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London is one of the most expensive cities in the world to visit, with some museums costing over $20 for a ticket. But with a little planning the tourist can find plenty of free things in London that are still outstanding.

1)      Westminster Abbey

What’s this doing on a list of free things in London? We approached Westminster Abbey and were shocked to find an admission price of 16 pounds, about $26. For a family of four it would cost over $100 to go to church, granted it’s a famous church, but still. . .

But you can visit Westminster Abbey for free. Five nights a week Evensong services are offered at 5pm (3pm most weekends). This service isn’t highly publicized. To attend the service, walk over to the iron gate by the main entrance to the Abbey, not the side entrance used for paid admissions. Guides wearing bright scarlet capes and stern expressions stand blocking the gate. Tell them you’re there for Evensong and they step aside while cheerfully welcoming you.

The 45-minute service is beautifully rendered by the Abbey choir. There is not much time for strolling about the Abbey after the service but you do get to see enough. In many ways, Evensong is preferable to walking around the Church with hundreds of other visitors during the day. The visitor gets to experience Westminster Abbey for what it was originally designed, worship and prayer.

Click the link for more information and current service times: Westminster Abbey Evensong services.

2)      The Wallace Collection

Free things in London Wallace Collection London

We love museums that can be visited in about an hour or so; with many interesting items on display but whose size isn’t so daunting that we feel like we’re missing most of it. The Wallace Collection, housed in a historic London mansion, is one of those museums. It was owned by five generations of collectors, including a few Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, before becoming a public collection.

The collection has a little something for everyone: 18th-century French masterpieces and furniture, Galleries of Old Master paintings including Rembrandt, medieval religious manuscripts and a sterling collection of swords and armor.  The museum surround an open-air courtyard restaurant for snacks and afternoon tea.

Website: www.WallaceCollection.org

3)      Royal Air Force Museum

Free things in London RAF Museum

The RAF museum is about a 30-minute Tube ride from central London. It has an incredible amount of planes and helicopters on display in four large hangars. As airplane geeks we’ve been to many aviation museums and this may be the largest. One building is devoted to RAF’s derring do in the World War II Battle of Britain. Antique plane enthusiasts will enjoy the collection of pioneering airplanes in the 1917 Grahame-White Hangar, the UK’s first aircraft factory. If you are traveling with young kids there is LOTS of room to run around and burn off some energy.

Website: www.RAFMuseum.org

4)      Museum of the City of London

Free things in London Museum of London

Photo courtesy www.TravelCultureMag.com

Long before the kings, queens and Big Ben, London was a prehistoric settlement and then a Roman outpost. This museum takes the visitor on a time travel tour from the city’s distant past up to the present day. A combination of displays and interactive exhibits hold the attention of all ages. Feel the heat of the Great Fire of 1666, attend an 18th-century garden party and stroll through Victorian streets before going to the movies in the Roaring Twenties and hanging out with Mick Jagger and Twiggy in the 1960’s. The museum’s location gets visitors in the mood: a starkly modern structure built along the remains of ancient Roman Walls.

Website: www.museumoflondon.org.uk

5)  Victoria and Albert Museum

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhoto courtesy of Walter Lim, Flickr

If decorative arts is your thing, the “V&A” is the place to go. This mammoth museum, located in swanky South Kensington, has some of the world’s largest collections of fashion, textiles, ceramics, jewellery (the “Veddy British” spelling), furniture and glass. Channel your inner designer by viewing the stunning collection of drawings, many of which provide insight on the design process. If you still have the energy, they have wonderful paintings as well.

Note: Although admission is free, the V&A can be a little overwhelming. If you’re pressed for time, or simply prefer to have someone point out the best things to see, we recommend booking this V&A Highlights tour from Viator.

