The Best Free and Cheap Things to Do in London

The city is awash in activities that won't put a dent in your wallet.

London can get expensive, but not every activity has a hefty price tag.

England is a country filled with history and culture and perhaps no place more than London, its capital city. Many of these places and things to do cost little or nothing at all.

After taking in the magnificence of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, stroll across the River Thames to discover the latest in contemporary art at the Tate Modern. Before taking advantage of the gallery's free admission, the amazing blue of Tower Bridge is sure to have cameras rising to get the perfect shot.

Nervous about taking a cab on the opposite side of the road or just tired from walking? The London Underground is waiting to whisk you to that next museum, park or area of the city to be explored for a relatively low price.

These are just a few of the experiences to be had in London that won't break the bank.

Picadilly line, South Kensington station
The Picadilly line's South Kensington station is one among a network of stops on the London Underground. (©Transport for London)

Go Underground to Ride the Tube

Want to save shoe leather while hitting all the hot spots in London? The London Underground—The Tube—is ready to serve.

Trains run daily from 5 am usually to midnight with reduced hours on Sunday. With 12 lines serving the city, there is almost no place that is inaccessible. Perhaps the best option is the Visitor Oyster Card London: The smartcard that may be used on all London public transportation and with it, a trip that would normally cost a little over $5 would be half priced.

Be forewarned: There is notoriously limited cell phone service on the Tube. Locals advise to ride the Tube once—if you must, to say you you minded the gap—and then take the bus for a more friendly form of transportation throughout the city.

Double-decker bus
(©Paul Robertson/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Stay Topside on a Double-Decker Bus

Perhaps one of the best ways to see London is on an iconic, red double decker.

Skip the tours and go with the everyday bus fares that start at £1.50 for adults—put it on that Oyster card or a contactless payment card—and see London flash by before your eyes with a lofty view from the top. If you only uses buses and trams and put it all on the same Oyster card, the most you'll spend on transportation in a day will be less than five Euro. Added value is the the prime people watching on the bus and in the world around.

Changing of the Guard

Changing the Guard

It doesn't cost a thing to see one of the most traditional military ceremonies in the world at Buckingham Palace.

Since 1837, a royal detachment has guarded the queen and Buckingham Palace. Each day for 45 minutes that historic routine is carried out. Troops march from Wellington Barracks less than a quarter mile away to the palace grounds where they relieve the on-duty detachment with much pomp and circumstance to become The Queen's Guard. A trip to London wouldn't be complete without seeing this historic event. The ceremony happens from starting at 11 am on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and 10 am on Sunday of each week as long as the weather cooperates.

Regents Park
There is beauty all around Regent's Park. (©chrisdorney/Shutterstock)

Pick an Activity at Regent's Park

Regent's Park—one of eight free royal parks—is a place that bears a return visit.

The park is not just defined by its beauty, which is especially prevalent in June when Queen Mary's Garden is filled with over 12,000 roses. No, the 395-acre park has an open-air theater and plays host to the annual Frieze Art Fair. Spend time on the lake or listen to a free concert in the park before crossing the Regent's Canal to Primrose Hill for magnificent views of the city. After working up an appetite getting to the top of Primrose Hill, fuel up at the Primrose Bakery which is known for its cupcakes.

The Tate Modern
Art comes in many forms at the Tate Modern. (©Gimas/Shutterstock)

The Tate Modern

On the banks of the River Thames, the Tate Modern offers visitors a free look at international modern and contemporary art. Discover everything from photographs by Sir Elton John to live art and performances in The Tanks to discovering artists’ inspirations behind their creations. Open daily at 10 am.

Southbank Book Market
Southbank Centre Book Market (©Daniel Gale/Shutterstock)

Southbank Centre Book Market

Bookstores may be getting phased out, but that doesn't mean you won't be able to go looking for that favorite novel on a trip to London and look like a local in the process.

Underneath Waterloo Bridge near the Embankment and Waterloo Underground stations is the Southbank Centre Market, southern England's lone outdoor secondhand and antique book market. The market is open daily until 7 pm to find that coveted hardback or paperback.

Trafalgar Square
Admiral Nelson keeps watch over Trafalgar Square. (©serenarossi/Shutterstock)

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square is the perfect meeting place or spot to begin exploration of London's different areas.

Watched over by Admiral Nelson's 185-foot granite monument—guarded by lion statues—the square is home to events during the year and has fountains that are perfect for dipping toes in on a hot summer day. The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are on the square in addition to a café and public toilets. St. Martin-in-the-Fields is an English Anglican church in the northeast corner of the square. In addition to 20 services a week, the church has over 350 free and ticketed performances each year featuring some of the country's finest musicians.

As a central location, Trafalgar Square is a scant few minute's walk from no less than four Underground stations including Charing Cross, Leicester Square and Picadilly Circus. Picadilly Circus is one of the busiest parts of London and the movie houses on Leicester Square are where major films are premiered in England.

Chelsea Physic Garden
(©David Nicholls/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Chelsea Physic Garden

Founded as the Apothecaries’ Garden in 1673, Chelsea Physic Garden is Britain's second oldest botanical garden. Inside its walls, near the Thames, its costs adults $13 to see 5,000 edible and medicinal plants. After exploring the garden, take time for tea or lunch at the award-winning Tangerine Dream Café.

British Museum
British Museum courtyard (©Ruth/Flickr, Creative Commons)

British Museum

There is much to see at the British Museum whether it be "A History of the World in 100 Objects" or "London, a World City in 20 Objects." Be entranced by exhibits from across the world and centuries: When short on time, the museum will lead a one-hour tour across collections to see items such as The Rosetta Stone and Samurai armor. The museum is free and open daily from 10 am-5:30 pm and until 8:30 pm on Fridays.

Neals Yard in Covent Garden
Neals Yard in Covent Garden (©Christian Mueller/Shutterstock)

Covent Garden

On the outskirts of the West End, Covent Garden is a popular shopping area with restaurants theaters and museums. While it may sound pricey, there are options to keep costs down.

Cobblestone marks different areas including the Covent Garden Piazza, where crowds are entertained by street performers. Head inside the Market Building for the Apple Market filled with stalls selling homemade goods including antiques and collectibles on Mondays. Covent Garden is also home to the London Transport Museum, Royal Opera House and the Somerset House, a contemporary arts venue. Depending on the time of year, the Somerset House's cobbled courtyard could be and ice rink or an open-air cinema. 

Rolling Bridge
The Rolling Bridge, which actually curls, does its trick every Friday at noon. (©SNappa2006/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Function vs. Fashion

Make sure to be at Paddington Basin on Fridays at noon—to see a unique combination of function and form. Spanning the Grand Union Canal, the Rolling Bridge's 39-foot long pedestrian path doesn't rise straight up, rather curling up until it rests as a piece of art on the opposite bank. Using hydraulics, the bridge curls to let boats moored pass through smoothly. The rest of the time—that the bridge isn't a sculpture on one side of the inlet letting boats pass by—Rolling Bridge is a functional foot bridge for workers and visitors to use.

Rolling Bridge in London
At Fridays on noon, Rolling Bridge becomes a stationary work of art on one side of the Paddington Basin. (©Cristina Bejarano/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Sir John Soane's Museum
Sir John Soane's Museum (©stu smith/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Sir John Soane's Museum

For a true sense of historic architecture for free, visit Sir John Soane's Museum. The noted British architect bought three houses, demolished them and rebuilt in their place one house that is preserved as it was when it was when he died almost 180 years ago. Discover architect models, paintings and sculptures among many other things. For an extra thrill, explore the house by candlelight on the first Tuesday night of every month.