The capital city of the United Kingdom is famous for a lot of things—an unforgettable skyline, a world-renowned arts scene, funky shopping and entertainment districts. But the home seat of Parliament and the Royal Family isn’t exactly synonymous with affordability, especially when you’re glimpsing it from above at the Shard, sipping a $23 cocktail. A trip to London doesn’t have to break the bank, though. We talked to long-time residents and visitors to find out how they experience London in the day-to-day, and found something else the city can boast about—a heap of activities and entertainment that won’t cost you a pound.
1. Lates at the Science Museum
On last Wednesday of every month, the Science Museum in West London stays open until 10:00 p.m. for adults over 18, and there’s no charge to attend (our favorite activity is the silent disco). But take note, it’s become exceedingly popular, so be prepared to wait in line for entry.
2. London Riviera Pop-up Cinema
The Southbank is alive this summer, swelling with food, drink and frivolity. Beginning September 2nd and continuing throughout the month, you can grab a seat at the London Riviera’s 1,000-person amphitheatre and sit under the stars watching cult films such as Zoolander and Ghostbusters.
3. Candlelight Tours of Sir John Soane’s Museum
A visit to Sir John Soane’s Museum will be memorable on any occasion. Soane was named the professor of architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806 and amassed an enviable collection of art and artifacts, all of which you can now oooh and awe at while exploring his home. On the first Tuesday of every month, the premises stay open until 9:00 p.m., and you can explore all the nooks and crannies by candlelight.
4. Angel Comedy Nights
Laughter is the best medicine, and every night at 8:00 p.m., Angel Comedy in Camden hosts free comedy showcases. Started in 2010 by the suitably charming Barry Ferns, rarely does a night pass where you don’t find Ferns in front of the mic as the resident MC, or in a back corner ensuring the evening runs smoothly. From improv to open mic nights to established comedians testing their wares, there’s always a laugh to be had.
5. Wellcome Collection
The Wellcome Collection does not discriminate, and every exhibition hosted at the Euston Street gallery is completely free. Sir Henry Wellcome’s will in 1936 stipulated the organization’s aim is to host unusual and thought-provoking works that explore the connection between medicine, life and art that focuses on the past, present and future. From dissecting a crime scene to getting under the skin of sexual behaviour and identity, the exhibitions are always stimulating and headline-worthy.
6. Agatha Christie: Unfinished Portrait at Bankside Gallery
Celebrating 125 years since the birth of the iconic writer Agatha Christie, this new exhibition of photographs in London (August 26-September 6) shows imagery of the world-famous author travelling, surfing and roller-skating. It’s a snapshot into the life of this creative tour-de-force. Not to be missed is the iconic portrait painted to commemorate Dame Agatha’s 80th birthday.
7. Columbia Road Flower Market
Every Sunday east London’s Columbia Road becomes a hotbed of excitement. From 8 a.m. until around 3 p.m., you can find every verdant variety you might be looking for—from 10-foot banana trees to the common tulip. The plants and flowers are for sale and the experience is electric, with merchants shouting across the aisles at one another and negotiating new prices as the afternoon progresses. You feel like you’ve stepped back a century in time.
8. The Kyoto Garden in Holland Park
Holland Park is a great place to unwind in central London, with 22.5 hectares of green space that include tennis courts and a children’s play area. But what really makes this area stand out is the Kyoto Garden, an authentic Japanese garden created and donated by the Chamber of Commerce of Kyoto in 1991.
9. Window-Shopping on Pimlico Road
It’s lined with shops, cafes and ideal stops for ladies who lunch, but Pimlico Road is also dappled with the most delightful design, commercial galleries and furniture shops in the city, all of which are worth savoring for an afternoon. Potterton Books London stocks rare and antique titles, while Humprey Carrasco offers an enviable stock of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century furnishings.
10. Bermondsey Square Antique Market
You might not be in the market for an antiquity, but from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. every Friday, Bermondsey Square is a fascinating place to unspool an afternoon. From hulking pieces of furniture to delicate jewelry, it’s all here and worth a look.
11. People-Watching On Primrose Hill
You can’t help being charmed by Primrose Hill. Climb the north London landmark and indulge in some glamorous people watching. Stefano Gabbana (one half of Dolce & Gabbana), Suki Waterhouse and Sam Taylor-Wood all live in the area, and it’s a hotbed of the young and stylish. Ideal for a picnic or a simple stroll.
12. The Geffrye Museum
Take a walk through time, as the Geffrye Museum leads visitors on a romp through history, from 1600 to the present day. Beyond the 11 elegant period rooms, the museum’s gardens are an oasis of calm and cool in the midst of east London. And it’s more than a moment of respite—the gardens behind the museum tell a horticultural history, exploring how domestic gardens have developed over the past four centuries.
13. Olympic Park
You might not witness baton passing at turbo speeds or cyclists spinning around the perimeter track as you could at the 2012 Olympics, but the purpose-built Olympic Park is working hard to remain relevant. There’s a series of poems inscribed aat landmarks around the park; walk around and find Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” Carol Ann Duffy’s “Eton Manor,” or Jo Shapcott’s “Wild Swimmer,” among others.
14. Museum of London Docklands
Before Hollywood launches its blockbuster film on women’s rights, Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan, you can brush up on your knowledge at Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom (June 19 through November 1) at the Museum of London Docklands in Canary Wharf. Take in the work of one of the U.K.’s most prolific and pioneering female photographers.
15. Spitalfields City Farm
There’s nothing more grounding and comforting than taking a moment from the daily urban grind to be around animals and wildlife. Originally set up by volunteers in 1978, Spitalfields City Farm still relies on volunteers to run its day-to-day operations, and to care for its furry and feathered creatures. With donkeys, sheep, ponies, goats and cows, it’s the city’s most central farm.
16. Pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery
Designed by Selgascano in 2015, the Pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery is a city landmark. Each year a different artist is given the opportunity to take over the space and make extraordinary art. Save time to see the Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Verses After Dusk exhibition at the gallery, and visit the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, just a short walk away.
17. Book-Browsing at Foyles’s Flagship Store
London’s largest independent bookstore, Foyles, houses more than 200,000 titles. In its new location in Charing Cross, it’s got eight levels of bookshelves: books as far as the eye can see. You’ll be lost in Austen before you know it.
18. Photos at Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station
You don’t have to be a Harry Potter obsessive to feel touched by J.K. Rowling’s stories. You might not be able to catch the train to Hogwart’s at King’s Cross Station, but a stop at this platform if a great photo op for travelers.
19. St. James’s Park
With incredible flora and fauna, and exquisite varieties of birds, St. James’s Park is a wonderful city escape. But what really sets this central bed of green apart and makes it worth a visit happens every day at 2:30 p.m. and 3:00 p.m., when the well-loved resident pelicans are fed a feast of fresh fish.
20. The Museum at the Bank of England
Review 300 years of English history and the back-story of the country’s currency at the Bank of England’s on-site museum. There’s everything from cartoons to tools to the banknotes themselves, all of which tell the story of England’s economy. Who knew one could have so much fun handling but not spending money.
21. Contemporary Art at White Cube
With an interior of more than 58,000 square feet, 1970s property that houses White Cube is one of the city's hottest destinations for contemporary art. With three large exhibition spaces in the one gallery, there's always something to catch your eye, and the current Marc Quinn: The Toxic Sublime, is no exception. Save time to poke through the gallery’s book shop while you’re there.
Bridget Arsenault is the associate editor, print and digital at Vanity Fair UK. and the co-director of the Bright Young Things Film Club. She covers the U.K. beat for Travel + Leisure; follow her on Twitter at @bridget_ruth.