‘Seeing the sights’ in London can quickly become very expensive. But the fact is, every street in Central London is just so jam-packed with amazing places – be it luxury shops, beautiful parks, huge galleries or some of the most famous and important buildings in the country – all of which are free to enter, view or experience – that a day out enjoying everything London has to offer doesn’t need to cost a penny. So, here are some of my favourite places in Central London! I conveniently organised them into a route for a wander around London, but each one is, of course, a suggestion in itself.
Where better to start than the V&A? This huge and amazing museum is dedicated to everything ‘design’ related, and it’s completely free! You’ll be amazed by the range of galleries within the V&A; from everyone’s favourite fashion gallery, to the statues, tapestries, Asian artefacts, glasswork, metalwork, miniatures and the collection of gemstones in every colour of the rainbow…
From the V&A, it’s only a 10-minute walk up the road to Harrods. This huge multi-storey luxury department store is like a museum itself; a museum with eye-watering price tags! Designer clothes and shoes, wine, watches, jewellery, beauty, toys, homeware and artwork… the highlight is undoubtedly the Food Halls, which are heaven for someone as food-obsessed as me. Each different room is decorated according to what’s sold there, from the glass-chandelier in the shape of fruit and vegetables in the ‘Gourmet Grocery’, to the gold Parisienne-patisserie-inspired bakery, to the vast display of whole fish in a sea of ice, complete with fishing gear.
If you choose to fork out for a picnic from the Food Hall, you can take it to the nearby Hyde Park or Green Park. I would recommend Green Park, purely because after you’ve rested on the grass, you can wander down to Buckingham Palace – an essential London sight! Once you’ve taken enough photos, head through St James’s Park to see the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben (currently silent and unattractively hidden beneath scaffolding, but never mind). You can also admire the statues of famous world figures, including the newly unveiled statue of Millicent Fawcett, the first female statue!
From here, walk up Whitehall, passing the guarded entrance to Downing Street, Horse Guards and the Old War Office. At the top of the road is Trafalgar Square, with Nelson’s Column and its lions. There’s always plenty going on here – tourists from all around the world and loads of street entertainers.
The National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery are situated in the square – they are essentially inside the same building, just with different entrances. Like the V&A, they are both free to enter, and are big enough to keep you entertained for hours! There are plenty of world-famous works of art in the main Gallery, while the Portrait Gallery is a journey through British history, starting with all those iconic Tudor portraits. My favourite room is dedicated to the Romantic poets – and they have the only certain portrait of Jane Austen, a tiny half-finished sketch by her sister Cassandra.
If you are feeling in the mood to spend some money, it’s a 5 minute walk from here to TKTS in Leicester Square, the official booth selling last minute tickets to every single West End show. The screens outside the booth scroll through all the shows which have tickets left, and it’s possible to pick up a ticket for really quite cheap. It’s worth walking past and seeing what’s available, anyway – imagine your evening suddenly becoming 100x more magical with tickets to see Wicked!
This area is one of the best places to shop in London, particularly for books; Hatchards, Foyles and the biggest Waterstones in the UK (which claims to be the biggest bookshop in Europe) are all within a 15 minute walk from each other! The Waterstones has 4 floors and 2 cafes and Foyles has 5 floors and welcomes you with a big sign opposite the front door saying ‘Welcome book lover, you are among friends.’ And Hatchards is a book lover’s dream; the building is like something from Harry Potter, cosy, old-fashioned and quirky, with narrow, twisting shelves, staircases curving through the centre of the building, sofas dotted here and there and books EVERYWHERE… it’s extremely easy to get lost for a very long time.
Practically next door to Hatchards is Fortnum & Mason – if you liked Harrods, you’ll love this; think Harrods, but with a central focus on tea. They have hundreds of types of tea, antique teapots and the most beautiful bone-china tea sets I’ve ever seen. They also have loads of other types of luxury foods, from a foot-long slab of honeycomb (price on request) to a vast array of jams and preserves.
Finally, the South Bank is a bit of a walk (about 25 minutes) but is a wonderful place to stroll along in the evening, with lights hanging from the trees and the path hugging the river. It’s buzzing with street entertainers and street food, bars and pubs (including one of London’s busiest, the glass-fronted waterfront Founder’s Arms, with views of St Paul’s) and there’s plenty more shops here too (including a smaller branch of Foyles…)
Once again, if you feel like taking in a show (and who wouldn’t??) Shakespeare’s Globe is on the South Bank, and you can queue up and get standing tickets for only £5. It’s an incredible theatre with an amazing atmosphere. Attempting to recreate Shakespeare’s day, no microphones are used, and the noises of the outside world drift in occasionally – but there’s a sense of being truly close to the actors and their characters, as they deliver their lines from the midst of the crowd or perch on the edge of the stage, forcing someone to shuffle out of the way. It’s almost as fun people-watching those in the crowd as it is watching the play – either that, or watching the sky darken from blue daylight to darkness.