If you ask a Londoner what to do during a London weekend break, they’ll get all excited and write you a lengthy list of all the places you should go and things you should see. And then argue about the best pubs and where to get “proper” fish and chips. We’re rightly proud of our capital city and the fact 20 million of you lovely people choose to visit London each year (just don’t expect us to talk on the Tube). So here’s ten things to get you started:
Buckingham Palace (The Royal family live there), the Tower of London (because it’s soooo old) the Houses of Parliament (and don’t forget Big Ben) St Paul’s Cathedral (still the most famous building) The London Eye and The Shard (you get the best views from here), The Ritz (because you have to have afternoon tea there once in your life), The National Gallery & Tate Modern (art IS life) and The Southbank (as it is just totally cool). Let us be your tour guide and you’ll discover below more of the best things to do in London.
The Old Police Station
This abandoned police station in Deptford now houses artist studios, exhibition cells and social spaces for East London’s thriving creative set. Out in the courtyard you’ll find a black shipping container turned gallery space which exhibits around 6 projects a year. Fri-Sat 12-6pm and by appointment; 114-116 Amersham Vale London, SE14 6LG
The Crypt Gallery
Once used as a burial place for Londoners, the Crypt beneath St Pancras Church makes a dramatic background for displaying art and photography. Check out this atmospheric gallery’s year-round programme of modern art exhibitions. Opening times vary for each exhibition; Euston Rd, London NW1 2BA
Viktor Wynd Fine Art
This quirky little shop (home of the Last Tuesday Society) in hackney is packed with curiosities including some unusual taxidermy. Meanwhile, upstairs you’ll find a changing collection of surreal artwork in the Viktor Wynd Fine Art gallery. Open Sat 11am-8pm; 11 Mare Street, E8 4RP
The Horse Hospital
This independent arts venue celebrates individualism and its anti-conformist ethos is reflected in the programming of its gallery. Be sure to check out underground art and fashion at its Chamber of Pop Culture. Open Mon-Sat 12-6pm; Colonnade, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 1JD
The train will deliver you right to the door of Banner Reporter, found on Platform One of Hackney Downs railway station. This artist led reading room and project space holds an inspiring exhibition programme of contemporary art. Rush hour opening times attract commuters and for the rest, it’s open 6 days a week. Platform 1, Hackney Downs railway station, London E8 1LA
SCP’s flagship store is a destination shop for design fans. Its two spacious floors are bursting with furniture, lighting, rugs and plenty of smaller items including kitchenware, bathroom accessories, stationary, luggage and knitwear. 135 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3BX
The Prospect of Whitby
The Prospect of Whitby is London’s oldest riverside pub, dating back to 1520. A pewter top bar, original flagstone floor and reports of ghost sightings all add to its historic ambience. 57 Wapping Wall, Wapping, London E1W 3SH
The Spaniard's Inn
Sitting at the edge of Hampstead Heath, this C16th boozer was built as a tollgate inn and has strong literary connections – Keats and Dickens both drank here. Inside, oak panelled walls, low beams and fire places keep things cosy. Spaniards Rd, Hampstead, London NW3 7JJ
This Victorian East End pub welcomes both old regulars and newcomers through its doors. Inside the unassuming facade you’ll find walls decked in dark mahogany and a 100 year old piano that still gets a tinkering. 254 Hackney Rd, London E2 7SJ
Ye Old Cheshire
In the heart of the city, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was rebuilt shortly after the Great Fire of London and maintains its C17th charm. Navigate its warren-like interior and creaking staircases, following in the footsteps of past literary legends. 145 Fleet St, London EC4A 2BU
The Black Friar
Built on the site of a medieval Dominican friary in 1905, this Grade II listed pub was remodeled in the Arts and Crafts style – intricate friezes, elaborate tile work and scenes of jolly looking monks hang above you while you sip your pint. 174 Queen Victoria St, London EC4V 4EG
Whitecross Street Market
Try tasty dishes from around the globe at this street food market in the heart of London. Pick from a heady mix of homemade pies, savoury tarts, specialty scotch eggs, German sausage, Indian curry, burrito, falafel and a ton of veggie options. Thursdays and Fridays 9am-5pm; Whitecross St, London EC1Y 8NR
With a history that stretches back almost 2000 years, London has had a long time to establish itself as one of the world's greatest cities. As a result, there's plenty to enjoy and explore. Many visitors worry about the cost of a trip to London but this is a city that's bursting with free things to do, especially for children. Booking a visit to London opens the door to a world of history, culture, music and entertainment.
