Free things to do in Greenwich

Have a day out in Greenwich without spending a penny. In fact, many of the borough's highlights are free.

A day out in Greenwich doesn’t need to break the bank – or even cost a penny. In fact, many of the highlights of this UNESCO World Heritage Site are free, including the permanent galleries of the National Maritime Museum and Queen’s House, the Astronomy Centre at the Royal Observatory and the grounds and Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College.

And with a host of lovely public spaces to enjoy – from Royal Greenwich Park to the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park – it’s a perfect budget break for nature lovers and ramblers too.

Explore the free galleries of the National Maritime Museum

Exhibition National Maritime Museum

The National Maritime Museum reveals epic stories of exploration and endeavour that have shaped our world today. Its extensive permanent galleries – all free to visit – bring Britain’s great seafaring past to life.

From the actual uniform Admiral Nelson was wearing when he was fatally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar, to maritime artworks and a huge collection of figureheads, there's something for everyone at the National Maritime Museum. And with a wide selection of free events and activities for children, it’s a fun family day out that won’t tug at the purse strings.

Romney Road, London, SE10 9NF. Open 10am–5pm Monday–Sunday, including public holidays.

Admire the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College

Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College
Image: Francesco Negri via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Christopher Wren’s Old Royal Naval College is the centrepiece of the ‘Maritime Greenwich’ UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in the early 18th century as a retirement home for Royal Navy sailors, the elegant building, with its iconic twin domes and neoclassical Chapel, is a riverside landmark.

Take a wander around the historic grounds and pop into the Visitor Centre to learn more about the building and Greenwich in general. The magnificent Painted Hall, with its wonderful ceiling mural by James Thornhill, is a big highlight – as is the beautiful Chapel. What’s more, all are free to enter.  

Visit the Queen’s House to see the Armada portrait of Elizabeth I

Image of Ishbel Myerscough looking at the Armada Portrait

Recently saved for the nation, the iconic Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I commemorates the most famous conflict of her reign – the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in summer 1588. Visit the elegant Queen’s House – which is free to enter – to see this and other great works by world-famous artists, including J.M.W. Turner and Canaletto. The former royal residence, designed by Inigo Jones, was the first classical building in Britain when completed in 1638.

Stroll through Greenwich Park and enjoy London’s best view

Originally used as a royal hunting ground, Greenwich Park is now a wonderful free public space for picturesque strolls and picnics under chestnut and oak trees. The pathway that leads up to the Royal Observatory is a don’t miss on any trip to Greenwich, providing far-reaching views of the City of London and the Thames at the top. The 183 acres of parkland also encompass a beautiful rose garden, the historic Queen’s Orchard, a boating pond, a deer enclosure and London’s longest herbaceous border.

Visit the after-dark and you’ll see the symbolic green laser that beams out northwards along the Prime Meridian Line.

Travel through space at the free Astronomy Centre galleries

Astronomy galleries, Royal Observatory
Astronomy galleries, Royal Observatory L8627-002_slider

Ever wondered how stars and planets are born? Or what dark matter is? Or what it takes to lead a successful space mission? Visit the free interactive galleries at the Royal Observatory’s Astronomy Centre to get answers to all the big questions about space, time and the universe.

The Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibition is also held annually here from September to July. Showcasing spectacular images shot by astrophotographers worldwide, it’s a definite don’t miss – and completely free of charge.

Take a hike around riverside Greenwich

Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park. Image: Visit Greenwich. All rights reserved.

Greenwich is a top spot for a riverside amble. In fact, keen ramblers can walk all the way here from central London by following the Thames Path, with river views all along. The path passes the London Eye, Tate Modern, the Globe Theatre and Tower Bridge, becoming less touristy as you reach the more residential areas. Reminders of London’s industrial heritage come in the form of old docks and riverside pubs.

An alternative is to reach Greenwich via the Greenwich Foot Tunnel from the Isle of Dogs. Built by manpower alone in the early 1900s for dockworkers living south of the river, the tunnel is around 1,200 feet (366m) long. Once in Greenwich, wildlife lovers should make a beeline for the free Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, a wetlands area known for its biodiversity.

Set your watch to the Shepherd Gate Clock

Shepherd Gate Clock

Greenwich has served as the reference line for Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) since 1884. This amazing fact can be practically explored by heading up to the Royal Observatory, where you can set your watch to the Shepherd gate clock. Installed outside the gates to the Royal Observatory, this was the first clock ever to show GMT to the general public. In terms of the distribution of accurate time into everyday life, it’s one of the most important clocks ever made.

Visit the area after-dark, and you’ll also get to see the symbolic green laser that beams out northwards along the Meridian Line.

Enjoy Cutty Sark’s external splendour

Cutty Sark

There may be an entrance fee to climb aboard the ship and explore its magnificent copper hull, but there’s nothing to stop you enjoying the exterior of this famous tea clipper for free. Walk around the landscaped public space to get a 360-degree view of Cutty Sark’s mast, wrought-iron frame and bow, with its distinctive ‘Nannie’ figurehead. Then head over to the riverside to catch the breeze and imagine the 19th-century ship’s voyages from London to China.

Window shop (or grab a budget bite) at Greenwich Market

Image: Robert Greshoff/Visit Greenwich.

You don’t have to spend money to enjoy time at Greenwich Market. As the only London market to be situated in a World Heritage Site, it’s worthy of a visit for its history and architecture alone. The market’s roots go back to the early 1800s and it’s lovely to browse the creative stalls and imagine the long line of traders who came before. The tempting smells coming from the food stalls might test your budgetary resolve, but it’s a cheap way to grab a bite.

While there, take time to check out the glass roof and open-air pavillion that were added as part of a recent refurbishment.

Head to Deptford Creek for the Laban Building

Laban Building
Image: Tim Crocker/Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. All rights reserved.

Fans of contemporary architecture should make the Laban Building part of their ‘Greenwich for free’ itinerary. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the dance conservatoire – situated beside Deptford Creek – was awarded the prestigious Stirling Prize in 2003.

The building’s innovative exterior is clad in semi-transparent polycarbonate panels that incorporate shades of magenta, lime and turquoise, and which reveal silhouettes of rehearsing dancers.

Watch the Time Ball drop at the Royal Observatory

Time ball

Stand within view of Flamsteed House, the oldest Royal Observatory building, to watch the bright red Time Ball drop at 1pm. The Time Ball is one of the world's earliest public time signals. Created in 1833, it was used to distribute time to ships on the Thames and to many Londoners.

At 12.55pm, on any day of the week, the ball rises halfway up its mast. It then goes all the way to the top at 12.58pm. At 1pm exactly, the ball falls, providing a time signal to anyone who happens to be looking. It’s a fascinating reminder of the drive towards a standardised time system for Great Britain and then the world.

See alfresco art from a Turner Prize-winning artist

Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship in a Bottle

The National Maritime Museum is the home to one of London’s most-photographed contemporary artworks: Yinka Shonibare MBE’s beautiful Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010). This sits outside the Sammy Ofer wing, at the bottom of Greenwich Park.

The piece is a scaled-down replica of Nelson's flagship HMS Victory, on which the British hero died during the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.

The level of detail is truly impressive, with 80 cannons set as on the day of battle, and patterned sails inspired by Indonesian batik, mass-produced by Dutch traders and sold in West Africa. The piece, which originally sat on a plinth in Trafalgar Square, provokes questions about colonialism and cultural appropriation.