We know what it's like when you're a busy parent - you want to find the time (and the cash) to have great days out with the family but total up the price of four tickets for a family-friendly event and you're quickly looking at spending in excess of £100.
All of these activities, from pond-dipping to beauty treatments, are family-and-purse-friendly and based in the capital so you can enjoy all the activities London has to offer for you and your kids, on a budget.
Museums and galleries
The Big Bang Theory has made geeks cool: even more reason to visit the Science Museum. This family favourite offers children so much to get their hands on, from the Interactive Garden for under-5s, with its textural walls and mirrors, to the Who Am I? gallery where they can find out more about the human body, and a gallery exploring the history of flying.
Many of London’s art galleries still have free admission. Allow half a day for each one. Most popular include the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Tate Britain has some useful tips on visiting a gallery with children.
Art to enjoy
The Wallace Collection is one of the best art collections in London. You can see The Laughing Cavalier and The Lady with the Fan, as well as armour, porcelain, furniture and other decorative items.
At the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, you can see the uniform Nelson was wearing when he was shot at the Battle of Trafalgar, fire a cannon and even steer a ship into port.
Visit the V&A
With four million exhibits across four floors, 10 acres and 145 galleries laid out according to genre, time period and artist, the V&A is well worth a visit. Previous exhibitions include Hollywood costume and a retrospective of David Bowie.
Modern art at the Tate
Tate Modern has works by some of the most famous artists of the modern age including Picasso, Dali and Bacon. And if you want a great view of London and the Thames, visit the top floor café for a peek!
The Photographers Gallery in W1 is a treasure for those who love photography. Exhibitions feature some of the world’s greatest snappers and there are retrospectives, historical exhibits and award-winning images. Suitable for older children or those who are keen on photography.
The Horniman Museum and Gardens has over 3,000 items from around the world in its anthropology collections, which celebrates human creativity. These include Chinese paper offerings, a sharks’ teeth sword and a Native American tomahawk! Free activities for children include puppets, singing and storytelling.
Welcome to the Wellcome
If you don’t like the sight of blood, steer clear of The Wellcome Collection in NW1, which describes itself as a free destination for the incurably curious. Its exhibits trace the history of illness, death, medicine and genetics with such highlights as watching a video of open heart surgery, looking at paintings of dissection and listening to Florence Nightingale.
A designer home
Visit the childhood home of legendary designer William Morris in Walthamstow. Built in the 1740s, the impressive house now homes a large collection of his intricate prints, poetry and furniture designs. There are plenty of activities for children to enjoy, large gardens and a cafe serving an impressive range of cakes.
Tour the British Museum
There are 8 million objects in the British Museum so it can be a nightmare to know where to start! Why not do a 40-minute tour, then go off and have a closer look at some of this museum’s famous exhibits, including Egyptian mummies and hieroglyphs.
Life of an architect
Sir John Soane Museum is the home of famous architect John Soane, who designed the Bank of England. As well as paintings and statues, you can see an Egyptian hieroglyphic sarcophagus and slaves’ chains.
Would you Adam and Eve it? The Museum of London tells the story of this great city, from prehistoric times to the present day, with nine free galleries to explore. There are also extra exhibitions and events to check out.
The National Portrait Gallery is a great place for celeb spotting – on canvas. Must-see modern portraits include Kate Middleton, the Queen, J.K Rowling.
Do you love dinosaurs?
Almost every child goes through a ‘dinosaur’ phase, so if your kids are obsessed with T Rex, you must pay a visit to the Natural History Museum. As well as the popular Dinosaurs Gallery, with lifesize dinos and scary sound-effects, the museum is a great place for animal lovers of all ages.
Time flies… At the RAF museum in Hendon. Opened in 1972, the museum has over 100 aircraft from around the world from very early aircraft designs to the latest jets and military aircraft. Fun activities including 3D cinema and sound and light show, Our Finest Hour.
