Less is more.
You’ve heard it before. And it still holds true when it comes to choosing a fast and lightweight WordPress theme.
In this guide, you’ll learn about:
- The best, free and fastest WordPress themes right now (2019)
- Why you should choose a fast theme over a “pretty” theme
- Why your WordPress is running so slow
All the WP themes in this guide have a 100% free “base” theme, which should be good enough to get you started!
These themes were chosen based on my personal experience with them after 8 years of blogging. And some various speed tests I found online.
(Pssst: I’ve never actually bought a WP theme before. I’ve used only free themes exclusively and have built successful websites ;].)
Also: I’m not paid for reviewing any of these themes. NONE of them contain affiliate links. This is my honest opinion about them and their performance.
Let’s dive right in!
What's in this guide?
This has been one of my favorites for the longest time. It’s one of the first themes I started out using because it ranks pretty high up there in the WordPress sort by “Popular” tab.
That’s actually how I found out about it and I’ve had some awesome success.
GeneratePress is headed by Tom Usborne, who you’ll often see answering questions on the support forums.
This guy is probably one of the most generous people around, given that he’s working on theme AND answering support questions on the forum.
He does have a small team that helps contribute answers, but it’s nice to see the main developer taking his own time to answer questions from both paid and free users.
The theme does have a paid version, which basically gives you access to a bunch of other add-ons for additional functionality and appearance customization.
But the free version should be much more than enough to start a basic site.
In fact, AWSMO uses the free version of GeneratePress. And this site loads with near perfect speed scores using Google’s Speed Test Tool:
GeneratePress is free, lightweight, and extremely customizable. It’s one of my top, go-to themes when I want to start something from scratch and build it into something else.
The theme is also compatible with popular plugins, such as:
- Beaver Builder
- And more
At the time of this writing, the theme has a 5/5 overall rating with a little over 900 reviews:
The theme has plenty of layouts you can choose from in the free version. You can use the standard sidebar layouts, with up to 5 different placements.
There are also 9 different widget areas and plenty of menu locations. It also has dropdown menus and nested/sub nested menu items.
GeneratePress is updated constantly for both the free and premium versions. You can rest assured that the team behind it is constantly improving the theme for performance and keeping up with the latest WordPress standards and valid HTML/CSS codes.
The theme is also 100% mobile-friendly and I’ve never had any issues with it being responsible across all devices. It’s nearly a perfect theme.
If I had to nitpick, I’d say it’d be due to the limited appearance options.
Even though you can shift layouts and move widgets/menus around, the overall appearance looks pretty bland.
You’ll have to go in and do some custom CSS work to make it unique and add some “eye candy.” since this theme is popular, many other sites use the same default layout and colors.
Thus, you may come across many “clones” of the same theme being used across many sites.
Be sure to add some color, or at least change up some elements on the screen. Add some hover effects.
Customize your sidebar/widget layouts. Use some custom CSS and make it different.
If you don’t know how to do any of this, the premium theme does have a lot more flexibility. But if you know basic CSS, you can do this for free.
Other than that minor issue, GeneratePress is definitely one of my top 3 themes.
This is one of the fastest-loading WP themes and super lightweight. If you have shared hosting, especially non-SSD hosting, this theme will reduce the strain on your server and make it load that much faster.
You can try out GeneratePress here. It’s 100% free and one of the fastest themes on the market.
Next up, we have Astra.
If want to rank themes by popularity, Astra is definitely a lot more popular than GeneratePress. In fact, it currently gets more than double the daily downloads on average just by peeking at hte download per day graphs:
But that doesn’t really matter. Astra is headed by a larger team, much bigger than the one managing GeneratePress. However, when a team gets larger, sometimes quality diminishes because it doesn’t have that same level of personal care and touch.
Astra is one theme that manages to have a full workforce behind it and consistently tops the charts in terms of speed, performance, and quality. I actually recently discovered this theme and started using it on a few of my new projects. I absolutely love the performance of it.
Most of my sites are on shared hosting (SSD) and it loads the page in just about a second.The theme is lightweight and offers a lot more customization options compared to GeneratePress. The default theme is also a lot more appealing in my opinion.
Everything looks like a little sharper and pleasing to the senses.
In terms of plugin compatibility, Astra is right up there with GeneratePress. This theme works with all the popular plugins like BuddyPress, SiteOrigin, Divi, Beaver Builder, Elementor, Visual Composer, WooCommerce, and more.
The site is also SEO-friendly, just like GeneratePress (or pretty much all the themes on this list).
Astra is a nice theme to use as your base theme and then customize from there. The code is clean, developer-friendly, and optimized for performance.
