Top 10 Free Things To Do in London

London has an undeserved reputation for being an expensive city, but apart from rent most other living expenses (food, drink, clothes, entertainment, telecommunication bills) are significantly cheaper than they are in Melbourne. Best of all, there are so many things you can do and see for free: in particular, visit most of its world-class museums and galleries.

You may notice a couple of conspicuous absences from my top 10 list below: the fact is that of course there are more than 10 fantastic free attractions in London, these are simply my favourites. (And I haven’t even included any parks or window shopping opportunities as I’ll be covering them separately.) Three particularly obvious absences are the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and The British Museum. These three are great, but they’re also the most popular so they can get overly crowded – particularly the British Museum, good grief!

Museum of London The Wallace Collection

1. Victoria and Albert Museum
permanent exhibitions free | opening hours

“The world’s greatest museum of art and design” has something for everyone, from classical sculpture and art to fashion and contemporary design and everything in between. My favourite sections are the European cast courtsJapanese netsuke and inro collections, modern section of the furniture gallery, and I highly recommend the free introductory tour. The main cafe is another highlight – a little pricey but absolutely beautiful with an excellent selection of treats and the best Earl Grey tea I’ve ever tasted.

2. The British Library
most exhibitions free | opening hours

The British Library puts together fascinating temporary exhibitions on a variety of interesting genres and themes. I thoroughly enjoyed Out of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It last year and both the current Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction and the upcoming Propaganda: Power and Persuasion sound great. On top of these, the permanent galleries are filled with some simply amazing treasures including a Gutenberg Bible, a copy of the Magna Carta, two of Scott of the Antarctic’s diaries, a letter written by Charles Darwin, works by Shakespeare, a notebook of Jane Austin’s, work of The Beatles, sketches by Leonardo Da Vinci and so much more. Highly recommended!

3. The Wallace Collection
free admission | opening hours

The Wallace Collection is a gallery and museum inside a historic house just a short walk (and welcome escape) from the crowds of busy Oxford Street. Its collection of European paintings is particularly fine and it also features a world class armoury, but it’s worth visiting to admire the beauty of the house alone. I particularly like the rooms with vibrantly coloured wallpaper – turquoise, red, purple. The central courtyard is home to Peyton and Byrne’s Wallace Restaurant, an excellent spot for afternoon tea.

4. The National Gallery
free admission | opening hours

I can’t put my finger on the exact reason why but I enjoyed The National Gallery a lot more than I expected to. I particularly liked the Van GoghTurner and Rembrant collections and the overall size of the gallery is a comfortable: you’ll be able to see everything that interests you in one visit. The free guided taster tour is incredibly informative and they also offer a variety of intriguing trails to help you discover other interesting aspects of the paintings. They have another lovely Peyton and Byrne cafe too.

5. Hunterian Museum
free admission | opening hours

Not for the faint-hearted, the Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons of England is a small but fascinating collection of human and animal parts preserved in jars, with a focus on examples of various diseases. Even though I ended up feeling quite queasy after browsing some of its glass shelves I think it’s a brilliant and unusual place to visit. It’s quite popular with students though so it can get surprisingly busy.

6. Sir John Soane’s Museum
free admission | opening hours

This quirky museum is architect Sir John Soane’s home, preserved as it was full of all the items he collected during his life. The layout of some of the rooms is quite unusual, with mezzanine-like levels that open up on the floors below. Every space is crammed full of statues, casts, books and other antiquities including a genuine Egyptian sarcophagus. You could pair a visit to the Soane Museum with a trip to the Hunterian as they’re on opposite sides of the same green and you’d only need about 2-3 hours to see them both.

7. The Wellcome Collection
free admission | opening hours

The Wellcome Collection’s tagline should be enough to make you want to plan a visit: “A free destination for the incurably curious”. It’s main focus is on the development of medicine throughout the ages and across the world’s cultures. They’re particularly good at putting on exhibitions with fascinatingly macabre or intriguing themes such as death or drugs, accompanied by interesting talks and events.

8. The Musem of London
permanent exhibitions free | opening hours

A fantastic place to learn about the history of the city itself, from its prehistoric and Roman origins to the modern day. The Museum of London also often hosts some very good and popular paid exhibitions so if you’re there to see one of them you should definitely allow extra time to visit the extensive permanent exhibitions as well.

9. Saatchi Gallery
free admission | opening hours

Saatchi’s focus is on contemporary art and most of its exhibitions are temporary, so the quality of your visit will depend on your interest in the works exhibited at the time. When I visited last year there were several photography exhibitions on which I really enjoyed. At the moment the main two appear to be about modern and contemporary Russian art which I wish I could attend! Either way, it’s worth visiting for the one exceptional permanent exhibit in the basement: Richard Wilson’s 20:50. Don’t read anything about it before you visit, just go and see if your brain can process and decipher what you’re looking at – it’s probably the biggest optical illusion you’ll ever see! (I also love the fact that this piece has moved with the Saatchi Gallery to at least three different sites since its creation in 1987.)