Like it? Share it . . .Pin it!London  red double-decker bus with black and white background

A few other free things in London:

6)  British Museum – Massive collection of over 8 million objects. www.BritishMuseum.org

7)  National Maritime Museum – The largest maritime museum in the world with pride of place going to Admiral Nelson, including the bloody uniform he was wearing when he was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar. www.rmg.co.uk

8) National Army Museum — Great Britain has a pretty long military history so the Army Museum is a sprawling complex detailing battles going back centuries. I did find one glaring gap though. Their army didn’t seem to be involved in any activity between the War of Spanish Succession that ended in 1714 and the Napoleonic Wars that started in 1795. It seems a little skirmish that occurred in the American colonies has been forgotten.
Web Site: http://www.nam.ac.uk/

[Note: The National Army Museum is temporarily closed until spring 2017 due to a major retrofit.]

9)  The Wellcome Collection – The ghoulish may be interested in this medical collection which includes various body parts and antique medical devices. www.WellcomeCollection.org

10) Tate Modern – We’re not that into modern art, a pile of bricks that looked like they were left by a worker was one of the displays. But if you’re into that sort of thing this is the place to see them. Here’s information on visiting the Tate Modern.

Bonus Pick:

11) Abbey Road – Don’t forget to be a Beatle for a day and cross Abbey Road. It’s free and a lot of fun. Here’s information on how to cross Abbey Road.

This list highlighted 11 free things to do in London. Here’s a list of the 25 best things to do in London.

Sign up for Airbnb through our referral link and you'll get at $35 on your first stay (& so will we :)

Here are the top books about traveling to London.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Any American citizen or legal resident that flies more than once a year should consider TSA Precheck and Global Entry. They are two of the Trusted Traveler programs established by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to allow expedited security processing for low-risk travelers. Read more

Sometimes the best travel trips come from the people we stay with, another argument for renting apartments rather than staying at hotels. That’s how we ended up at a cozy spot overlooking Goodyear Lake just outside Cooperstown, NY.

Of course we knew about the top sites in town: the Baseball Hall-of-Fame. But we became mightily intrigued when our hostess Doris mentioned, “Will you be going to the pancake fly-in breakfast in Cooperstown?” Say what? We’re airplane geeks who love to eat breakfast so what could be better?

fly-in breakfast in cooperstown

Held every 3rd Saturday from May to September, the Old Airplane Fly-In Pancake Breakfast is a fundraiser for the Middlefield Fire Department. It’s held at Cooperstown/Westville Airport, which boasts an old-fashioned grass runway. The food is served in one of the hangars overlooking the field. The cost of the all-you-can-eat breakfast and entertainment provided by the planes was only $7.

cooperstown westville fly-in pancake breakfast

To make the day even better the pancakes, sausage, cooked-to-order eggs and coffee are served with REAL maple syrup, not the gloppy “table” syrup served at most places. (We also learned that upstate New York syrup producers sell much of their batch to Vermont where it’s repackaged as real Vermont maple syrup. Shhh, don’t tell anyone.)

Breakfast in the hangar at Cooperstown airport (575x447)

We ate breakfast in the hangar to the sweet drone of propeller planes gliding in for the event. The doors were flung open so we could watch the planes coming and going as we munched on our freshly-made breakfast. We have to say the pancakes made from scratch were among the best we’ve had anywhere.

fly-in breakfast in cooperstown

Pilots, many of them in vintage planes, fly in from all over New York and New England for this combination breakfast and airplane show. They line the aircraft up along the runway so you can marvel at their glossy finishes after downing your carbs.

experimental airplane

Some of the planes are experimental light aircraft that looked like they’re powered by a Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engine with a propeller no bigger than the ones you see on those goofy hats.

vintage curtiss airplane

Many of the planes also seem to be flown by vintage pilots. We watched one older couple shuffle and squeeze themselves into the cramped cockpit of a gorgeous burgundy 1947 Beechman when he turned to us and said, “They say if you can climb in then you can still fly.”

piper airplane logo

We stood by the side of the runway while he and his wife taxied for take off. While they rumbled down the runway and slid into the air, his wife gave us a parting wave as they flew away into the wild blue yonder.

