Several months ago, I found an old London Underground ticket from my first trip there 9 years ago. The ticket was faded and dim, much like my memories of the city. I had loved the old buildings and European architecture. I’d loved the convenience of the tube and the distinct black cabs shuttling people across the city. I remember getting lost and reading maps under our umbrellas on the sidewalks. As I pocketed the faded tube ticket, I realized how excited I was to rediscover the old city.
I could spend a day or a lifetime in London and never get bored. And while there’s no shortage of things to see and do in London, there is often a shortage of cash to fund them. There’s no getting around it, London is expensive. Reeling from the sticker shock of a simple train ride into the city, I was ready for some London sights that were easy on my budget. Determined not to spend a quid unless it was for tube rides and meals, I set off into the city from my budget hostel, YHA London Central, in search of the free things to do in London.
Westminster and the London Eye
My first stop? Big Ben! I couldn’t think of a more iconic sight than Westminster Palace and Big Ben. I took the tube straight to the Westminster stop and came out from underground to this magnificent landmark.
The best part about seeing major landmarks is that they are completely free! Unless, of course, you want to go inside for a tour. Crossing the bridge over the Thames, I admired the London Eye lit up at night, its capsules orbiting slowly. It takes 30 minutes for a full rotation of the Eye. I was lucky enough to find a street musician playing guitar in front. Despite the chill in the air, it was a nice place to sit and enjoy the view with some music.
To ride the Eye, it’ll set you back a solid 20£ or more. Someday I definitely want to do it, and I think a sunset ride would be worth it for the experience. This trip, I was content to watch from below.
One of my favorite things to do in a big city is find green space. London has many fantastic parks, but this time I went for Regent’s Park as it was just a few blocks from my hostel. Of course, it’s free too. Regent’s Park was perfect for meandering well-manicured grounds in the primmest park I’ve seen.
Regent’s Park was peaceful and quiet, full of topiaries, winter bloomers, and fountains. I came across an open air theatre that hosts shows in the summer. There was a cute little espresso café in the park as well. Regent’s Park seemed like the perfect place to park yourself on a bench and sip tea, eat a baguette, and feed the birds.
I strolled through grassy lawns and perfectly formed hedges. It was a great place to walk on a sunny day. Although the grounds were beautiful, my favorite part was walking through the dog-friendly zone and watching a little black spaniel named Dante chase squirrels up trees. His owner, Daniel, was pretty nice too, and totally forgave me for creeping on his dog.
Regents park leads right into Camden Town, a quirky neighborhood with a big market and lots of funky shops.
I strolled and browsed the market, wandering the stalls and shops, but it seemed like I kept finding the same 12 t shirts and the same block printed dresses. I was hoping to find lots of eclectic handmade items but instead got some machine made crap passed off as one-of-a-kind. You’ll have to look a little deeper to find the more unique items in Camden’s markets.
I stopped at a Starbucks next to Camden Lock to warm up with a cappuccino and some much needed wifi. The coffee was good and the wifi was fast, and the view of the lock and dam was gorgeous in the mid afternoon sun.
Recharged with caffeine, I crossed the bridge over the Lock and Dam further into Camden Town. The Camden Lock Market and the Camden Stables Market, seemed more fun and artsy. There were some good photographers that had set up shop and we exchanged some tips (more like they gave me advice, let’s be honest). I liked this part of Camden Town much more.
At the opposite end of Camden, I started climbing uphill, looking for a view of London. You can walk down Chalk Farm Road, then make a left at Regent’s Park Road to cross the railroad tracks into the Primrose Hill neighborhood.
I was heading up into a posh neighborhood full of perfect flats and little boutiques. The contrast to punk Camden Town was stark.
Regent’s Park Road runs right into Primrose Hill. I climbed to the top of the grassy slope and turned around to see a skyline view of London soaked in sun.
Primrose Hill is a perfect picnic spot for warmer days. You can grab some supplies from cheaper Camden Town and set up on the grassy slopes of Primrose Hill just a few blocks away to dine with one of the best views of the city.
The sun was beginning to set, but I had one silly bucket list item I didn’t want to miss. I wanted to visit the neighborhood of Notting Hill, the setting for one of my old favorite movies.
I took the tube from Chalk Farm to Notting Hill Gate and hopped into the heart of Notting Hill’s Portobello Road just as the market was beginning to wind down. There were a still a few produce and flower vendors wrapping things up.
Notting Hill’s Portobello Road is known for having the world’s largest antiques market. Saturday is the best day to go, with certain parts of the market closing down on other days. Peruse the antiques from goofy knock-offs to genuine finds. Portobello Market also offers produce, flowers, furniture, fashion, and lots more. It would make for some fun browsing, and it’s a fun place to walk even if you aren’t looking to buy anything.
At the end of the road I stopped for a samosa, and hopped back on the tube toward my hostel.
Before my trip I had been worried about blowing my budget, but I shouldn’t have been. I found plenty of free things to do in London. Aside from food and tube rides, I hadn’t spent a quid, yet I felt like I had really seen London. I hope I can go back soon and explore new neighborhoods and sights. Maybe next time I’ll even ride the London Eye. But I have to say, for not spending anything, the view from where I stood was pretty great.
What are your favorite free things to do in London?
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