London: The Best Things in London are Free

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I have since forgotten the boy’s name and the exhibitions I saw in the museum but my memory will not fail me when it comes to remembering what I experienced without spending a single cent.

Like a caveman he picked me up from the floor of one of the many exhibition halls of Tate Modern. “Let’s go,” he demanded in the thick Israeli accent that I was still getting used to, “I don’t want to pretend that I can understand this art.” I laughed out loud, while I dangled across his shoulder like a naughty child being pulled out of a public tantrum and told him he just disrupted what could have been the world’s greatest epiphany on modern art. He put me down and we decided that it was too much of a good day to waste indoors so walked out into the museum’s common area to talk about what we should do instead as we looked unto the River Thames.

I pulled out two flyers from my bag and handed it to him. They were flyers of a certain comedy bar in the north of London that also doubled as a complementary ticket to that night’s show. I got them from someone who looked like a random guy on the street that needed extra income so took on a menial job handing out flyers. He stood in the center of the station mumbling “free comedy” to the passers-by that really just passed him by until I came along: he had me at the word “free.”

We found ourselves in the Green Park station to change trains. Walking along the station’s spacious gray walkway that looked like a space tunnel, I hear Lionel Richie’s “Easy like Sunday Morning” echoing through the circular passageway. I had to stop and listen to his soulful voice that contradicted London’s perennially urgent buzz–as if to say, “Take it easy.” The salt and pepper-haired mulatto busker ruffled his unkempt wavy hair and was all smiles as we threw in spare change into his guitar case. The comedy show that followed our serendipitous musical gig was just as delightful and made better by the fact that we were able to breeze through the long line of comedygoers who had to pay around £7 (US$11) for their tickets. There is a lot of room for chance, spontaneity, and curiosity in London because of the availability of free things to do. Despite being on a tight a budget, backpackers can definitely afford to say “Why not?” and explore the city without having to put too much thought on budgeting travel expenses.

Many attractions in London are free. It’s a generous city especially in terms of the art scene. You can literally spend at least a week with just “free museums” on your agenda. Moreover, with the vibrant international community present in London, free art events from all over the world are abundant. Finding your serendipitous love affair with art is easy when you know where to look.

Covent Garden

The busking scene in Covent Garden is as diverse as it is professional. Performance is a privilege and solicitation is a creative exercise. Though a bit touristy, Covent Garden is made vibrant and more real by the presence of the busking scene. From modern circus acts to classic opera performances, Covent Garden cozily houses a varied selection of entertainment. Street performance is taken very seriously. People need to audition to be able to perform in any of the spaces in Covent Garden. Performers are usually travelling acts and sometimes even award-winners. The free performances in Covent Garden do not require a ritual. No dressing up, no big halls, and no box offices required–just pop-up performers you chance upon while strolling around the area as you check out one of Covent Garden’s art/food/craft markets.

The Covent Garden area is also home to quite a number of free museums. Just a short walk away from the piazza is The National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, where you can find works from Monet, Seurat, Rembrandt, da Vinci, and Van Gogh, to name a few. Artists’ work that you would usually have to pay for to view are offered free of charge in this museum. Their collection is vast and expansive–covering famous artists from all over Europe. In addition, there are usually modern art installations out on the square where the museum stands. Other free and major museums can be found around the area as well: National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum (only a tube ride away), and the London Transport Museum.

Rich Mix

For those looking for more raw talent, there’s Rich Mix. It’s an art center located at the more alternative side of the city, East London. The center was made to feature excellent up and coming artists in live music, film, dance, theater, comedy, and spoken word. Crisp, clean and modern, the building stands amidst the bustling underground scene that’s used to shabby hole in the wall performance spaces. Rich Mix is a good place to start when you don’t know how to navigate the alternative scene in London. The advocacy-based art center features art that is community-based and has a good representation of different cultures from all over the world. From Nepalese Film Festivals to Latin American music festivals, the center is full of cultural diversity. Run with a heart that likes to give back to their community, Rich Mix offers a range of free educational workshops that are geared to support the arts.

Catch an improvised comedy show combined with visual art, learn how to make a smart phone application, or simply go on a guided walking tour of Bricklane all for free! And because of its edgy location, roaming around the area will take you to cool and novel bars where you can meet interesting characters who are most probably the inspiration behind London’s East End art. Rich Mix, as the name suggests, is a place where the wealth of diversity is truly celebrated and getting a taste of the world’s up and coming is made sweeter when it’s free!

