A free day in London

London has a reputable as an expensive place to visit, though the weak pound helps mitigate this. It’s quite easy to have an enjoyable day exploring the city for free, particularly if you like using your feet. London is one of the great cities for walking, with endless interesting streets, wide pavements, and few main roads that are difficult to cross. It’s quite a contrast from the frustration of walking around grid cities like New York or Chicago.

I arrived into London at London Bridge and spent the day catching up with friends and exploring some of the few places I hadn’t been before, ending the day at London Waterloo after walking about 15km, much more enjoyable than taking the tube, particularly on a pleasant day in summer.

London Bridge is marked by The Shard, one of the few decent additions to the London skyline in the past decade since I left the UK. It is the tallest building in London but it’s shape and the reflective glass used makes it a relatively unintrusive presence.

Nearby Hay’s Galleria is one of the better redevelopments in London from the 1980s, with an attractive roof installed over the Victorian era former wharf, turned shopping galleria.

I visit London at least once a year, and every time I go there is at least one new building in the City of London. What was once home to the distinctive Tower 42 and 30 St Mary Axe (better known as the Gherkin) is now a complete mess of competing buildings of little architectural merit individuality, let alone as a collective.

I walked along the South Bank, past the fascinating HMS Belfast, which I visited last year, the distinctive City Hall, and neighbouring water fountains.

I’ve walked across Tower Bridge a number of times but have yet to visit inside, the £10 entry fee putting me off.

It was the first time I’d visited St. Katharine Docks, an attractive development, home to the Clipper boats before they headed off on a round the world race.

The Tower of London is another landmark I don’t think I’ve visited, unless as a kid many years ago, with the £25 entry price and number of tourists discouraging me.

I’m not a fan of 20 Fenchurch Street, better known as the Walkie Talkie or the Death Ray after its concave shape focused the sun on pedestrians and cars below. I do grudgingly have to admit that it does look better close up though.

Nearby 22 Bishopsgate will be the second tallest building in London, but there doesn’t appear to be anything architecturally interesting about it, and it is uncomfortably close to Leadenhall Building (the Cheesegrater). It is so boring that it lacks a nickname unlike almost every other tall building in London.

The Bank of England Museum is relatively small but packed with interesting exhibits, and was free.

I worked near St. Paul’s Cathedral for five years but have never been inside. The £20 entrance fee makes it one of the most expensive religious buildings in the world to visit (though Westminister Abbey is £23). St. Peter’s in the Vatican, and every mosque I’ve ever visited have been free.

Smithfield Market was quiet by the afternoon, very much an early morning attraction, open 2-8am!

The Museum of the Order of Saint John was a fascinating free museum explaining the history of the order. Established during the Crusades to care for pilgrims they were based on the island of Rhodes until the Turks invaded, then on Malta until Napoleon invaded. The British order was closed along with all the monasteries by Henry VIII but reestablished by the Victorians, including the now famous ambulance service started in 1877, nearly 70 years before the NHS was created.

The British Museum is free but I didn’t have time for the long queue to go through security, a new feature since I last visited. There are some lovely terrace buildings opposite the museum though.

I had a timed free ticket for Sir John Soane’s Museum, a new system which works well to manage numbers within the claustrophobically packed house. No photos are allowed inside but it is an absolute treat for the senses, particularly if you’re interested in architecture and art.

The sunshine briefly returned as I passed through Somerset House, home to some free art exhibitions, and this war memorial.

I relived memories of walking across Waterloo Bridge on my way to and from work years ago, though the skyline is often unrecognisable from then. One Blackfriars, The Shard, and South Bank Tower are a nicely aligned trio, though amongst much competition One Blackfriars is probably one of the ugliest buildings in the city. It is known as the Vase but the Nose is a more accurate name.

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