10. Be part of a live TV audience

A random one at the end! Not a museum or a gallery, but something else which is quite unique. Britain is famous for its television and many of its entertainment shows require a live audience. You can register with Applause to be notified when there are any opportunities for the shows that you’re interested in. The more popular shows (QI, Top Gear, etc) are trickier to get into, but Applause often runs deals where if you sit in on a new or less popular show you can score a priority ticket for something more popular in return. But be prepared to queue, even for the less popular shows! They always need a full house so they issue more standard tickets than they have seats for on the assumption that some people just won’t turn up – which means if everyone does turn up some people won’t get in. (Although if this happens you can sometimes wrangle a priority ticket for the next recording if you ring them.)

BBC audience queue The British Library

London museum visiting tips:

  • Check opening hours before you visit! Many are closed at least one day per week and there isn’t really any consistency about what day that is.
  • The more popular the museum is the more important it is to go early to avoid queues and crowds.
  • Many run free guided tours of particular exhibits – check websites and information desks for details. It can be surprisingly rewarding to attend a tour of an exhibit you wouldn’t normally have been interested in, so be adventurous!
  • If you miss out on a guided tour you might be able to hire an audio guide instead. Sometimes this will incur a fee but it’s surprising how much more you can get out of the exhibits when you have more detailed background information about them (I think this is particularly good at art galleries).
  • Some of the museums are huge. Websites or brochures sometimes provide a list of “must see” exhibits or a suggested itinerary if you’re short on time.
  • Another strategy for coping with a huge museum is to pick an area or two that interest you and spend most of your time there, rather than trying to catch a glimpse of every single thing in the building.
  • Besides, the museums will be there for many years: if you feel like you missed out on anything you can always go back another day.
  • Some offer adult-only Friday Lates which give you an opportunity to visit the museum with glass of wine in hand, sans screaming children. Sometimes the Lates have special themes or events associated with them – check museum websites for details.
  • All the museums and galleries listed above either completely free or at least the permanent exhibitions are free to visit, but if you enjoy them you are normally more than welcome to donate a little money to go towards maintenance and upkeep. Sometimes they will request a small donation if you want a map or to use the cloakroom.
  • You can’t always take photos, and the rule can vary for different rooms of the same building. Observe signs and when in doubt ask one of the staff in attendance.

Glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, V&A Cast Courts, V&A Trajan's Column (plaster cast), V&A

More Top 10 in London:

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Top 10 in London series introduction

At the beginning of what became the 19 months we spent living in London my friend Helen suggested we make a list of all the things we wanted to do while we were over there and really make an effort to work through them. Otherwise it’s all too easy to be sucked into the black hole that is the London weekly work routine, which can be surprisingly difficult to break free from. We wrote up a list as Helen suggested, added to it whenever friends or co-workers gave us any new ideas, and did our best to work through as many things as possible.

We did a pretty good job! In the end we managed to tick off 81% of the things on our list of 150 – an average of 1-2 per week. We visited most of London’s main tourist attractions as well as many other lesser known places. Given that there are so many fantastic museums, galleries, theatres, cafes, restaurants, markets, shops and parks to visit in London it’s too difficult to narrow our favourites down to an overall top 10, so I’m going to break them down into categories which I’ll cover in a series of posts:

The lists will be based on our own personal tastes and experiences and therefore quite biased – not just a replication of what you’ll see in the guidebooks (although there’s a reason why some things do appear in those so you probably will see a bit of crossover). Hopefully there will be plenty of things you haven’t heard of – even if you live in London yourself! Stay tuned and enjoy!

How to reduce iPhone 5 battery and data leakage

**Note: always back up your iPhone before playing around with settings!**

I recently bought an iPhone 5. It was a huge jump up from my old 3GS and I love it: slim and light, super fast and responsive, excellent GPS response and accuracy, the camera is fantastic (the panorama function is fun), I love the retina display, and the extra screen space is great.

But there were two things I wasn’t so keen on. The battery seemed about on par with my 3 year old 3GS (ie, needed to be recharged every day) and my data allowance was leaking away at an alarming rate. (I rarely scratched the surface of my 500MB monthly allowance with the 3GS but my iPhone 5 was consuming 50-100MB a day.) Now, I understand that some of this was down to the fact that it was a new toy and I was probably using it more than usual, but after a bit of research I discovered these were pretty common complaints for both iOS6 and the iPhone 5. I became determined to find a solution.

