London Drum

Cheap Day Out – Things To Do For Free In London

Two itineraries with things to do for free to help you plan a cheap day out in London

Idea #1 – Changing the Guard parade, Parliament, Westminster Abbey

Piccadilly Circus
Buckingham Palace
Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace
Trafalgar Square
National Gallery
Horse Guards Parade
Downing Street
Houses of Parliament
House of Commons
Westminster Abbey Evensong
What you will see:
Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Horse Guards, Downing Street, House of Commons, Evensong service at Westminster Abbey

The following two itineraries are completely free. And when I say free, I really do mean free – you won’t even have to fork out any money for bus or Underground fares because each attraction is within easy walking distance of the previous one.

This first itinerary is going to include some famous London landmarks and then end with something special in the afternoon. Start at Piccadilly Circus and snap a few photos of the famous fountain and neon lights, then head down Piccadilly towards Green Park.

When you pass the Ritz Hotel take the next left into Green Park. I would love to take you inside the Rivoli Bar at the Ritz Hotel, but unfortunately that is one place that is definitely not free. (I paid six quid just for a cup of tea in there once!)

There’s not a lot to see in Green Park itself, so just keep walking along the eastern edge admiring the mansions until you reach Buckingham Palace. Head straight through the golden gate and cross over to the Queen Victoria Memorial (20 min walk from Piccadilly Circus).

You’ve probably guessed why we’re here already… we’re here to see the most popular piece of free entertainment in London – Changing the Guard. Remember to check the dates beforehand though, because outside summer it only operates on alternate days. During the summer it usually operates every day.

The soldiers will start appearing from 10.45 AM but ideally you need to be there before 9.30 AM if you want a spot up against the railings (and preferably as early as 9 AM if you want the very best spots). If you arrive after 10 AM then you may as well forget it because the crowd will already be too deep to see the ceremony on the forecourt. But read my review – I’ve explained everything better in there.

When the parade is over at 11.30 AM head through St. James’s Park towards Whitehall. You might like to walk along the edge of the lake and stroll to the middle of the central bridge for a great view of the palace and Horse Guards Parade.

Then walk along The Mall until you see Admiralty Arch (allow for 25-30 mins walking time from the palace). Head through the arch and enjoy a little stroll around Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column (allow for 20 mins). There are some toilets in the square if you need them as well, but you’ll have to cough up 20p. If you’re feeling a bit rebellious then you can nip into the National Gallery and use their’s instead.

Continue your little sightseeing tour with a walk down Whitehall (allow for 30-45 mins walking time, which includes stopping to see the sights). The first place worth stopping at is Horse Guards about halfway along. There will probably be about a million billion tourists crowding around the horse-boxes to have their photos taken next to the soldiers.

Now enter the small courtyard behind the horse boxes and walk through the central arch into the parade ground. You should have seen a distant glimpse of this when you were standing on the bridge in St. James’s Park, but what the hell – let’s have another look! After you’ve taken a few photos continue walking down Whitehall until you see the big black gates of Downing Street on the right.

You can’t get into Downing Street itself, but you can still peer over the shoulders of the six-foot coppers at the famous front door. You need to look along the righthand side of the street, about halfway down, and find the one with a metal arch over the top with a big black lamp in the middle. That’s where the Prime Minister lives.

Now continue walking down Whitehall until you reach Parliament Square. Hopefully it’s no later than 2 PM by now. The first thing we’re going to do is head inside the House of Commons and watch the MPs debating.

Bear in mind that they don’t work at the weekends and go home early on Fridays, so you can only really do this on Monday to Thursday. But the good news is that you don’t need a ticket, so you can simply march up to the visitor’s entrance (opposite the back end of Westminster Abbey) and ask to enter the Commons. If you can’t get inside the House of Commons then try the House of Lords instead, which is just as good.

Once you’ve made it inside you might have to queue up for an hour to get a seat, but I’ve never had to wait more than 30 minutes myself (and I usually manage to get in straight away). You should allow for another 60 minutes once you’re inside the chamber itself (any more than that and you’ll probably fall asleep).

You need to leave Parliament by 3.45 PM at the latest and cross over Parliament Square for the Evensong service at Westminster Abbey.

They don’t charge people to pray so this is a great way of seeing a little bit of the Abbey for free. And you’ll get to hear some truly beautiful choral singing as well.

