Even with the dollar gaining strength, visiting London can still be expensive for Americans. But this capital city is no less an easy and memorable trip. While we certainly recommend popular paid attractions like the London Eye and London Aquarium for first-timers, there are also plenty of free things to do for hours so that a trip here won't cost a fortune. With multi-generational travel on the rise and London being a popular extended vacation -- perfect for those school breaks -- here's an affordable guide to the city for all ages.
1. A Treasure Trove of Free Museums
Many London museums are free of charge. If the National Portrait Gallery feels stuffy, try the Egyptian mummies, Viking swords, and Celtic jewelry at the British Museum. That's also the home of the famed Rosetta Stone and other priceless artifacts representing multitudes of cultures from across human history. Plus, free gallery backpacks for kids, available on weekends and school breaks, and special tours and events, are designed specifically to engage younger museum-goers. Love all things science? Make sure to get a peek at the dinosaur skeletons in The Natural History Museum and spend hours learning and playing at the interactive Science Museum -- both free as well.
2. Whimsical Window-Shopping
Truly connect with your inner child (and let the grandkids roam happily) at Hamleys, the world’s oldest and largest toy store. This amazing seven-story building showcases seemingly every toy imaginable and is of course free to visit. William Hamley opened his first toyshop in 1760 and it became a London landmark soon after. Its current location at 188-196 Regent Street (since 1881) was bombed five times during the Blitz, but the helmet-wearing staff reopened every time and helped keep the British spirits high.
Plan for at least an hour of exploration here. It's fun for all, especially since the ever-exuberant staff not only lets you play with the displays, they also actually enjoy showing visitors the ropes. Store highlights include the life-sized LEGO Queen (and corgi) on the seventh-floor, and Forbidden Planet, a megastore-within-a-store for all things comic book, Dr. Who, fantasy, and sci-fi.
3. A Dive Into Aviation History
For history buffs of all ages, The Royal Air Force Museum is a free must-see, explaining the role that men and women of the RAF played in keeping the kingdom free during the Battle of Britain. More than 100 aircraft, from World War I biplanes to modern jets, are displayed -- including the iconic RAF Spitfire fighter of World War II. Make sure to check out the flight simulator (£3, or free with London Pass) and explore the free HMS Belfast, a light cruiser moored in the Thames that saw action during World War II and the Korean War. Part of the Imperial War Museum system, the floating museum has interactive displays like the Gun Turret Experience, which shows visitors the sights, sounds, and even smells of the 1943 Boxing Day battle.
4. A Stately Spectacle
The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is a spectacular, classic London experience (and free). The ceremony begins at 11:30 a.m. most days, but make sure to check the schedule to confirm dates and times for your visit. A photo of the entire family posing with one of the famously statuesque guards is a must-do for any visit to London.
5. Scenic Walks
You’ll probably log some distance walking throughout this pedestrian-friendly city, but a stroll though one of London's many parks is a must. Hyde Park, the most famous of them all, covers 350 acres and is home to Serpentine Lake, Speakers' Corner, and Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain.
6. Prepaid Tickets & Transportation
If you're already planning on visiting the attractions it covers -- including the Tower of London, the London Zoo, and Thames River Boat Cruises -- London Pass is an excellent way to skip lines and potentially save a few hundred dollars (£49-£108, or about $75-$169, for one to six days). With the pass, you can even pay for public transportation in advance (no EMV credit card required). For transportation, the Oyster Card visitors can pre-pay and receive special children’s discounts.