They say the best things in life are free. And I can confirm that they generally are. Take, for instance, hugs, big killer whales called Willy and my advice, dear Travelettes. But what about in London? Can there really be such a thing as a free lunch in the city economics brainiacs have named and shamed as one of the most expensive cities in Europe? Well, actually, yes there is. There’s a whole host of fun things to do in London that won’t cost you your first-born child and isn’t just the changing of the guard or peering forlornly through the gated entrance of Downing Street. Here are 14 favorites to try on for size…
1) Museums galore.
Of course, option numero uno has to be the countless free museums and galleries dotted all over the city. Here are the biggest names in the smallest of nutshells – the British Museum (the works of man!); the Natural History Museum (dinosaurs and the blue whale!); the Science Museum (not just for geeks!); Tate Modern (20th century artists); and the elegant, National Gallery (masters and pioneers). But as any traveller worth their plane ticket knows, sometimes bigger ain’t always necessarily better. Although those are admittedly pretty good.
For something a little more edgy, hotfoot it to Park Lane and the Hard Rock Café, bypass the overpriced burgers and head to the Vault beneath the shop. This is where you’ll find a treasure trove of legendary rock memorabilia from John Lennon’s glasses to Madonna’s famous bustier from her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour via a bunch of guitars belonging to a bunch of cool dudes. And if all this sounds way too tame, take a walk on the wild side at the Grant Museum of Zoology and admire such eccentricities as a jar of pickled moles and the preserved brain collection. This museum regularly screens free, cult classic, monster movies too with complimentary wine and a tour of the museum.
2) Catch a show at the Scoop.
Between London Bridge and Tower Bridge on the South Bank of the Thames nestles a sunken, outdoor amphitheatre called the Scoop at More London. It seats 800 people on a first come, first served basis and features regular music, plays and film screenings for the public, particularly during the summer months where a Free Festival serves up all manner of performances with each month dedicated to a particular genre.
June presented a selection of fringe; July promises to be all about the live music; August brings a selection of theatrical offerings to the party; and September will screen a series of classic, cult and contemporary films from Back to the Future to Les Miserables. Let’s just hope the weather plays ball so we can give a two-fingered salute to spending hard earned salaries on a seat where the players look like ants in Shakespearean pants. Totally fab; totally (al)fresco; totally, freaking free.
3) Expand your mind at a Gresham College lecture.
Dust off that satchel kids, we’re heading back to school. Or, more specifically, to Gresham College, where for over 400 years free public lectures have been provided in the City of London. At present there are eight key professors delivering on a diverse range of topics throughout the year as well as visiting experts and guest speakers too. Whether it’s the rise and fall of European empires, the suffragette movement or wartime poetry that sizzles your synapses, there’s bound to be something that appeals.
4) Get it off your chest at Speakers’ corner.
Check out the north-east corner of Hyde Park for the original Speakers’ Corner where open-air, public speaking, debate and discussion provide endless entertainment for passers-by. Speakers may speak on any subject (as long as police consider their speeches lawful) by literally getting up on their soap-box and orating to the crowd. Join the speakers, listeners or hecklers and experience this celebration of free speech, free of charge.
5) Get fit in the park.
Every Saturday at 2:30pm, Freefit holds fitness sessions in Finsbury Park near the community centre. All ages and all levels of fitness welcome – just wear your workout gear, pack some water and come along to take advantage of actual, real life personal trainers who can also provide advice on nutrition, weight loss and individual exercise plans. All for the bargain price of… nothing.
6) Eat, love and pray at Wat Buddhapadipa.
Soak up a little bit of serenity and pay a visit to the tranquil Wat Buddhapadipa, the first Buddhist temple in the UK. Marvel at the Thai murals depicting the Buddha’s lifetime and take a stroll around the ornamental lake, flower garden and orchard. Visit on a Sunday when you can meet the monks who, as they don’t work, get food donations and gifts from the temple regulars – usually delicious Thai home cooking. After the monks finish lunch (around midday) and give their blessings and thanks, the public can share in the feast. The best part is everyone’s welcome and as there are several hundred regulars to the temple, it’s like one very big family.
