If you’re staying in London for the summer before your next academic year starts, you should know that many people say there’s no better city to be in over the summer months – especially if the sun is out. With lots of outdoor space to relax in, pop-up events to attend and exhibitions to explore, it’s easy to keep yourself entertained. So, here are our top finds on what to do in London this summer – some of which are completely free of charge, so there’s plenty to choose from even if you’re on a tight budget.
Soak up the sun (and cool down)
Take a dip in the Serpentine Lido
The Serpentine is a large manmade lake that you’ll find in the middle of Hyde Park. You can swim here in the sectioned-off lido, which you’ll find many people doing when it gets hot. There are sun loungers around the lido, so have refreshments from the café while you relax by the water. On the opposite side of the lake, there are rowing boats too, if you’re feeling a bit more active. The lido is open to the public from 10am until 6pm until September. It costs adults £4.80 to swim here. As well as the lake, you’ll find the Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park too. It opens up at the beginning of every summer but each year it’s designed by a different artist or designer. This summer, it is designed by American artist Theaster Gates. This year’s ‘Black Chapel’ is an imposing, cylindrical pavilion, inspired by the Rothko Chapel, a prayer space in Texas. It’s a space for quiet contemplation, so is a nice spot for a moment to yourself.
Sunbathe on an urban beach
One of the few things London doesn’t have to offer is its own beach – you’ll have to travel outside of the city to places like Brighton or Margate for that. But, there are a few places around the city that have still given it a good go, allowing you to find some sand at one of the city’s many ‘urban beaches’ over the summer months.
Fulham, for example, since 2017 has had Neverland where you can rent day beds, cabanas and beach huts for the day. You can play summertime classics like minigolf or shuffleboard. Or, have a yoga session on the sand.
Ruislip lido beach allows you to sunbathe by some water at least (although you can’t swim in it). This lido is found in Hillingdon and is a huge 60 acres in size. Kids are able to access the water in a paddling pool for kids, but for the adults, there is a fairly convincing man-made sandy shore to enjoy.
There’s also the London Secret Garden which is found at Kens Bar in Kensington. It’s a one-acre space where you’ll find igloos around the Christmas period, and sand and sunloungers in the summer months.
Wild-swim at Beckenham Place Park swimming lake
If you do fancy cooling down in the water and fancy a bit of alfresco swimming, you can head to Lewisham’s largest green space, Beckenham Place Park. This offers London’s newest wild-swimming spot. The lake’s been there for many years but over the pandemic, it was brought back to its former glory and opened once again to the public for swimming. As well as swimming, you can paddleboard here and there’s even SUP yoga.
Be a tourist for the summer
Witness the changing of the guard
As an international student, you might only be staying in London for a limited period of time. So, you need to make sure you tick off those London must-see attractions before you miss them. Watching the changing of the guard, also known as the Guard Mounting, at Buckingham Palace is one of those must-sees – and, it’s completely free to do. This is the procession that takes place every day when the Queen’s Guards finish their guard watch and hand it over to the next guard for their shift. Rather than a simple switchover, there’s a whole ceremony for this occasion complete with brass bands and marching that can last up to 45 minutes long.
You can see the ceremony in a couple of places, but we recommend Buckingham Palace because it’s easily the most impressive location. It takes place from 10.45am on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, with the actual handover happening at 11 am.
Take a free walking tour
Why not tick a few of the tourist must-dos off your list at once this summer and do a London walking tour? It’s a great way to see parts of the city you mightn’t have seen before. Plus, you can find plenty of free walking tours to choose from.
For such a sizable city, London is a surprisingly walkable place – one that you can easily head out on a self-guided walking tour to keep yourself entertained in. There are plenty of these online that you can download or follow along. You might find though that it’s not quite the same as having your own knowledgeable tour guide to show you the hidden sites and tell you their stories. The Jack The Ripper tours are especially popular, where you can listen to the horror stories as you’re taken around.
Just be aware that while tours like these are technically free, the tour guides do ask you to pay what you want or feel that it’s worth. As a student, you won’t be expected to give them much – a little something is much better than nothing.
The BBC Proms run across London every summer for 8 weeks, right up until September. People travel from all over the world to come to listen to the classical music displays across various venues in London. Shows range from classical concertos played by the world’s finest orchestras to tunes from musicals you’ll almost certainly know.
The largest events are held in the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington. Prices do vary – you’ll spend more for events in venues like the Royal Albert Hall, but there are smaller and more affordable venues too. This is one of those annual events that you shouldn’t miss if you’re a music lover – or even if you’re someone who likes to soak up an atmosphere. The BBC Proms events definitely have a memorable one.
Something for art lovers
Kensington and Chelsea Festival
Kensington and Chelsea Festival is an arts event that runs through all of July and August. It brings art lovers together to celebrate all kinds of art and performance – anything from installations, theatrical performances, and film to fine art. There are participatory activities, talks, walks and trails that you can follow on your phone.
Plus, the borough of Kensington and Chelsea is worth having a wander around in itself – with beautiful historic architecture on every corner. While you’re in the area, check out the Portobello Road Market, full of vintage clothing, antiques, bric-a-brac and great food & drink to try.