Cooperstown airport safety sign (575x418)

Here’s a comforting airport sign.

If you’re into vintage planes you might like this biplane ride over The Lord of the Rings sites in New Zealand.

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August 5th was the birthday of a person who will be remembered centuries after the memories of pop stars and sports figures have faded: Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, who died in 2012.

While his achievements are honored around the world,  Read more

The National Museum of Flight in Scotland stands out even among other aviation museums. It sits on a former airfield used in both World War I and World War II. One hangar is devoted to a display of the Concorde, the record-breaking supersonic airliner. Visitors can walk inside the Concorde Read more

Big cities boast of well-known museums to see world-class art by names you’ve heard of, say, Picasso or Monet. But a drive around the American heartland reveals a treasure trove of small quirky museums that are not devoted to works of art but to obscure slices of history. They display true chunks of Americana.

I was driving in central Wisconsin when I saw a small billboard advertising the Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bike Museum in Sparta. As a space buff I remembered that Slayton was an astronaut from NASA’s early days. That alone was enough to get me to take the exit, but I was also curious to find out how an astronaut’s museum shares space with exhibits devoted to bicycles. So off to Sparta to the Deke Slayton Museum I went.

Deke Slayton Museum

Born on a nearby farm, Deke Slayton was one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. However, due to a heart murmur he didn’t fly on any of the original missions. He made up for that later by piloting the docking module on the Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975.

The museum has heaps of memorabilia from throughout Slayton’s career as an astronaut and his early flying career which included over 60 missions as a bomber pilot in World War II. You can see his Mercury Seven space suit, along with the obligatory moon rock. It’s a pretty interesting close-up of a man who led a fascinating life.

But what did it have to do with bicycles? I suppose Slayton rode a bike as a kid but that’s not the connection. As the docent pointed out quite proudly, Sparta was an early pioneer in turning abandoned railroad tracks into bike trails.

In 1966, the state of Wisconsin purchased the old train route and built the 32-mile Elroy-Sparta bike trail. It is considered the first of its kind in the country and was the inspiration for “rails to trails” projects across America.

The museum expands on this local color to present an exhibit about the history of the bicycle in America. Dozens of old bicycles are on display; if you’re lucky maybe you’ll see the Schwinn Sting Ray with a banana seat that you coveted as a child.

The ladies in the wonderfully named “Rockets & Sprockets” gift shop were delightful. They were so homespun I half expected them to be sitting in a quilting circle. They were excited to welcome a visitor and asked if I had come for the space exhibit or the bicycles. I replied, “Both,” which sent them into even more of a tizzy.

I told them that if they added a display of baked goods I’d probably move to the town and settle in. When Gladys overheard that I was interested in cookies and cakes she suggested I go to Ginny’s Cupboard a few blocks away.  Trusting her recommendation I strolled over there and found an old-fashioned soda fountain and café.  The baked goods were stacked up on the counter like bricks and I couldn’t resist a hunk of banana toffee cake that was big enough to serve as a wheel chock for a 747.

Astronauts, bikes and pastries, can a day get any better?

Click the link to learn more about the Deke Slayton Museum.

Gibraltar is a pretty interesting place to visit. Besides the giant rock that takes up most of the land, it’s the only place where we’ve had to drive across the airport runway to enter. This can cause a few complications since jets also use the runway. But the Gibraltarians take it in stride. When a plane is taking off or landing they hold back the traffic, just like at a railroad crossing.

Gibraltar airport runway

How many airports let you cross the runway?

Since there isn’t much land at Gibraltar they’ve come up with clever ways to use what they have. Before World War II, airplanes used to land on the grassy area in the middle of the local horseracing track. With the advent of the war the British built a runway into the sea. With minimal margin for error not just any pilot can land at Gibraltar. Despite the somewhat hairy landing, a quirk that placed the Gibraltar airport in a list of the top 10 unusual airports, there has never been a civil aviation accident.