7) Free entertainment at the Southbank Centre.
Every year thousands of talented musicians and cutting edge artists perform to millions of visitors at the wonderland of entertainment that is the Southbank Centre. The centre is a collection of venues including the Royal Festival Hall which hosts regular, free, live music, exhibitions and workshops at the weekend. Take advantage of the Friday Lunch music slot, showcasing a grange of genres such as world, folk, classical and jazz or drop by the Friday Tonic sessions for winding down at the end of the working week and enjoying the selection of up and coming talent. Oh yeah and the Wifi’s free too. Bosh!
8) Check out the skaters.
Tucked away in the undercroft of the Southbank Centre lies one of the best, unplanned skate parks in Europe. Skateboarders and BMXers have commandeered this disused space for the past 40 years and people come from all over to watch them hone their skills and hang out against an impressive and constantly changing backdrop of graffiti art. Combine with a stroll along the Thames and you can also visually hit up the big players of London sights like Big Ben and Tower Bridge. Two birds; one stone; no pennies.
9) Love film at the BFI Mediatheque.
Calling all film buffs to the Mediatheque at the British Film Institute’s South Bank complex. Book ahead if you like or just drop in on the suite of wide-screen computer booths, log onto a viewing station and enjoy highlights from the BFI national archive, the world’s greatest and most diverse collection of film, TV shows and documentaries. Open until 8pm Tue-Sun, surely just the thought is enough to turn your eyes square.
10) Get your read on at the British Library.
If you’re more of the bookworm type, you’ll find yourself in literary Elysium at the fascinating British Library. The collections are vast and dazzling with original works from Shakespeare and Jane Austen alongside manuscripts of Beatles’ lyrics. Other highlights are letters from Michaelangelo; Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks; and two copies of the famous historical document, the Magna Carta.
11) Be in a TV audience.
Ever wonder where they find all those people to be in the audience on TV? Think they pay through the nose for the pleasure of chortling away in the background, having a thoroughly good time? Well, check out sites such as tvrecordings.com or http://www.bbc.co.uk/showsandtours/ to pick up free tickets to all kinds of shows from stand-up and sitcoms to concerts and quizzes. Or if you fancy a bit of the limelight yourself, why not apply to feature on a show of your choice? This could be your time to shine.
11) Experience Evensong at Westminster Abbey.
Westminster Abbey is an architectural beauty, a site where the coronations of Kings and Queens have taken place since 1066 and the setting for the royal spectacle that was Kate and Wills tying the knot a couple of years ago. For a tour and a good nose around at tombs of renowned monarchs such as Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, you will need to pay an entrance fee but drop by to experience the choral Evensong and it’s absolutely free. The atmosphere of this awesome church, amplified by the echoing sound of the choir is guaranteed to melt even the hardest of hearts. That’s pure history you’re feeling. Right there.
13) Lounge around in Kensington roof gardens.
We all love a bit of green space but although a good bit of vigorous lounging in St. James’s or Hyde Park on a lazy afternoon will never go amiss, sometimes we all need something a little more imaginative. Step up to the plate Kensington roof gardens, one of the largest of its kind in Europe. And that’s gardens, plural. There is a Spanish themed garden with fountains and vine covered walkways; a Tudor style garden complete with hanging wisteria and secret corners for whispering courtly secrets; and an English woodland garden with a stream and over 100 species of trees. And if this isn’t enough madness, they also have flamingos. On a roof. In the middle of London. Genius.
14) Do hip-hop karaoke.
This. Sounds. Awesome. Free before 9pm, hip hop karaoke Thursdays at the Social near Oxford Circus. Nuff said.
Looks like there really is quite a bit of fun to be had in London for free. Time to fall in love with the city all over again.
Image 1 Anthony Shaw Photography; image 2 Marzipan&Marmite; image 3 Time Out; image 4 London Town; image 5 Mark Seymour Photography; image 6 kootation; image 7 Southbank Centre; image 8 Biker Jun; image 9 The Guardian; image 10 Insider London; image 11 The Guardian; image 12 London Town; image 13 Inside Vancouver; image 14 Lisa Burrett