Vacation fun in the UK doesn't have to cost a bundle. In fact, it doesn't have to cost a penny, as these 50 free things to do demonstrate.
All of Britain's national museums (not just the ones in London) are free for everyone, every day. There's free access to most of the countryside too—for recreation, bird watching, kite flying, and more. These 50 ideas and resources should steer you toward more than enough activities to fill a long vacation or loads of fine days out. Take public transportation and you won't even have to worry about the cost of gas (or petrol as it's called here).
This Roman fort once housed the garrison that guarded the entrance to the Tyne estuary. An exciting reconstruction of an unusual aspect of Roman life, Arbeia is based on excavations and finds from the site.
The Romans thought nothing of moving legions of their soldiers wherever they were needed in the Empire. This garrison was manned by Iraqi legionnaires. That fact is reflected in its name, Arbeia, which means Arab in Latin. If you go in the winter, check the museum's calendar and time your visit for a candlelight tour in December to celebrate the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
AddressArthur's Seat, Edinburgh EH8 8AZ, UK
Arthur's Seat, an extinct volcano, is one of Edinburgh's seven hills. It's a hefty hike to the top but not beyond the reach of most reasonably fit adults and children. And the views from the top take in Edinburgh Castle, the sea, the distant mountains of the Western Highlands and the entire city. If you don't like to climb, there's a bus that goes up into Holyrood Park pretty much all the way to the top. But that costs a little bit of money so not entirely in the spirit of the free thing to do.
The United Kingdom has some of the world's most beautiful beaches. That shouldn't seem so surprising. After all, Britain is an island kingdom with nearly 7,800 miles of coast. Nowhere in the entire country is more than two hours from a beach.
These are not the sort of beaches where you can bask in the sun (not very often, anyway) or spend hours swimming warm seas. The water, even on UK beaches washed by the Gulf Stream, is pretty chilly. But what the UK's beaches lack in tropical charm, they more than make up for in sheer drama. For walking, surfing, exploring, wildlife watching, these are some of the most beautiful and isolated free beaches in the world.
If you are a fan of Poldark, you really should visit Kynance Cove, one of the locations that doubles as Nampara in the series—and where Demelza and her lieutenant have an illicit moment in the 2017 season ender.
A real coal mine that includes a multimedia tour of a modern coal mine with a virtual miner in the Mining Galleries, exhibitions in the Pithead Baths and historic colliery buildings open to the public for the first time. The highlight is a world-famous underground tour, taking visitors 300 feet underground, to the coal face, with a real miner. Located in Blaenavon, Wales it is part of the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape UNESCO World Heritage site.
Stop off in the gift shop to pick up a made-in-Wales brass Davy Lamp, the miners' lamp invented in 1815 by Sir Humphrey Davy as a safer alternative to taking candles underground. It was used right up to modern times.
Birmingham was one of the manufacturing engines of 19th century Britain. Wealthy Victorian industrialists endowed their city with art and culture. The 120-year-old Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, known locally as BMag, is a reminder of their generosity. The museum's collections range from Renaissance paintings to 9,000-year-old Middle Eastern treasures.
BMag is best known for its outstanding collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. One of the largest collections of this once radical school of art in the world, the collection is now searchable online.
AddressBury St Edmunds, Bury Saint Edmunds, UK
St. Edmund, King of East Anglia, was martyred by Danish Vikings and (before St. George) was a patron saint of England. His shrine, in Bury St Edmunds, was a place of pilgrimage.
Not much is left of the Abbey that housed the shrine, but enough remains to give you an idea of what an important medieval town this was. Besides the ruins of the Abbey, there are a number of interesting medieval buildings and landmarks that make a visit here well worthwhile. Stroll in the Abbey Gardens to watch a typical English game of lawn bowls. And, if you can't stay away from shops, the window browsing can be very satisfying.
On your travels throughout England, don't miss out on this ancient stone circle high up in the Lake District near Keswick. The view of snow-capped Helvellyn and High Seat is unforgettable. The circle, of 33 stones, was erected about 3,000 years ago.
In delightfully English fashion, English Heritage, who manages the site, says that it is open "at any reasonable time during daylight hours."
