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Free (and Almost Free) Things to Do
The exchange rate may vary, but there's one conversion that'll never change: £0 = $0. Here are our picks for the top free things to do in London.
Museums and Galleries
Many of London's biggest and best cultural attractions are free to enter, and the number of museums offering free entry is staggering. Donations are often more than welcome, and special exhibits usually cost extra.
Imperial War Museum London
Museum of London
National Maritime Museum, Queen's House, and Royal Observatory
National Portrait Gallery
Natural History Museum
Victoria & Albert Museum
Smaller Museums and Galleries
Courtauld Institute Gallery (Permanent Exhibition free on Monday only)
Houses of Parliament
Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Gallery
Museum of London Docklands
Sir John Soane's Museum
V&A Museum of Childhood
St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Charing Cross), St. Stephen Walbrook, and St. James's Church (Piccadilly) have regular lunchtime concerts, as does St. George Bloomsbury (Holborn) on Sunday, Hyde Park Chapel (South Kensington) on Thursday, and St. Giles in the Fields (Tottenham Court Road) on Friday. There are regular organ recitals at Westminster Abbey (Westminster).
Of the music colleges, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, the Guildhall, the Trinity College of Music and the Royal Opera House have regular free recitals.
For contemporary ears, the area outside the National Theatre on the South Bank (known as the Djanogly Concert Pitch) reverberates to an eclectic range of music weekdays at 5:45 pm, and on Saturday at 1 pm and 5:45 pm and Sunday at 1:45 pm. St. Olave's Church (Hart Street, EC3) has lunchtime recitals on Wednesday and Thursday at 1 pm. You can often catch some pretty good musicians busking on the Tube—they're licensed and have to pass an audition first.
Free jazz and classical evenings (sometimes there's a charge) are held on Thursday to Saturday (plus two Sundays per month at the excellent Dysart Arms (0208/940-8005 www.thedysartarms.co.uk) in Richmond. Live Jazz also comes to the central and ancient Lamb and Flag (33 Rose St., WC2 0207/497-9504) on Sunday from 7:30 pm. For regular doses of free blues, down a drink at the Ain't Nothing But Blues Bar (20 Kingly St., W1B 5PZ 020/7287-0514). One of Camden's most celebrated pubs, the Dublin Castle (94 Parkway, NW1 7AN 020/7485-1773) has long been one of the best places in London to catch big and soon-to-be-big Indie acts for about the price of two beers.
Film, Theater, and Opera
If all seats have been sold, the Royal National Theatre sells standing tickets for £5 each. Check at the box office.
Standing-only tickets with obstructed views at the Royal Opera House are between £4 and £14.
"Groundling" standing-only tickets are a traditional way to experience the Globe Theatre from £5.
Sloane Square's Royal Court Theatre, one of the United Kingdom's best venues for new playwriting, has restricted-view, standing-room-only tickets at the downstairs Jerwood Theatre for 10 pence (yes, £0.10), available one hour before the performance.
Under 30? Becoming an "access all arias" member of the English National Opera is free, and allows you to buy tickets for just £10.
Take a walk down the Greenwich Foot Tunnel. Claustrophobics steer clear, but for those looking for a quirky journey, take the old lift or the spiral stairs down and stroll under the Thames from the Isle of Dogs to the Cutty Sark in Greenwich.
There are free spectacles throughout the year, but one of the most warmly enjoyed is Guy Fawkes' Night (November 5), when parks throughout the country hold spectacular fireworks displays.
On New Year's Eve thousands of revelers descend on Trafalgar Square and the South Bank to watch more free fireworks. The Underground usually runs for free well into the small hours.
Finally, set aside some time just to wander. London is a great city to explore on foot because so many of its real treasures are unsung: tiny alleyways barely visible on the map, garden squares, churchyards, shop windows, sudden vistas of skyline or park. With comfortable, weatherproof shoes and an umbrella, walking might well become your favorite activity here.
Barclays Cycle Hire. The popular Barclays Cycle Hire scheme has 587 docking stations housing 8,300 bicycles —known locally as "Boris Bikes," after the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson—around Central London. The first 30 minutes is free, but then it's £1 for the first hour and £6 for up to 120 minutes; the catch is that you need a £45 yearly membership to get a card (you can also pay for casual use by credit card at most docking stations). 0845/026-3630. www.tfl.gov.uk.
Sightseeing on the Cheap
Join real Londoners on the top deck of a double-decker bus for a ride through some of the most scenic parts of the city. Routes 9 and 15 also operate shortened Heritage routes on the traditional Routemaster buses. You can use your Oyster card or buy tickets from machines at the bus stops for the following routes:
Bus 11: King's Road, Sloane Square, Victoria station, Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, the Strand, Fleet Street, and St. Paul's Cathedral.
Bus 12: Bayswater, Marble Arch, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Horse Guards, Whitehall, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Westminster Bridge.
Bus 19: Sloane Square, Knightsbridge, Hyde Park Corner, Green Park, Piccadilly Circus, Shaftsbury Avenue, Oxford Street, Bloomsbury, Islington.
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