I confess: I’m a frugal traveler. Some might unkindly call me a tightwad, or cheap. But I’ve discovered that I don’t have to spend a lot to get a lot because some of the best things in life really are free—even in top tourist destinations.
In England’s capital city, ogling the architecture, people-watching, and lounging in historic parks have no price tag attached—and that’s just the beginning. So put your wallet away: London’s calling!
1. Princes and paupers alike can sightsee for free now that the city has thrown open the doors to a whopping 238 museums and galleries. Considering that the British Museum, National Gallery, Natural History Museum, and Imperial War Museum are all counted in that number, you could spend your entire vacation trawling the halls of major museums—or taking in the free tours, talks, and workshops they offer. But try to leave time for lesser-known gems like the Bank of England Museum, where penny pinchers can drool over vintage banknotes and handle a gold ingot that weighs more than twenty-eight pounds.
2. Since London’s big-name museums are free, you’d think its best-loved churches would be too. Well, they aren’t. It costs almost $20 to get into St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey. Smaller sanctuaries, though, are another matter. For example, St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square not only waives admission: it runs free tours Thursdays at 11:30 a.m. that cover the crypt, vaults, and the Royal Box King George I used back when the US was still a collection of colonies. Thrice-weekly concerts are also complimentary. The downside is that events are on hold this summer while the church undergoes renovations.
3. Can’t wait until fall for your free music fix? No-cost “Foyer Concerts” in the South Bank district are always music to parsimonious ears. You’ll find them at the National Theatre (usually weekdays at 6 p.m., Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.) as well as other venues. Across the Thames, in Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House frequently serves up free hour-long jazz or chamber music at 1 p.m. on Mondays. Of course, the area around it also happens to be London’s preeminent busking pitch. So if you can’t make a concert, you can still catch an eclectic line-up of musicians (along with fire-eaters and acrobats) almost anytime.
4. Perhaps no city in the world tops London when it comes to pageantry, and the best way to witness it is by watching those handsome guys in the brilliant red tunics and bearskin hats Change the Guard outside Buckingham Palace. The free 45-minute ceremony goes daily at 11:30 a.m., April through July, and on alternate days the other months of the year. For even more local colour, stroll over to the west side of Whitehall where sentries from the Queen’s cavalry don plumed helmets and go through their paces on horseback each morning at 11 a.m. (10 a.m. on Sundays).
5. If you like pomposity as much as pomp, consider heading to Parliament to see a debate in the House of Lords. (Monday through Thursday, you can queue up to see the elected members of the House of Commons in action too; but the line up for the blue-blooded aristocrats is usually shorter and they’re invariably better dressed!) Anyone who remembers Rumpole knows sartorial splendor is also in evidence at the Old Bailey’s criminal courts, where judges and barristers still outfit themselves in robes and wigs. Weekdays you’re welcome to watch the proceedings at no cost.
6. West End theater tickets cost an arm and a leg. Okay, maybe just an arm if you take advantage of half-price sellers like tkts in Leicester Square. On the other hand, you can watch the taping of a BBC television program without dropping a single pound. (Die-hard “tellie” fans can also sign on for a two-hour studio tour, but you’ll have to pay about $19 for that.) Simply request tickets online and be prepared to show up early so you’ll be sure to snag a seat. For other studio options, check TV Recordings, Standing Room Only, or Hat Trick Productions.
7. When you want to combine sightseeing with some fresh air and exercise, do-it-yourselfers can skip the $20 group walking tours and simply print out a series of walking maps—some complete with downloadable audio components for your MP3 player or iPod—at 24hourmuseum.org.uk. Commissioned by the Department of Culture, these self-guided tours cover topics like Historic Gardens, Literary Landmarks, and Sports. An even wider selection of walks is available at London Footprints. Though they lack some of the bells and whistles, each gives detailed directions and quick descriptions of the route’s key sites.