Do you have a postie in the family? The British Postal Museum and Archive offers behind the scenes 30-minute tours: highlights include a fleet of postal service vehicles and over 50 pillarboxes of different types.
All about the army
The National Army Museum in Chelsea brings war to life with maps, medals and even the saw used to amputate a Lieutenant General’s leg at the Battle of Waterloo. Look out for the museum’s next-door neighbours, Chelsea Pensioners, in their scarlet uniforms too!
We all know the National Gallery has some amazing paintings, but it also runs some great free events: previous ones have included a magic carpet storytelling for under 5s, art workshops and Family Walk 7 Talk – a free tour of the gallery’s masterpieces.
Discover the big bang theory
Well, almost. Go to The Wellcome Collection and hear local scientists describing their latest experiment, life in the lab and why science matters to everyone. Tickets are free, on a first-come, first-served basis.
Play areas and children’s activities
Museum of London: Docklands tells the story of London’s history as a port, with free activity packs. The Mudlarks play area for under 12s is mega-imaginative: big kids can weigh cargo or load a tea clipper while the small kids get to crawl around with large foam bananas and a London bus, or pretend to drive a DLR train.
Check out your library London’s libraries aren’t just for borrowing books: many of them run free activities, such as storytelling and face painting, especially in school holidays, so you can relax for a few hours!
A taste for adventure Playgrounds usually cater for the under 5s, with swings and slides. If you have older kids, hotfoot it to Highgate Wood, Muswell Hill, which has climbing equipment of various levels of difficulty and a zip wire that gets very busy at peak times. In Regent’s Park, they will enjoy the new timber treehouse area, close to Hanover Gate.
Imagine at the South Bank Each February, The Southbank Centre has a festival for children, Imagine, with activities for all ages, from opera for babies to vampire-themed Valentine’s Day celebrations for teens. Over 100 free and ticketed events include readings from leading children’s authors; interactive performance pieces; life-size dinosaur puppets and theatre for children.
If your children are museum-ed out or fed up with walking the streets, cheer them up with a visit to Coram’s Fields, a unique 7-acre playground and park for children in central London, between King’s Cross and Holborn.
As well as the lovely Peter Pan statue and acres of parkland, Kensington Gardens is home to the Princess Diana Memorial Playground, visited by 750,000 children each year! It’s a beautiful space, with teepees, a huge wooden galleon and climbing apparatus.
Outdoor activities and sports
Get your skates on… In good weather, join in with London Friday Night Skate (LFNS) and Sunday Stroll, both weekly marshalled street skates in central London, open to all skaters who can stop, turn and control speed on hills. The Friday night skate is for more advanced skaters; the Sunday Stroll from Hyde Park is a more relaxed pace. Visit London Friday Night Skate for latest news.
Fancy a run?
There are free park runs all over the capital. For example, fun runners can enjoy a 5km run against the clock on Hampstead Heath from 9am every Saturday. You have to register before you can run, but it’s free. Visit Park Run for more info.
Ramp up your fitness levels
Get in training! Some parks and commons have free circuit training equipment. On Wandsworth Common, for example, there are wooden structures that blend in well with the surroundings.
Let’s go fly a kite!
For a taste of the high life, try Blackheath – a large grassy area with views to Greenwich and the river – and Clapham Common. Obviously stay away from areas with trees that your kite could get tangled in.
As long as you already have a rod licence (from the post office) you are allowed to fish for free on the River Thames. However, it’s a large river and can be rather daunting. A better, and more peaceful choice is Regent’s Canal, running from the Paddington Basin up to north London.
Let’s get fit!
Green spaces are good places to improve your fitness. Take a walk in the fresh air, or if they’re up for it, get the whole family jogging or enjoying a game of football or Frisbee.
In the swim
Keep an eye on local swimming pools as they often offer free swim promotions. And for just £2 you can swim outdoors in London: Hampstead Heath Swimming Ponds is one of the most popular places. Children up to age 15 can use the mixed pond, accompanied by an adult, but only during the summer months.