I collected a long list of tips from a variety of forums, blogs and articles and tried every one. In the end I found…

The two things most likely to help:

FOR BATTERY LIFE: Reset all settings

Settings > General > Reset > Reset All Settings

“If you’re prompted, enter your Passcode. Wait for the reset to finish then use your phone until it gets down to 0% then shuts off. Then, plug in your iPhone 5 until it charges to 100%. This should help to solve any battery life issues you’ve been having.” [Source: gottabemobile.com]

I’m not sure why this helps but it seemed to do the trick for me. Combined with setting my phone to airplane mode at night I now only need to recharge once every 3-4 days. You may want to make a note of all your current settings before you reset so it’s quicker to set them back afterwards. Note that it will also wipe all your saved wifi passwords!

FOR DATA LEAKAGE: Delete iCloud account from the phone

Settings > iCloud > Delete Account

(Note that this just removes the iCloud account from your phone, it doesn’t close it altogether. You can always turn it on again in the future if you want to.) See this thread for an explanation and a demonstration of why this supposedly works. Apparently even if you turn off all the settings that could possibly connect to iCloud it will still chew data (sometimes even when you’re connected to wifi!), unless you remove the account from your phone.

The trick is that without iCloud you’ll need to connect your phone to your computer regularly to back up, and you won’t be able to use features like Find My iPhone. (That’s the only iCloud feature I found useful anyway – I use Gmail to sync all my email, contacts and calendar items, Any.DO for tasks and Evernotes for notes.)

If you’re not keen on doing this, or it helps but doesn’t completely resolve your data leak, the only sure-fire guarantee is to turn data off when you’re not using it. It’s a little bit inconvenient at first but you get used to it. Go to Settings > General > Cellular > set to OFF. (This also helps battery life.)

I’ve listed below all the other suggestions I found in case you find any of them helpful. (Some may appear on multiple websites but I’ve just listed the sources where I first came across them.)

click for more tips and advice »

2012 blogging year in review and two more awards

New year, 60th post, two more awards… I thought this would be a good time for a summary of my 2012 year in blogging!

2012 was the year my blog…

  • hit 5000 views
  • gained 64 followers
  • quadrupled average daily views
  • was temporarily locked by WordPress (for linking to a ferry company’s website!)
  • received its first 3 awards

By the way, I like to make an effort to return the visit of everyone that comments on, likes or follows my posts but this was difficult to keep up while we were travelling last year so I’m quite behind at the moment. I will eventually get around to returning all those visits though! Thank you to everyone that has stopped by!

Top 5 countries my visitors hail from:

  1. United States
  2. Australia
  3. United Kingdom
  4. Russian Federation
  5. Canada

Top 5 most popular posts:

Top 5 irrelevant search terms:

  1. cartoon eastern europe restaurants
  2. expensive retro furniture
  3. greenhouse inside underground shelter
  4. temple between skyscrapers
  5. ingredients for prayer biscuits

And now… drumroll…

read on for the awards! »

38 countries in 2.5 years

I added up all the countries we visited in the two and a half years we were away from Australia and the total came to 38. (Or a nicer, neater 40 if you could England, Scotland and Wales separately. ;) Here is the grand rundown!

38 countries - 17% of the world

(Cities listed are those we stayed overnight for one or more nights and don’t include day trips or other places we visited on the way from one to another.)

JULY – DECEMBER 2010

Before settling in the UK we spent almost half a year travelling around Europe. This was something we’d always wanted to do and we thought once we’d achieved it we’d feel a sense of satisfaction and completion – gotten it out of our system, so to speak. Buuut, if anything, it only made us want more.

  • SINGAPORE
  • THE UK: London, Bristol, Wales
  • THE NETHERLANDS: Rotterdam, Amsterdam
  • BELGIUM: Brussels, Bruges
  • FRANCE: Tours, Toulouse
  • SPAIN: Barcelona
  • PORTUGAL: Lisbon, Porto, Faro
  • SPAIN: Seville, Granada
  • GIBRALTAR
  • MOROCCO: Fez, the Sahara desert, Dades Gorge, Marrakesh
  • ITALY: Milan, Levanto, Rome, Sant Agnello
  • CROATIA: Zadar, Mukinje, Split, Dubrovnik, Zagreb
  • MONTENEGRO: Kotor
  • BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA: Mostar, Sarajevo
  • HUNGARY: Budapest
  • AUSTRIA: Vienna
  • CZECH REPUBLIC: Prague
  • POLAND: Krakow
  • GERMAN: Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg

(flickr collection)

Total travel time: 21 weeks
Total cost including all transport, accommodation, food and expenses: ~AU$16,000 per person

2011 – JULY 2012

We then lived and worked in London for 19 months but we tried to squeeze in travel whenever we could. After all, it’s easier to pop over to Paris for a few days from London than is is from Melbourne, so we had to make the most of it while we were over there! As well as weekends and day trips to various towns around the UK (and a week each driving around Scotland and Cornwall) we also visited:

JULY – DECEMBER 2012

By this time I’d started this blog and did my best to post at least once for every country we visited. If you kept up on this second trip by travelling along virtually with us via this blog, thank you and I hope you enjoyed the ride!

