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5 free ways to see London this summer

April 18, 2012 at 8:15 AM ET

Despite the threat of sky-high hotel prices in London during its Olympic summer, there isn't another world-class destination that can boast as many free things to do as the British capital. Nearly all of London's major museums and galleries will let you in for nothing, which is a fine way to see the enormous blue whale and robot dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum or the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum.

The bargains aren't relegated to museums, though. Step outside and celebrate the Queen's birthday, window-shop at one of the world's greatest retail outlets, and explore parts of the city that offer a breather from the Olympic-sized crowds.

Slideshow: Find more free things in England, Scotland and Wales

Wave to the Queen at Trooping the Colour

To catch sight of the Queen in person, visit the Trooping of the Colour ceremony held once a year to mark the Queen's official birthday (the event is on June 16 this year) on Horse Guards Parade in St James's Park. Involving much pomp, a lot of sweating in bearskins, some pretty cool marching, clanking metal and jostling for position with fellow royal-watchers, the ceremony sees 1,400 officers and others on parade, together with 200 horses and more than 400 musicians from seven military bands and corps of drums and 113 issued words of command.

Frommer's Travel /
A Life Guard of the Household Cavalry Mounted Guard stands sentry at Horse Guards on Whitehall in London.

The parade extends from Buckingham Palace along The Mall to Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall and back again. Precisely as the clock on the Horse Guards Building strikes 11 a.m., the Royal Procession arrives and the Queen takes the Royal Salute. The parade then continues with the inspection; the Queen drives slowly down the ranks of the Guards and the Household Cavalry. After the event, the Royal Family gathers on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to watch an RAF flypast.

The ceremony may be seen from Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall, and the cavalry division's process to Buckingham Palace from a flag-lined Mall.

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From Wimbledon to Wembley Stadium to The Dome, a look at the venues for the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Details: www.trooping-the-colour.co.uk. Tube stop: St James's Park

Stand either side of the Earth at the Royal Observatory

Founded by King Charles II in 1675 to solve the problem of finding longitude at sea, here you can stand on the famous meridian line with a foot on each side, guide a space mission and touch a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite. There are photos of Saturn taken from the Cassini spacecraft, a chance to learn how the universe was formed, and on certain Sundays (check ahead) visitors can view sunspots through a Hydrogen Alpha 28-inch telescope, once the largest in the world. While you're here, check out the bright red Time Ball on top of Flamsteed House, first used in 1833. It was one of the world's earliest public time signals, alerting ships on the Thames, and it still operates each day at 12:55 p.m. when the ball rises half way up its mast. The Time and Longitude Gallery is also worth a visit for its collection of marine clocks. The planetarium is free for members. The best time to come is before 11:30 a.m., the busiest is 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Details:www.nmm.ac.uk. Train stop: Dockland Light Railway/Cutty Sark

Window-shop at Harrods

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images /
From Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square, the venerable old town oozes history and Dickens.

Serving more than 15 million people a year, the largest store in Britain isn't somewhere you'll want to open your wallet too wide but it's worth a visit to gawp at people who are prepared to spend £1,000 (yes) on a bedsheet. The store is the last in Britain to sell real fur, has a dress code barring the wearing of some of the products it sells (bermuda shorts, ripped jeans, sandals, cycling shorts) and it also boasts two shrines to Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed.

The chocolate department is fantastic, the food hall makes Fortnum & Mason look like a corner shop, and you must see the pharaohs in the Egypt Room, reputedly modeled on owner Al Fayed himself, while the swanky loos are worth a snoop. Also, don't come on a Saturday -- it's heaving with tourists and foreign shoppers queuing to get their VAT exemptions. If you want extra carrier bags to impress your friends, ask for them -- the staff are, as you'd expect, geniality personified.

Details: 87-135 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge; www.harrods.com. Tube stop: Knightsbridge, South Kensington or Sloane Square

Witness the pomp of the Changing of the Guard

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Click for a larger version.

The Changing of the Guard is one of the oldest and most popular ceremonies associated with Buckingham Palace and you can gain many kudos with the tourists outside the gates by loudly declaring that its proper name is, of course, the Guard Mounting. The process of changing the guard is as simple as it sounds. The New Guard exchanges duty with the Old Guard, the handover accompanied by a Guards' band. The music played during the ceremony ranges from traditional military marches to songs from musical shows. The Foot Guards are in the full-dress uniform of red tunics and bearskins (great coat in the winter) and it all takes place in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace at 11:30 a.m., lasting about 45 minutes. It's daily from May until the end of July and on alternate days for the rest of the year. There is no Guard Mounting ceremony in very wet weather.

Details: Buckingham Palace; www.royal.gov.uk. Tube stop: St James's Park or Green Park

See the White Lady Ghost at Queen's House

Designed by Inigo Jones, Queen's House was the first Palladian villa in England. It was commissioned by King James I, possibly to apologize to his wife Anne for losing his temper after she accidentally shot his pet hound during a deer hunt. The house showcases the National Maritime Museum's fine-art collection, including paintings by Gainsborough, Hogarth and Reynolds, and is also renowned for its elegant Tulip Staircase, the first geometric self-supporting spiral stair in Britain.

The staircase is also the location of the Rev. R.W. Hardy's famous "ghost" photograph taken on June 19, 1966, which revealed what appeared to be two or three shrouded figures on the staircase. This was the main excuse my fretful spouse used to refuse to enter the building, meaning I was forced to go in alone with the children. I had to carry them up a flight of the Tulip Staircase, one under each arm like surfboards because they were tired from pelting up and down the Maritime Museum. Don't miss the Great Hall, with its impressive geometric black-and-white floor tiling and wooden balcony running around the walls, where musicians played during King James' times.

Details:www.nmm.ac.uk. Train stop: Dockland Light Railway/Cutty Sark

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