The concrete area under the Royal Festival Hall is popular with rollerskaters and skateboarders and offers a safe place for whizzing around – a great way for your kids to burn up any excess energy.
Plane spotting Heathrow Airport is a brilliant place for planespotters: you can watch the big jets come in to land and take dramatic photos. Some people make a game of spotting all the world’s airlines or aircraft types. Visit Plane Mad for where to view…
Houses and gardens to visit
A little-known gem Visit Bushy Park near Hampton Court. London’s second largest Royal Park, it has 320 red and fallow deer, which roam free. Areas of interest include the 60-acre woodland gardens, the site of the American camp based in Bushy during WWII and a chestnut avenue, as well as a beautiful formal Baroque Water Garden and Diana fountain.
Somerset House’s famous courtyard and massive Georgian building alone are worth of a visit, but you should definitely take a look at its two staircases, the balcony views of the Thames, and the small basement gallery. In the summer, the dancing courtyard fountains are great for kids to play in.
Gardens to inspire you
Eat your heart out, Alan Titchmarsh! Many of London’s parks and gardens have beautiful displays of flowers – get ideas for your own garden. And for a small charge, you can visit private gardens open under The National Gardens Scheme. Visit The National Gardens Scheme to find out what’s open when.
Flower power Waterlow Park, on Highgate Hill, is a beautiful park of 20 acres, with a pond, lawn, mature trees, play areas and planting – its meadow areas are part of an RSPB project to encourage sparrows back into the city. In the summer, there are masses of wildflowers including sunflowers and cornflowers.
A Tudor mansion Hall Place in Bexley is a beautiful Tudor mansion in 65 acres of parkland. The gardens are free to visit and there’s a new bird hide for keen birdwatchers. There are regular family activities too. Visit Hall Place
Parks and walks
Go for a river walk The Thames River Walkway from Westminster Bridge to London Bridge is also called the Millennium Mile, even though it’s actually almost two miles. It runs past some of the capital’s best-known sights – Big Ben and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the Millennium Bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral and the buzz of the South Bank.
Take a picture Fancy yourself as one of the paparazzi? London Photo Walk organises monthly walks for beginners to pros, taking in a different part of the capital every month, with advice from the tour leader. Find out more at London Photo Walks.
Why not go and see London’s favourite statues? There’s something for everyone from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Guy the Gorilla in Crystal Palace Park to Eros at Piccadilly and Paddington Bear at Paddington Station. Oh, and don’t forget Nelson on top of his column!
Green space… London has so much green space that it’s a shame to ignore it. Go for a walk in some of the parks: the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park, the dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park and the deer in Richmond Park are all worth a look.
View points Instead of paying to go on the London Eye or the Shard, enjoy free views over the City from Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath; Tower Bridge; 300 steps up at The Monument and from the top of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Visit the peacocks One of London’s most beautiful and romantic parks is Holland Park. Attractions include the Japanese Kyoto garden and the peacocks which strut their stuff, occasionally showing off their tail feathers, especially during the mating season. Look out, too, for the rabbits hopping around among the peacocks.
London’s bridges A walk over some of London’s bridges offers lovely views of river life as well as great photo opportunities. Some of the best are Waterloo Bridge or Lambeth Bridge, Westminster Bridge and Hungerford Bridge.
Pack up a picnic Buy some sandwiches, crisps and drinks and take your picnic to one of London’s parks, heaths or commons; there’s always plenty of space for the kids to run around and let off steam and many parks have amazing play areas too!
A canal walk
Take a stroll along the Regent’s Canal towpath from Maida Vale with its colourful narrowboats, then alongside London Zoo where you can see – and hear! – the exotic birds in the aviary. The path then runs through Camden, with its craft market and stalls.
