Free Things to Do in London

We'll be braving the bank holiday traffic today as we head from Paris to London on the Eurostar. Perhaps we'll hit some sites while all the locals are off at the Nottingham Carnivale. In the meantime we leave you with a few of our favorite ideas of free things to do in London. The full list is on the National Geographic website.

From David Bowie and Beckham to Charles Darwin and Dickens, London has captured the world with legendary figures since its founding in the first century A.D. But it's not only the city's celebrities rising to the top—the British pound is rising, too. Don't get knackered looking for cheap deals across the pond—London has heaps of free museums, attractions, and activities to delight all types of travelers, from posh, to business, to budget.

It's impossible to see all 330,000 pieces at the National Portrait Gallery at one time, but the museum's free admission is a good excuse to go back again and again. See classic portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, 207 portraits of Queen Victoria, 38 portraits of Paul McCartney, and 44 portraits of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The Tate Britain houses British works from 1500 to the present. Admire works by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), William Blake (1757-1827), George Mason (1818-1872), and Francis Bacon (1909-1992). Best of all, visitors can see them all for free. Check out "Late at Tate" on the first Friday of every month, when the gallery is open until 10 p.m. (free), and admission to special exhibitions is half price. Plus, peruse the Tate Modern's free collection of world-class contemporary masterpieces—including works by Picasso, Matisse, Dalí, Miro, Pollock, and Warhol.

Since first opening on January 15, 1759, with 71,000 objects collected by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), the British Museum has only closed its doors twice (during the two World Wars) in almost 250 years. Today the museum houses thousands of artifacts, from ancient Mesopotamian jewelry to Chinese jade from 5000 B.C. Admission to the museum's collections is free (fee for some special exhibits).

Don't miss the Ceremony of the Keys, a 700-year-old tradition in the Tower of London. Every evening, the Chief Yeoman Warner locks the main gate to the tower and brings the keys to the Resident Governor. Plan ahead: Tickets are free but should be booked at least two months in advance. Apply for tickets by writing to the Tower of London (see website for specific instructions).

The crowd-pleasing Changing the Guard has been a British tradition since Henry VII (1485-1509). The handover is accompanied by music as the red-tunic-and-bearskin-hat-clad guards change shifts around Buckingham Palace. Best of all, visitors and passersby can watch at no charge. See the Guard Mounting at 11:30 a.m. daily May-July, and on alternating days August-April. To avoid the crowds at Buckingham Palace, see the Changing the Guard at Horse Guards Arch on Horse Guards Parade (11 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. on Sundays) or at Windsor Castle (11 a.m. Monday-Saturday April-July, and on alternate days, except Sunday, the rest of the year).

Learn about Britain's involvement in war at the Imperial War Museum on Lambeth Road. Highlights include permanent exhibits on the Holocaust, World War I, and World War II. Check out the Secret War exhibition, which details the Special Operations Executive and secret government agencies MI5 and MI6 from pre-World War I to the present (think invisible ink used by German spies, codebooks, and secret radios). Admission to the permanent exhibitions is free.

If you can plan ahead, check out the BBC and apply for free tickets to tapings of radio (Hear and Now, BBC Symphony Orchestra) and television (Coming of Age, Strictly Come Dancing) shows. Our favorite BBC show Top Gear was booked for tickets 3 years in advance so we won't be sitting in on the taping. Perhaps we should book now and hope to return near the Olympics?

Overseas visitors can catch a debate and question time in both houses of the U.K. Parliament. Free tickets are given to U.K. residents to see the House of Commons, but overseas visitors can wait in line (up to two hours outside the St. Stephen's entrance) to be admitted for free if there is space available during the "summer opening." The Commons has a very lively Prime Minister's Question Time that is well worth the wait (especially to political enthusiasts and to those wanting to hear some of the best British profanities).

Used as hunting grounds by Henry VIII in 1536, the free 350-acre (142-hectare) Hyde Park now has a playground, sports facilities, and the Lookout, an education center where kids can learn about nature. Be sure to stop at the Diana Memorial Fountain, erected in 2004. The design of the fountain reflects the Princess of Wales's life: The fountain's water flows in two directions before it meets a calm pool.

On a sunny day, stop by the 18th-century Kenwood House by Hampstead Heath. The house served as Lord Mansfield's home during the 18th century, and its lavish gardens are worth a visit. While there is a fee to take the guided tour, exploring the house and grounds on your own is free. Pathways wind through butterfly gardens, and the site's woods are home to ancient trees, woodpeckers, and rare species of insects.The Romans built the London Wall around their port town of Londinium when they occupied Britannia from A.D. 50 to 410. Parts of the wall are still standing and can be seen (at no cost) near the Museum of London, Tower Hill, and Barbican Estate.