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From the crème de la crème of haute cuisine, the shopping (oh, lord love the shopping), the glitzy theaters and the never-ending list of bougie bars and boutique hotels, London is an expensive city. But as the age-old saying goes, there are pleasures in life that money simply cannot buy—and believe it or not, some of the best things to do in the heart of the city are completely free.
Here are five activities that will satisfy your traveling appetite—and your bank manager:
A walk in Hyde Park
Hours: 5 a.m. to midnight year-round
Tube station: Lancaster Gate & Marble Arch
Pack a picnic and escape London’s bustling streets by heading to the gloriously leafy Hyde Park. A sprawling space of 350 acres, it’s one of the largest green spaces in central London. Start on the south bank of the Serpentine Lake and follow the bank of the lake, passing underneath the Serpentine Bridge and the fountains of the formal Italian gardens. Pass the famous statue of Peter Pan, donated by author JM Barrie in 1912, and continue back until you see the Princess Diana memorial fountain.
If you visit in September, you may even get the chance to see a horse being blessed! Continuing a tradition started in 1968 (when the stables in Hyde Park were threatened with closure), Horseman’s Sunday sees the vicar of St. John’s Church bless a cavalcade of 100 horses. The midday blessing takes place once a year on the penultimate Sunday in September. This year (2010), the event takes place on the 19th.
Child’s play at the Natural History Museum
Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD
Hours: 10 a.m.-5:50 p.m. daily (last admission at 5:30 p.m.)
Tube station: South Kensington Station
Keep little ones and teenagers intrigued on a shoestring budget with a day trip to the Natural History Museum. The impressive cathedral-like structure plays host to one of the largest natural history collections in the world. The collection includes everything from microscopic slides to mammoth skeletons, a dinosaur gallery to Darwin’s work on natural selection and an enormous life-size model of a blue whale.
The National History Museum also offers special exhibitions, an outdoor ice skating rink (in winter) and a wildlife garden. Oh, and in case you forgot, admission to the permanent collection is free! (For more museum options, see our earlier post on 20 free museums in London.)
Cultural pursuits at the British Library
96 Euston Road
Hours: 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (Mon, Wed, Thurs and Fri); 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m. (Tues); 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Sat); 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Sun)
Tube station: King’s Cross/St Pancras, Euston and Euston Square
If you love reading and enjoy doing so in the confines of a tranquil space, a trip to the world’s largest library is a worthwhile (and free) way to spend an afternoon. The British Library holds over 150 million items, from Beatles manuscripts and the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci to works by Karl Marx, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw. Grab a coffee and one of your favorite reads and while away the hours in one of the many comfortable reading rooms.
An urban walk along the Southbank
Tube station: Waterloo
Entertain yourself without opening your wallet by taking a blissful walk along the Southbank of the River Thames. There are always free day and evening events (live music, dance, theatre, book readings, workshops and more) going on and even when there is a dry spot (which admittedly is not often), there’s plenty of other attractions in the area.
Take for example the Tate Modern, a free art gallery housed in the former Bankside Power Station. The gallery is famous for housing work by Rothko, Matisse, Dali, Cezanne and Picasso. If Shakespeare is more your bag, take a stroll down to the Globe Theatre, which often runs free performances such as bite-size versions of “Romeo & Juliet” and “As You Like It.”
For music lovers, a free party called “Reclaim The Beach” in front of the Royal Festival Hall is a perfect summer pit stop. For others just wishing to soak up London in all its glory, a simple walk along the banks will allow you to see awe-inspiring London landmarks including The London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
Sample your way through Borough Market
8 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1TL
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Thurs), 12 p.m.-6 p.m. (Fri), 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (Sat)
Tube station: London Bridge, Borough
Situated in an immense open-air space under a Victorian-style warehouse roof, Borough Market is London’s oldest food market at over 250 years old. Serving up fine Artesian cured meats, French cheeses, fresh oysters, cider, organic fruit and vegetables, homemade cakes, mushroom pate and everything else in-between, the market is one of the best of its kind.
Arrive early on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday. Bring a healthy appetite and while away the morning sampling your way around the endless stalls.