Visit Parliament UK residents can contact their MP to arrange a free tour of the House of Commons, however tours of Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower have been suspended until 2021 due to refurbishment. Tours last 75 minutes and are really popular, so make sure you book in advance.
Free speech Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park on a Sunday is the place to hear people have a public rant! A tradition since 1872, you can still go and watch people standing on small chairs and lecturing the crowd on politics, religion, the economic situation and more. Great if you have a teen keen on politics, but have another activity up your sleeve in case the topic doesn’t interest them.
Jump on a bus! Tour buses are very expensive, but if you have a travelcard, you can hop on a normal bus and enjoy the same sights for free. The best route is the Number 11 bus, which runs past St Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, 10 Downing Street, Westminster and Sloane Square.
Fancy yourself as a legal eagle? The public gallery at the Old Bailey is open to everyone over 14 and gives you a look at the way our legal system works. You may hear gory details if you’re attending a murder or rape trial, so decide whether or not this will be suitable for your teen.
London’s old Routemaster buses still crop up in films and old TV series, and if you have a travelcard you can hop on one and enjoy the ride if you choose your route carefully. The no 15 runs past the Tower of London, Royal Albert Hall and Kensington Palace; the no 9 also runs from the Tower of London.
History of home See how your gran lived! The Geffrye Museum traces the history of the English home and interiors, giving children the chance to see what life was like in the days before TV, central heating and computers. Holiday activities for children include hat-making, painting and Chinese lanterns. Visit The Geffrye Museum
Ghoulishly good Many of London’s cemeteries feature some interesting tombstones and are also a good place to see birds and wildlife, as well as being a calm and peaceful environment when you need a break from busy London streets.
On your guard! Go and watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace at 11.00am (daily in the summer; every other day in winter) and thrill to a bit of Royal history. Afterwards, why not take a wander through Green Park, with its breathtaking views of the Queen’s London residence?
As quiet as a church mouse Although there’s a charge to visit St Paul’s Cathedral, many of the city’s churches are free, including the beautiful Southwark Cathedral.
The Royal Courts of Justice was opened by Queen Victoria in 1882 and became the permanent home of the Supreme Court. Visitors are allowed to explore the building and watch lawyers in their robes and wigs battle it out in court.
Lock up those Crown Jewels!
The Ceremony of the Keys is the traditional locking up of the Tower of London and has taken place on each and every night, without fail, for at least 700 years. Although the Queen no longer lives there, the Crown Jewels and many other valuables still do! Apply at least two months in advance at The Tower of London
A history lesson There are so many historical buildings in London, but you can easily come up with a short walking tour. A good one would be to take a stroll along Whitehall, past Downing Street and No 10, then down to Buckingham Palace, and then through St James’s Park and Green Park.
See Tower Bridge open! The lifting of Tower Bridge has become a must-see event for visitors to London. Even those who are not into engineering will be impressed when they see the hydraulics in action as the bridge opens for large ships. For opening times, visit Tower Bridge
Food and drink
Fresh from the farm
If you like food, get yourself down to one of London’s farmers’ markets where you can often taste and sample without buying: cakes, sausages, cheese and juices are all typical freebies on offer. Visit London Farmers’ Markets to find out more.
Calling all chocoholics…
The Wine, Cheese & Chocolate Festival celebrates the very best in British Artisan Suppliers! Join in for a day in foodie heaven, with wine quaffing, cheese gorging and chocolate worshipping. See here for free tickets.
Meat to eat…
Smithfield has been London’s biggest meat-trading market since 1868. Open from 3am, it’s best to visit before 7am for a view of market life, where the capital’s leading restaurants and shops come to buy their meat wholesale.
A taste of the Orient
Chinatown in Soho is a fascinating place to wander, with its noisy, crowded shops, exotic Asian produce and streets of restaurants offering everything from char sui pork and barbecued duck to the best dim sum in the capital.
