Last Updated on 18th September 2022 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
On the theme of how to enjoy London for free, or on a limited budget, let’s think about walking. Shanks’ pony is often the best way to see any city and London is particularly rewarding in this regard. Not only can you take in some of the famous sites for nothing, but you’ll also often come across some wonderful little curiosities along the way. And, in central London, you’ll find that many of the biggest attractions are surprisingly close to one another. Look at a map.
While you’re out walking, you could stroll through some of London’s amazing green spaces, visit one of London’s famous markets, witness a bit of Britain’s ceremonial pomp, dip in and out of one of London’s iconic shops (you don’t have to buy anything!), spend a bob or two having a pint in one of London’s historic pubs, take in some fabulous views, soak up some history in London’s churches…
Here are a couple of short strolls left and right from Westminster tube station, Don’t forget your camera and a bottle of water.
Wander up Whitehall from Westminster
Start at Westminster tube station (District, Circle and Jubilee lines – green, yellow and grey, respectively) on Bridge Street. Assuming it has no scaffolding on it, snap away at the Elizabeth Tower opposite. This is the one that’s popularly, but incorrectly, known as ‘Big Ben’ – Big Ben is the name of the bell and the tower was originally called ‘Clock Tower’.
Before you leave the area, you could cross Parliament Square to check out the statues (and where there is often a demonstration of one sort or another), pass by Westminster Abbey, and step onto College Green. TV journalists often film here when reporting from Parliament. Take a video of yourself: “This is Tarquin Blackhead, BBC, Westminster.” While you’re there, spot the medieval tower nearby; this is the Jewel Tower, the only surviving part of the medieval royal apartments of the Palace of Westminster. There is a small entry fee to go inside.
Oh, alright, while we’re about it…here’s some things you might want to pay to enter..
The Houses of Parliament is the home of the UK Parliament and consists of two ‘houses’, or chambers, the Commons and Lords. It is possible to take a tour at certain times, even take tea, or watch a debate. UK residents can visit for free by booking with their Member of Parliament. The building is situated on the site of Edward the Confessor’s 11th century palace and is still known as ‘the Palace of Westminster’. It has been the traditional home of the English parliament since medieval times and much of the UK’s parliamentary democracy developed here. However, the majority of the current building dates from the 19th century and was designed by Charles Barry, following a disastrous fire in 1834 that destroyed virtually all of the old palace. The oldest building on the site is the magnificent Westminster Hall, which has witnessed 900 years of British history. Visit the Houses of Parliament.
Westminster Abbey has been at the centre of English, and British, state occasions – coronations, weddings, funerals, services of commemoration – since William the Conqueror was crowned there on Christmas Day 1066. It was founded by King Edward the Confessor as his ‘west minster’ in the 11th century, though the present building is largely 13th-14th century, with the addition of 18th century towers. The interior of the abbey is simply breathtaking and contains the tombs of many of England’s great monarchs, including Edward I and Elizabeth I, as well as memorials honouring countless heroes, poets and other luminaries – and the tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Westminster Abbey is definitely worth a visit, but visitor entry is relatively expensive and it can get incredibly crowded. A ‘no photography’ policy inside has been relaxed now, but you can download photos for personal non-commercial use from the Abbey’s website. Visit Westminster Abbey.
To the west of Parliament Street, on Horse Guards, you’ll find the Churchill War Rooms, aka the secret Cabinet War Rooms. Again, entry is relatively expensive – but it is an absorbing place to visit. It is a complex of operational rooms in a former basement created to enable government to continue during the Second World War, theoretically safe from German bombs. The complex includes a Cabinet Meeting Room, map room, kitchens and bedrooms – including ones for Mr and Mrs Churchill. Some of the rooms remain more or less as they were left in 1945; others have been refurbished in period style. There is also a fascinating Churchill Museum, telling the story of one of Britain’s most remarkable leaders, from childhood in the 1870s to his death in 1965. Visit the Cabinet War Rooms.
Back to the free foot tour…
Head north up Parliament Street (or right, and right again from Bridge Street). Parliament Street becomes Whitehall, passing the Treasury, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Downing Street (alas, closed off since 1989 to safeguard against terrorist attack). Whitehall is named for the Palace of Whitehall, which used to be situated either side of the current road and was originally York Place, the London residence of the Archbishop of York. It was acquired by Henry VIII, and by the reign of James I covered more than 20 acres. His son, King Charles I was beheaded just outside Banqueting House, on your right, in 1649.
