London’s pricey, right? Well, yes, sometimes there’s no getting away from the fact it can be on the expensive side – but not always. If you’re on a short-break in the UK capital, there’s no need to burn a hole in your wallet every day of your stay. For instance, believe it or not, there are several fine sites and venues you can visit for absolutely nothing in the West End. Intrigued? Then read on…
There are few better, more magical places to come across in London where you can just walk around and soak up the special atmosphere than the piazza of Covent Garden. Originally the gardens of, yes, a convent, it became in Victorian times a bustling marketplace where both the workaday lower classes and, thanks to the Royal Opera House’s location in one of its corners, the upper classes mixed – as wonderfully captured forever in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion and later its musical adaptation, My Fair Lady.
Now it’s, of course, one of the capital’s most enduringly popular tourist-traps, brimming with boutiquey-style stores, cafés, restaurants, pubs, bars and street performers whom entertain visitors both inside and around the main square, which was originally laid out by legendary 17th Century designer Inigo Jones.
(Trafalgar Square WC2N 5DN)
The 1830s-built building that takes up the north end of Trafalgar Square and is home to simply the greatest collection of Western European artwork anywhere on the planet, this world-renowned gallery contains masterpieces from the 13th right up to the 20thCentury by the likes ofda Vinci, Rembrandt, Turner,Constable andHolbein.
(Open: 10am-6pmdaily; 10am-9pm Fridays)
National Portrait Gallery
(St Martin’s Place WC2H OHE)
An astonishingly comprehensive record of the great and the good of English and British history through portraiture from the Tudor times right up to the present, this building (tucked in just behind the National Gallery) contains more than 9,000 portraits, including those of the likes of Charles Darwin, Oliver Cromwell, Beatrix Potter, Captain Cook and, of course, major politicians and monarchs.
(Open: 10am to 6pm daily; 10am-9pmThursdays and Fridays)
Deriving its name from an Anglo-French hunting call(‘So-Ho’) which was presumably cried out back when hunting took place in the area, this district has gone through various trends and associations in its time – tagged with bohemians and artisans, musicians and artists, the sex trade and now respectable restaurateurs and young and old nightlife revellers.
A uniquely interesting, vibrant, raw and yet also stylish and refined area, Soho often feels like a place of colourful and lively contradictions, being very strongly identified too with London’s Chinatown, unmissable thanks to its ornamental gateways and exotic grocery shops and restaurants. Meanwhile, right in the heart of the area you’ll find the popular gardens of Soho Square, which are fittingly set around a statue of the liberated ‘Merry Monarch’ himself King Charles II, a perfect spot to take a breather on a warm summer’s day.
(Hertford House, Manchester Square W1U 3BN)
Bequeathed by a certain Lady Wallace in 1897, this charismatic 1770s mansion’s collectioncontains magnificent 18th Century paintings and furniture, such as Frans Hals’legendary portrait The Laughing Cavalier as well as works by Rembrandt and Canaletto, Renaissance armour,Sevres porcelain and delightful grandfather clocks. Small but perfectly formed, you can whizz around the exhibit and take in everything in one relatively quick visit, so this is one of the perfect West End free attractions to enjoy – especially if you’re staying relatively nearby, say, at The Piccadilly West End hotel London.
(Open: 10am-5pm daily)
(Russell Street, Covent Garden WC2E 7PA)
A terrific and fascinating collection of theatrical memorabilia can be found in this little museum just off the famous Covent Garden piazza, which includes props, costumes, photographs and, yes,puppets, all of which come together to offer a rare and special glimpse back through the history of (especially) West End theatre.
(Open: 10am-6pm Tuesdays-Sundays)
Royal Academy of Arts
(Burlington House, Piccadilly W1J 0BD)
Well known, but perhaps less so for what it actually contains, the Academy was established in 1768, moving to its present home 101 years later, and comprises free and paid-entry exhibitions all year round, nowadays in a wide range of media, selected by a small body of arts experts – ‘The Academy’ itself.
(Open: 10am-6pm daily; 10am-10pm Fridays)
Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square
Finally, who could fail to take a walk around either Leicester Square or Trafalgar Square (or both) when they’re visiting the West End? The former is right in the entertainment hub of Central London, just a few short paces from the giant roundabout-cum-perennial-meeting-point Piccadilly Circus, featuring lavish and massive cinemas, casinos and restaurants set around newly refurbished gardens, while the latter lies (again just a few steps away from the former) at the bottom of Charing Cross Road.
It was laid out in 1841 to commemorate Britain’s success in the Napoleonic Wars (taking its name from the criticalnaval Battle of Trafalgar),with Nelson’s Column featuring that battle’s great hero Lord Admiral Nelson standing proudly atop his 170 feet (65 metre) -tall plinth and surrounded bythose world famous, playful fountains and four austere bronze lions.