“Oh my God, Marie, London is SO expensive – how can you afford to travel there so often?” is something I’ve heard more times than I can count. But the truth is: London is nowhere near as expensive as people presume. With plenty of affordable hotel rooms, economical eateries and walkable neighbourhoods, vacationing in London doesn’t have to cost and arm and a leg.
Oh, and did I mention that the vast majority of London’s iconic and world-renowned museums are free to enter? Indeed, visiting museums is one of the most enlightening yet budget-friendly things to do in London – I did some of the legwork for you, and here are my top picks.
The Mandatory Classic: The British Museum
Very much in the same way one has to go to the Louvre in Paris… one has to go to the British Museum in London. It’s one of the world’s oldest museums and its collection is vast – so much so, in fact, that only a fraction the eight million objects can be on public display at any time. Must-sees include the Rosetta Stone, the Lewis Chessmen and the Egyptian antiquities (over 100,000 pieces, the world’s largest collection outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo).
The Most Underrated: The National Portrait Gallery
While many people head straight to the National Gallery next door on Trafalgar Square, the National Portrait Gallery offers a more human approach to arts and history. The gallery straddles over 500 years of British history and while not all of the portraits are exceptional on a strictly artistic point of view, they each tell very specific narratives – Queen Elizabeth I, Jane Austen (the gallery houses her only known portrait), Shakespeare, Richard Branson, the Duchess of Cambridge and that of many others.
The Best Views: Tate Modern
What was once the Bankside Power Station now houses one of the biggest powerhouses (pun intended) in the modern art world; with five million visitors every year, there’s no denying this gallery’s popularity. The building was kept almost as is – its gaping yet somber turbine hall is still used to showcase large-scale installations, while its windowless upper floors host one of the finest art collections in the world, covering the Surrealism, Minimalism, Post-war abstraction movements with household names like Rothko, Matisse, and Picasso.
Make sure to visit the 6th floor restaurant for some of the best free views in the city.
The Best Architecture: Natural History Museum
Without a doubt one of the funnest things to do in London! The museum features over 80 million items divided in three zones: red (changing history of the Earth), green (ecology, insects and minerals) and blue (dinosaurs, human biology and mammals), with some even featuring specimens collected by Charles Darwin. And while the collection is reason enough to visit, the building itself is simply stunning – it features an ornate terracotta facade (with relief sculptures of flora and fauna) typical of high Victorian architecture and a splendid, light-filled main hall that has been photographed countless times.
The Most Touching: Imperial War Museum
Located in South London, this museum is housed in a former psych ward and holds significant items (manuscripts, machinery, weapons, technological equipment, missiles, even airplanes and tanks) pertaining to British military history, from recent conflicts to the two great wars. From genocide to ethnic violence, from the Holocaust to the conflicts in the Middle East, the Imperial War Museum doesn’t shy away from uneasiness and horror for the sake of comfort; it aims to educate and study the wartime experience in the most gripping way. Definitely a must-do, if only to honour the memory of Canadian soldiers that fought those wars.
Visitors should know that visiting the museum with children under the age of 16 is not recommended due to the nature of the exhibits.
The Best One That’s Not in Central London: National Maritime Museum
Located in east London on the World Heritage Site of Maritime Greenwich, along with Elizabeth I’s birthplace and the Royal Naval College, this museum is definitely off the beaten track. The permanent exhibition explores the importance of London’s maritime heritage and its impact on world trade, which, at one time, was the foremost global power and covered almost almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area. The museum also addresses current issues like overfishing and global warming. The ideal destination for visitors planning to spend more than just a few days in town.