sky Garden
I'm always surprised how many Londoners I speak to who don't know this place exists. This indoor garden paradise, 43 floors up in the Walkie Talkie building, boasts glorious 360 degree views of London and is completely free to visit! You need to book your 1-hour slot online in advance (they release tickets weekly, and you can book up to 3 weeks in advance - but they sell out fast). You can also try your luck and queue up outside (I've done both) but you're probably more likely to get in on a weekday when there are fewer crowds. Don't forget to bring your passport or driving license, as you'll sometimes need this to get through security (yup, they don't always let you in without it). Also bear in mind that you'll need to go through an airport-type security check, so bringing a smaller bag is advised. Opening hours are Mon-Fri from 10.00am-6.00pm, and Sat-Sun from 11.00am-9.00pm. I recommend timing your visit for sunset if you can, as the views are magical at this hour!
6. Richmond Park
This place is a beauty - particularly in Autumn. It's still a dream of mine to get here for sunrise in deer rut season. But until then, a visit at any time of day/year doesn't disappoint. It is the largest of London's Royal Parks at 2,500 acres, originally created as a deer park in the 17th century by Charles I. You can drive into Richmond Park and there are various car parks; it is also accessible by public transport, or why not join the many cyclists who ride around the Tamsin Trail. The park's most well-known features are the many deer that roam it (over 600 of them) and King Henry's Mound (from which there is an unobstructed view all the way to St Paul's Cathedral). And if you're a fan of Ted Lasso - the Apple TV series partly filmed in Richmond - you can pop nearby to Paved Street, the street where Ted lives in London (it's less than ten minutes walk from Richmond Station).
Perfect for a little Sunday afternoon wander. There are colourful houses, cute little streets and lovely shops a'plenty. For the colourful houses, start at Sloane Square Station, head to the popular Bywater Street, then Burnsall Street, and finally Godfrey Street. And then have a wander to find more picturesque places!
8. Daunt Books
At least one bookshop had to feature in this blog post, and this place is the bookshop of dreams. Granted, it's not technically free if you end up buying a book - but the shop itself is worth a visit. The interior is magnificent, with beautiful wooden staircases and bannisters that circulate the top floor, forming a balcony lookout. The books are ordered by country and the shop specialises in travel books. Located on Marylebone High Street, Daunt Books is close to Regent's Park and the Sherlock Holmes Museum. You'll also find the British Library nearby, as well as the fantastic Wallace Collection - a free museum, housed in a stately home. There are a bunch of other independent Daunt Books in London but none as grand as this one in Marleybone! The exact address is 84 Marylebone High St, London W1U 4QW and it is open most days 9.00am-7.30pm (and closes early on the weekends, so do check before visiting).
9. Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace
A truly British experience, this is one the best free things to do in London! Changing of the Guard usually takes place every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday - but it can be cancelled, so always check in advance before you go. You'll want to arrive early to get a good spot outside Buckingham Palace; it really fills up quickly! The guards start at St James's Palace around 10.45am and march with music and much pomp and ceremony, to Buckingham Palace - where the new guard switches places with the guard who was on duty. The nearest Underground station is Green Park, and it's roughly a ten minute walk to the Palace.
If you want to go inside and tour the palace, there is a cost and this can only be done certain times of the year (November - May), and you will need to book on to a guided tour (tickets are £30 per adult, £16.50 per child). See more info here. Heads up: you'll go through airport-style security, and photos cannot be taken in the state rooms. Consider visiting Green Park and St James's Park whilst you're here, as they are a stone's throw away!
10. The Regent's Park
Despite the bustle and traffic of London, there's always a moment of calm to be found in one of London's well kept green spaces. Amazingly, about 47% of Greater London is green, making London one of the greenest major cities in Europe! Of London's green spaces, most notable are the Royal Parks, of which there are eight to be found. One of the most popular is Regent's Park which has cafe's, a boating lake, an Open Air Theatre and also houses London Zoo! Back in 1538, Henry VIII used Regent's Park as a hunting ground - and it was only opened to the public again from 1835. Fun fact: the park was named after the Prince Regent, who became King George IV.
There's so much to do in Regent's Park - you can't really go wrong on a day out here. Beyond the park, the Outer Circle is bustling with cyclists and runners; there is a running track here and you'll also find London Zoo nearby (there is a charge for the zoo). Be sure to check out the secret garden which can be found in the Inner Circle of Regent's Park; officially called St John's Lodge Garden, it has been open to the public since 1928 and has an impressive statue, a lovely sunken lawn and a rose garden. The lodge itself is a private residence but the garden is free to enter via the gate near the park office in the Inner Circle, from 5am - 6pm daily. Once you're done in Regent's Park, head to nearby Primrose Hill for fantastic views over London.
Other Royal Parks to check out include: Hyde Park, St James's Park, Green Park, Kensington Gardens, Greenwich Park, Bushy Park, Richmond Park. They're all free to visit and each bring with them their own character; they are indeed among the best and most peaceful free things to do in London.
11. Stroll from Covent Garden to Trafalgar Square
It takes less than 10 minutes to walk from one to the other - and both places are very worth a visit and some of the best free things to do in London. Covent Garden is an outdoor car-free area, filled with little shops and restaurants, quaint streets and street performers a'plenty! Covent Garden Market (also known as the Apple Market) is a covered market with stalls selling all sorts of jewellery, artwork and antiques. It gets super busy on weekends - so to escape from the throng, head to Neal's Yard - a small but colourful area with little cafes and restaurants. It's easy to miss, so keep your eye out for two alleyways to find the entrance.
Once you've had a wander, head to Trafalgar Square - London's most famous piazza. It's a public square that was opened in 1844 to commemorate the British victory at the battle of Trafalgar. Famous for Nelson's Column, the four plinths, and some impressive lion statues - and you can also spot Big Ben in the distance!
12. St Dunstan in the East
St Dunstan in the East is essentially ruins in a church garden. It is now a Grade I listed building - and its history involves much damage, including in 1666 during the Great Fire of London. After bombing in the Blitz, the church wasn't ever rebuilt and now remains a public space and garden (opened to the public in 1970). This place is especially beautiful in autumn, as the leaves and vines covering the brickwork display their autumn colours. The garden is open daily from 8.00am until dusk, and is one of the most magical free things to see and do in London!
13. Natural History Museum
The last spot on this list of best free things to do in London happens to be my favourite museum - the Natural History Museum. Fun fact; it is the UK's most visited indoor attraction! The Natural History Museum famously housed the dinosaur cast - Diplodocus - until 2017, followed by the current skeleton of a blue whale, which hangs suspended from the ceiling in the Hintze Hall (pictured above). The museum has a huge collection of science specimens, including items collected by Charles Darwin, and is considered the world's best centre for natural history and research on the subject. Aside from the exhibits, the building's interior and exterior are reason enough to visit - the architecture is truly exquisite; the staircases looking like something out of Hogwarts or M.C. Escher 😍 Once you've had a nosey around, you can tick off another two museums nearby - the Science Museum and the V&A (Victoria & Albert Museum) - both within walking distance. Entry to the Natural History Museum is free and it is best to book a free ticket in advance to guarantee entrance (open Mon-Sun 10.00am-5.50pm).
Well, that concludes my list of the best free things to do in London! I will be adding more as I go, so please comment below any other free things you enjoy in this wonderful city that deserve a place on the list.