The high cost of living in London shouldn’t hold you back if it is one of your dream destinations. There is so much you can do for free or at low cost that will give you a feel for the city as well as work with your little one’s schedules. Did you know that most museums are free in London? Also major city parks used to be under the monarchy and now open to the public. Window shop at Knightsbridge and taste curry at the Brick Lane market and experience London like a local with these suggestions.
There are so many reasons why London should be on everyone’s travel list; history, culture, fashion, royal family. With the British pound being strong it is certainly not a cheap destination. But what’s great about such a cosmopolitan and diverse city is that you can easily find lot of free things to do.
We certainly found this to be true when visiting with our toddler. With the need to be flexible with our son’s schedule, finding a variety of free activities helped to make our trip less of a burden on our wallets as well as our minds. It was also a chance to experience the common practices of Londoners by taking advantage of the city’s free amenities. Here are a few of our favorite free things to do in London with kids.
1. Visit Parks
Park visits are a must no matter where you’re visiting with kids. Cities really do seem to have the best parks and London tops the list with its Royal parks. The Royal Parks of London are lands originally owned by the monarchy of the United Kingdom for the recreation of the royal family. Since the Crown Lands Act in 1851, they have been preserved as free space open to the public.
Hyde Park (one of the largest parks) and Kensington Gardens (formerly the private garden of Kensington palace) which are adjacent should be a must see on everyone’s London itinerary. There are quite a few memorials and statues in these parks that we wanted to see but found it too difficult to cover all points of interest with our toddler in tow. So we mapped out a route that included highlights for us such as the Flower Walk, Peter Pan statue, Swan Lake, Princess Diana Memorial Fountain and Serpentine Bridge.
As no trip to London is complete without a trip to the gates of Buckingham Palace, we included rest stops at St. James Park to enjoy the beautiful flowers on our way there and Green Park afterwards.
With all these parks being located in central London we found ourselves coming back multiple times when our son needed to stretch his legs or to have a picnic lunch in between our adventures.
2. Visit Museums
Before we visited we didn’t make note that most museums in London were free. Had we
done that we would have dropped in to the National Gallery during our little’s one short morning nap.
With a variety of museums such as the British Museum, Tate Modern, Natural History Museum, National Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum, free to the public, you can easily drop into take in just one floor or a particular collection.
It makes it not only affordable but also flexible with your kids’ schedule.
3. Stroll Street Markets
Street markets don’t necessarily seem like a very British experience but there are several that are a popular with tourists and locals alike. For us, it was an opportunity to get insight to local food and crafts in an outdoor festive atmosphere.
Portobello Market located in in the Notting Hill neighborhood is one of the biggest. It is in the charming neighborhood of Victorian houses and terraces made popular by the Hugh Grant movie of the 90s of the same name.
If you’re looking to explore ethnic areas, make a trip to the Sunday market at Brick Lane in the heart of London’s South Asian community. This will be an opportunity to taste a variety of cuisines (especially the Chicken Tikka masala now being knows as a British national dish) at very affordable prices.
Petticoat Lane Market is a fashion and clothing market which is one of the oldest surviving street markets. With bargain hunters and hagglers crowding more than 1000s of stalls lining extended streets on Sunday, it is certainly worth a visit even if you’re not planning on shopping.
Though definitely more crowded during the weekend, we found it manageable to navigate a stroller and enjoy this phenomena that is part of London culture.
4. Drop in at Train Stations
With its well-connected high speed train system, train travel is far more advanced and convenient in London than in any American city. Hence there are several large train stations interspersed in the city. With stores and restaurants, some of them have a shopping mall like feel.
While parents admire the architecture and people watch, kids will enjoy watching trains from the platform and seeing the schedule change on the information boards. King’s Cross (with the platform 9 3/4 from Harry Potter is a great free photo op for any fan) , Liverpool and Victoria stations are a few we had fun visiting.
5. Explore Different Neighborhoods
One of the best things to do in a new city is getting lost in different neighborhoods. It is the best way to discover a new city and get a feel for its vibe. It is free and fun and our ideal way to spend a low key day with our son. Renting a car is simple and easy and a great way to get around as well.
London has many characteristic neighborhoods. The City of London and City of Westminister constitute the historic part of the city with iconic structures such as the Tower of London, House of Commons and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Considered as the heart of London, The West End and Piccadilly Circus are a treat to any theater lover and fashionista.
The South Bank is perfect for an evening stroll after walking across the Millennium foot bridge which connects St. Paul’s Cathedral to Tate Modern Museum.
The East End is redefining itself from an economically straddled past in the 50s to become trendy and artsy. The colorful graffiti visible in every corner a highlight of our visit to this area.
In addition to the major ones, there are a number of smaller neighborhoods that are distinct from each other that warrant exploring if you have time. Knightsbridge (home to the flagship department store Harrod’s) Notting Hill, Hamsptead and Camden Lock are a few such examples.
Though it is not free, riding a double-decker city bus can be a fun and cheap way to see these city sights when traveling with kids. They will love riding at the top which will give them a good aerial view of sights at the fraction of a cost of taking a sightseeing bus.
Here are some more tips for first timers visiting London.