The best way to describe the sexiest of English national monuments, the Cerne Abbas Giant, is to let the ultra-respectable National Trust do it. Here is how one of Britain's most established institutions, and the organization that maintains the giant, describes him on its website: "A huge outline sculpted into the chalk hillside above the village of Cerne Abbas representing a naked, sexually aroused, club-wielding giant."
He might be thousands of years old, or he might be a 17th-century political cartoon carved into the chalk hillside, no one is quite sure.
He was buried in the grass during WWII to prevent him from becoming a landmark for the Luftwaffe. Apparently, when he was uncovered after the war, he grew a little.
Sometimes called The Rude Man, he has often been the location of pranks. In June 2017, in a coarse joke about standing up for Britain, someone wrote Theresa on the Giant's rudest rude bit. (Don't bother looking for it, though. The National Trust has since had the name removed.)
Chester, or Deva as it was known in Roman times, was an important Roman city, not far from Hadrian's Wall. Its Roman history is regularly uncovered during construction and road building works. The city's Roman Garden, between Pepper Street and the River Dee, was created in the 1950s to display fragmentary finds from the 19th century.
It's a pleasant walk in good weather and among the remains, you can see carved fragments of military buildings, including the main baths.
AddressWatergate St, Chester CH1 2HG, UK
The medieval tradition of the Town Crier lives on in Chester. It's the only place in Britain where a town crier still delivers a daily proclamation at a fixed time and place.
If you are in Chester during the summer, make your way to the High Cross, at the pedestrianized intersection of the city's four main streets where proclamations have been taking place since the Middle Ages. There, Chester's official Town Criers, David and Julie Mitchell, proclaim the day's "important news" while costumed in the traditional 17th-century dress. Proclamations take place Tuesday through Saturday at noon (11 a.m. on Chester race days).
AddressKing's Parade, Cambridge CB2 1ST, UK
The Christmas Eve Carol service held at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England, known as the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, has been broadcast by the BBC World Service since the 1930s and is one of the most famous carol services in the world. Millions of recordings of this choir singing these carols are in family collections around the world.
All you have to do to attend is show up very, very early and stand in line. Most of the famous British Cathedrals have free Carol services, though you may have to book the free tickets in advance.
England is dotted with small, old parish churches. Often, because they were in unimportant hamlets, they escaped the ravages of the Reformation in England. Unlike early abbeys and cathedrals which were sacked, they've frequently remained almost exactly as they were in the 12th century or earlier.
Little St. John the Evangelist Church, in Bury, West Sussex, for example, has a 12th-century spire and nave and a 14th-century rood screen. Another worth visiting, St Botolph's in Hardham, dates from 1050—before William the Conqueror—and has some of England's earliest and most complete medieval wall paintings. If a church looks old, simple and small, step inside to have a look. You'd be surprised at the treasures you might find.
AddressRichmond Park, Kingston Vale, London SW15 3RS, UK
Many of England's cities have free parks that are more than simply green spaces. London's Richmond Park is 2,500 acres on the edge of the city with two magnificent herds of deer, a stunning azalea and rhododendron garden, the Isabella Plantation, secret woodlands and glades, plus a tea house overlooking the whole of London.
The Sheffield Botanical Gardens, 19 acres of free gardens in the middle of the city, contain some of the earliest curvilinear glass pavilions ever built. These Grade II* glasshouses were restored for the Millennium and reopened by the Prince of Wales in 2003.
York's Museum Gardens holds the ruins of a 900-year-old Benedictine abbey, a Roman fortress, a medieval hospital, and more.
AddressLondon SE1, UK
London's Southbank Centre regularly hosts free concerts, lunchtime music, dance performances, and all kinds of arts-oriented fun on the Riverbank and throughout the site. Wherever you go in the UK, it's not difficult to find free lunchtime concerts and performances. Here are a few favorites:
Lots of people cycle regularly in the UK and the number of cycle paths, mountain biking trails, and long distance cycle routes grows by the day. Look at The National Trust, English Heritage, Forestry Commission, and individual National Parks websites for information about cycle routes and mountain biking trails.
