I travel to London several times a year and have become a bit of an enthusiast of free tourism! London is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune to see the city. Below I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite spots (as well as the most iconic sights of the city) that you can enjoy for free. Some of the places on this list are paired together because of their location in relation to one another. I’ve also included some tips on where to stay and the best way to get around the city while you’re there!
1 & 2) Buckingham Palace & St. James Park
Buckingham Palace is one of those must-see spots in London! Although you have to pay to get inside Buckingham Palace you can enjoy the views of the palace and park outside for free. I like to take a stroll through St. James Park and make my way towards the palace for some beautiful photos and views!
3 & 4) Big Ben & Palace of Westminster
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are magnificent and some of the most iconic structures of the city. I like to take the Tube to Waterloo station in the evening, walk along the River Thames (on the same side as the London Eye) and make my way towards Parliament and Big Ben (about a 15 minute walk); the views are gorgeous as the sun sets and you’ll have plenty of great photo opportunities as you approach the landmarks.
5) Tower of London
I’m a huge Philippa Gregory fan (she’s a historical fiction writer who’s most famous for her stories like “The Other Bolyen Girl”) so I’ve been itching to see the Tower of London because it is a prominent element in many of her books. We didn’t pay to go inside the fortress, but we did check out the visitor’s center next to the tower which provides images of what the rooms look like within the tower, a map of the layout of the fortress, and other interesting items. Also the entrance for adults was about £20…which is almost $40 USD so although it would have been cool to see the inside, I was perfectly content walking around the fortress and admiring it from the outside!
6) Tower Bridge
Conveniently located next to the Tower of London is Tower Bridge. Tower Bridge is very grand and many people often confuse it for London Bridge (which is much smaller and less impressive). I’d recommend crossing Tower Bridge and enjoy the fantastic views – it’s interesting to see the old and new elements of the city in one area (like the Tower of London, the Shard, the Gherkin, etc.).
7) The Shard
The Shard is currently the tallest building in the European Union. It provides gorgeous views of the city and a swanky ambience (so dress nice if you plan to go). I believe you need a reservation to go to the restaurants at the very top (which are hella expensive), but if you go to the entrance at the foot of the building and tell them you’re going to the “bar” they should let you in 😉 Take the elevator to the bar in the evening before sunset and watch the city light up before your eyes! Obviously it’s free to go there, but I’d recommend ordering a beer or glass of wine as you enjoy the view…and I don’t mean to sound weird but you should go into the bathroom while you’re there, you’ll understand why if you do!
8 & 9) Oxford Street/Oxford Circus
If you want to do some shopping in London this is the place to go! Oxford Street is one of Europe’s busiest shopping streets with over 300 shops. Take the Tube to Oxford Circus and make your way down Oxford Street towards Piccadilly Circus (about a 10 minute walk).
10) Piccadilly Circus
Piccadilly is like London’s Times Square; it’s a major traffic junction with huge neon signs, lots of tourists, and has several important buildings like the London Pavilion, Criterion Restaurant and Criterion Theatre. From Piccadilly Circus it’s about a 15 minute walk to Buckingham Palace or you can walk along the river towards Big Ben – try to check out the giant M&M store on the way…just because it’s awesome.
11 &12) Tate Britain & Tate Modern
I really enjoyed visiting the Tate Britain. It holds the world’s larges collection of British art from the year 1500 to present day and admission is free! You’ll find many iconic pieces as well as new modern exhibits too. The main display spaces show the permanent collection of historic British art, as well as contemporary work. You should also consider visiting Tate Modern, which is another art museum and also offers free admission (woohoo!). The difference between Tate Britain and Tate Modern is that Tate Modern holds the national collection of British art from 1900 to the present day and international modern and contemporary art.
Almost everyone has heard of Harrods! It’s the biggest department store in Europe and is home to some very upscale shops and items. The displays are gorgeous and there are over 32 restaurants to choose from; on a rainy day it’s a great spot to explore indoors.
14 & 15) Camden Town & Markets
Camden is London’s alternative neighborhood. You’ll find an interesting mix of people there like hardcore punks, artists, musicians, tourists, etc. The Camden Market is definitely worth a visit; it’s a bunch of adjoining retail markets in Camden Town where you can find all kinds of items like clothing, crafts, bric-à-brac, and more! Camden Market is the fourth-most popular visitor attraction in London and attracts around 100,000 people every weekend. Check out a store called Cyberdog while you’re there, you can’t miss the gigantic cyborg in the doorway, but keep in mind you cant take pictures inside (the staff are really intense about that).
16) Covent Garden
Covent Garden was formerly a fruit and vegetable market and has become a popular shopping and tourist site today. If you visit Covent Garden you should take a stroll around the square; look at all the different shops and restaurants and check out some of the street performances that happen daily!
17) Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum has been on my list of things-to-do for the next time I visit London. Admission to the museum is free and I hear they have an impressive collection of dinosaur skeletons 😉 The museum was established in 1881 so you can imagine the significance of some of the items held within its walls (did someone say Charles Darwin?).
Other not-so-famous spots worth visiting!
18) Gordon’s Wine Bar
Any “Game of Thrones” fans out there? After reading this blog post my friends and I decided we had to go to Gordon’s! You can go inside and walk around the inside of the bar – it’s self-seating and patrons can go to the wine counter or food counter to place your order and bring it to your seat. Gordon’s also has outdoor seating when the weather is nice. We went inside to check out the medieval-style ambiance of the bar, and ended up eating/drinking outside to enjoy the nice weather!
19) Harry Potter’s Platform 9 ¾
How can you pass up this photo op? It’s free! Just go to Kings Cross Tube station and walk around until you find Platform 9 and ¾ 😉
Chocolate lovers rejoice! I love those crazy cake shows that come on channels like TLC and Divinity and Choccywoccydoodah happens to have its own show! The things these people can make out of chocolate is insane; if you have time stop by their shop and marvel at their chocolate cakes, sculptures, and treats! It’s free to walk in and look around; they also have a café on the roof if you want to get a snack while you’re there!
Where to stay in London
Wherever you stay in London make sure it’s near a Tube station or bus stop!
Every time I go to London I’ve either stayed near Clapham Junction or Kings Cross Train Station. I would recommend you try to find a place close to a Tube station (even if it’s not in the center) and try to stay in zone 1 or 2. Based on my personal experience though I like staying at Kings Cross; it’s a good neighborhood and you’re just a few stops away from places like Oxford Street and Leicester Square…also Kings Cross is a major station so you shouldn’t have an issue finding a bus/train/tube line to take you where you need to go! 😉
Public Transport in London
Why you should get an Oyster Card
One thing I love about London is how easy it is to get from one place to the other! Their public transport system is fantastic; you’ll always be able to find a bus stop or tube station nearby and the tube is fairly easy to navigate. If you’re staying for 2+ days get an “Oyster Card” or “Visitor’s Oyster Card” – regular Oyster Card costs £5, visitor’s card costs £3. Oyster Cards can help you save a lot of time because you won’t have to stop and pay each time you want to use the Tube or take a bus. You can get an Oyster Card at any Tube station using one of the Oyster machines, the ticket office, or pre-order your visitor card. The cards are super convenient because you can use them for the trains, Tube, and buses – all you have to do is swipe them when you get on and off the Tube or train, and just swipe once if you take a bus. You can “top up” your credit at any of the Tube stations (and some shops too). There’s also a convenient “capping” feature wherein you have a limit to the amount of money you can spend on transport per day – for example you won’t be charged more than £7 in one day (depending on the zones you travel in) for travel no matter how many times you use your Oyster Card. Read more about capping here.