Free attractions for London on a budget trip – What? Where? How?
I returned from my 3-day trip to London just several days before Christmas, spending a total of around £70. Before the trip, I did massive research about travelling to London on a budget, as I was worried that with so little money I would have to trade off both the comfort and the quality of my stay.
Everything in London seems so expensive. For some popular attractions such as Buckingham Palace, even the concession price for students is unaffordable to me. Therefore, I decided to focus on free attractions and cheap things to do in London instead.
Contrary to my initial thought that free London attractions were just crappy places, most of them turned out to exceed my expectations! Therefore, in this article, I will share detailed reviews of the 14 free London attractions that I visited so that you can decide for yourself which ones to include in your London itinerary!
London on a Budget: 3-day Itinerary
With 3 full days in London, I managed to visit the 14 free attractions below. I have given each of them a rating out of 5 based on my real experience there.
Camden Lock Market (Free)
You’ll be spoiled for choice at this amazing Camden Lock Market. Lying by a scenic canal, Camden Lock Market features hundreds of shops and stalls selling everything from vintage clothing, exotic food, old books, and handmade cosmetics to tourist souvenirs.
It’s really worth up to half a day strolling around, trying on some cool outfits, and tasting different types of yummy food here. Don’t forget to bargain before you pay though!
Little Venice (Free)
I decided to visit this place after reading about how London’s exorbitant property prices consequently encouraged many to live on boats. Little Venice is an area in London where the Regent’s Canal becomes these people’s homes.
Due to the name “Little Venice”, I initially expected this area to be as scenic and dreamy as the Italian city with the same name. However, I was quite disappointed to find the landscape here to be quite dull.
In addition, there was plenty of trash in the canal. Or was it because of the dark gloomy winter day that distorted my otherwise good impression of Little Venice?
Portobello Road Market – Notting Hill (Free)
* Opening time: http://www.portobelloroad.co.uk/the-market/
A must-visit for fans of the Notting Hill movie, Portobello Road is now a vibrant area where large crowds of both tourists and locals gather for exotic food, vintage clothing, quirky souvenirs, and other interesting stuff.
Albeit smaller than Camden Lock Market, Portobello Road Market seems more vibrant and lively, especially on Saturdays.
While visiting Portobello Road, don’t forget to drop by Acklam Village Street Food Market for lunch! This amazing food market features a wide variety of cuisines from around the world: Poland, Japan, India, Argentina, Palestine, etc. you name it.
I couldn’t decide on which dish to try even after wandering around for half an hour. All of them seemed too yummy to miss! In the end, I got myself a Cuban baguette for £6. That’s a bit pricey but the baguette was actually big enough for 2 people (too bad I was alone!). Watch how they made my Cuban Baguette in the video below!
Can you hear Hallelujah being sung in the background of the video? There was a live band playing cool music at this market too, so you can chill and relax while eating.
Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising (£9 / £7 concession)
* Opening time and ticket price: http://www.museumofbrands.com/visitus/
I visited this place out of personal interest as I’m studying Advertising and Marketing at the moment. That’s why I still willingly paid for the £7 ticket price here during my budget trip.
The museum featured a “Time Tunnel” which introduced the history of brand development in the UK since Victoria’s time. There were also some interesting artifacts such as women’s fashion magazines in the 19th century, old packages of famous brands like Heinz and Lipton a hundred years ago, and so on.
Even for someone who has no interest in advertising, a visit to this museum still offers great knowledge about the UK’s social development and consumer culture.
Last but not least, there’s a nice cafe overlooking a beautiful garden at the museum. Don’t forget to check it out when you’re here!
To be fair, this museum would perhaps suit British visitors more than foreign ones. An old British couple who were standing next to me remarked that looking at the old brands and products here was like a trip down memory lane for them.
Overall, despite my satisfaction with the collections at this museum, I felt the entrance ticket was too expensive. Therefore, 3.5/5 is what I think this museum should rate.
The Wallace Collection (Free)
* Opening time: http://www.wallacecollection.org/visiting
I can’t believe this wonderful art collection is free!
The Wallace Collection showcases a wide variety of art and historical artifacts in a gorgeous mansion with delicate architecture. I was most impressed with the large collection of medieval arms and armors here, including impressive shields, helmets, axes, swords, and so on! You can also try these on and take some tourist photos on the lower floor.
