London is one of the world’s most visited cities, particularly among U.S. travelers. But with fluctuating currencies and the rise and fall of economic indicators of varying kinds, finding things to do for free or at nominal cost is very important. The first and probably most obvious thing to do is to enjoy a good, old-fashioned walk in the park. It may seem surprising that London, this giant metropolis, has over 5,000 acres of parkland to stroll through. In the summer, the views are striking, particularly with all the flowers and trees in full bloom. At any time of the year, though, a walk in the park is a good way to overcome jet lag and bide the time while you’re waiting for your hotel room to become available, especially if you’re flight is arriving in the morning hours. St. James’s Park is a favorite among tourists. From the park bridge you’ll see Buckingham Palace on one side and Whitehall on the other. Beneath the bridge are various species of waterfowl, which are identified on signs posted along the walkway adjacent to the bridge. St. James’s Park is reachable by the Underground on the District or Circle line at the station stop known, appropriately enough, as St. James’s Park. If you keep walking through St. James’s Park, you’re likely to run into Green Park because the two parks meet at the area known as Queen’s Gardens. You can also access Green Park on the Victoria, Piccadilly, or Jubilee Underground lines at Green Park station. Another well-known park is Regent’s Park, home of the London Zoo. Part of London’s canal waterways bisects this park, which adds to its beauty. Regent’s Park is accessible from the Underground on the Bakerloo line at Regent’s Park station. Kensington Gardens, another park, boasts Kensington Palace, home of the late Princess Diana and, now, the Cambridges. The Peter Pan statue is a favorite sight here. The park can be reached through Bayswater station on the Circle or District lines or Queensway station on the Central line, to name a few. And if you keep walking through Kensington Gardens you’re likely to wind up in Hyde Park because the two parks are contiguous. On Sundays in Hyde Park, around noon, visit the Speakers Corner section of the park (that’s at Marble Arch station on the Central line) where folks get up on their soapbox and expound on the issues of the day or whatever else they fancy. Speakers Corner has a long history of notable devotees like Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and George Orwell.
Another free activity involves London museums. Traditionally, several museums in London have always been free to the public. Others, since around 2001 or so, removed their entry charges and are now free as well. The V&A (which is short for Victoria & Albert Museum) is near South Kensington station on the District or Circle or Piccadilly lines. The V&A claims to be the world’s greatest museum of art and design. In it you’ll find famous sculptures such as those by Rodin. Looking for some family fun? The V&A family of museums also includes The Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green station on the Central line. Another notable museum is the British Library. You’ll find ancient texts like the Magna Carta and manuscripts ranging from Jane Austen to Leonardo daVinci. You can get there via King’s Cross St. Pancras station (on the Circle, Hammersmith, Metropolitan, Northern, Victoria, or Piccadilly lines) or Euston station (on the Northern or Victoria lines), or Euston Square station on the Circle, Hammersmith, or Metropolitan lines. The British Museum is another gem. You’ll find the Rosetta Stone, mummies (a particular favorite if you’re traveling with kids), ancient sculpture and other artifacts. For these permanent collections, you can take a guided tour for a small fee. And there are several ways to get there, such as the Russell Square stop on the Piccadilly line. Also, the National Gallery has one of the most magnificent collections of European paintings anywhere. And they have daily free tours of their collections. Take the Charing Cross station on the Northern or Bakerloo lines and follow the Trafalgar Square exit out of the station.
Window shopping is, needless to say, another freebie. So take a walk through Oxford and Regent Streets, two major shopping destinations that intersect at Oxford Circus (which you can find on the Central, Bakerloo or Victoria lines). And visit the Food Hall at Harrods (at Knightsbridge station on the Piccadilly line), a feast for the senses. The craft markets are fun to visit, too, and you could pick up a real bargain in the process. Visit the Covent Garden marketplace (at Covent Garden station) or Portobello Road market, which is open on Saturdays from early morning until dinner time. Portobello Road market is accessible from Notting Hill Gate station on the Central, District or Circle lines. Best to get there earlier rather than later before the best buys are gone!
Next, consider soaking in London’s pageantry. As you might expect, the Crown Jewels and Tower of London admissions are not cheap. But there are other majestic things to witness that don’t cost a penny. One is the Changing the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. It takes place around 11:30 in the morning every day during peak season and every other day, off peak. Get there as early as you can for the best views. Take the St. James’s Park station to the Palace gate area. Another fantastic bit of pageantry is the locking of the Tower of London each night, which is known as the Ceremony of the Keys. It is said that, except for one evening during the Blitz of World War II, this event has taken place every night for over 700 years. Get to the Tower by using the Tower Hill station on the Circle or District lines. Then follow the exit signs to the Tower of London. As you walk through the station exit, you’ll see the remains of a Roman wall back from the days of London’s status as the Roman city, Londinium. You’ll get nice photo ops of the Tower and surrounding areas as well.
In the vicinity of the Tower is the raising of Tower Bridge, another free event worth viewing. The bridge lifts about 1,000 times a year to allow tall ships to pass through, sometimes more than once a day. You can find a bridge lift schedule online. When you view the schedule, you’ll see the words “up” or “down.” This refers to whether the vessel needing access to the raised bridge is heading upriver or downriver.
One of those “almost free” things to do is to explore the suburbs on the outskirts of London’s Underground. No doubt you’ll purchase an Underground ticket or pass for any time being spent in London. So get the most value for that investment by exploring the outer reaches–in other words, some of the terminating points of the various lines of London’s Underground system. For example, take the western end of the District line to Richmond. There you’ll find Richmond Park, another beautiful park with roaming deer as a key attraction and London’s oldest bridge, Richmond Bridge. Another option is the northwest terminus of the Metropolitan line, which is Amersham, a typical country town with a footpath along the river and quaint shops down the valley. Closer to central London, a ride on the Docklands Light Railway (which you can pick up at Bank station on the Central, Northern, or Waterloo lines) will take you through one of the most revitalized sections of London, particularly the Canary Wharf section of Docklands. You can also use the Docklands Light Railway (DLR for short) to get to Greenwich. Take the DLR to Island Gardens station and you’ll find a tunnel (completed in 1902) to walk under the Thames right up to Greenwich Pier. While you’re there, walk uphill to the naval observatory, where you’ll come to the Prime Meridian of the World, the imaginary line separating east longitude from west longitude. For any of your Underground explorations, be sure you have a ticket that covers the appropriate fare zones, most popularly zones one through six.
Finally, consider watching a government debate. Locals and overseas visitors are able to sit in the public galleries and observe debates. American citizens wishing to watch a House of Commons debate can apply to the embassy for a card of introduction. These cards are booked several weeks ahead. Without a card of introduction, a wait of one to two hours in the public queue outside St. Stephen’s Entrance is common during the afternoons.
With all of these ideas to explore, it is possible to plan a cost-saving trip to London. No quidding!