Spend a few hours at the Southbank Centre
The Southbank Centre have various pop-up food vendors that will be there over the summer months. The Centre has a reputation for offering great options when it comes to food. This year you can find Oh My Dog! hotdogs, Jimmy’s BBQ Club, the Sundowner bar, Elephant Juice, Truffle, the Hop Locker, SNOG frozen Yoghurt and Dookies Grill. They won’t all be there when the Autumn months come around, so this is a great spot for getting some food and enjoying the sun with views of the Thames and the London Eye while you eat. As well as these food outlets, they have a separate food market which is open every weekend.
But aside from the great food, it’s worth a visit to the Hayward Gallery. Until mid-September, they’re showing an exhibition of 11 contemporary artists from the African diaspora, who draw on myth, sci-fi and Afrofuturism to question our knowledge of the world. There is also the Royal Festival Hall, Purcell Room and Queen Elizabeth Hall to have a look at – perfect if you happen to get caught out by the rain.
The Greenwich & Docklands International Festival
This spectacular Docklands-based festival of street theatre is back after a break due to the pandemic. The highlight this year is by German-born artist Stephanie Lüning and is called ‘Island of Foam: Version XVIII’, which will see torrents of rainbow-coloured foam surge through the streets of the Greenwich Peninsula at the end of the summer, on the 3rd and 4th of September.
Take yourself around London’s world-renowned art scene
London is famous for its wonderful selection of museums and galleries – many of which have permanent collections that are open to the public to enjoy for free. Here are some of our favourites:
- The V&A
- The British Museum
- The National Gallery
- The Natural History Museum
- The Tate Britain
- The Tate Modern
- The London Mithraeum
There are plenty more to choose from too. If you have any studying to do over the summer months before the next academic year, the V&A boasts a beautiful library that’s free to use.
Open-air cinema screenings
While the weather is still enjoyable, get yourself to one of the city’s open-air cinemas. These are often free and usually play older, classic movies so you can enjoy the nostalgia of an old favourite. Sit with a picnic with a friend or on your own in front of the big screen. Throughout the summer in London, you’ll find a host of screenings in places like Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park, a ferry on the River Thames and rooftops across the city. Just have a look online for open-air cinema screenings in London to find out where and when you can see a film of your choice in the open air.
There are also open-air theatrical performances at Regent’s Park that run daily from 7.15pm (and weekly matinees from 2.15pm). They’re running 5 plays over this summer, one every weekday evening. This means you can keep coming back to experience them all. They range from opera to Shakespeare. This one probably isn’t for those on a tight budget as it can cost £23 or more for a ticket.
Regent’s Park is still worth taking a look around in even if you aren’t too interested in the open-air theatre shows. It’s one of the most picturesque parks in London with formal gardens, tree-lined paths and lots of wildlife. There are sports facilities too. It’s even home to a zoo.
Like the other Royal Parks, Regent’s Park receives millions of visitors each year and stands as one of London’s most popular attractions. Visitors spend hours exploring the huge park – you could easily spend a whole day here. And, most of it is free of charge.
If you haven’t been for a walk around Kew Gardens, time it with seeing one of their outdoor installation exhibitions. Food Forever runs until September and explores the future of food – how our world is changing, and so is what we eat. You can discover how we can transform our planet for good through four new art installations and a major exhibition across Kew Gardens, including talks, guest menus and drop-in workshops and activities over the weekends.
The event itself is free but you do have to pay to enter Kew Gardens. Students get a special price though, which is about £10. There’s also a daily free walking tour about edible plants and the future of food, which will be included in your ticket price.
Explore London on a budget this summer
Enjoy the free views of the city from Sky Garden
From the city’s towering structures to ancient castles and bridges, there’s always something to see in London — and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better viewing point than at the Sky Garden. This three-floored atrium at the top of the Fenchurch Building (also known as the Walkie Talkie) is free to the public. It’s a beautiful, green and glassy space where you can spend as much time as you want just taking in the views.
There is certainly a right way and a wrong way to view from this space. The wrong way will see you queuing for hours, only to be admitted to a stampede of people taking pictures. The right way will see you breezing up in the lift, walking around a quiet garden and soaking up some of the best views in London in peace and quiet.
Tickets can be booked ahead online for both weekdays and weekends – although there are walk-ins available too if you’re happy to queue. If you do want to splash out for a fancy meal at some point over the summer, this is probably the best place for it. There are restaurants to choose from at the top.
Visit the Public Galleries in the Houses of Parliament
Did you know that you can enter the Houses of Parliament as a bystander? Whatever you say about politics, there’s no denying that it’s anything but boring. This would be your opportunity to watch the action as it plays out in the public galleries. It’s free for everyone too. Usually, you can turn up on the day and get in, but there are certain events that will be busier and you will need to book ahead (like Prime Minister’s Questions for example).
Notting Hill Carnival
If you’re wondering what to do in London this summer that you can’t do anywhere else, the Notting Hill Carnival is a colourful celebration that happens every year over the August Bank Holiday weekend. It’s a street festival that celebrates Caribbean culture and is Europe’s largest street party, so it’s a pretty big deal. It parades through neighbourhoods in West London. Notting Hill Gate or Westbourne Park will probably be your best tube station options for a good viewing point of the parade – just follow the crowds and you’ll find it.
You can watch the dancers and the floats, listen to the steel drums and have some Jerk chicken or other traditional Caribbean dishes from the street food vendors that line the streets.