(flickr collection)

Total travel time: 20 weeks
Total cost including all transport, accommodation, food and expenses: ~AU$18,300 per person

(I feel like we actually travelled more cheaply in 2012 than we did in 2010 but I think the reason we spent more money is because the second trip included some particularly expensive countries (Scandinavia, Japan, etc) and the Trans-Mongolian leg cost a lot because it was privately organised tour and we also had to secure three pricey visas to undertake it.)

occasionally asked questions »

Return to Aus

We landed back in Australia on the 10th of December 2012, setting foot on home soil for the first time since we left on the 20th of July 2010.

To stretch out our travel time for as long as possible, we flew into Brisbane where we caught up with friends and family before hiring a car and driving down the east coast to Newcastle over the course of a week. We stopped off at various places along the way and spent a couple of nights each in Byron Bay, Coffs Harbour and Tuncurry. It was the first time I’d been to any of those places and we were particularly impressed with Byron Bay. We knew it was popular and expected it to be packed out, but luckily we must have beat the main summer holiday rush because it wasn’t busy at all. The town has a nice laid-back vibe and the many beaches certainly are beautiful: some of the nicest, clearest water I’ve seen at an Australian beach.

Clarke's Beach, Byron Bay

Alex stayed on in Newcastle to be with his family over Christmas and I ducked down to Melbourne to spend it with mine. It was wonderful to see them again after so long! My dad came over to visit while we were living in London but I hadn’t seen my mum since we left Australia so it was particularly nice to see her again after all this time.

And, much to my delight, our cat Jonty (who has been living with my parents while we were away) remembered who I was! (And he didn’t hold our extended absence against me as I’d feared he might.)

Reunited

So what’s it like being back in Australia after all this time? It was a bit strange at first, mostly because we didn’t go home straight away. Spending our first week and a bit travelling through parts of Australia that were new to us gave us the strange sensation of things seeming both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

The main things I’ve been struck by since our return are things I used to know but had forgotten in the meantime. Some random observations and impressions…

  • Houses and property that locals consider small seem almost enormous to us after living in apartments for so long.
  • Likewise, pet dogs are often bigger than we must have been used to!
  • People seem to apologise more than they do in London, just for the sake of being polite. It’s refreshing – I don’t think people do it as much in London because for fear of inviting blame.
  • Some chains commonly seen in Britain have made their way to Melbourne – spotted Zara and WH Smith in the city. Bring on H&M!
  • People in retail shops are too friendly. ^_^; I don’t really want to respond to two or three “hello”s and “how are you”s when I’m just sticking my head in a shop for a quick browse. I used to work in retail myself so I know they’re required to do it, and it’s really just a common courtesy, I guess I just got used to being ignored in shops. :P
  • Eating and drinking out is so expensive – up to $40 for a main meal and up to $20 for an alcoholic drink! Of course it’s not always as bad as that, but it is pretty bad in general…
  • Internet is painfully capped and expensive to boot.
  • Petrol is cheaper than in the UK though!
  • Dan Murphy’s has an excellent range of international beers that we can enjoy while reminiscing about our travels (as long as we don’t compare the price between here and where it comes from).
  • James Squire seems to have overtaken Coopers as the Aussie beer de rigueur.
  • Also, alcoholic ginger beer seems to have become quite popular in Australia (yay!), as have flavoured ciders.

Otherwise it’s been strange but nice seeing familiar sights again, especially with fresh eyes. I also noticed a lot of changes around Melbourne – new shops and restaurants, and a lot of the ones that are still there have been rebranded. (Looking good, Commonweath Bank.) I went on a bike ride with Dad on Boxing Day which culminated in a view of the city skyline from the bridge near the MCG. Every time I come back to Melbourne after time overseas this sight brings an automatic big smile to my face: that little handful of skyscrapers – so small compared to so many other cities, but it’s home.

Melbourne skyline

I came back up to Newcastle to join Alex and his friends for New Year’s eve and we’ve been up here since then.

We both officially return to Melbourne on the 10th of January.

So, the next task is to settle back into Melbourne and return somewhat to The Real World. I don’t have any New Year’s resolutions but I do want to get back into swimming, cycling, cooking, baking and knitting, most of which I neglected while we were living in London. My Mum also recently introduced me to Zentangle which I’ve played around with and find inspiring. Then there’s that wedding to plan, and I’m sure our travelling days aren’t over. And I’d like to keep blogging, of course – I’ve got a few ideas up my sleeve. :)