How to find free things to do and see is often a question of research. However, perhaps the following will shed some light on what is available on European vacation packages, to guide you in the right direction.
Free? Air is free. What else? I must admit I find that everywhere I turn, I find I am reaching into my pocket to pay for something – admission fees especially. Well, the following will give you an idea of just how much there is out there which can save you money.
Museums, Art Galleries and Other Cultural Establishments
If you are a culture bug who has booked one of many European vacation packages, you have a large number of amazing museums and art galleries at your disposal. What you probably know already is that at certain times and on certain days, many establishments offer free admission, but not all. When checking out the major ones (and this is as current as I am able to advise), some examples I have found are the Louvre in Paris (free admission on first Sunday of the month and free to anyone under 26 on Friday evenings), the Uffizi in Florence (free admission on first Sunday of the month) and the Prado in Madrid (free admission between 6 and 8 pm Tuesdays to Saturdays and 5 to 8 pm on Sundays). These are just examples and I suggest you check on any other gallery or museum by accessing their website. Many cultural institutes allow free admission to students and people under a certain age.
My favourite city for free admissions is London, where almost every major museum and art gallery is totally free all the time. Just consider this list:
The British Museum
The National Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery
The Tate Modern
The Tate Britain
The Science Museum
The Natural History Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum
The Imperial War Museum
The Museum of London
The Wallace Collection
The National Maritime Museum
… and many more!
Special Places and Venues
Some of the places I list here, in a sense, are tourist attractions, but, to my mind, they can be looked at as a bonus, on European vacation packages, while being very attractive, entertaining, and complimentary.
Red Square, Moscow
You might well say that anyone can walk around Red Square and, yes, that’s true, but to me it’s a free exhibit on a Europe vacation. This is the most famous square in Moscow and possibly the most famous in all of Europe. During the Soviet era, the square was used to hold all the parades. Unbelievably, Soviet rulers even wanted to demolish the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral only to have more room for their displays of power. Nowadays, the square is a preferred place to organize concerts. The fairytale-like St. Basil’s Cathedral and the exterior of the impressive Kremlin are highlights. Lenin’s Mausoleum has free entry if you are interested in seeing his embalmed body lying in state. Also, you can enjoy a short stay in the GUM department store which used to be a shopping precinct for Russian workers during the Soviet era and where I remember seeing long lines of people hoping to buy anything that might be available in a country starved of almost everything. Today it has become a centre for upscale designer shops, cafes, and other modern conveniences.
The Moscow Subway
The Moscow Subway is called the most beautiful in the world because 44 of the nearly 200 stations are listed as cultural heritage sites due to the architecture and works of art that have been installed there. To me, this is an underground museum as well as a transit system. The first station to become artistically endowed was as long ago as 1934. It is well worth either going for a ride (okay, that’s not free but it is hardly expensive) or, at least, visiting one station on Russia vacations to admire the platforms where the majority of the art is located.
The Stockholm Subway
Not officially an art gallery, the subway/metro in Stockholm has, in 90 of its 100 stations, exhibits of sculptures, mosaics, paintings, and engravings by more than 150 artists. A ride on this subway system is well worthwhile on Sweden vacations – all for the price of one ticket.
The Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo
Vigeland Park in Oslo is the world’s largest sculpture park involving a single artist. This open-air sculpture park is officially in Frogner Park, but is known more popularly as Vigeland Park. It is the lifelong work of Gustav Vigeland where you can see, on a Norway vacation, 212 sculptures made of bronze and granite. There is also a museum which houses not only sculptures but also drawings, woodcuts, and wood carvings. One of the park’s more popular statues is the eye-catching Angry Boy. The Children’s Playground has a collection of eight bronze statues showing children at play.
The Colosseum and the Roman Forum, Rome
Although not in its original completion state, the Roman Colosseum has stood the test of time and is something to behold in Rome. This was the arena where gladiator games took place and which held space for 50,000 spectators. Today, as you visit, on European vacation packages, you will discover that the Colosseum is inhabited by a number of stray cats who make their home here. Close by is the ancient Roman Forum which was once used for celebrations, funerals, and other events. It was only excavated in the early 1900s. If you climb to the top of nearby Palatine Hill, you will be rewarded with excellent panoramic views of the city.
