I‘M A LONDONER and when I meet other travelers, the usual line I get about my home city is, “It’s nice, but it’s just so expensive.” What London lacks in cheap eats and bargain drink deals, it makes up with hundreds of free experiences. From live comedy to vintage markets, here are 10 of the coolest things to do in the big smoke — for absolutely nothing.
1. Catch a performance at The Scoop.
On the south side of the river Thames, with Tower Bridge as a backdrop, The Scoop is an outdoor amphitheater with a 1,000-person capacity. Theatre, opera, film screenings, poetry and dance performances take place almost every day (particularly in summer months) and normally require no pre-booking. Grab a tinny, watch some incredible talent, and enjoy the view. It’s a great place to be for an evening stroll after the show has finished, too. Tip: check the calendar and get there early; seats fill up fast.
2. Sift through vintage treasures at Flat Iron Square flea market.
Who doesn’t like a rummage through 1920’s skirts and vintage cameras? But this is no ordinary flea market: every Sunday Flat Iron Square put on different events to get the party started. Even if you’re only window-shopping, the atmosphere here is great; live music playing throughout the day (anything from jazz and funk to cumbia and rock) and pop-up drink and food stalls.
3. Take a stroll on the South Bank.
The Southbank is a favorite running route and a place for Londoners to relax and it’s easy to see why. It’s beautiful. You’ll catch some of the biggest London sights here: London Eye, Big Ben, and Parliament in the distance, The Shard, London Bridge, and more. A bonus: there are lots to experience going on along this side of the river (a lot of it free), from street performances to pop-up festivals. Tip: come at around 11 PM and the streets will be quieter. With the South Bank’s fairy lights dotting the bank and city lights reflecting off the water, it makes for a romantic evening stroll.
4. Laugh yourself silly at Angel Comedy Club.
If you’re up for a laugh, Angel offers free comedy shows every day from as early as 3 PM. In the past, they’ve had award-winning comedians perform here, so you might get lucky. As you would expect, this is a tough gig to land, so make sure you get here at least an hour earlier to bag your seat — especially if you’re going to an 8 PM show on the weekend.
5. Watch talented street performers in Covent Garden.
You haven’t been to London until you’ve spent the afternoon (or day) wandering around the cobbled streets of Covent Garden. You could window-shop at Chanel and Kurt Geiger, but what you’re really here for is to see the best street performers in London battling it out for the biggest audience. This is a great option for kids, as there’s always a circus/child comedy act that gets the audience involved in the fun. Don’t miss the opera in the indoor courtyard area.
6. Explore museums and galleries to your heart’s content.
London is not short of museums and galleries with free entry. Whether you’re into modern art or looking for some interactive fun for the kids, there’s a freebie to be had on almost every street corner. Some of my favorite ones are Tate Modern, Natural History Museum, and the Saatchi Gallery.
7. Learn about London’s street art with a graffiti walking tour.
London’s east end is full of cool street art, including work from world-famous artist, Banksy. You could just explore Shoreditch and Brick Lane yourself, where you’ll easily spot the art plastered on buildings and even hidden behind lampposts. But if you want to delve deeper into the artists and their history, I’d recommend taking one of the free (a small tip is recommended) street art walking tours that take in the whole Soho area.
8. Take in London’s skyline from Greenwich Observatory
Who says you have to splash out on a fancy $12 cocktail on a rooftop bar for London views? Royal Observatory Greenwich is a huge green space popular amongst Londoners for some weekend chilling and killer views. Walk up to the top of the park to the observatory and watch the sunset light up the city’s skyline. No one will judge you if you go all out and bring a cheap bottle of wine and some picnic snacks along.
9. Get involved in the world’s largest antique market.
Welcome to Portobello: the largest antique market in the world, with over 1,000 dealers selling every antique you could think of, as well as vintage clothes, books, music, crafts and food. The fact that Portobello Market is framed by picture-perfect, pastel Victorian houses makes this experience even more charming.
10. Watch a film at the British Film Institute.
If you’re travelling to London as a family, or you’re just a bit of a film and TV geek, this one’s for you. On Tuesdays-Sundays BFI take bookings for families to go through their film and TV archives (some dating back to the 50’s) and choose their favorite ones to watch on the big screen. Among the collection are Charles Dickens classics like Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and the “best of British” TV series The Kids Are Alright. Popcorn is always advised.