Southbank Centre

Walking around the Southbank Centre makes you feel like you’re in a world art exposition with pavilions that change every day. Reading their monthly line-up of events in their calendar is already exciting on its own. It seems every show is handpicked and screened by thoughtful art enthusiasts who want to put good talent where it belongs: the world stage. Their high quality art shows and exhibitions from an international pool of talents are offered free of charge or for a fee.

Free shows are usually a preview of the running paid shows and is a platform for new artists to take centerstage. A range of shows and exhibitions are available for free. Southbank has featured dance groups from all over Europe, soulful jazz quartets, rocking flutists jamming with a DJ while edgy visuals flash behind them, outdoor literary installations, design exhibitions from as far as Asia, talks on literary topics, and a rooftop urban beach complete with beach huts in front of the Royal Festival Hall all for free! And that’s just the tip of Southbank Centre’s art scene iceberg. I watched the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as they performed Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring…in 3D glasses. Along with modern dancer Julia Mach and digital artist Klaus Obermaier the performance was straight out of the future. A dancer in the middle of what looked like a film’s 3D set danced while being captured by a 3D camera and was simultaneously being projected with full 3D effects. As the music of the orchestrated instruments filled the air, live visuals of spring flashed in front of the audience fusing the movement of the music and the dance. Artful visions of spring and dance appeared like slices of the imagination– drifting from kaleidoscopic images to bursts of energetic light play. Not too shabby for a £ 10 (US$16) ticket that I got on a student discount!

Nestled underneath the structure is a skate park where skateboarders and bikers commune, allowing the energy of the alternative to harmoniously exist with the mainstream. Though Southbank Centre holds a pioneering status, visitors don’t feel daunted nor out of place. The general vibe of the place is welcoming and its atmosphere, vibrant. Honest, edgy and forward-thinking, Southbank Centre creates a sense of community that makes the odd-man-out feel that he too, has a place under the sun.

Checklist for Artsy Penny Pinchers in London

1. Carry your student card. Sometimes, traveling yuppies can get away with a student discount. Asians are lucky enough to look younger than the Europeans so it’s usually still believable if we declare ourselves students. Always bring your old student ID card around when going to museums and galleries for good discounted rates on paid special exhibitions. Make sure your ID card doesn’t have a published expiration date and be ready to answer when they ask what course you’re taking up. Note: Before trying this out, it’s important to assess if you can really get away with looking younger than you are. Try going to a club and see if they card you, that’s usually a good indication.

2. Check online. Sweet deals are usually made available online–dinner and show deals, West End tickets for Åí10-15 (US$16-24), special discounted rates for new and exciting live acts, special matinee show ticket prices, etc. Check out <>. Also, check the website of the art center, gallery or museum that you are going to so you can check out what free events they have happening on the day of your visit. The websites are usually well organized and free shows are all labelled appropriately.

3. Buy on the day itself. Contrary to conventional traveling wisdom, too much planning can also ruin your chances of getting a good deal, particularly for weekday West End showings. Arrive at the theater early and get the cheapest available ticket being sold. Chances are the theatre will not be full and your seat will be upgraded!

4. Plan your travels. Transportation in London is quite pricey but it can be cheap when you plan your journey. When in London, avoid taking cabs unless you have the money to spare or if you find yourself in an emergency situation. The Underground is a more efficient and convenient mode of transportation and an added advantage for culture vultures is that the stops are located conveniently near the good museums, galleries and art centers. Plan your art agenda for the day according to location to save time and money. Think if you do need to get the London Underground day pass, weekly pass or if it’s better to be on pay-as-you-go. For example, major museums such as the Science Museum, National History Museum, and the V&A Museum are within walking distances to each other. That means being on pay-as-you-go for the day would be more ideal since only two journeys on the tube are needed. Travel on off-peak hours for cheaper ticket prices too. Check out<> for journey planning.

5. Eat fresh. Yes, travelers on a budget can afford to eat fresh healthy food while out and about. Eating the food in museum cafeÅLs is tempting but is also more expensive. For sure, your mouth will water reading the menu of the cafeÅLs you will chance upon while on your art adventure but if you will pay the price, choose a unique menu item to indulge in. Avoid getting the usual choices like coffee and muffins because you can get it cheaper outside. Once past 5PM, seek out nearby real food cafeÅLs that have a lot of baked goods like sandwiches, pasties, etc. Those cafeÅLs offer their goods 50% off their regular price at off peak hours to get rid of their stock. CafeÅLs like that usually promise fresh daily goodness to their customers so they really need to finish all the goods made for that day. Sometimes, the staff members give away the stock when it’s very near closing time.

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