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The best things in London...

are free!


These days a visit to London will confirm your darkest fears- the city's reputation for being one of the most expensive in the world has not been exaggerated. In the land of a strong pound, never were so many dollars disappearing so quickly on such a few purchases. There is, however, the flip side of the pound-to the visitor with the know-how is that the British capital offers more free things to see and do than any other place on Earth. (And I am not just talking people watching, fare dodging or picking up flowers in Kensington Gardens-although locals claim these are all genuine London endeavours). These gems expose a visitor to the wonders of London more effectively than the conventional-and often expensive-tourist spots. Hear an oratorio in a Wren-designed church, listen to debate in Westminster, join the ravings at the Speaker's Corner, get to a film-showing in the Tate Gallery, and you will find out that it's true: the best things in London are free.

Here are ten tried and tested ways to pass a time in London that are easy on your wallet and on your stress levels:

London Zoo

The home of the Zoological Society of London is much more than a zoo, it's an organisation that is active both in conservation and research. There is so much for kids to do and learn here; from animal handling in the Reptile House, to aerial displays by birds of prey and the ubiquitous appeal of feeding time for the penguins. The rare Sumatran tigers have an enclosure that does their sheer size justice as do many of the cats and primates. If they still have energy, the tunnel under the road leads to more delights, including the ever-impressive giraffes. Gazing at the sheer beauty of these animals is a humbling experience, and underlines the frailty of these animals' existence if man continues to destroy their home habitats. It's good to know that part of your entry ticket money goes towards conservation projects, and if you can sign the Gift Aid voucher, take time to do so.

The House of Commons

What can be more fun than to watch the Britain's most distinguished gentlemen indulging in verbal duels and witty insults on the floor of the House of Commons? The greatest show in town can be seen and heard, free of charge, from the Strangers Gallery when Parliament is in session, between October and July. Prepare for a long queue, though, especially if there is a crisis or a scandal on the agenda. Mere mortals should feel privileged-the Queen herself is not permitted to enter the House of Commons. Check out their web site for visiting times.

Harrods Foods Hall

More a living museum than a retail operation, the legendary Harrods Foods Halls offer an eye-popping, mouth-watering array of fare of every taste, shape and texture imaginable. To tempt visitors, there are frequent product sampling and promotional launches. While apricot ham, smoked sprat, or curried duck pate might not be your cup of tea, grazing in the Food Halls should give you enough nourishment for a day of sightseeing. Visitors beware: customers are asked to refrain from eating their purchases within the store. It's not unusual for a weak-willed food shopper to be escorted out of the store for having a bite.

Old Bailey

London's famous Central Criminal Court (there are actually nineteen courts) is where Britain's most notable criminal cases are tried. Visitors are allowed to sit in the public gallery, and, with some luck, you might find yourself engrosses in a gruesome murder case. If the case is a dull one, you can pass the time observing the court customs: judges are dressed in wigs and robs and carry posies; court officers sprinkle dried flowers on the courtroom floor (this tradition survives from the times when prisoners carried unpleasant odours from their cells into the courtroom). Under 14's are not admitted, nor are cameras, large bags, food or drink.

Free Postcards

Keep your eyes open for the racks of postcards placed at hundreds of restaurants and bars around London. Some of them, like those printed by the Time Out Postcard Advertising are beautifully designed and epitomize the London style and spirit better than the conventional six-for-a-pound postcards. Advertisers are not allowed to show the product or logo on the front of the card, and can only use a small section of the back for their message, so you will have enough space to "wish you were. . .here/nice/whatever."

Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park

Do you have a strong urge to warn strangers of an impending apocalypse, express outrage at Christmas consumerism, or convert the masses to vegetarianism? Or do you simply wish to be a part of the bemused crowd at this famous outlet of free speech? Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw relieved their frustrations at Speakers' Corner, and so can you. Don't forget to bring your own box to stand on, and bear in mind that subjects considered obscene or likely to incite violence are prohibited. (The closest subway station is Marble Arch on Central Line if you need to make a run for it.)

Thames Barrier

The largest movable flood barrier in the world, the Thames Flood Barrier, completed in 1984, was constructed to protect London from being flooded. (The city has sunk 15 feet since Roman times!) This miracle of engineering, lauded as the "eight wonder of the modern world", is well worth the trip to London's suburb of Woolwich. The barrier's nine piers, clad in panels of stainless steel, house hydraulic units capable of lifting 3,500-ton concrete barriers from the bed of the river Thames onto a 65-foot wall in a cool 30 minutes!

Tower Bridge

This famous landmark provides the visitor with one of the best views of London and the Thames. The enclosed walkway connecting its two towers is the ideal place to take the postcard-like photos, and is very popular with photographers and visitors alike. A stroll across the bridge is simply magical-and free.

Great Museums That Are Free All the Time

London might be the cultural capital of the world, but the cost of soaking in all that culture can be prohibitive at the best of times. And while most people are aware that some museums in London are free, or that others are free at certain times, only veterans know of the top museums that are always free! Here's a few of the best of these price-less gems in alphabetical order: Museum of Childhood, British Museum, Imperial War Museum, Museum of London, Victoria & Albert Museum, The Natural History Museum and The Science Museum. And while we're at it why not check out two of the fantastic and totally free art galleries. The National Gallery is in Trafalgar Square and the Tate Modern is on the South bank.

Views to Remember

You don't have to spend a penny to get a terrific eyeful of London-just head for these spots: Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath for the panoramic views of London, particularly of the skyline of the City; Greenwich Hill for the excellent views of Greenwich, the Thames, and the surrounding Docklands; a bridge in St. James's Park, London's oldest Royal Park, offers one of the least-known views in London-to the east are the rooftops of Whitehall, to the west is Buckingham Palace; Oxo Tower, the converted art deco warehouse on the river Thames in south-east London, has a public viewing platform which boasts one of the best views of river and city of London.

Daily Pageantry

The largest movable flood barrier in the world, the Thames Flood Barrier, completed in 1984, was constructed to protect London from being flooded. (The city has sunk 15 feet since Roman times!) This miracle of engineering, lauded as the "eight wonder of the modern world", is well worth the trip to London's suburb of Woolwich. The barrier's nine piers, clad in panels of stainless steel, house hydraulic units capable of lifting 3,500-ton concrete barriers from the bed of the river Thames onto a 65-foot wall in a cool 30 minutes!

Tower Bridge

Witnessing London's colourful and photogenic daily pageantry is not-to-be-missed. These events are free but arrive very early or late (crowd tends to disperse after first fifteen minutes). The best known is Changing of the Queen's Guard at Buckingham Palace where, daily at 11.25 a.m., from April to September, and every other day during the winter months, the Guard is changed in the yard in front of the palace.

The less crowded, scaled down version is nearby Horse Guards Parade, on the old tilt-yard of Whitehall Palace. Here Changing of the Guard takes place Monday to Saturday at 11 a.m., and at 10 a.m. on Sundays.

So there you have it, now there's no excuse to spend the whole day worrying about money. There's enough free stuff here to fill a fortnight let alone a weekend break!

By Georgia Blazeka-Nitescu ©

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