A guide to London’s free attractions

London, expensive? Non-sense! Here's a load of great stuff you can do for free.

Who said London is expensive? (Well, apart from the people living and visiting the city.) The cost of going out may be high, but there are still plenty of things you can do that won’t leave you in the red. Here’s our definitive list of free stuff to do around town.


History and archaeology

The British Museum near Russell Square is London’s most visited attraction, and deservedly so. With around 8 million objects hailing from as far back as the pre-historic era, this museum can’t be done in a day. In the unlikely case that you’re left wanting more, the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology is a few minutes’ walk away, home to the world’s largest collection of archaeology from Egypt and Sudan.

For London-specific history, the Museum of London near the Barbican details the most important events to have taken place in the capital, including the Plague and the Great Fire. Once that’s whetted your appetite you can head to the Museum of London Docklands in Canary Wharf, which focuses on the river Thames and the Docklands area, from the days of the first Roman settlers through to the prosperous trade of tea and tobacco and the present day regeneration. For more seafaring history, hop on the DLR to Greenwich where the National Maritime Museum is located.

The history of the British Army is explained at the National Army Museum; the permanent galleries cover all the major wars and recent conflicts like Afghanistan.

Sir John Soanes designed the Royal Academy and the Palace of Westminster among many other notable buildings, and his home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields has been turned into a museum. Soanes also designed the art deco Freemasons Hall, which encompasses the Museum of Freemasonry, well worth a look for anyone with a passing interest in this secretive organisation.

Over in the East End, the period rooms at the Geffrye Museum mean you get to walk around replicas of a 17th century parlour and a Victorian drawing room. Just a little further east you’ll find the Ragged School Museum, which has a faithful recreation of a Victorian classroom and kitchen. It’s suitable for kids, as is the Museum of Childhood, which has toys and games from as far back as the 1600s to the present day.
Art

Art galleries tend to be free, as are the permanent collections of Tate Modern, Tate Britain, National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, the main exception being the Hayward Gallery. There are some big names at the Whitechapel Gallery, which frequently hosts exhibitions by contemporary, often provocative artists like Nan Goldin and Tracey Emin. More traditional art is on show at the Wallace Collection in Marylebone, the former home of collector Sir. Richard Wallace, who amassed works by Velazquez and Titian, along with armour, sculptures and ceramics.

Fans of William Hogarth can pay homage to the satirist by visiting his country home in Chiswick, where many of his famous prints hang from the walls. The former home of designer and conservationist William Morris, the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow is also open to the public. As well as providing a detailed history of the man himself, the work on display shows the profound influence Morris had on designers of his generation and beyond.

All decorative arts are represented at South Kensington’s V&A, which is arguably the best museum of its kind in the world. You’ll need several visits to take in all the collections, which include Islamic art, Oriental ceramics, fashion, musical instruments, and much more.
Animals

If a trip to the zoo is a bit out of your budget, fear not. Mudchute Park & Farm in the Docklands and Hackney City Farm both have pigs, goats, donkeys, chickens, sheep and in the case of Mudchute, llamas and alpacas. Stoke Newington’s Clissold Park has a butterfly dome, although it’s only open between May and September; while the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill has a large collection of insects, fossils and taxidermy mounts as well as an aquarium.

The Natural History Museum in South Kensington has collections devoted to evolution, the environment and space among others; here you’ll find the famous Diplodocus skeleton at the entrance. It’s a huge museum, so don’t expect to see it all in a day.


Science

The most obvious starting point for science enthusiasts is the Science Museum in South Kensington, a vast building with many interactive exhibits. The museum’s themes include chemistry, health, space and engineering, with lots of activities for children as well as adults.

Then there are smaller museums that specialise in specific areas, such as St. Bartholomew’s Museum near Smithfield Market, part of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, which exhibits surgical equipment alongside drawings by Hogarth. In a similar vein, there’s the Hunterian Museum by Holborn and the Royal Institution of Great Britain. In addition to artefacts relating to medicine, the Wellcome Collection by Euston has an extraordinary collection of objects such as shrunken heads, torture chairs and chastity belts, perfect for the morbid sightseer.


Finance and law

London’s most famous court cases have been handled at the Old Bailey, the Kray twins and the Yorkshire Ripper being among the most notorious criminals tried here. The general public can attend most trials as long as they’re not high profile. The Royal Courts of Justice are also open to the public, with the impressive gothic building being the main attraction.

Both the Debates and Question Time at the Houses of Parliament can be attended for free and tend to get very busy, but if witnessing Lords and MPs bickering isn’t your thing you could climb up the 334 steps of the Big Ben instead.

The 300 year old Bank of England has a museum with old coins and banknotes on display as well as
furniture, paintings, statues and other objects, but mostly it explains the role of the Bank from its inception to today.

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