Feast of flavours
Harrods Food Hall is a must-see in London. As well as its over-the-top murals and a ceiling that wouldn’t be out of place in a museum, you can find food from all over the world, beautifully arranged and guaranteed to make you feel hungry!
Take in a market
Soaking up the atmosphere in one of London’s street markets is a great way to kill a few hours. Enjoy the bustle and bagels of Brick Lane on a Sunday, or Columbia Road flower market. Food fans will love Borough Market, Hackney Hand Made and the Saturday market on Duke of York Square on Chelsea’s Kings Road.
Some areas of London give you an exciting glimpse into another culture. Visit Southall market, for example, for its colourful Indian saris, bhangla music, sizzlingly spicy samosas, desserts for the sweet-toothed and enough curry houses to shake a stick at!
Lovely Covent Garden
Covent Garden runs two markets: the Jubilee market and the Apple market. Both offer clothes, hand-made jewellery, decorative household items and more. A great place to soak up the atmosphere…
You can still see punks at Camden Market, a great place to check out loads of alternative offerings, from tattoos and piercings to street art, funky jewellery and joss sticks, as well as indy fashion and new design. Teenagers will love it!
Notting Hill Carnival at the end of August sees this usually quiet area of London transformed into a street festival of colour, loud reggae music, floats and fun. Go during the day if you have young children as the streets become very packed at night.
If you’re in the mood for a bit of culture, you can find free recitals, concerts and rehearsals at the Royal College of Music. Churches also have free music events, so keep your eyes peeled for notices while you’re out and about.
If your usual music is more chart than chamber, get along to the Clore Ballroom at the Royal Festival Hall for free lunchtime concerts of classical, jazz, Blues or singing. You can also sometimes catch a free performance in the foyer, so well worth a visit. Find out more at The Southbank Centre
Liszt at lunchtime?
If you fancy a breather from being out on the streets, the church of St Martin in the Fields, near Trafalgar Square, has a long tradition of free lunchtime concerts. Visit St Martin in the Fields for info.
Anyone for opera?
Opera tickets are expensive, but if you like opera why not grab a performance for free in Covent Garden, where singers from the Royal Opera House are often to be found ‘performing’ in the basement area of the piazza.
The Music Gallery at the Horniman Museum has 1,600 instruments from around the world, the largest number on display in the UK. Watch short films linking the instruments on display to their cultures, or listen to the sound made by some of them. Budding musicians will love playing some of the instruments in the Hands On space.
Remembering the Beatles…
The most famous pedestrian crossing in popular music is a designated a site of national importance. Beatles fans from around the world flock to the Abbey Road crossing to pose for photographs, imitating the picture on the Abbey Road album cover which shows Paul, John, George and Ringo strolling over the crossing in 1969.
Theatre, comedy and more…
Covent Garden is the place to go for street performers that will keep your kids amused for hours: from ‘statues’ to ventriloquists, escapologists, fire eaters and jugglers, the piazza has seen them all. Confident kids will love the chance to join in!
See City Hall
City Hall, near Tower Bridge, often has free London-related exhibitions as well as a lovely riverside location. The nearby Scoop at More London is an outdoor sunken amphitheatre with seating for 800. In the summer it regularly holds free events – from films, music and theatre to local community events and activities.
Busy at the Barbican
The Barbican Centre is a concrete maze with raised walkways, gardens and water features and the free Curve Gallery. You’ll often find free music or performance in the foyers and there’s plenty of space to sit and people watch.
Have a laugh!
Teenage children will enjoy The Comedy Café Theatre in Shoreditch, which hosts a free open mic night for comedians on Wednesdays – a venue where many of today’s biggest names first performed.
See a film at the BFI
If you have a telly addict in your family, get them along to The British Film Institute’s Mediatheque – widescreen computer booths where you can watch thousands of archive TV shows, films and documentaries, with plenty of material about London itself. Book ahead or just turn up at a quiet moment.