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul
The enormous and imposing Blue Mosque in Istanbul is so called because of the blue tiles surrounding the walls of the interior. Built in the first part of the 17th century, it is an active mosque but totally open to visitors except during daily prayers for half an hour each time. It contains the tomb of the Sultan Ahmed, who authorized the construction of the Blue Mosque. The exterior is very photogenic with its domes and six minarets. It offers a beautiful glimpse into Istanbul’s history on your trip to Turkey. You should also take time to stop and enjoy the peaceful park that sits at the base of the mosque.
St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican, Rome
St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome’s Vatican City, is the world’s largest church. It is a very imposing edifice built by some of Italy’s greatest architects from past eras. The site on which it is built is highly symbolic, as it is where Peter died as a martyr and was buried. This huge church has a nave measuring 211 metres/694 feet in length. The church itself can accommodate 60,000 people. Now that’s big! The basilica’s dome is one of the world’s largest, measuring 42 metres/136 feet in diameter and reaching a height of 132 metres/434 feet. You can spend time looking at the statues, paintings, tombs, and marble pillars, plus visit the grotto where you find the graves of more than one hundred popes. Within the church, there is a viewing platform from where you can enjoy an exceptional view over Rome. If you climb the stairs, it’s free, but if you take the elevator, there is a charge.
Three Amazing Cemeteries in Paris
Three of my absolute favourite venues in Paris while on European vacation packages, are, believe it or not, cemeteries. But these are not typical cemeteries. They are the resting places of famous celebrities such as composers, singers, authors, philosophers, painters, entertainers, politicians and many others. All three are thoughtfully laid-out and there are maps and signs at the entrance to tell you who lies where. A warning – you can spend several hours walking around if really wanting to see the gravestones, tombs, and mausoleums of all these famous people. If you only visit one of them, the principal cemetery is called Pere Lachaise, in the north-east of the city. Here are just a few of the most famous “residents”: Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Balzac, Moliere, Proust, Gertrude Stein, Yves Montand, Georges Seurat, Modigliani, Edith Piaf, Sarah Bernhardt, and Isadora Duncan. And there are many, many more. Montparnasse Cemetery is the second largest cemetery and its “residents” include Susan Sontag, Ionesco, Simone de Beauvoir, Alfred Dreyfus, Samuel Beckett, Maupassant, Baudelaire, and Mavis Gallant (the Canadian writer). Montmartre Cemetery is the third largest cemetery in the city and contains Emile Zola, Nijinsky, Degas, Berlioz, Offenbach, Francois Truffaut, Alexander Dumas, and Adolphe Sax (inventor of the saxophone). All these celebrities and you pay nothing.
Traditional Irish Music
Perhaps not free but for the price of a pint of Guinness, you can listen to traditional Irish music, which is a huge part of the country’s culture. In Dublin, for example, head to just about any pub at night and you will hear fiddles, banjos, and singing galore. As I said, you will have to buy the drinks, but the entertainment is definitely on the house.
It is always nice to come across an event that is quintessentially of the country or city. Here are some examples of free events you may discover while on European vacation packages which take place on a regular basis.
Changing of the Guard, Buckingham Palace, London
The New Guard exchanging duty with the Old Guard is a famous traditional ceremony outside of Buckingham Palace in London. It starts at 10:45 am and lasts for around 45 minutes, with the actual handover taking place at 11am. The guard that looks after Buckingham Palace is called The Queen’s Guard and is made up of soldiers on active duty from the Household Division’s Foot Guards. The guards are dressed in traditional red tunics and bearskin hats. The ceremony is free to watch and currently takes place every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, weather permitting. Note that the ceremony is very popular, so while on your UK vacation, you will need to arrive early to obtain a place with a good view.
Westminster Abbey, London
You normally have to pay an entrance fee to enter Westminster Abbey, however, at certain times, you can go inside and at the same time be entertained. For example, organ recitals are held in the Abbey every Sunday afternoon at 5:45pm. These are 30-minute concerts and a wide range of music is performed. Another way of enjoying the abbey is to attend evening services which are held almost daily. However, please note, services are on a first come first serve basis. The exceptional choir is well worth hearing. St. Paul’s Cathedral offers the same evening services.
Speakers’ Corner, London
Speakers’ Corner at the north-east corner of Hyde Park has been a traditional site for public speeches and debates since the mid-1800s, when protests and demonstrations took place here. People such as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and George Orwell often used this place to demonstrate free speech. Every Sunday morning, crowds gather to listen to enthusiastic “orators” expound their views. Anyone can turn up to speak on any subject, as long as the police consider their speeches lawful. Speakers’ Corner was the focus of a huge rally in 2003 against military action in Iraq. The number of people who attended was estimated at over 750,000. The speakers included actress Vanessa Redgrave, human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger, playwright Harold Pinter, and Hollywood actor, Tim Robbins.