The National Cycle Network keeps track of 10,000 miles of traffic free routes around the country. The cycling charity Sustrans has an online route mapper and other useful free cycling information.
Duxford Chapel is a 14th-century chapel in Cambridgeshire. It may have originally served as a hospital. Its history and origins are shrouded in mystery but it may have been the center of a small hamlet as early as the 13th century. By the 19th century, it had fallen into such disrepair and neglect that advertising posters were pasted to its sides. Miraculously, the medieval bones of the building survived, including apparently ecclesiastic windows. It's an unusual and attractive survivor, cared for by English Heritage. The interior, with its exposed beam ceiling, is even more interesting than the exterior. There are no facilities on site, but there is a pub nearby and the chapel is on the edge of a village.
Most of the famous cathedrals in Britain charge entrance fees for upkeep and maintenance. You can attend during worship services for free, however. The only expense will be what your conscience dictates you deposit in the collection box.
Evensong, a short, usually sung service at about 5:30 or 6 p.m. is a good one to try. Usually, the time will be posted on a notice board outside the church.
AddressEyam, Hope Valley S32, UK
Eyam, a Derbyshire village in the Peak District, is the site of one of the most courageous stories of the 17th century. In 1665, the plague arrived in Eyam (pronounced eem), probably on second-hand clothes from London delivered to a local tailor. On the advice of their vicar and their Puritan minister, the villagers voluntarily quarantined themselves to prevent the spread of the disease. Exact numbers of survivors are disputed but when the first outsiders visited the village a year later, only a quarter of the population remained.
Villagers buried their own dead and at the smallest National Trust site, the Riley Graves, farmer and survivor Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six sons, all of whom died within weeks of each other.
If you'd like to delve a little deeper into the story, there are guided tours of the village and the plague history from Eyam Hall, but there is an admission charge.
AddressSelfridges, 400 Oxford St, London W1A 1AB, UK
Several of the major department stores and designer discount outlets schedule fashion shows and events. Not only are they free, sometimes you even have a chance to win a prize. The best way to find out when and where is to watch the store's website or sign up for their newsletter. Here are some good bets:
- Selfridges has a packed schedule of events in its branches throughout the year. When you visit their website, click on the specific store branch you want to visit. Then look for News and Events near the bottom of that page.
- Liberty has occasional special events. Get on their mailing list by entering your email in the lower right and signing up for Liberty News.
- Bicester Village is a popular designer discount center near Oxford that has something going on almost all the time.
AddressFlatford Mill, East Bergholt, Colchester CO7 6UL, UK
This lovely 16th century thatched cottage, in Suffolk, inspired painter John Constable and was the location of some of his famous paintings of English rural landscapes. The cottage, beside the River Stour, now has an exhibition about the artist. It is surrounded by several walks along the Stour and has a riverside tea room. Walk a little further along the path past the cottage and you'll come to Willy Lott's cottage. It is featured in one of Constable's most famous paintings, the Hay Wain.
AddressGiant's Causeway, Bushmills BT57 8SU, UK
It's hard to believe that The Giant's Causeway on the North coast of County Antrim is not man (or giant) made. The causeway looks like a roadway into the sea. It is made of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, some more than 12 meters high, produced by an ancient volcanic eruption. The tops of the columns form stepping stones, mostly hexagonal but also with four, five, seven, and eight sides, leading from the foot of a cliff into the sea.
The Giant's Causeway was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, and a National Nature Reserve in 1987. Today it is owned and managed by the National Trust.
AddressGreat North Museum-Hancock Barras Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4PT, UK
This museum in Newcastle upon Tyne combines the collections of several museums of natural and ancient history. Highlights include a large-scale, interactive model of Hadrian's Wall, objects from the Ancient Greeks, mummies from Ancient Egypt, a planetarium, and a life-size T-Rex dinosaur skeleton. The collections also include live animal tanks and aquaria housing wolf fish, pythons, lizards, and leaf-cutting ants.
Hadrian's Wall started during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 122, stretched across Northern Britain from coast to coast. It marked the northern boundary of the Roman Empire and was the most fortified border in the empire. A great deal of it remains, and there are miles of free paths and trails from which to see 14 major Roman sites, forts and museums, countless milecastles and turrets. The UNESCO World Heritage Site can be explored on foot or cycle. There is also a regular bus service along the route of the wall between April and October as well as many local bus services.