A chain of parks provides one of the best free things to do in London. Beginning with St James Park in Westminster, this large green space sweeps westwards through Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Elsewhere, fans of 101 Dalmatians could visit Primrose Hill, and Wimbledon Common is the perfect place to look for Wombles. Meanwhile, the one-time Royal hunting grounds of Richmond and Bushey Parks are home to large herds of deer.
The Museum of London provides a fantastic overview of London's history and includes sections on the Great Fire and the plague that are bound to appeal to budding young historians. The Natural History Museum's dinosaurs always rank among the most popular free things to do with kids in London but it's also worth visiting the nearby Science Museum or the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The National Portrait Gallery is unmissable for its "Who's Who" of British history, while the National Gallery includes works by Van Gogh, Turner and Veláquez. Tate Britain and its sister gallery, Tate Modern, both enjoy scenic spots overlooking the River Thames. Tate Modern, in particular, is known for its interactive exhibits aimed at children. Elsewhere in the city, the Saatchi Gallery is the place to spot star artists of the future.
Wandering through a London market stalls is one of the most interesting free things to do in London or, for that matter, anywhere else. Saturday is the day for Portobello Road Market's antique fair, while Sunday means Columbia Road's flower market. Borough Market, in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral, is one of the capital's oldest food markets, while the nearby Old Spitalfields Market also has plenty of culinary attractions.
It's difficult to visit London, especially with children, without enjoying the spectacle of the Changing of the Guard, which takes place daily outside Buckingham Palace. The annual Lord Mayor's Show provides another opportunity to enjoy some London pomp and pageantry. The processional route takes in much of the City of London, giving onlookers plenty of chances to enjoy the spectacle and glimpse the ornate State Coach belonging to the Lord Mayor of London.
For free stuff in London or elsewhere, it's hard to beat a good library. London has plenty of them, including, of course, the British Library. Although most tours incur a charge, its reading rooms are free to use to anyone who has a Reader Pass. Meanwhile, a visit to the Barbican Library provides an ideal excuse to explore the brutalist concrete architecture of the Barbican Centre.
One of many people's favourite things to do in London is to wander along the South Bank or through Covent Garden and admire the artistry and skill of some of the capital's street performers. Trafalgar Square is another good place to enjoy an impromptu outdoor performance. Don't forget the Tube: London Underground's buskers have all passed an audition, are licensed and occasionally include some famous names.
The annual Notting Hill Carnival, the New Year's Day parade and the Chinese New Year in London have all achieved world-wide fame but London has many other smaller festivals and carnivals. Try the Regent Street Motor show for vehicle enthusiasts or the Prudential Ride London for bike lovers. Diwali and Eid both also offer plenty of public celebrations.
Free music in London can be hard to come by but is available. Look out for free events by performers from the Royal Opera House at venues such as St Clement Danes on the Strand and the Linbury Theatre. The Southbank Centre also offers a varied programme of free musical performances. For a more formal experience, lunchtime performances at St James’s Church in Piccadilly are always popular. Pubs and even record shops, particularly Rough Trade East, also often put on gigs by both up-and-coming and more established performers.
Something many London visitors want to do is to soak up a panoramic view of the city. Luckily, several vantage points allow you to do this for free. In north London, Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath has extensive views down across the city. To the south, Greenwich Park overlooks the river Thames as it winds its way through central London. Finally, 20 Fenchurch Street is home to Sky Garden, with its three storeys of carefully designed gardens and 360-degree view of the city. Tickets to Sky Garden are free if booked online.