Banqueting House is the only visible part of Whitehall Palace to have survived, and is open to the public (fee payable). Opposite, to your left, it is possible to head through a passage onto Horse Guards Parade, the site of the Palace of Whitehall’s tiltyard, and thence into St James’s Park (a personal favourite) – at the other end of which is Buckingham Palace. Incidentally, the Household Cavalry Museum is in Horse Guards.
Back to Whitehall, keep going, crossing Great Scotland Yard on your right. The back door to the HQ of the Metropolitan Police used be nearby – hence ‘Scotland Yard’ came to be adopted as a nickname for the Met and their home. Legend has it that the origins of the name date from the time when Scotland and England were separate states and the Scottish Embassy was located hereabouts. At the far end of Whitehall, beyond the Cenotaph, is Trafalgar Square. The Cenotaph is surrounded by poppy wreaths every 11 November, following the annual National Service of Remembrance. Trafalgar Square is worth exploring in its own right and so handy for the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery (both of which are free to visit). You could also cross under Admiralty Arch onto the Mall – Buckingham Palace is straight ahead and St James’s Park, first created as a Royal Park by James I, is on your left. Beyond Trafalgar Square to the west is Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus; Covent Garden is a stone’s throw to the east.
Saunter to the Savoy along Embankment
Instead of turning right out of Westminster tube station, turn left toward the River Thames. Ahead of you is Westminster Bridge – cross that for great views of the river and the Houses of Parliament. Before the bridge, a left turn will take you onto Victoria Embankment – part of a massive Victorian redevelopment project which involved the construction of a proper sewage system and part of the District line underground. Before then, the Thames was wider, and shallower. There’s a memorial to the farsighted hero Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who was responsible for this development, on the Embankment opposite Northumberland Avenue.
There are impressive memorials all along Victoria Embankment, including a statue of Boudicca, Queen of Iceni who sacked Roman London in about 60 AD, the Battle of Britain Monument, RAF Memorial and Cleopatra’s Needle. The latter dates from 1450 BC and was presented to the United Kingdom in 1819 by the ruler of Egypt to commemorate British victories against the French at the Battles of the Nile (1798) and Alexandria (1801); it had an eventful journey to London. On your left, you’ll pass New Scotland Yard, the latest HQ of the Metropolitan Police, and then a grassed area outside the Ministry of Defence where there are several interesting statues and memorials.
Just past Embankment Station, you’ll find an attractive public garden on your left. This is Victoria Embankment Gardens, which is colourful and stuffed full of interesting statues and memorials. Just inside the garden, you’ll see York Watergate. This marks the position of the north bank of the River Thames before the construction of the Victoria Embankment in 1862. It was built in 1626 by Nicholas Stone, master mason, for George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, to serve as the watergate to York House which the Duke had acquired from the Archbishop of York in 1624. The arms on the river front and the motto Fidei cotucula crux (the cross is the touchstone of faith) on the land side, are those of the Villiers family. York House was demolished in 1675 and streets were laid out on the site. In 1893 the gate having fallen into decay, the London County Council obtained parliamentary powers to acquire and preserve it as an object of public interest.
Behind the gardens, you’ll find Savoy Place – along with Savoy Hill, Savoy Street – and so on – all named, along with the famous hotel (whose entrance is on the Strand) and the theatre, for the medieval palace that once stood nearby. The palace was built by Peter of Savoy in the 13th century and became one of the grandest homes in the land. It was destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1382 and, eventually, a hospital was built on the site by Henry VII. The one remaining part of the hospital is the Royal Chapel of the Savoy on Savoy Hill; it is owned by the monarch and makes an intriguing visit; indeed, it is one of London’s little gems. Wander up onto the Strand and find your way onto Waterloo Bridge. Personally, I think the views from there are among the best in London, particularly at night.
If you’re feeling energetic, you could simply join the above two walks along the Strand. Of course, you could pay to attend a guided walk – but that defeats the purpose and, anyway, I think it’s more fun to self-explore.
For more detailed free walk ideas, take a look at the excellent London Wlogger site.
If you need help with public transport, visit the Transport for London website.