Bear in mind that you can only do this on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday though, because they don’t have any singing on Wednesday and the service starts too early at the weekend.

View this itinerary on the planner

Idea #2 – View from Sky Garden, Roman amphitheatre, St. Paul’s Cathedral

Sky Garden
Royal Exchange
Mansion House
Guildhall Art Gallery
One New Change
St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral Evensong
What you will see:
View from the Sky Garden, Roman amphitheatre, view from One New Change, Evensong service at St. Paul’s Cathedral

This idea will take you to a variety of different things starting with the Sky Garden. That’s the big white skyscraper in the City with a tropical garden at the top. If you ride the lift all the way up to the 35th floor you can look out across London from 500-feet up in the air.

Unfortunately there’s a little a caveat: whilst it is definitely 100% free, you do still have to book a time slot on their website and print off a ticket beforehand (or take the eticket on your phone) – which means you might not get the time slot you want. Ideally you want it first thing in the morning so you can enjoy the rest of the day I’ve planned out, but if you can’t manage it then you’ll have to fiddle a few of the following things around. Try and book it for 10 to 10.30 AM, and then allow yourself an hour inside.

After you leave the Sky Garden walk up Fenchurch Street and Lombard Street towards Bank (10 min walk). When you get there look towards the right and enjoy one of the finest sights in London: the Bank of England and Royal Exchange. How fantastic do they look? Over to your left is Mansion House – the ceremonial home of the Lord Mayor of London.

Now continue walking in the same general direction up a street called Poultry. A few turnings on the right is King Street. This will take you straight to the medieval-looking Guildhall (10 mins walk). This is where the Lord Mayor holds his monthly meetings with the Aldermen. The building immediately to the right of that is the Guildhall Art Gallery.

Head inside the art gallery (it’s all free) and look around the paintings if you want, but the thing that we’ve really come to see is the remains of London’s Roman amphitheatre in the basement (allow for 1-1½ hours).

When you come outside again have a look for the grey brick-ring on the forecourt, which marks out the diameter of the amphitheatre you’ve just seen underground. Cross over the forecourt to the pepperpot-shaped building and enter the glass door on the left.

The public are usually allowed to look inside the Great Hall of the Guildhall for nothing, but if you’re unlucky then they might have a meeting on and stop you, in which case you’ll have to settle for looking at it from the forecourt instead. Don’t be intimidated, though, and give it a try, because the Great Hall is definitely worth a visit (allow for 30 mins if you get inside).

We’re going to climb to the top of another building now, for another view of the London skyline. Find your way back to Poultry and turn right up Cheapside. When you get to the end you should see St. Paul’s tube station over the road. Don’t cross over the road – turn left down New Change instead and then look for the opening into the middle of One New Change shopping centre (10-15 mins walk).

You should be able to see a glass elevator inside the heart of it (it’s directly opposite the back end of St. Paul’s) and you can ride it all the way up to their open-air roof terrace for a fantastic view of of St. Paul’s Cathedral. You can see loads of landmarks from up there (allow for 20-30 mins). They’ve also got some handy toilets inside the shopping centre.

Our final stop is going to be inside St. Paul’s Cathedral itself… but we’re going to have to wait a while if we want to enter it for free. Depending on when you managed to get a time slot at the Sky Garden you could have another two hours to wait before the Evensong service starts at 5 PM (Mon-Sat).

If you managed to book the Sky Garden before 10.30 AM then it’s probably around 2.30 PM or 3 PM by now. In the meantime maybe you can enter the crypt and have a nose around the shop? Don’t go in the main door though (because that’s where you have to pay) – the crypt and shop entrance is round the lefthand side of the front steps. There’s usually a yellow-bibbed bloke on the door who checks everyone’s bags – just tell him that you want to look inside the shop. You won’t be allowed to see the entire crypt for free, but you can at least get a sneaky look at some of the tombs through the iron bars.

When it reaches 4 PM you should make your way to the front steps again, and wait for them to start letting everybody in for the Evensong. Happily they don’t charge people to pray, so you’ll be able to see a sizeable part of the Cathedral for nothing.

View this itinerary on the planner

London Squire bookThe owns and has spent the last decade reviewing the capital’s landmarks, attractions and hotels. His guidebook is available from Amazon

Your comments and questions

Be the first to talk about this itinerary

Be the first to comment