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5 free things to do in Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf crossrail roof garden one of the best free things to do

A collection of ideas for cheap days out

Crossrail Place roof garden

Days out in London can be expensive, but they don’t always have to be. On a mission to make Canary Wharf more accessible and residential, the Canary Wharf Group have pushed for more activities and interactive art installations, many of them free of charge.

If you’ve never been to Canary Wharf — home to some of the tallest skyscrapers in the UK — it’s also an interesting place to visit and wander around. The combination of high-rise architecture and dockside location, makes this a thoroughly unique area of London.

Here are 5 ideas to incorporate into a fun day out that won’t break the bank.

Learn about Canary Wharf’s rich nautical history at the London Dockland Museum 

5 free things to do in Canary Wharf london docklands museum
There are plenty of reminders of the Docklands History on the Canary Wharf pavements

Pre financial center, Canary Wharf and the surrounding east London Docklands supported thousands of jobs and were the beating heart of Britain’s global empire.

Thousands of tonnes of cargo were imported and exported from around the world at these docks annually.

There are several clues to this rich history dotted around the Canary Wharf estate. Dock cranes, anchors and various assorted nautical relics can be found on the pavements throughout the area. For a more in-depth look at the local history, the London Docklands museum provides a fascinating (and free!) insight.

Spread over 5 floors of what was originally the main warehouse of West India Docks, the museum houses a large number of exhibits, activities and talks. There’s a cafe, restaurant, shop and toilet facilities.   

Located just north of the Canary Wharf estate it can be accessed from the centre via North Dock footbridge. On the DLR to get to Canary Wharf? Stay on one stop past Canary Wharf and get off at West India Quay. Equally, take the Crossrail Place exit from the Elizabeth line station

The Docklands museum opens 10am – 6pm every day of the week. Some exhibits require booking in advance, so it’s always best to book a free ticket on the London Docklands website, before you visit. 

Free Minigolf and Ping-Pong

Canary Wharf’s free minigolf is a perfect family-friendly activity. Staffed between 12-6pm, clubs and golf-balls are provided, alongside an explanation of the course!

A popular event, the mini-golf course has been held on the Canary Wharf estate for several years. To keep things fresh, the course has gradually changed styles, and moved to differing locations around the estate:

  • 2021’s Minigolf was held in Columbus Courtyard
  • Previous iterations were held in Bank Street Park opposite The Quay Club.
  • 2022’s minigolf location is in Montgomery Square
5 free things to do in Canary Wharf bank street minigolf
free minigolf in canary wharf columbus courtyard

If Minigolf isn’t your thing, 2021 saw the introduction of free Canary Wharf table tennis too!

  • The table tennis tables are located near the fountain in Cabot Square.
  • Ping pong is staffed between 12-6pm (but you can bring your own bats outside these times)
  • Bats and balls are provided on a first come, first served, basis.

In 2022, Canary Wharf’s table tennis has been expanded, with a second location in Wood Wharf.

Free ping pong tables in wood wharf
Free outdoor table tennis at wood wharf

Opening in the spring, both events run until October. Keep an eye on the Canary Wharf Twitter account for opening dates!

Check out the plants at Crossrail Place roof garden

Canary Wharf has a history of impressive stations. The Foster and Partner designed Jubilee Station is not only cavernous, but the rooftop forms the largest park in Canary Wharf!

When tasked with constructing a new Crossrail Station for the Elizabeth line — opening mid-2022 — Foster and Partners returned to create another impressive space.

5 free things to do in Canary Wharf crossrail roof garden night
A nice place to visit in the evenings, Crossrail Place gardens are open until 9pm

The result, Crossrail Place station, has one of London’s largest roof gardens on the top floor! Semi-covered — to create unique microclimates for the wide variety of botanical plants — Canary Wharf’s botanic roof garden creates the centrepiece of this new station.

Also hidden between the foliage is a small performance space. Check what’s on beforehand as this space is used for free music performances, theatre events, and even yoga classes.

However, even if there aren’t any free events on, the rooftop garden is worth visiting for the plants alone. The interesting planting originates from all corners of the world, as the theme for the garden is East meets West. And yes, Canary Wharf’s roof garden is completely free to access!

Canary Wharf is located north of Greenwich and the prime meridian. The former site of one of the largest docks in the world, Crossrail Place roof garden was designed to celebrate the area’s rich heritage.

As a result, you’ll find towering bamboo from the Far East, alongside plants from South America, and unique ferns from New Zealand. There are also plenty of crop producing plants, the likes of which were imported for years through the docklands.

These include coffee, sugar and of course bananas. Bananas were originally imported to the UK from the Canary Islands, and are behind the reasoning for Canary Wharf’s famous name.

Take a tour of Summer Lights

Canary Wharf has been known for its hugely popular Winter Lights exhibition — an annual event of illuminated exhibits — for almost a decade. However, in 2021, the group decided to embrace the popularity of this event and create a summer twist.

Known as Summer Lights, the free exhibition showcases unique sculptures and artworks that play with the light to create differing multicoloured shadows. Wandering around in the sunshine is a great way of exploring the estate, and what the area has to offer.

Summer Lights at Canary Wharf showing reflections and coloured shadows
Mirrored exhibit Summer Cloud by Tine Bech Studio at Canary Wharf Cabot Square

Spanning a longer timescale — the event runs for 2 months throughout the summer — this free event is more relaxed than the annual Winter Lights festival. And, if you attend on a midweek day, it’s possible to avoid crowds entirely and have the artwork to yourself.

Summer Lights returned in 2022, running from the 20th of June to 20th of August. For a taste of what to expect and to view some previous years exhibits, see our Summer Lights overview.

No opening hours or booking required, but a day with bright sunshine is recommended for the best effects!

Print a free story and relax by the water

2019 saw the introduction of free story dispensers across the Canary Wharf estate.

Select a genre and a length: 1, 3, or 5 minutes, hit print, and the French made machines dispense free short stories.

5 free things to do in Canary Wharf short story dispenser
Short story dispensers can be found throughout the Shopping Malls in Canary Wharf

This paper format, and random generation of the stories genres, provide the perfect place to take a break from the bustle of the financial district. The scheme proved far more popular than originally anticipated, with over 1000 stories printed in the first week.

The free machines print using special ink on eco-friendly recyclable paper. There are several machines now located in the Canary Wharf estate. They are currently, in the Cabot Place, and Jubilee Place shopping malls, alongside Crossrail Place roof garden.

Prefer to read on a tablet, or not passing a machine?

If your route to a quiet space in Canary Wharf doesn’t take you via one of the free short-story machines, the Canary Wharf collection of stories can be viewed online at the short-story dispenser website.

The short story machines at Canary Wharf underwent two small updates in 2021, whilst the UK was in lockdown following Covid-19:

  • In a drive to increase hygiene, machines were updated to replace physical buttons with touch-free sensors
  • The winning stories from the estate’s Life In Lockdown short story competition, have been added to the eclectic mix of stories available

Once you’ve stocked up on free stories, head to one of Canary Wharf’s growing collection of pocket parks. A personal favourite is to explore the waterside area in new district Wood Wharf. Both the floating Water Pavillions, and Harbord Boardwalk have lounging seats looking out over the docks.