Other exhibitions at The Wallace Collection include stunning pictures and miniatures, ceramics, works of art, furniture, and sculptures. The Wallace Collection is truly one of the best free attractions for my London on a budget trip!
Hatchards Bookshop Piccadilly
* Opening time: Mon-Sat (9:30 – 20:00) and Sun (12:00 – 18:30)
Opened in 1797, Hatchards is London’s oldest bookshop. I would have given a higher rating for this place had it been less crowded there though.
Having to elbow my way through the crowd is not the best way for me to enjoy browsing through books. For a more peaceful bookshop visit, I’d rather opt for the more spacious WHS or Waterstones stores.
I visited London Bridge on a foggy morning and thus could hardly see anything. The visit was boring anyway as the landscape around London Bridge was quite dull. Westminster Bridge is a much better choice.
St. Dunstan in the East Garden
A hidden gem in London, St. Dunstan in the East Garden offers a peaceful haven from the hustles and bustles of this city.
St. Dunstan in the East Church was heavily destroyed during WWII. Its remains of walls now lie imposingly in the Church’s beautiful green garden. The mystical atmosphere here makes it a great spot for photographs!
Tower of London
* Ticket price: http://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/visit-us/tickets-and-prices/#gs.egcbNiQ
* Opening time: http://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/visit-us/opening-times/
There is no rating for this attraction because I only walked around the Tower rather than entering it (It was my London on a budget trip after all).
The grand appearance of the Tower of London initially seemed too attractive for me to miss. However, the touristy atmosphere surrounding the Tower, the long queues at the ticket counter, and the expensive ticket price really discouraged me from going inside.
Walking around the Tower was still worth it though. From there I could see Tower Bridge at a close distance and read about the history of the Tower of London from the information points.
Without entering the Tower, visitors can still see its statues of lions and other exotic beasts from the outside. In the old days, those fierce animals were bestowed upon the King as gifts and then caged inside the Tower. The King and members of the royal family would then watch animals fighting as a form of entertainment.
Imagine going back hundreds of years in time, you will need great courage to enter the Tower of London amid the frightening roar of these lions.
Brick Lane tour by Unseen Tours (£12 / £8 concession)
I never intended to book a tour in London, but this one was an exception. It was also the only paid activity in my London budget trip that I felt really worth it.
This Brick Lane tour was organised by Unseen Tours – a social enterprise that worked with homeless and ex-homeless people in London. Here are some reasons why their tours are so remarkable:
- They cover non-touristy areas in London that are no less impressive. If you’re keen on seeing London off the beaten track, these tours are definitely what you shouldn’t miss.
- Their tour guides are homeless people who have lived on the streets in these areas for a long time. With their sound knowledge of the ins and outs of each area, they can tell fascinating stories that you normally won’t find in any normal tourist guidebook.
- They’re a social enterprise, so 60% of their profits go directly to the homeless.
- These tours help to raise awareness about homelessness and other social problems in the UK as well.
My Brick Lane tour with Pete
My tour around Brick Lane was led by a funny and knowledgeable guide named Pete. Pete had an undergraduate degree in Psychology and used to work in the advertising industry before becoming homeless. His deep interest in street art made him the best tour guide in Brick Lane – an area where street arts are ubiquitous.
Seriously, here you’d find street art not only on the walls but also on the ground and on the rooftops as well. I was most impressed with a piece of art by an anonymous artist who used trash to create a whole figure of Santa Claus and his reindeer right next to the trash bin!
During this Brick Lane tour, Pete also told us interesting stories about Jack the Ripper – the famous serial killer who brutally murdered 7 women in the 19th century and never got caught.
The tour was supposed to last for 1.5 hours, but Pete was willing to extend the time to tell us even more stories. We covered a wide variety of topics such as arts, history, politics, and social development. I became so much wiser and felt so fulfilled after the tour that I decided to give it a rating of 5/5.
Unseen Tours also organises tours in other London areas such as Camden, Shoreditch, London Bridge, and so on. If you’re someone who’s tired of following tourist flocks in the city center, these tours will offer you an alternative experience that’s more meaningful.
Even when you’re travelling to London on a budget, I still think the fee for this tour is just so worth it.
Brick Lane Market
Pete has a stall selling design masks, sunglasses, and other accessories at Brick Lane Market so some of us decided to follow him there.