Walk in the footsteps of Beatrix Potter, above Lake Windermere, enjoying classic south Lakeland views of the fells, lakes, and villages. The site includes a picturesque white-washed village, hill walks, and woodland paths alongside Lake Windermere.
The Beatrix Potter Gallery, a 17th-century solicitors office in Hawkshead, is now home to a collection of original Beatrix Potter watercolor illustrations. There is an admission charge for the gallery, so to keep things entirely free, bring an easel and do your own watercolors of Beatrix Potter's favorite views.
Hikes and Walks
Great Britain is walking country and it's laced with paths and marked routes. From national hiking trails that traverse through the gorgeous countryside for hundreds of miles to strolls through historic cityscapes and fragrant forests, UK walks to suit every temperament and level of ability.
Whether you prefer a challenging hike in the Lake District, a gentle woodland stroll in a forest park or a discovery-filled exploration of a historic cityscape, you can find and map a great walking route.
AddressHoughton House, Bedford MK45 2EZ, UK
Not all of England's great country houses are immaculate, furnished restorations. This 17th-century mansion is a romantic ruin—a fitting setting for a gothic ghost story. The house, built for a Duchess in about 1615, was said to be the inspiration for the House Beautiful in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Information panels on the site describe the house, some of which could be the work of Inigo Jones, as well as the estate and views. English Heritage also provides a free, downloadable audio tour. The house is always open until "any reasonable time."
One of Liverpool's outstanding group of national museums, The International Slavery Museum opened in 2007 on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. It explores both the historical and contemporary aspects of slavery, the legacies of the slave trade and untold stories of bravery and rebellion among enslaved people. The museum is part of Liverpool's Albert Docks UNESCO World Heritage Site and is located just steps away from the drydocks where slave trading ships were repaired and fitted out. It is open daily except Christmas, Boxing Day, and January 1.
AddressSevenoaks TN15 0RP, UK
Knole is an enormous Tudor house in Kent that has been in the Sackville family since 1566. The roofline alone looks like a small city. Although there's an admission fee to enter the house, the grounds and 1,000-acre deer park are free for pedestrians. It is one of the few medieval deer parks to have survived 500 years, and the only one in Kent. A transitional landscape between a medieval game forest and the ornamental parks of the 17th and 18th centuries, survivals of the medieval landscape include hawthorn, oak, yew, hornbeam, silver birch, bird maple, and ash trees that once dominated the woodlands of the Weald. The real draw is the herd of 600 fallow deer, wild but curious animals that are incredibly charming.
AddressLacock, Chippenham SN15, UK
The Wiltshire village of Lacock is a snapshot in time—or it would be if snapshots were possible in the 13th century when some of its buildings were raised. It's so atmospheric that it's often used as a film location. If it looks familiar, perhaps you've seen in a Harry Potter film, Pride and Prejudice, Cranford, The Other Boleyn Girl, or Wolfman. There's an abbey converted to a country house in the 1500s and a museum about photography, both of which have entry fees. But walking around this time capsule of a village, looking around in the shops and wondering at the fact that modern people actually live here is completely free.
The bathhouse of a Roman staging post on Watling Street in Wall, Staffordshire. Watling Street is the ancient Roman road that runs from Southeast to Northwest across England, probably following the path of an ancient British trackway. Letocetum is considered to be the finest excavated site of its kind discovered and includes the foundations of an ancient inn and bath house.
When this simple, thatched Baptist chapel was built against a Devon hillside in 1653, the congregation faced imprisonment or transportation to Australia for practicing a banned faith. The interior of the chapel was fitted out in the 18th century. The chapel, near Axminster, is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Services are held there twice a year and posted on the chapel noticeboard.
