11 free things to do in London (.. and 4 bonus ones)

It is no secret that there is just so much to see and do in London. I have been living here for almost 5 years now but that hasn’t stopped me from finding something new on a regular basis – it could be another historical building, a seasonal festival or a new outdoor market.

London is an expensive city though. This also extends to the plentiful attractions that the city is famous for and which as a visitor one would like to indulge in. Compared to Europe, I find entrance prices in London to be more than double.

I have, therefore, put together a list of free things to see and do in London which will give the freedom to just SEE the city. This doesn’t include the plenty of free museums such as the Natural History museum or the National gallery because that is common knowledge. What I have tried to include are places that I have found out about over time and hopefully, these will give you a view of London different from that of a “London bucket list”.

Tate Modern viewing gallery

I know I said no museums. However, you will need to go all the way to the top floor of Tate Modern to get access to its viewing gallery. From here you get glorious views of St Paul’s cathedral right in front of you. Also visible is the cluster of London city’s buildings as well as the omniscient Shard. Do this after spending a day exploring all the beautiful things inside Tate or just plan to go near the golden hour (because every view is just so much better then).

You can combine the visit with – a walk along London’s Southbank, St Paul’s cathedral

Sky Garden

Sky Garden is situated at the top of a building known as the “walkie talkie” and is a vantage point to see all the iconic structures of London from high up. With its location bang in the middle of the city, it is hard to miss. It is possible to visit the Sky Garden without a booking but the hours to do so are limited. There is another option of making a booking and choosing the time of visit. The space has been converted into a stepped garden so make sure to go up to the top areas and take in sweeping views of the city from all angles.

Sky garden
Sky Garden
Sky garden
City view
Sky garden
The omniscient Tower bridge

You can combine the visit with – Leadenhall market

Tip: When I visited, the outdoor gallery closed about an hour before the official closing time. Iā€™d suggest avoiding the last booking slots just in case

St Paul’s cathedral

St Paul’s cathedral is one of my MOST favourite-EST buildings in London. There hasn’t been a time that I have crossed it and not stopped to just gaze at its magnificence. Many a lunch break from work have been spent lounging at its steps or in its gardens.

St Paul's magnificent dome
St Paul’s magnificent dome

It however carries a slightly expensive entrance fee in my opinion. So if you would like to visit for free, go on a Sunday when the cathedral is open for free and holds organ recitals throughout the day. I have been thrice and can vouch for the good hours spent. The downside though is that the dome of St Paul is inaccessible and photogrpahy is not allowed. So take your pick.

You can combine the visit with – Museum of London, cross the Millenium bridge over to Tate Modern

Southbank centre food market

There are plenty of open food markets in London which are a delight to explore. Why I mention the Southbank centre food market here is because I realised over time that it is not as well known as say Borough or Camden market. Maybe that’s because it is only open from Friday-Sunday. Go there on a sunny day and enjoy the variety of food, especially the calamari and the Greek wrap while Thames flows by lazily.

Southbank centre market

You can combine your visit with – walk along Southbank, London Eye

Columbia road flower market

Imagine spending your Sunday morning on a very narrow road which is flanked by flowers in all possible colours, plants big and small, and herbs of different varieties – it is a place designed to make you happy.

Sea of flowers
Columbia flower market
Sea of flowers

Columbia flower market is open only on Sunday till about 3pm. I’d suggest going early as it is less crowded (surprise) and also because the stalls empty out near closing time. Follow up the wanderings with a brunch at one of the cafes surrounding the market.

You can combine the visit with – potentially Shoreditch though it is a longish walk or a bus ride away

Ceremony of the keys, Tower of London

England is much about traditions, and ceremony of the keys is one such tradition which has continued for centuries. Essentially it involves locking up the Tower of London at night, you know to protect all those crown jewels inside. There is an enactment which takes place between the guards and the words spoken between them haven’t changed. Ever.

The entry if free but a reservation is needed. One downside is that because of less places and free reservation, the tickets are booked out months in advance. But no harm trying your luck, is there? We went one very cold November night when the Tower was completely shrouded in mist – the whole experience was quite haunting. So like I said, try your luck. It’s quite fun.

You can combine the visit with – the ceremony takes place at night so possibly go to the Tower bridge when it is most beautiful

St Mary Aldermary church

Now this is one place I loved going to when I worked in the city. Close to Mansion House station stands St Mary Aldermary church hidden from the main street. Quite like an oasis in the middle of the city’s chaos. The church has a cafe inside and welcomes people to carry and have their lunch within the pews. How amazing is that? Not just that, the pews are also used to work on laptops or just chit chat.

The very warm and welcoming cafe

The good thing is that it doesn’t get too noisy and I have spent many lunch hours in quiet contemplation. If you are out and about walking and exploring the city, it makes for a great setting to take a coffee or lunch break. Make sure to check opening times as I am quite certain it is closed on weekends.

You can combine the visit with – St Paul’s cathedral or your wanderings in the city

St Dunstan in the East

This church was burnt down in the Great Fire and then rebuilt. And was then bombed out during the war. It wasn’t rebuilt afterwards and what remains of it is its tower and the external walls.

What was the interior of the church is now converted into a garden. Its then windows overflow with vines. And what were arched doorways are now covered with moss.