Gibraltar Airport cars crossing runway

Since Gibraltar is part of the UK a double-decker bus on the runway is not an unusual sight.

We met our friends Charles and Maureen, native Gibraltarians, for a behind-the-scenes visit to the “Rock.” A relic of Gibraltar’s strategic position is that the rock itself is honeycombed with tunnels, some dating to the 1700s. We were inside one of these tunnels when we heard the unmistakable sound of a jet engine roaring to life, a noise that typically provokes a Pavlovian response in Larissa as she jerks her head quicker than a one-eyed dog in a sausage factory.

Gibraltar Airport birds eye view

Gibraltar Airport viewed from the Rock. The border with Spain is about 500 yards on the other side of the runway.

We ran to a viewpoint in the tunnel and were rewarded with a literal bird’s-eye view over the runway. Since there are only about five flights a day out of Gibraltar our timing was perfect. Here’s our video of a jet taking off from one of the quirkiest airports in the world. And as our friend Charles points out, also one of the safest.

If you’re into watching planes take off check out the video of the new runway viewing platform at Perth Airport.

Airports say a lot about how a city feels toward its visitors. The chaos of JFK conveys the message “Hey, we’re New York. We know you’ll come here no matter how we treat you. Get over it.” The long lines of Heathrow say, “You chose to come to London. Now queue up and stop grumbling.”  And don’t even get us started on the dougnut-shaped Terminal One at Charles De Gaulle. But Changi, the Singapore airport, conveys a totally different message.

But why do travelers look forward to spending time at Changi Airport? Like seemingly everything else in this efficiently run city-state, the airport is a well-organized welcoming place. The message it sends to weary visitors is, “Relax, we love having you here. Is there anything we can do for you?” In the movie The Terminal, Tom Hanks ended up living at an airport for close to a year. At the Singapore airport it really wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice.

Changi Airport Singapore Immigration

A site you’ll never see at Heathrow, immigration without lines. Even Leo looking down on it all approves.

The Singapore airport prints out a nifty 28-page guide complete with easy-to-read floor plans highlighting all the shops, restaurants and amenities. There are suggested itineraries based on how much time the passenger has to fill, or as they call it “Recommended Transfer Experiences.”

Those with only two or three hours before their next flight are directed to computer terminals with free Internet, a stroll through the world’s first airport Butterfly Garden or a free foot massage. The glass-walled Butterfly Garden is located right next to an active runway. In a neat juxtaposition of flight the fluttering butterflies frame A380s roaring overhead.

Children can play in the fun park and whiz down the world’s tallest airport slide. (We’re guessing it’s also the only airport slide but at four stories high it’s still pretty cool.) A mobile Post Office on wheels even roams the terminal so you can mail out those last-minute packages or postcards.

Changi Airport Singapore sign

Clear signage directs passengers to some of the amenities.

For a four to five-hour layover how about a refreshing dip in the rooftop swimming pool? Or perhaps take in a free current-run movie after a hearty dinner at one of dozens of restaurants.

For those trying to while away five or more hours, free city bus tours are offered to take in the sights of Singapore. Or if you’re still suffering from jet lag you can just catch up on your sleep in one of the designated rest areas instead.

The overall Changi Airport experience says a lot about Singapore itself. It’s clean, modern and welcoming. When our flight to Siem Reap was finally called we were reluctant to leave. Can you say that about your airport?

Click the link to see more about life at Changi Airport in Singapore.

The shiny new Emirates 777-200LR was zooming down the runway right  towards us, its General Electric engines screaming to create 110,000  pounds of  take-off thrust. Along with dozens of other plane geeks we were leaning over the railing like kids at a petting zoo at the new Perth Airport runway viewing area. Fortunately for us it had just opened the day before.

