The best free / cheap things to do in London

The best free / cheap things to do in London

London is expensive. Finding free or cheap things to do is tricky — you’ve got to be creative. At least the majority of the national museums have free admission for their permanent collections, so you can always duck inside on a rainy day. But maybe you’re sick of museums…then what? Here’s our pick of the best free(ish) things to do in London…

1. Explore The V&A Museum

What?! Didn’t I just imply that this list would be comprised of things other than museums? Well, the Victoria and Albert (aka V&A) Museum doesn’t really feel like a museum. It feels more like you’ve stepped into the home of a very wealthy, very OCD person. This person keeps all their paintings in one room, all their silver goods in another, all their jewelry in one sparkling closet, all their modern furniture in one big glass case. The V&A is basically a display of every type of decorative art that has ever been made. And you’re not just ogling some former duchess’ diamond crown, you’re learning a little bit about it at the same time. Each section has an entertaining exhibit describing the materials and techniques used to create that specific type of art. So in the oil painting room, you can check out samples of turpentine and pigmentation and different canvas types. In the performance section, you can sit down and write your own stage directions or design a costume. And on, and on.

And be sure to check out the western facade of the building — it’s been shelled to pieces, thanks to various wars, and the damage hasn’t been repaired. The bullet holes and blasted ornamentations are a vivid illustration of past conflicts and are both terrifying and fascinating.

2. Browse Harrods Department Store

How can a store be free? Well, if you’re anything like us, there’s a good chance that you won’t be able to afford anything at Harrods, so look at it as a modern-day V&A Museum. You can view every type of luxury good available for sale today, from watches to wines to dresses to purses to shoes to caviar to crab. It’s like walking through the home of someone who uses the Robb Report in the same way that everyone else uses Consumer Reports. The word “ridiculous” will pass your lips more often than usual.

You can get a close approximation to the in-person Harrods experience remotely — their website is as beautiful and overwhelming (though not as odoriferous or as crowded) as a stroll through the store. Hook up another mouse to your computer and browse with your significant other.

3. Full-Range Shopping: East End Thrift Store to Burberry Outlet

The East End Thrift Store is a curated selection of vintage clothes — a store where you can find everything from funky old polyester dresses to scruffy cut-off jeans to Mickey Mouse overalls to moth-eaten wool coats. It’s pricey for vintage…that and the fact that vintage clothes are just sized differently will prevent all but the craftiest of people from purchasing anything here, but it’s tons of fun to just look at the clothes. I really appreciate the fact that women’s breasts are molded differently now when I try on an old dress — I look down and wonder, “what are these pointy things sticking out of my chest?” Also, people’s waists were much, much smaller.

Hey, thanks Burberry!
Hey, thanks Burberry!

Another fun place to just browse and not actually purchase anything is the Burberry outlet store. This is a great place to participate in one of our favorite activities, fantasy shopping. When you fantasy shop, you pick out the things that you would buy, show each other, explain why you like them, then leave. Being an outlet store, there are no sales people to constantly bug you about actually buying things. I get about as much pleasure from fantasy shopping as I used to get from actually buying things. My complete fake Burberry outlet purchase (classic trench, down vest, purse, sandals, cashmere pajama pants) came to a bank-account-blasting £1,800 (that’s about $2,900). And I don’t have to claim anything at customs!

4. Borough Market

We’ve learned that Londoners love their markets. There’s an incredible variety of markets that run across the city throughout the week, in addition to special festivals and markets. At each market, people are shoving all kinds of delicious food in their faces. The best market for food is absolutely Borough Market. This is not a secret tip — for about as long as there has been a London, there’s been a food market here, and it’s in all the guidebooks. But sometimes in the range of “must-do” things, something slips through the cracks. Do not let Borough Market slip through the cracks.

In order for your trip to Borough Market to be truly free, you’d have to eat something extremely filling before visiting, but then you’d be missing all the fun. I have an intense love of food-hall-type markets (Milwaukee’s and Cleveland’s are two of my favorite places in the midwest) and Borough Market might as well be the original. I think we did three laps through the place and I could have done a few more without getting bored. Don’t miss the hard cider at the New Forest stand and the artfully arranged veggies in the produce section. Grab a small meal to share from one of the many food vendors or buy some bread, cheese, sausage, and a giant brownie and have a picnic on the edge of the Thames. And then go back for another lap.

5. Pray (or whatever) at St. Paul’s Cathedral

Typically, it costs £15 per person to tour St. Paul’s Cathedral (all the big sites/sights must have colluded — everything seems to cost £15), but if you’re a Christian, you can get in for free on Sunday…if you go to mass. Or whatever it’s called. While obviously not a Christian, some of my parents’ residual morals must have worn off on me, because I can’t fake it just to see the interior for free. But if you are a Christian, this is a great opportunity to see the masterpiece of architect Christopher Wren‘s career. It’s probably a holy experience too, I imagine. Look how cool it is! Not sure how long they let you linger afterwards, but if you can get in a climb to the top of the dome, then go for it!

A few streets away get the idea.
A few streets away but…you get the idea.

6. Go car shopping on the streets of Chelsea/Kensington

In just one block off Brompton Road we spotted…a teal blue Lamborghini, three Ferraris, a Rolls Royce, a Bentley. Only the nicest models from the nicest car manufacturers. There was an Aston Martin DB9. Mercedeses and Porsches were common (but no Boxsters, oh no, only 911s here). Most of these were parked on the street. The others were in a garage with no (visible) security of any type. It’s like being in a luxury auto mall. Fascinating.

7. Take a Thames water taxi

For about £5, you can ride the River Thames on a water taxi (operated by Thames Clippers). Do it! The lunch/tea/dinner cruises are much more costly and likely much more annoying. Take the water taxi as far as you can — we rode it from Greenwich to the London Eye, which took about 30 minutes. You can stock up on snacks and drinks before boarding (and then consume surreptitiously once on board) or purchase the same on board. It’s a great way to get a different view of the city.

A Thames Clipper from a Thames Clipper.
A Thames Clipper from a Thames Clipper.

We’re still here for a few more days, so we’ll be sure to share any other free/cheap finds we stumble upon. If you have any tips, please share in the comments!