Both Astra and GeneratePress are extremely fast themes and keep things clean and lightweight.
There are plenty of customization options, such as:
- Page width
- Header options
- Footer options
- Widget options
- Byline options
You can actually remove the “leave a comment” line completely if you want. You can also change the order of the category, author, and publish date.
Or you can remove them with just a few clicks from the customer. Not many other themes offer this level of customization for a free theme. So I always thought that was pretty cool.
For those that aren’t technically-inclined, you may find the extensive customization options useful!
Even though I have a rookie understanding of CSS, I still use the options because it’s so much easier and faster than writing code. It’s also very easy to toggle some random options to make your site appear unique compared to others Astra clones.
Astra is 100% free to use for the base theme and you can do almost everything like start an ecommerce store, blog, directory site, classifieds, review site, affiliate site, or business page.
The theme is also compliant with Google’s AMP, which allows for lightning-fast loading of pages on mobile. AMP is currently not a ranking factor, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s utilized in the future.
Regardless, if users click on the AMP pages in the SERPs, the click-thru rate will bump that site up in the rankings anyway. So it’s very possible that AMP sites tend to rank better just because of CTR.
If you want a theme you can trust that’s upheld to the latest WordPress standards, constantly updates for security and performance, and has minimalistic design with lightweight elements, check out Astra.
This is one of the best free themes dedicated to speed and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything faster with as many customization options.
Even though there are a ton of things you can customize, the overall theme is VERY lightweight and loads very quickly compared to bloated themes.
The support for it is also awesome. Looking over their support forum, most replies are answered within hours.
And they support both free and paid customers, so you don’t need to feel left out just because you’re a free user!
The theme currently has nearly 3K 5-star ratings at the time of this writing:
You can check it out here.
Astra is new to my arsenal, but it’s one that I’ll be deploying for future projects for sure. In fact, the recent project I started using this theme on is taking off in the SERPs like crazy (which I’ll be doing a case study on later- sign up for the newsletter for updates!).
Of course, this is mainly due to content. But this just goes to show the technical side of the project is covered by the theme =].
3. Iconic One
The next theme on the list is an “iconic one.”
This is an older theme that has a base theme for free. The premium version has consistent updates, but the older one is clearly behind when you compare the two. However, this theme is a blazing-fast, “ugly” theme. And I don’t mean ugly in a bad way.
Did you know ugly sites convert better than pretty sites?
The unique look of the theme really makes sites stand out. By “ugly,” I mean it’s kind of bare, bland, and old-school. Iconic One definitely looks like something from the early 2000s. The font style, design, and boxed elements make this WP theme unique.
If you want a free and fast theme, you should consider Iconic One. The design of it is definitely one that stands out, but this just may work to your benefit. The base theme is completely free.
I’m not too sure about plugin compatibility, but I assume that the majority of well-coded plugins should work. It works with WooCommerce for the most part.
There were some design changes I had to do with CSS, but I think for a standard blog or information page, it’s a good choice.
Hueman is another fast theme.
This one is more featured with plenty of customization options. It’s responsive, and fast theme that actually looks pretty nice because there’s not a ton of empty white space everywhere.
If you’re not a fan of minimal web design, and you want a theme that’s fast, Hueman may fit the bill.
The theme works well as a magazine, news, or blog theme with multiple authors. For one person, it may be too much.
There are a lot of special sidebar features (such as sorting by recent, trending, etc.) posts. The theme also has a few different layout options with single or multiple columns.
Out of all the magazine themes I’ve tried, Hueman would be the fastest and best-looking one. It’s a little slower than Astra and GeneratePress, but it makes sense because it has a lot more color, design, and features to it.
Hueman is currently rated 5/5 stars with just over 600 reviews.
The support team is also present in the forums to answer questions. The theme is currently updated as of just a few days ago, so it’s cool that the dev is still supporting it.
Check out Hueman.
To be frank, I’ve had limited experience with OceanWP.
But just poking around in the community, it seems like a very well-liked theme. It sports nearly 3K reviews just like Astra, so these two themes are major competitors.
OceanWP is very similar to Astra in terms of speed and flexibility. It offers a striking design by default with plenty of customization options.
You don’t need to know a lick of code to generate a pretty decent looking website. The theme is also responsive, translation-ready, and has “best SEO practices” built in.
You should always take themes with “best” and “SEO” together in the same line cautiously.
There is no “best” practice, as every single SEO guru will have different answers for this. You can have on-page SEO and off-page SEO.
But your specific theme’s technical SEO isn’t exactly outlined in a user’s manual. What’s “best practice” to one developer may be something to avoid for another.
So you should never choose a theme just because it claims it’s SEO-friendly.