If you ever drive around the periphery of an airport you’ll notice a mass of mostly middle-aged, mostly men sitting at the end of the runway in beach chairs. Every few minutes they turn as one and point their cameras upwards into the sky. These are plane spotters, people who track and take photos of planes at airports. Their goal is to find as many different types of planes as they can and upload the pics to web sites that specialize in this arcane subject.

We met one such aircraft spotter at the new viewing area. Jens, a Dane who had flown in from South Africa, ostensibly to visit family living in Perth. But one look at his t-shirt, emblazoned with the logo of a Danish plane spotting web site, the way his head swiveled like a puppy in a sausage factory whenever he heard another jet roaring down the runway, and the massive zoom lens attached to his camera, made us think that visiting family was just an excuse to see the newly opened viewing area.

Aircraft spotter Jens captures another one

But not all plane spotters are so hardcore. Like most avid travelers, we happen to be plane geeks ourselves but are content to just watch the planes without recording them for posterity. Like many airplane geeks though, as much fun as it is to watch the planes take-off, we wish we were on one instead.

Here’s a video of a plane taking off from Gibraltar International Airport, one of the 10 most unusual airports in the world.

If you’re into airplanes you might like this story about our biplane ride in New Zealand over the Lord of the Rings sites.

When Peter Jackson chose New Zealand to film his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy it wasn’t just because he’s a Kiwi. The scenery is truly spectacular. It’s the best of America’s national parks all crammed into a relatively compact area. Picture if Colorado had not only the Rocky Mountains but also Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Teton national parks; the glaciers of Alaska; a few Norwegian fjords; sixty-five volcanoes, rain forests, deserts plus almost 10,000 miles of coastline. And a lot of sheep.

We had the opportunity to ride in an open-cockpit biplane over some of the natural wonders along with the Pelennor battlefield from LOTR:The Return of the King. We were driving back from a glacier hike near Mt. Cook when we saw a gorgeous flame red biplane sitting there gleaming by the side of the road. It was more effective than any billboard in promoting the business of Red Cat Scenic Flights run by pilot Chris Rudge. We’re both airplane geeks (which helps explain the vintage DC-3 at the top of our web site) but neither of us had ever been in a biplane.

The Red Cat

The experience flying in the plane is like a trip back to the barnstorming days of the 1920s. We were outfitted in leather flight jackets and goggles for the full Snoopy fighting the Red Baron effect. One of the unique features of Chris’ biplane, which he has named Red Cat,  is that he can fit two passengers upfront, a rarity among biplanes. Michael hopped in (we use the term loosely) first and was quite comfortable until he realized Larissa would be squeezed into the confined space as well.

Pilot Chris explained that the captain of the New Zealand rugby team had recently taken a flight with his dad and if they could fit in so could we, Larissa’s hips be damned. We buckled ourselves in but, quite frankly, we were jammed in so tight that even if Chris threw in a few barrel rolls I doubt we could have fallen out anyway.

We took off using barely any runway and were airborne before we knew it. Red Cat circled the Takitumu Mountains and nearby glaciers before flying over the Pelennor Fields.  Now Michael hasn’t seen any of the films but Larissa’s seen all three so she’s the expert on this. The battle scene in the movie required over 1,200 cast and crew, the largest shoot of all three films. We had driven by the site the day before but nothing matched the thrill of seeing it from the air with the wind in our face.

The Pelennor battlefield from above with the Takitumu Mountains in the distance

Afterwards we wanted to keep the thrill going even longer but Chris made us give back the helmet and goggles. The experience helped us capture the thrill that the early aviators had in their flying machines. A few days later we were flying from Christchurch to Sydney inside a pressurized cabin eating salted peanuts. As we flew over the New Zealand mountains we looked out the window and wondered where Red Cat was flying today.

For fellow plane geeks here’s a view from the cockpit as we landed:

If you’re ever in New Zealand, we highly recommend Red Cat Scenic Flights.

Chris the pilot with Little Rocky

Click the link for more on our visit to New Zealand.