Updated: Nov 20, 2021
There are many incredibly awesome things to do in London that will cost you a considerable chunk of change. Some of these are an absolute must for first time visitors. But if you’re like me, you want to see the most you can for the smallest amount of money. I’ve already shared with you what I consider the greatest free attraction in London. Now here are the runners-up in no particular order. Pay attention—you won’t want to miss these!
Okay, so maybe you can’t go into the Queen’s royal estate for free, but you can sure look at it. British monarchs have called this lavish structure home since Queen Victoria took up residence here in 1837. While she makes her annual voyage to Scotland in August and September, Her Majesty opens all 19 state rooms to the public. You only get in for free, however, if you’re under 5 years old. Since I’m guessing none of you are, the standard admission price is £17.50, no trivial fee. The Royal Mews, or Queen’s stables, cost £8.00 to visit, while a gander at the Queen’s Portrait Gallery will part you with £9.00 (£15.50 combined). While I don’t doubt the splendor to be witnessed inside, I’m all about staying within budget. So what’s free at this copious money trap? That’s right, the Changing of the Guard.
Since the British Army began practicing this glorious tradition, its fame has traveled the world wide and made it a must-see for any self-respecting tourist. You can’t miss this truth as you find yourself jammed together with complete strangers and jostled like a head of cattle in a giant herd, French teeming into one ear and Chinese into the other. Every sightseer in London crowds into the courtyard at Buckingham Palace during this event, so do yourself a favor and come early. Stake out your spot on the Queen Victoria Memorial fountain before the masses of people arrive to do it for you. I didn’t, and subsequently suffered amid the sweaty, uncomfortable heart of the crowd, unable to see much of anything even at my height of nearly six feet. That’s not to say it’s all unpleasant within this nucleus of disarray. If you’re amused by irritated bobbies on horseback, shouting repeatedly at the idiotic tourists who won’t keep the gates clear, this may be right up your alley.
The British Library
I know I said “no particular order”, but this place is easily my second favorite behind the British Museum. Though less than visually appealing from the outside, housed inside are some of the greatest written works of all time. Come face to face with The Diamond Sutra, the earliest dated printed book in the world. Take an up close look at two Gutenberg Bibles, the book that sparked the “Gutenberg Revolution” and changed the face of both literature and Christianity forever. Remember studying the epic poem Beowulf in school (or perhaps watching the film instead)? The over 1,000-year-old manuscript is here, along with Anne Boleyn’s copy of William Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, The Canterbury Tales, Jane Eyre, original Shakespeare, and so much more. I nearly cried as I stood before the Magna Carta, the 1215 charter demanding liberties from King John (an ancestor of mine) by his feudal barons. How often I had heard of this revolutionary document, and now I stood before it, simply speechless. Bottom line: if you have any appreciation whatsoever for classic literary works, you need to check out this library. It’s free and it’s fantastic!
William Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre was built in 1599 by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, only to burn down 14 years later and be rebuilt in 1614. Here, men and women from every class could take a short vacation from life’s troubles to enjoy a light-hearted comedy or wallow in a gut-wrenching tragedy. The Puritans may have closed it down in 1642 and demolished it in the years shortly thereafter, but have no fear! A striking replica now stands only about 750 feet from the original and delivers authentic performances of Shakespeare’s many remarkable works. Guided tours may be purchased for £12.50, but the cheaper route is to actually attend a play itself. The standing section of the theater provides the best view in the house and costs only £5. I realize it’s not ideal to stand for several hours straight, but hey—just think of it as getting the genuine peasant experience. Talented actors and a tremendous setting make this venture well worth every penny, especially if you love theater. Just don’t take any pictures while the play is in session. I have no idea how, but they catch you, even with the flash off. None of this advice comes from personal experience, of course. 😉
I know what you’re thinking. Harrods department store isn’t exactly Walmart. In fact, it’s probably one of the most expensive stores you could possibly step foot in throughout London. But it’s also the most famous. This five-acre, 1,000,000-square-foot cultural landmark attracts tourists every year from all over the world. It’s free to look, so why not spend an afternoon here, marveling at the vastness of it all? Just resist the urge to impulse buy. If you simply can’t, leave the wallet behind. Then you can tell all your friends that you went “shopping at Harrods” in a hoity-toity accent without the accompanying guilt of knowing you already exhausted your rent money for the month.
More free/cheap London ideas to come! I could talk about this stuff forever…