The Edinburgh Free Fringe Festival
Every year, Edinburgh is home to a festival offering live music, standup comedy, and theatre shows free of charge with over 300 performances across dozens of venues. The Free Festival began in 2004 when two producers realized the traditional way of producing shows wouldn’t work for them, with the current Fringe Festival performers losing money every year performing to small audiences as ticket prices were so high. A free festival meant creative freedom for performers and the freedom for performers and audiences to choose what shows they perform or see.
Concerts in Amsterdam
Amsterdam offers many free orchestral performances which can be taken advantage of on Europe vacation packages. The Dutch National Opera & Ballet on Tuesdays and the famous Concertgebouw Orchestra on Wednesdays hold complimentary lunchtime concerts. There is also the Muziekgebouw, a concert hall where conservatoire students play for free on the last Thursday of every month. Amsterdam often has free public concerts in open air spaces such as parks and squares. The Central Public Library, located near the Central Station, often gives free recitals by jazz musicians and also piano music.
Free Drinks in Berlin
I’ll bet that got your attention. Actually, I have to use the word, “freeish,” as it is a case of pay-what-you-want in wine bars in Berlin. How it works is you grab a glass at the bar, refill it as many times as you like from the selection of wine bottles on display, and at the end of the night, you pay whatever you think is fair. Where are these bars? One you can check out is Weinerei. Others, I leave for you to find out about.
Definitely Free Wine in Lisbon
It sounds too good to be true, I know, but Viniportugal, an organization that promotes Portuguese wines, offers free glasses between 11am and 7pm, Tuesday through Saturday. Nobody asks you for a donation and there is no pressure for you to buy a bottle of wine. However, if you find a wine you like, why not indulge, on your stay in Lisbon.
Free Views Which Save You Money
I said earlier that air is free. I suggest you breathe it at the following locations and, at the same time, enjoy wonderful views of the surrounding areas.
Filopappou Hill, Athens
Everyone knows the Acropolis in Athens, the hill on which you will find the Parthenon. Well, there is a stiff admission fee and it gets really crowded in high season. So, I suggest you head to nearby Filopappou Hill for a just as fantastic a view of Athens, the Acropolis, and even the Aegean Sea. While walking up the hill, you will see a 16th Century church and the prison where Socrates is supposed to have died. Don’t forget your camera.
If you are contemplating a trip to the Eiffel Tower, wanting a view of the rooftops of Paris, you must expect to buy a ticket to go up the tower and to be pretty certain to encounter a large crowd on their European vacation packages wanting to do the same thing. My recommendation is to head to Montmartre and stand outside the Sacre Coeur church for a fabulous view of the whole city from the terrace there. And the surrounding area is much more interesting.
Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence
One of my favourite places in Florence on an Italy vacation is the Piazzale Michelangelo. This is just outside the city centre and visible from there. It is a terrace perched on the top of a hill from which you get the most fabulous and stunning views of Florence. The Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio, and the banks of the River Arno are all very visible below. This viewpoint can be reached on foot but be prepared for a longish uphill walk, or you can go on a tour or on a local bus.
Castle Hill, Budapest
Budapest is divided into two parts by the Danube River, Buda and Pest respectively. Perched on top of a large promontory in Buda, rising up from the Danube River, one kilometre/half a mile long, is the Castle District. This can be reached either on foot or by funicular. Here, head to the Fishermen’s Bastion, an ornate viewing promenade from which you can enjoy simply breathtaking views of the river and the Pest side of the city below. Castle Hill is also where you will find a number of Budapest’s important medieval buildings, monuments, and museums.
Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh
Arthur’s Seat is a large hill situated next to Holyrood Palace, just to the east of Edinburgh‘s city centre. From here, you can have excellent views of the cityscape and beyond. From some angles, Arthur’s Seat resembles a lion lying down. It is also the site of a large, well-preserved fort and the 15th Century St. Anthony’s Chapel.
The Reichstag, Berlin
The Reichstag is the home of the German parliament. Be sure to go onto the large glass-domed roof for a 360-degree view of the surrounding city. Entrance to the roof is free but you must register in advance. The Reichstag looks amazing when illuminated at night.
So there you have it. If you were to try out any or all of these ideas with your European vacation packages, you would save yourself quite a bit of money.