There is so much for children to see and do in London but a day in the city can work out really expensive by the time you’ve paid for entrance tickets, public transport, meals and treats like ice-creams. But not everything has to cost a fortune. We love going to London and sometimes the things we’ve enjoyed most haven’t cost us a penny. Here’s my guide to the ten best things to do in London that are completely free.
Watch the Changing of the Guard
Most people have seen the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at Buckingham Palace but we prefer the Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard at Horse Guards Parade. It’s much less crowded and there are no railings so you can see everything better. What’s more, it’s the Household Cavalry so the soldiers are on horseback with swords drawn and plumed helmets on their head.
The ceremony takes place every day at 11am (10am on Sundays). Click here for more information about changing the guard ceremonies.
Visit the Dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum
The Dinosaur Gallery is rightly one of the biggest draws of the Natural History Museum but there is so much more for children to see and do here whether they’re into dinosaurs and furry frogs or cursed amethysts and duck-billed platypuses.
You can feel the earth move in the Earthquake Machine, play detective games around the museum and visit the growing fox cubs in the Wildlife Garden. The hands-on Science Centre is a great place for children to examine specimens from the natural world for themselves, using microscopes and other scientific tools.
Do an Activity Trail in the British Museum
My kids love going to the British Museum. The mummies in the Ancient Egypt section are a particular favourite. There’s so much to explore whether you’re into the Aztecs and the Incas, the Vikings or Ancient Greece. It’s best to pick just one area to visit each time you go or it’s too much to take in.
On our last trip we went round the Roman Britain rooms with an activity backpack filled with artefacts, dressing up clothes and things to do. It made our visit even more enjoyable than usual. You can pick up backpacks, art materials and activity worksheets for specific areas from the Families Desk. Children can also take part in object handling sessions, digital and film-making workshops.
Have a Picnic in a Park
When we’re in the centre of London we often have a picnic in St. James’s Park where we can feed the ducks and watch the pelicans being fed. But if you want to make more of an outing of it, head for Kensington Gardens where there are some great picnic spots, the Peter Pan statue and the wonderful Diana Memorial Playground with its huge wooden pirate ship, giant sandpit and teepees. There’s even a tree house encampment with walkways, ladders and slides. For added fun, cross over the road into nearby Hyde Park for a splash around in the Diana Memorial Fountain.
Follow in the Footsteps of Harry Potter
Even Muggles can now visit Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station where Harry Potter boarded the train to Hogwarts. You can queue up to have your photo taken under the sign, complete with trolley, scarf and wand. There’s no charge for taking your own photos. Platforms 4 and 5 at the station were used for filming and the neo gothic exterior of nearby St Pancras International was used in the films to stand in for King’s Cross.
Now head down to Leadenhall Market, a covered market in the City used as Diagon Alley in the film of the Philosopher’s Stone. The blue door of the optician’s in Bull’s Head Passage was used as the entrance to The Leaky Cauldron.
Do a Workshop at the National Gallery
The National Gallery is a great place to visit with children but did you know that they run free art workshops over the school holidays? The workshops are led by artists and inspired by paintings in the gallery. We’ve made flowers and drawn portraits but the workshop my two most enjoyed was making a sound picture with musical instruments of Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano, a 15th-century painting of knights on white chargers. All the children sat in front of the painting making the noises of horses’ hooves clopping, swords clashing and drums beating. Utterly brilliant!
The workshops are aimed at 5 to 11 year olds and take place on Sundays at 11am and 2pm and over the holidays. Children under 5 can do the Magic Carpet Storytelling on Sunday mornings.
Watch the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London
The traditional locking up of the Tower of London has taken place every night for over 700 years. At 9.52pm exactly, the Chief Yeoman Warder comes out carrying a candle lantern in one hand and the Queen’s keys in the other. He walks to Traitor’s Gate to meet the Foot Guards and the ceremony takes place. Forty to 50 visitors are admitted into the Tower to watch it every day from 9.30pm. Book online here.
Dress up as an Astronaut at the Science Museum
There is so much for children to do at the Science Museum from morphing your face to see what it will look like when you’re older to investigating climate change and dressing up as a WWII fighter pilot. This is also the place to come if you want to see the Apollo 10 command module and Stephenson’s Rocket.
The Launchpad Gallery here is one of the world’s leading hands-on science centres where kids can learn all about maths and physics with interactive exhibits, demonstrations and shows. The gallery is closed until autumn while they create an even bigger area which will feature live chemistry experiments and a friction slide. In the meantime, visit the Pattern Pod, a multi-sensory area for 5 to 8 year olds, or the interactive Garden Gallery for pre-schoolers. There are also drop in experiments for all ages throughout the day at the Science Stations.
Meet chickens and goats at Coram’s Fields
Children can get up close with rabbits, goats and chickens at this city farm in Bloomsbury, right in the centre of London. Coram’s Fields also has some fantastic play areas – a large adventure playground with an aerial slide for older children and two large sandpits and a paddling pool for the little ones.
Free sports activities over the summer holidays range from tennis and cricket to egg and spoon races, rounders and an Olympic Games. In the youth centre, teenagers can record music and make videos in the music studio as well as take part in photography, sculpture and fashion and design classes in the art studio.
See an Open-Air Show at The Scoop
Don’t miss the Summer Festival at The Scoop, an outdoor amphitheatre near Tower Bridge. All you do is turn up. You can even bring your own picnic. The London Bridge City Summer Festival is on from June until the end of October, with live music, theatre performances, film screenings and pop-up food and drink. The festival programme should be out on the website soon. Last year’s events included a production of ‘Captain Showoff!’, a slapstick comedy set in Ancient Rome with sing-a-longs and audience participation.