When it comes to money, London has a horrible reputation. And it’s true. When I learned how much rent my friend and host Sarah was paying for her shoe-box sized apartment, I couldn’t believe it. Or when we bought a few groceries for breakfast — fruit, cereal, yoghurt — and paid more than 20 ₤. Without a doubt, London is just crazy expensive. However, this doesn’t necessarily apply to sightseeing. (Unless of course you want a picture of you and wax-Britney-Spears. What can I say, you have your reasons, right?)
Honestly though, I was positively surprised how much you can do and see in London without paying for it!
First of all: The word sightseeing contains the word “see”. And there are plenty of sights to see for free in London. No one will charge you for walking across the Tower Bridge, or for taking totally ridiculous tourist pictures of Big Ben (like the one where you’re leaning on it). Strolling along The Mall to Buckingham Palace, relaxing in the many parks, window staring in Chinatown, and London’s fabulous street markets — these things are all free!
Secondly: All the grand museums are for free as well! The world-famous art galleries, the natural history museums, seeing the Egyptian mummies at the British Museum — you don’t pay a cent for admission there!
But of course, in a time where Google serves as the preferred travel guide for most people, you probably knew all this already. There are hundreds of sites out there listing all the museums and other attractions with free access. So, let me tell you about my free (art historical!) London highlights the internets didn’t inform me about beforehand.
Being the Harry Potter geek that I am, I really wanted to take a picture at King’s Cross station (which is for free too, by the way). And since we were in the area, my friend Sarah, who also is a huge bookworm, warmly recommended stopping by at the British Library. Although I love books and libraries with all my heart, I didn’t think this would make one of my trip’s highlights. How wrong I was!
The huge King’s Library inside already made my jaw drop. But when we entered the huge manuscript section I nearly had a heart attack: Not only were there all kinds of famous manuscripts like original lyrics and notes from Haydn to John Lennon displayed in the cabinets, but also the most renowned medieval gospel books!
I literally started shaking when I found myself looking at the Lindisfarne Gospels. This book is pretty much the Brangelina of medieval gospel books! I had heard so much about these delicate 1300-year-old illuminations, and now they were just lying in front of me! I could have stayed there gazing at those ancient gold initials and filigree miniatures forever!
The British Library: Access it for free, but don’t you dare bringing a pen!
Seriously, if you are interested in any kind of cultural or scientific manuscripts through the centuries, the British Library probably has it. This was one of my favorite discoveries in London. Being art historically overwhelmed like this, and all for free?! It doesn’t get better than this!
As you know, I’m also a big sucker for churches. And although I can somewhat understand church admission fees which are used for restoration purposes, the fees in London are simply nuts. I really don’t think that Westminster Abbey — after all, the church where the royals get married! — has such horrendous financial issues legitimating to expect every visitor to pay an admission fee of 16 ₤.
But not seeing even one of London’s gorgeous historical churches from the inside, because I was too broke? As a proclaimed church-lover? Not an option for me!
Luckily, Sarah had a solution: Every day during the week majestic St. Paul’s Cathedral hosts an Evensong event at five o’clock. A huge choir sings beautiful chorales in a candlelit church interior — and you can attend it for free! Let me tell you, nothing is more moving than the echo of ancient choir hymns in a vast church building.
There are no annoying tourists taking pictures with flash on their iPads — just devotional listeners, shimmering lights, and touching music. If there is any way you should experience a church from the inside, this is it!
Of course, London lives up to its expensive reputation when it comes to rent and living expenses. But sightseeing in London is absolutely affordable! I got to see so much art and culture for free — and could spend all my money on carrot cake instead: London sure made one happy art historian out of me!