Nine of the best free things to do in the UK between Christmas and New Year

The time between Christmas and New Year can be a strange, sometime tiresome lull. With children or extended family members to entertain, a week’s worth of days out can get expensive quickly – and sitting at home in front of the television is a recipe for lethargy and quarrels. But you don’t need to fork out for cinema tickets or delve into the high street sales. If you live near the countryside you can fill this window with long walks, while those in the cities should have access to a free museum or two. Here are a few ways to enjoy those empty days, for free.

Mummies at the Manchester Museum, Manchester, Lancashire

Not only is Manchester Museum free to visit, there’s also no cost to view most of the exhibitions or join a tour. Excite your inner Egyptologist with a look around Golden Mummies of Egypt, where you can see over 100 artefacts and eight mummified bodies. Alternatively, Carbon Ruins is a futuristic deep-dive into climate change and what the world will look like in 2050, telling the story through objects that represent change. There’s also a natural history library with huge dinosaur skeletons, and a vivarium with live amphibians and reptiles.

27–31 Dec, 10am-5pm; museum.manchester.ac.uk

Fountains Abbey Boxing Day Walk, Ripon, Yorkshire

Fountains Abbey taken overlooking the River Skell at dusk. It is one of the largest and best preserved ruined Cistercian monasteries in England.
Take a stroll to Fountains Abbey (Photo: jimennisphotography.co.uk/Getty)

This four-mile pilgrimage follows the route of Cistercian monks who set off from Ripon to found Fountains Abbey on 26 December, AD1132. To participate, join the crowd outside Ripon Cathedral at 9.30am. The walk, led by a member of the clergy, takes you through country fields, Studley Royal Water Garden, and up to Fountains Abbey where a carol service takes place in the colourfully underlit cloisters. The visitors’ centre is open as usual, and National Trust entry fees are waived for the event. Even the parking is free.

26 Dec, from 9.30am; yorkshire.com

Interactive history at M Shed, Bristol, Somerset

There’s so much to explore at this former transit shed on Bristol’s historic harbourside, you could easily spend a whole day there. To start with, three exhibitions – Places, People and Life – delve into the fabric of what made the city of today. As well as this, you can watch up to 150 digitalised films documenting Bristol’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, learn about how Bristol survived the Second World War, discover its music and art heritage, and see how people have lived here through the ages.

27–31 Dec, 10am-5pm; bristolmuseums.org.uk

Sainsbury Centre Sculpture Park, Norwich, Norfolk

If the weather is kind, a good romp outdoors will spring lethargic bodies back into action. Set in 350 acres of parkland, the larger-than-life sculptures span works by Henry Moore, Elisabeth Frink, and Antony Gormley. The grounds envelope the Norman-Foster designed Sainsbury Centre, where exhibitions on climate change, with some of the work created out of salvaged materials or waste, and daily guided tours are food for the mind.

Open 27–31 Dec, 10am-5pm; sainsburycentre.ac.uk

Walking tour, Belfast, Northern Ireland

A snow covered Belfast City Hall at Christmas in Northern Ireland. A perfect layer of snow covers the City Hall and grounds.
With a bit of luck, your walk will coincide with snow (Photo: Getty)

Free walking tours are a brilliant way to get to know a new destination, providing a good jumping off point for your stay. With a past as complex as Northern Ireland’s, it pays to have a well-rounded introduction by a local expert. Your guide will meet you at City Hall before taking you off to sites including the Docklands and The Lagan River, Cathedral Quarter, The Big Fish and Albert Clock, mixing history dating back to the Normans with a dash of humour.

Operating 27–31 Dec, 11am and 2.30pm; belfastfreewalkingtour.com

Dippy the dinosaur at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Birmingham, East Midlands

Named after local industrialist Sir Alfred Herbert, the gallery and museum pays homage to Coventry’s industrial heritage, with exhibitions, talks, displays and workshops for people of all ages. Among these is a family-friendly drop-in talk (30 Dec) that encourages children to express their thoughts on the art shown. There’s a Jewish exhibition in the History Gallery, displays from local artists, wildlife photography loaned from the Natural History Museum, and, perhaps most excitingly, Dippy the Diplodocus.

Open 27–31, 10am-4pm (Sundays 12pm-4pm); theherbert.org

Origami workshops and musicals at the V&A, Kensington, London

Photo: ?? David Parry/ V&A
Try your hand at origami (Photo: David Parry/ V&A)

A selection of free museums make London a fabulous place for budget-conscious visitors. The V&A has a number of free exhibitions, events and tours; from displays on what it means to be British, and embroidery from Afghanistan, to a deepfake drag cabaret show, and stories from the Windrush generation. If you’re short on time, be sure to stop by for the origami workshop (Dec 28-29, from 12pm-4pm), as well as the display on the evolution of the musical.

Open 27–31 Dec, 10am-5.45pm (Fridays 10am-10pm); vam.ac.uk

Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh, Scotland

Whether you want to keep the children busy for a few hours, or you’re visiting as grown-ups, toy museums are always entertaining. At this Edinburgh spot, highlights worth keeping in mind include a Steiff bear that made its way onto the last Kindertransport train to rescue Jewish children from Nazi Germany; a voice-activated Radio Rex from the 1920s; and Stanbrig Eorls, a dollhouse with 19 rooms, electricity and running water. With so many toys spanning so many decades, this is a great activity for every generation.

27–30 Dec, 10am-5pm (31 Dec, 10am-4pm); edinburghmuseums.org.uk

Wintry dam walks, Powys, Wales

Treat yourself to some fresh air at Elan Valley. There’s a visitors’ centre where you can warm up and get yourself a cuppa, an adventure playground for burning off some of that Christmas sugar (bring a picnic to make a day of it), and trails along the route of the old Elan Valley Railway, which are perfect for walking or cycling (also buggy and wheelchair-friendly). If you’re heading there for twixmas, you can join the Christmas Quiz Trail. It costs £2 per child and takes about 40 minutes to complete – if you find all the answers, that is.

28 Dec, 10am-1pm; elanvalley.org.uk