Brick Lane Market is most crowded on Sundays. It exudes a different vibe from the one on Portobello Road, somewhat more informal and folksy I’d say.
A food lover myself, I again spent most of my time there checking out the dozens of food stalls at London Artisan. My dinner was a £5 box of Japanese food, which was among the cheapest options in the market that day. It tasted really good though!
Horse Guards Parade on Whitehall St.
* Date and timing: http://changing-guard.com/life-guard-schedule.html
Here are some tips for you to make the most of this experience when visiting London on a budget.
First, check the timing of the parade both on the website and on its Facebook page. The normal parade time can sometimes change and will show on the Facebook page if it does. For example, the ceremony was supposed to start at 11:00 on the Monday that I visited, but suddenly changed to 10:00 instead!
Second, secure yourself a better spot for photographing by arriving around 10-15 minutes early. There will be lots of tourists, all of whom are desperate for the best photos.
National Gallery (Free) + Trafalgar square
* Opening time: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/visiting
The National Gallery is another wonderful free art collection in London. Though its building interior was not as grand as the Wallace palace’s, its collection was much larger. After spending 2 hours there I still felt I needed more time!
The National Gallery is situated at Trafalgar Square. This area, known as Charing Cross, features beautiful statues and marvelous buildings with classical architecture. Don’t forget to take a walk around here after your visit to the National Gallery!
Westminster Bridge and Big Ben
One of the main reasons why I rushed to London in this cold winter was because from 2017, Big Ben will be covered for maintenance for 3 years!
Big Ben did not disappoint me. Even on the foggiest afternoon of my stay in London, the Big Ben Tower still appeared magnificent, striking, impressive, outstanding, etc. all the beautiful words I could think of to describe it.
The best spot to take a photo with Big Ben is on Westminster Bridge. Overall, this is definitely one of the highlights of my trip to London!
Houses of Parliament (Free)
Despite careful research before my trip to London, it was initially still unclear as to how I could enter the Houses of Parliament for free.
It turned out the entrance for visitors would be a place called Cromwell Green. Upon getting there, I needed to inform the guard where I was planning to go (House of Lords or House of Commons). After waiting for some time in the queue, I was allowed in to watch the debate at the House of Lords.
The security process resembled those at the airport, where you’d have to scan all your stuff and electronic devices. Then there was a long queue of around 25 minutes at the public gallery before I could actually enter the House of Lords’ debate hall.
It was a great experience to sit in the beautiful hall of the House of Lords and watch the ongoing debate beneath! There’s no time limit though, so I left after around 15 minutes. Of course, no photography was allowed inside the House of Lords, so here’s the only photo I have of the gorgeous public gallery there.
National Portrait Gallery (Free)
* Opening time: http://www.npg.org.uk/visit/opening-hours.php
I know the National Portrait Gallery deserves a higher score, but it just seems a bit less impressive compared to the National Gallery nearby.
Other tips about visiting London on a budget
- Know the weather before you go. I know it’s likely to be foggy every day anyway. Yet when it rains, and it does rain a lot here, you won’t be able to enjoy the outdoor free London attractions anymore.
- Create a detailed itinerary to avoid unnecessary time on public transportation. It’s definitely not a walking distance between Camden and Westminster Bridge, for instance. Therefore, it’s best to make a list of all free London attractions you plan to visit, then group them together based on their proximity.
- This tip actually comes from a local. If you’re here for London’s bustling Christmas atmosphere, you don’t have to visit Winter Wonderland! Although it’s the most heavily advertised Christmas market in London, it tends to be overpriced and overcrowded to a point that your visit will just be exhausting. Instead, opt for other smaller yet no less impressive Christmas markets around London.
- Food markets in London are the best. And I’m not saying this just because I’m a food lover.
- Lower your expectations for breathtaking photos of London’s landscape and attractions. On the internet, photos of Little Venice, London Bridge, or the Thames river might look spectacular. Yet when you’re really there on a dark gloomy day in December like I did, everything won’t look the same.
And to sum up…
Alright, so I hope my lengthy yet detailed post has given you some ideas of 14 free London attractions (and some other paid ones).
If you have traveled to London on a budget before, don’t hesitate to share your experiences with me by commenting below 🙂 Happy travelling!
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PS. If you’re travelling to London with kids, I’d recommend checking out this list from The Wandermust Family so that it’s easier to plan your budgets :).