Great river views
The Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank is a good place to find free concerts and exhibitions. While you’re there, be sure to take the singing glass lift to the fifth floor, where you’ll find a balcony area with impressive views of the Thames.
Give yourself a round of applause
Did you know you can get free tickets to many TV comedy shows – your big chance to be in the audience of one of your favourite programmes! Book in advance at the BBC comedy department
Take in a festival…
With people of so many nationalities in London, it’s no surprise there are so many cultural and religious festivals to enjoy. The year kicks off with Chinese New Year (Feb) and takes in Easter and Diwali along the way. Find out more at Visit London
Enjoy a bit of Zen-like calmThese days, children learn about the world’s religions at school, so why not take them to visit the Buddhist temple in Wimbledon, Wat Buddhapadipa, with its orange-robed monks and chanting? Visitors are welcome to explore the temple grounds.
Visit a farm!
There are several city farms with free admission. One favourite is Newham City Farm, with goats, rabbits, Shire horse, llama, cattle, sheep, poultry, pigs and donkey. Milking displays and horse and cart rides by arrangement.
Crystal Palace Park Farm isn’t the place to go for pigs or poultry. Instead, it has chinchillas, goats, parakeets, rabbits, snakes, small lizards, amphibians, alpacas, degus and Shetland ponies.
Bit of birdwatching?
On Wandsworth Common, a local bird expert runs morning walks, where you see and listen to loads of bird species from green parakeets (yes, really!) to blue tits, robins and finches.
Feed the ducks
Most parks and commons have ponds but check the local rules about feeding ducks. Some councils have banned bread, as it can go mouldy or choke the birds.
Go pond dipping!
The Horniman Nature Trail in Dulwich organises free pond-dipping in the summer holidays: check out water boatmen and dragonflies. Equipment provided; children must be accompanied by an adult. Visit The Horniman Museum
See the bees! The Horniman Museum and Gardens in Dulwich also has a fabulous Nature Base: see swarms of live bees in their hive, discover what a mole’s fur feels like, look up close at insect wings and find out what sounds animals make at night.
Something batty Join London Wildlife Trust staff and volunteers at the annual bat walk at Sydenham Wells Park. You’ll use detectors to listen to the sounds of these wonderful mammals and see, and hear, bats including noctule, Leisler, common and soprano pipistrelles. See Bat Walk.
A farm in the city
Deen City Farm in Wimbledon is open six days a week and has sheep, goats, cows, alpacas, pigs and various poultry. There are many animals to see, some of which you can feed or stroke at certain times of the week. Visit deencityfarm.co.uk
Fashion, beauty and shopping
Go for glamour!
If you visit the beauty departments of London’s top department stores such as Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and John Lewis, you can often find free make-up demos from the likes of Bobbi Brown or Laura Mercier. Teenagers, in particular, will love finding out which colours and products give them a glam look!
Bond Street is a fun place to window shop: as well as the latest bling couture from the world’s leading fashion designers, you may even spot a celebrity, out buying the latest creation for their wardrobes…
Visit the land of make-believe
If you’re after a magical experience, did you know that Disney Stores have free, fun activities for kids? Events such as colouring, interactive games and group activities bring Disney to life at various times of the day. Wave a wand to make princesses sing or learn a dance to get a certificate, you’ll have trouble getting the kids to leave! Disney Store, 350-352 Oxford Street, W1C 1JH.
Fancy a facial?
Beauty treatments don’t come cheap, but students at the London College of Beauty Therapy are always on the lookout for guinea pigs so they can practise their new-found skills: many therapies, including massage, manicure, facials, reflexology and waxing are on offer. Visit LCBT for more info.
Become a fashion model…
Almost as good as having your own Gok Wan, London’s major department stores have a personal shopping service, so if your style is frump not fab, why not let them release your inner fashion diva?
Enjoy a bit of window shopping
The capital’s major department stores put on a visual show all year round, not just at Christmas. Take a look at Harrods, Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason for starters…