After reading the seven things that are always free in Paris article I was inspired to create an equivalent guide to things that are always free in London. I’m not going to dare to suggest that one city does free things better than the other: it’s simply another case of vive la difference.
While Parisians may pity their British neighbors having to pay for a toilet trip (why do you think Brits term it “spending a penny”?), or for bread at meals, Londoners rightly still feel smug about the host of freebies their city has to offer.
Here are my seven favorite things that will never cost you a penny:
This is the big one for anyone who has baulked at the entrance fee to the Louvre or the Prado: national museums in the UK are all free. That means there’s nothing to pay for getting into some of London’s – and the world’s – best museums, including Tate, British Museum, V&A, National Gallery, Science Museum and so on. (Here’s a list of free museums in London.)
There’s plenty of culture available for free outside of the museum world as well. Cinephiles, for example, can book a session at the Mediatheque at the British Film Institute (BFI) on the South Bank, where thousands of films can be watched at no cost to the viewer, or music lovers can take in one of the free classical concerts at St-Martin-in-the-Fields.
Another good thing about these free cultural institutions? Many (although, annoyingly, not all) offer free Wi-Fi. The South Bank is a particularly good bet because, alongside stunning views over the river, there’s free Wi-Fi available at most of its major attractions including the Southbank Centre, the National Theatre, the BFI and Tate Modern.
Couple that with the huge number of chains offering free Wi-Fi, such as cheap pub chain, Wetherspoons, popular lunchtime sandwich spot, Pret a Manger, or – as in Paris – McDonald’s, and you should always be able to avoid paying for Wi-Fi in the city.
3. Tap water
Paris, London has got your back on water, too. It’s a legal requirement for British pubs and licensed clubs to make tap water available for free. If you ask politely, you’ll normally also get it without a charge in the vast majority of restaurants.
However, the best free drink in London has to be the green tea available at favorite cheapo noodle chain Wagamama (who kindly also offer free Wi-Fi).
4. ATM withdrawals (for Bank of America clients)
The Global ATM Alliance applies in the UK as well. To make cash withdrawals from ATMs without incurring a charge, Bank of America customers should seek out Barclays Bank cash machines (Their logo is an easy-to-spot blue eagle). You’ll need the four-digit pin for your card to get cash out. (Read our guide to ATM bank fees for Americans abroad.)
Well, kind of. Visitors from outside the European Union can claim back the Value Added Tax (VAT) on goods they have purchased. You’ll need to be leaving the EU in less than three months after making your purchase and – perhaps the biggest catch – you need to have bought it in a store signed up to the VAT Retail Export Scheme to obtain the correct customs forms (look out for the “Tax Free Shopping” signs).
There are various exceptions and complications to work through but, with VAT charged at up to 20% of cost of goods, it’s well worth the hassle if you are making substantial purchases. Check out the UK Revenues and Customs website for full details of how to claim.
Given the city’s reputation both for inclement weather and an over-fondness for pints, London’s excellent free fitness events may come as a bit of a surprise. We’ve mentioned the weekly free Park Run before, which takes place at parks all over the capital each Saturday morning.
The London Cycling Campaign lists equivalent events for cyclists, or you could – literally – get your skates on to take part in the Friday Night Skate, a marshaled street skate which sets off from Hyde Park Corner each week.
Finally, for something really different, get a workout in exchange for helping with outdoor conservation projects at one of London’s 15 free Green Gyms.
7. Reading material
The Tube groans under the weight of reading matter that’s given out for free in London each day. Weekday travelers get offered Metro in the morning and the Evening Standard in the evening, both great sources of listings and, especially in the latter, reliable reviews.
A recent addition to the selection of freebie reads is Time Out which, since last year, has been given away every Tuesday and is an invaluable way to find out what’s going on and where.
Stylist, pitched at professional women, comes out on Wednesdays, while its male equivalent, Shortlist, is given away every Thursday. Both are more engaging reads than many charging magazines. Finally, the world of sport gets its own dedicated magazine on Fridays.
These publications almost (but not quite) make the astronomical cost of travel in London worthwhile.
Your favorite freebies?
Did we miss anything? Tell us about your favorite London freebie in the comments below!