Think of the National Portrait Gallery as the original Instagram. The need for the rich and famous to take selfies existed long before the invention of the front-facing camera. But back then; they used prominent artists to paint their portraits. The first portrait gallery in the world, the National Portrait Gallery houses the world’s largest collection of historically important and famous British faces like Shakespeare, Churchill, and Beckham.
London has one of the most extensive histories in the world, but the Natural History Museum goes way beyond that, like before Doctor Who even existed. With over 80 million life and earth science specimens housed within five main collections: botany, entomology, mineralogy, palaeontology, and zoology, there’s plenty to see. An afternoon will go by quicker than the melting of the polar icecaps. The most impressive pieces are the larger-than-life dinosaur skeletons and wide-ranging taxidermy.
3. Imperial War Museum
War is never something that should be romanticized, which is why it’s important to reflect on the realities of the past and honour the sacrifices of the brave men and women who were caught in-between. The Imperial War Museum acknowledges these tragedies with subtlety and care. One of its great strengths is its ability to take the profound bigness of a World War and deconstruct it into relatable human context. Unique letters and objects tell the brave stories of ordinary people impacted by extraordinary circumstances. The museum is free but we should never forget that the cost of war is heavy.
Free Parks & Gardens
Nestled between Buckingham Palace, the Mall, Horse Guards and Birdcage Walk, St. James’s Park is located right in the heart of the city. That’s probably why one of its most famous residents has chosen to call it home for so long. First introduced in 1664 as a gift from the Russian Ambassador, there are now over 40 very social pelicans roaming about. Be sure to visit in the afternoon where they are fed at 14:30 sharp. Don’t forget to give the other water birds, owls, and woodpeckers some attention too. Jealousy amongst fowls is real.
5. Bushy Park
A great way to escape the bustle and brightness of the city centre is to retreat to Bushy Park. It’s the second largest Royal Park with an area of 445 hectares, which makes it ideal to explore via cycling or horseback riding. Discover over 300 free-roaming deer along your journey and a rich diversity of fungi, ancient trees, and grasslands with its varied historic ecosystems.
Originally part of the western section of Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens was annexed by Queen Caroline in order to form a Royal landscape garden. As a result, the gardens continue to maintain a more polished look. Beyond the natural beauties such as the Round Pond and sunken Dutch garden, there are also many monuments to visit. The Albert Memorial, the Peter Pan statue, and the Diana Memorial Playground are just a few of the highlights you’ll pass as you wonder the attractively tree-lined paths.
Free Landmarks & Viewpoints
Churches tend to be architectural feats, showcasing the grandness of a religion’s power and status. St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden went the other way. Designed simply, the architect was asked to reference a barn, and he nailed it. Also known as the Actors’ Church, St. Paul’s has long been associated with the theatre community. The first Punch and Judy show took place here in 1662, and there are memorials dedicated to Charlie Chaplin and Vivien Leigh.
8. Sky Garden
There are many free spots to see London’s famous landmarks from ground level, but few offer sights from higher up. The Sky Garden is the city’s highest public garden, occupying the top three floors of 20 Fenchurch Street. Locals also know the building as the “Walkie Talkie” based on the outer form. Free or not, the panoramic views are arguably some of the best of central London. Keep in mind that even though space is free, it does get popular and crowded, so visitation must be booked in advance.
Bookworms, get ready to fall in love with the ultimate public library. The British Library is the largest library in the world with over 170 million items catalogued. In other words, anything that has ever been written down since the beginning of communication is hidden somewhere inside this massive building. Unique treasures include the Magna Carta, Jane Austen’s and Leonardo da Vinci’s personal notebooks, and handwritten lyrics by The Beatles.
Free Markets & Famous Streets
10. Borough Market
London boasts some of the greatest markets around, but none are as celebrated or established as Borough Market. Around for over 1,000 years, the market is filled with quality British produce and speciality foods. It’s a great hangout for foodies and food lovers, but its history and location underneath a maze of Victorian railway arches will bring enough joy to those who simply want to wonder.
Many consider the 90’s rom-com for the popularization of Notting Hill, but the Portobello Road Market is also to blame. As charming and vibrant as the neighbourhood it resides in, the market sells everything. From vintage clothing to fresh street food to one-of-a-kind antiques, you’ll find everything you’re looking for and nothing you actually needed, all at once.
12. Street Art in Shoreditch
There is plenty of free art inside London’s numerous galleries, but what many visitors forget is all the art that’s outside in plain sight. Shoreditch offers some of the best strips of street art in the city. Like the culture it critiques, the graffiti and murals change almost every day. But it’ll always be replaced by something guaranteed to impress. From world-famous artists like Banksy to up-and-coming no names, in the urban art world, democracy dictates who’s allowed to express themselves: everyone.