The garden at the centre of St Dunstan
Windows and doorways

It isn’t the most hidden of places as plenty of people can be found lounging here but it has a quiet atmosphere about it. I have seen similar places in other countries but it is a unique one in London for sure.

You can combine the visit with – Tower of London, Tower bridge

Primrose Hill and a walk along Regent canal

Spending a couple of hours at Primrose Hill is a nice way to while away an afternoon especially on a clear and sunny day. That’s not just because you can get your dose of sunshine but because the elevation of Primrose hill gives a good view of the city. Go right to the top and you can make out most of the buildings that define the city’s skyline.

That London skyline

But don’t just stop there. Walking down the hill, you can make your way to Regent’s canal. Regent’s canal runs through London for about 15 kms and having walked along different stretches, I’d have to say that the part between Primrose hill till near about Paddington is peaceful, leafy and makes for a lovely walk.

You can combine the visit with – Camden market, Regent’s park, Baker street

Golder’s Hill park

I love the fact that London has TONS of green patches bang in the middle of the city. But as much as I love hanging out in St James’ park and watch the ducks, it does get a little overwhelming in peak summer season. And that’s why Golder’s Hill park finds a mention here. It is a little away from the centre in North London so you can truly escape the crowds and enjoy some quiet here. Bear in mind though that it will take a 30 minute tube ride from Bank and a ten minute walk to reach here.

Golder’s Hill park

The first time I was here, I was visiting the neighbouring Hampstead Heath (which is another fabulous open space) and a couple of residents told me to give the park a visit as they preferred it. I have been here twice now and apart from its manicured gardens, I love its gorgeous pergola overhanging with vines. Go give it a visit if you have time.

The pergola and its hanging vines

You can combine the visit with – it is a little away from the centre so maybe visit Hampstead Heath and Golder’s Hill park together and make a day out of it

Deer spotting in Richmond park

Richmond park is not just one of the largest parks in London but also a great place to spot wild deer. Which sounds like a fun activity and why I made it there last year during autumn. The park which used to be a deer hunting ground, still has a sizeable population of deer roaming out and about in the area. A good time to spot them is during the mating period from September-October when they can be found in plenty.

Deer chilling in the autumn season

And now as promised, here are the 4 bonus ones which are seasonal

Mayfield lavender fields

Just an hour away from London, there is an opportunity to spend a day amidst vast expanses of purple. Mayfield lavender fields are located in Surrey and are open from June to roughly September when the lavender is in bloom. Now technically this is not free, but at Ā£2 entry fee, it kind of is. Walking within rows of lavender with busy bees for company, clicking lots of pictures and indulging in some lavender themed food from the cafe should keep you busy for a few hours.

That purple
There will be no shortage of bees here

Timewise, I know from experience that mid-August can be a little late and June a little early. I’d say mid July is your best bet. Best to check how the lavender is looking on their Twitter page. The directions are also well described on their website.

Lumiere

Lumiere is a light festival which takes place in London in the month of January usually over a period of 3-4 days. Its only been around for 3 years but going by how busy it was when I visited, it is clearly very popular.

During Lumiere, there are beautiful themed light installations across London including at Westend, Canary wharf, Southbank and Kings Cross. I remember the biting cold on that January night when I walked around London to explore Lumiere – it was when my toes almost fell off my feet. But I have to say that it is a nice way to light up the dreary winter nights and give people a reason to step out of hibernation. Don’t miss if you are in London in January. Check dates of next Lumiere festival on its website.

Lumiere london
Westminster Abbey is all coloured up
Close up of the Abbey’s arches
Trafalgar square
Lumiere London
Lumiere London

Southbank summer festivals

London’s Southbank is a delight to explore anytime of the year. Come summer, and it gets even busier here with multiple festivals taking place. There are open air theatre performances, free exhibitions and pop-ups. Two of these festivals are Underbelly festival and the Southbank centre summer festival which roughly run from April to September.

Something or the other is always up around here
Southbank centre festival

Even if arts is not your thing, there are lots of food and drink options to keep busy with. If drinks with a view is your thing but you don’t want to spend on those pricey cocktails, then visit Queen Elizabeth rooftop terrace. It is converted to a garden during this time and gives off views of the river and London eye so a nice way to take a break from all that walking (I didn’t find too many food and drink options at the only bar here so maybe carry your own). Don’t forget the Southbank centre food market is here as well.

You can combine your visit with – London Eye

Mayor’s parade

This is another one of those traditions that I was talking about earlier. The parade has been taking place for the last 800 years so that the Mayor of London can go down to Westminster to pledge his allegiance to the Crown (and he needs ten thousand people to come along with him to do that). The procession of dancers, bands, horses and floats moves across the city of London in the month of November.

Mayor's parade London
Mayor’s parade London
This goes on for a few hours

The parade ends in Bank (in central London) so it is a convenient one to catch if you are roaming about nearby. After the parade, there are free walking tours (about 2 hours duration) of the city’s history followed by fireworks over Thames. The walking tour was quite fun actually (though I don’t think I remember a word or street from that ha!) so choose as per your availability.

That’s it. That’s the 11 free things in London which I hope will help you enjoy London a little differently. Are there any places you have visited in London which do not find a regular mention in travel guides? Let me know below.

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