The other themes on this list say the same thing in their description, so I’m not only blaming OceanWP.
But it’s just something to keep in mind when deciding on an SEO-friendly theme.
Just like the other themes, OceanWP lets you utilize a bunch of popular page builders and plugins. At its core, OceanWP is multi-purpose theme that lets you build from a solid foundation.
Personally, I haven’t used it that many times other than for some ecommerce sites. But I think it’s worth mentioning because it’s topping the charts in terms of popularity, speed, and featureset.
You can use the base theme of OceanWP for free here.
Last on the list is Sparkling by Colorlib.
This is another theme that’s super lightweight and looks great by default. It’s a fast, simple, and free WP theme. It’s actually one of the first themes I started out with. I used it for some of my older niche projects that I gave up on.
Even today, the theme is still supported and when I went to update my sites, they load up in a breeze. I think the typography of this theme is awesome and easy to read. The sidebars are clean and the overall design is very simple and lightweight.
The reviews aren’t bad either:
Not much to say about Sparkling since I don’t use it much anymore. But I remember choosing this theme just because of the sheer speed and clean design it has.
The theme still has a ton of positive reviews and the developers are still supporting it. Worth checking out if you want a fast and simple theme that’s free.
Why you should choose function over form (speed over appearance)
This mentality applies to the majority of WP sites. If you’re just doing an affiliate site, blog, or other site that’s content-cased, speed matters more than appearance.
Especially in the beginning.
When you first start out, you may spend hours (or even days) trying to make your site look “pretty.”
This is a huge time waste.
You should be focusing on content only. Get the content outta here as fast as you can. Then focus on how your site looks.
Why? Because Google will take months to rank your content for new sites.
If you’re just starting out or your site is young, don’t worry about how the theme looks. You can even just leave the default theme and focus on putting out words.
After you start ranking and getting your first small trickle of traffic, then you should start doing some designing.
In the beginning, don’t waste time making your site picture perfect. You’ll likely change it again later anyway when you start getting used to it.
So just focus on content and keeping your site fast. As long as it works and is mobile friendly, you’re good to go.
This works for the majority of niches, unless you’re in fashion or web design. Then you should focus on a well-designed site in both speed and appearnce.
But for the rest of us: Just get your content out there!
What to do if your WordPress is running slow
If your WP is slow, there are many, many explanations why.
Most of the time, it comes down to 3 problems:
- You have too many plugins
- Your hosting is too slow
- You’re not optimizing your site
This topic merits a tutorial of its own, so I’ll briefly touch on how you can quickly fix each of the above issues here.
Plugins are the root cause for many slowness issues with WP. Using too many plugins, especially ones that are poorly coded or conflict with others, will slow down your site.
- Only use plugins that are highly-rated and updated
- Only use as many plugins as you need
- Consider removing a plugin for functionality that’s not necessary or hardly used
- Watch out for two plugins that conflict each other
You can find out which plugins are slowing down your site by disabling them one-by-one until your site speeds up again. You can also use something like Query Monitor to see which ones are taking the longest to load.
If you’re using shared hosting (which most beginners and even some veterans do), you may not the resources necessary to support all the plugins you’re trying to run.
You may need to upgrade your hosting package if you absolutely NEED all the plugins you currently have.
Of course, you’ll want to determine that it’s indeed the plugins that’s slowing down your site. Or else upgrading may not do much for you. You can do this by running the plugin profiler mentioned above.
Low quality hosting can also be simply a mix of things that make your site slow now matter what:
- Bad locations that are far from your target audience
- Overloaded servers
- Unoptimized data delivery
- Resource reduction
- Outdated technology
This is exactly why you should always use a trusted host.
After all, it’s the real lifeline of your online business, right?
This topic can’t be covered with a simple list of bullet points. There are entire companies that revolve around optimizing WP websites.
I can only offer you some basic suggestions. If you really want to read about WP optimization in depth, I highly recommend checking out these sites:
For (very) basic pointers, I suggest you do the following:
- Use a good caching plugin
- Use a CDN if you have a lot of media (pictures, static elements, etc.)
- Use a host that optimizes their servers for speed (good hosts should do this by default)
- Optimize your images (plenty of plugins that do this)
- Test your page speeds
- Use lazy loading for pictures and video
Did you find your next fast and free WP theme?
Any of these 6 themes should do the trick. I’m 99% sure that you’ll find at least one of these to be suitable for your next niche project. They’re all super fast, lightweight, and free.
And I personally use them myself for both current projects and as a “go to” theme just because they’re well-coded and have excellent performance.
If you have any other themes to suggest, go ahead and leave a comment below and I’ll check it out?
What do you think? Which theme are you going to use for your next niche site?