The maritime history of Britain, navigational and astronomical discoveries and the seafaring deeds that led to voyages of discovery and empire building can all be explored at this wonderful UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit should include the wonderful National Maritime Museum, and the 400-year-old Queen's House, designed by Inigo Jones and restored in 2016. If you'd like to stand on the Prime Meridian or straddle 0 degrees longitude, you'll have to pay for admission to the Prime Meridian Courtyard, just outside the Royal Observatory. But so much else is free at this fabulous site. Finish your visit with a walk through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, one of only two pedestrian tunnels under the Thames, for a fabulous view of the entire site from across the river.
Britain's outdoor and covered markets are a feast for people watching, photo ops, and browsing. If you can resist buying anything, they are also free. In London, locals love the Portobello Road Market. Some markets, like the Birmingham Bullring Markets, have traded in the same spot for hundreds of years. And if you're cheeky, at food markets, you can nosh your way to a free lunch on samples and tastings. Try some of these:
The world's largest railway museum, with 300 years of rail history, exciting exhibits and iconic objects for families and railroad buffs. Kids can climb aboard some of the world's most iconic trains—the UK steam engine record setter, The Mallard, a Japanese Bullet Train, and a giant locomotive built in Britain for the Chinese railways.
There are daily demonstrations of awe-inspiring machinery like the turntable, for turning locomotives in the Great Hall, Theatre programs about railway history and railroad inventors, and visits from Thomas the Tank Engine during some school vacations.
In 75 AD, the Romans built a fortress in Caerleon, Newport, Wales, where they held sway over the local population for 200 years. The National Roman Legion Museum is built within the remains of this fortress. Here you can find out how they lived on the edge of the Roman Empire in one of only three permanent fortresses they created in Britain. There's a Roman garden, the remains of a barracks and the most complete Roman amphitheater in the UK.
The museum is located in Victorian workshops near the site of the vast Dinorwig quarry that closed in 1969. Here, the Welsh slate industry, often called the most Welsh of Welsh industries, is explained and explored. Talks, demonstrations, and exhibitions, including a row of quarrymen's houses, relate the story of slate and the drama of real people's lives.
The beautifully redeveloped Cambrian Mills is the setting for the story of Wales' wool industry, once the most important and widespread in the country. Shirts and shawls, blankets and bedcovers, woolen stockings and socks were all made in the village of Dre-Fach Felindre, in the Teifi valley and sent all over the world. Follow the story from Fleece to Fabric, with demonstrations, working looms, and interesting exhibits.
This house is a well-preserved 17th century half-timbered building, in the middle of Hereford's modern shopping district. Built in 1621, the house has been a museum since 1929. Furnished in Jacobean period style, it has an internationally important collection of English Oak furniture. Don't miss the rare wall paintings, the four-poster bed, the baby-walkers, and the hands-on activities for kids. Formerly known as the Old House Museum, the Black and White House is no longer free, but the admission is a bargain.
If you've ever wondered how medieval builders raised enormous structures before the advent of steel beams, this huge and beautiful Essex barn will make it all clear. At least 400 oaks went into creating one of the finest surviving medieval barns in England. Tree-ring dating has shown it to have been erected in the mid-1400s. The interior aisle and vast open space up to a crown post roof are awe-inspiring.
The bathhouse of a Roman fort, these ruins in Cumbria are the tallest Roman structures remaining in Britain. According to English Heritage, who manage the site, the bathhouse served as a fort that guarded a Roman harbor. Soldiers who used the bathhouse may have served in Hadrian's fleet. The ruins make a good destination for a walk in the country from nearby Ravenglass Station.
In June 1215, under an oak on this meadow west of the Thames, King John signed the Magna Carta limiting his absolute power in relation to 25 barons. The rights outlined then eventually gave rise to the United States Constitution and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
Visitors to this peaceful meadow can see The Magna Carta Memorial erected by the American Bar Association, memorials to John F. Kennedy and the Commonwealth Air Force, and several small buildings designed by British architect Sir Edmund Lutyens, who also designed New Delhi.
The Queen, heads of state and descendants of the 25 original barons have planted oaks here over the years.
The Uffington White Horse is another of England's chalk figures, and possibly the oldest one. It is partially visible from several vantage points but only completely visible from the air. Recent testing of soil samples from the base of the chalk trenches has established that the horse is at least 3,000 years old. The same tests showed that the horse is in virtually the same position as when he was built by digging trenches and then filling them with blocks of chalk. No one knows why he was built but the White Horse of Uffington has inspired several other contemporary chalk horse constructions throughout Dorset and the west of England.
