6 Free Things to do in London (Spoiler: they’re all museums)

I like old stuff. I like free stuff. So London’s museums were a dream to me, as they have plenty of old things and they are all free. At least the major ones: British Museum, National Gallery, Natural History Museum, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Victoria and Albert Museum. And on top of that, it’s London, so it’s probably raining, about to rain, or just stopped raining. Ten minutes wandering around a museum beats buying an umbrella.

I realized that I don’t have a lot of stories from my trip to England, but I went to a lot of museums.

And I’m okay with that. In fact, I was in heaven, because my typical museum-viewing style does not go well with paying money to be there. I like to wander through, stop for a minute or read a description if something catches my eye, but otherwise just move through until my feet hurt. Then I find a bench and sit and stare at my phone or read or cross my eyes at passing school children or stare off into space. This is a key part of the museum-visiting experience, because it both allows for further aimless wandering and forces me to study things my eyes would have glazed past. In a lot of ways, museums are like the Internet: I can spend a lot of time blankly staring at images.

And audio guides are for noobs.

And audio guides are for n00bs.

I love impressionism. The impressionist gallery at London’s National Gallery was mind-blowing.

 

Impressive, to say the least.

Impressive, to say the least.

 

It was also insanely crowded. The benches, wood planks that were barely big enough for two people to sit facing opposite directions, don’t rate on my list of most comfortable museum benches.

Portraits, on the other hand, have never been my thing, and it would appear that most of the rest of the visitors agree with me, because the portrait wing was nearly empty. And the benches! Cushioned, with comfy backs to lean against, circular so you can look at paintings without making eye contact with anyone or having anyone elbow you in the back.

I wound up sitting and staring at a painting in that gallery for a few hours (okay, I was writing a bit and playing with my phone for most of that time. I’m not that high-brow) but I probably wouldn’t have stopped if I hadn’t seen the bench.

I did no research before going to London–everything I knew to see came from Masterpiece Theater, Harry Potter and other people’s recommendations. The only thing I knew in advance about the museums of London was that the Rosetta Stone was in the British Museum, which apparently loses its charm on foggy days, and that they were free. So what follows is the least researched museum guide in history.

The British Museum:

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They have the Rosetta Stone! How cool is that? I have wanted to see the Rosetta Stone in person since 6th grade when I learned that it was the foundation of a modern understanding of hieroglyphics and not just overpriced language-learning software. It was certainly worth the wait.

I didn’t take a photo. Whoops. Here's a cute cat instead.

I didn’t take a photo. That’s what the Internet is for. Here’s a cute cat instead, although that’s also what the Internet is for.

To be honest, I don’t remember what else is in that museum. Before I arrived, I thought it was more of an art museum (because I am uneducated), so I wandered around for a while looking for the paintings, but there is a lot of old stuff, which is always a good time in my book. You’ve got Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Medieval stuff. But it’s worth visiting the museum just to see the building. Especially if it’s raining, which, let’s be honest, it probably is.

The British Museum in one word: Artifacts
Price: FREE!

National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery

Another cool building, right on Trafalgar Square, which I have now been laughed at so many times by my parents for mispronouncing that I have no idea how it’s supposed to be pronounced. This is where the paintings actually are– Enormous Monet water lilies, portraits, everything.

One word: Paintings
Price: FREE!

Victoria and Albert Museum

One British university student I talked to on my trip described this as “the boring one.” It was my favorite. Old clothes, old furniture, iron work, sculpture, glass, jewelry, clocks. This is the industry side of arts and industry, where you can see how everyday (if incredibly luxurious) items were made throughout history and throughout the world.

Also a cool building.

Also a cool building.

One word: Awesome
Price: FREE!

Natural History Museum

I wanted to go so badly, but a strange English ritual called Half Term Day was in progress, which apparently means that thousands of school children are set free from whatever educational institutions they’re normally locked up in to run free through the city. In other words, the start of the school holidays. The line outside the Natural History Museum was insane with yelling children, and I didn’t have the time to wait. But hey, at least their parents were taking them to museums. That’s pretty cool. I’m jealous they got to see all the animal skeletons inside, though.

I understand them. I used to scream so hard I would unfocus the camera.

I understand them. I used to scream so hard it unfocused the camera.

One word: Skeletons
Price: Tinnitus and an eternity in line.

Tate Modern
I didn’t go, because I don’t like modern art in general and if I didn’t have time for Natural History, I definitely couldn’t waste time on modern.

One word: Modern
Price: Free, but you have to look at modern art. Is that really a win?

Tate Britain
I didn’t know what to expect from this one, and I had no intention of visiting it, but it was cold, rainy and getting dark, and I had some time to kill, so I went in. I thought it was going to be an extension of the Tate Modern, based on the name, but it featured British Artists from 1500 to modern day. Ophelia, by John Everett Millais (the famous one) is there, which I wasn’t expecting to see (probably because I had no expectations besides a roof to keep the rain off). It always jars me when I see the original of a painting I’ve seen on notebooks and refrigerator magnets my whole life.

One word: British
Price: FREE!

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