Trees, hedges, and shrubs planted in the shape of a medieval cathedral. The Tree Cathedral was created after World War I as a gesture of "faith, hope, and reconciliation."
Today the tree cathedral remains a peaceful place for country walks and walking well-behaved dogs. Though not consecrated ground, occasional religious services are held there and the National Trust, which owns the site, is open to applications for more.
This is one of Wales most popular heritage attractions as well as one of Europe's best open-air museums. Located on the grounds of St. Fagan's Castle and Gardens, it's a 100-acre open-air museum with 40 buildings that have been relocated from all over Wales. Together they illustrate Welsh culture and daily life from Celtic times to the present. The castle itself is an Elizabethan manor house built in 1580, though heavily remodeled in the 19th century. Around the park, the practice of traditional crafts and activities as well as the rearing of native breeds of farm animals bring Welsh culture through the centuries to vivid life.
Sketch in the World's Greatest Museums
All the UK's national museums are free. To make the experience of visiting them even more memorable, take along a sketch pad and capture really personal memories. Most of the museums are happy to let you draw in most of the rooms, except those that have rare and exposed paper or textiles. At the Victoria and Albert, they even provide neat little foldaway stools for artists to sit on while they work. As long as you don't touch the artworks, lean against displays, or block other people's views, you can spend as long as you like sketching away like a 19th-century aristo on the grand tour.
Wild camping is what the British call tent camping away from designated campsites. Open-access legislation makes this easier than it used to be, though it's still discouraged or banned in most places in England and Wales.
However, it is legal in Scotland, where you can pitch your tent freely on all open access land—with a few guidelines:
- Camp "lightweight" (i.e. in small numbers and for not more than two or three nights in one place)
- Don't camp in enclosed fields of crops or farms animals.
- Keep away from buildings, roads, or historic structures unless you have the owners' permission.
- Avoid disturbing deer stalking or grouse shooting.
- Clear all trash, fires, or pollutants.
Around the town of Marlborough on the eastern edge of Wiltshire, the landscape is dotted with enormous earthworks, ceremonial avenues, and stone circles. Some are older than Stonehenge. Among the highlights, within walking distance of each other:
- Avebury Stone Circles: The largest stone circle in Europe, the center of a huge, prehistoric complex and erected about 4,500 years ago. The landscape is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that also includes Stonehenge.
- Silbury Hill: An enormous prehistoric mound, covering five acres and 130 feet high. It was probably built around 2,500 BC. It is the tallest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe.
- West Kennett Long Barrow: One of the largest Neolithic chambers in Britain, this burial place was built about 5,400 years ago.
The Free Woolwich Ferry Service crosses the Thames between Woolwich and North Woolwich (part of Greenwich, east of London). The current service, which carries pedestrians, cyclists, cars, and trucks, has been operating since the 1880s, but there has been a ferry service at this point of the Thames since about 1308. During the week, two ferries run, with services leaving at 10-minute intervals from each side. It's a rough, workaday sort of boat with no frills for foot passengers, but you won't get a better view of Canary Wharf, the Millennium Dome, or the Thames Barrier. If you are driving, avoid peak periods and rush hours because you might have to wait quite a while for your free ride.
The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is an outdoor catalog of 20th and 21st-century British sculpture. Covering 500 acres of rolling countryside on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, the park presents works of art displayed in a way that only the wealthiest patrons, with vast estates, might expect to see them, tucked into leafy glades or perched on the crests of hills. Among the dozens of artists whose works are permanently displayed outdoors are Anthony Gormley, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Elisabeth Frink, and Eduardo Paolozzi.
The park is dog-friendly (except for the indoor galleries and garden) and, best of all, but for a small parking fee, this truly wonderful place is completely free.
About 101 acres of gorge and river scenery make up one of the great Victorian wilderness walks. The landscape includes a site of special scientific interest, protected for its rare plants, ancient woodlands, and wildlife. There are miles of waymarked walks, a reconstructed Victorian summer house, and the remains of a medieval tower.