Tired of London, tired of life, yadda-yadda, but most people forget the second half of Samuel Johnson’s popular aphorism: “for there is within London, all that life can afford.” While, no doubt referring to the extraordinary diversity found in London, he also hit upon another significant aspect of the Great City. It’s expensive!
There are, however, numerous ways of enjoying your stay on limited funds, and this will be a short primer on how to maximise your budget, while still seeing the significant parts on offer.
Firstly — where will you stay? Well, not only could you write a book on this, there are hundreds which currently exist testifying to the fact. However, some of the cheapest rooms are located around Heathrow airport, so a quick scan online will return the day rates from all over town. You can quickly see that Heathrow specialises in discount rooms, Bloomsbury: between the City and West End, has some bargains, and Hackney on the fringes of the City, is convenient and cheaper too.
In addition, you should also factor travel costs into your room rate. Use a Tube Travelcard in 1,3 or 7 day flavours. They rise in price dependent on how far from the centre you are, so consider that with regard to staying near Heathrow. The surrounding area is zone 4,5 and 6, compared to Bloomsbury and Shoreditch which are zone 1 and 2. Travelcards offer unlimited travel, and in weekly form there are no rush-hour restrictions. So that’s your room and travel fixed, which are bare minimums: there’s no way around these costs unless you plan to spend your visit walking, and sleeping under bridges (not recommended).
Cheap Sightseeing Tours
First tip is a sightseeing tour of the city, which retail at about £25-30 per person through the official channels. Or you can opt for the no-commentary, ordinary bus version. Go after 10am, to avoid being compressed by chubby commuters and you’ll find plenty of space available.
The two best options are: the RV1 bus which you can catch outside Tower Gateway Tube station: which passes Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, The Tate Modern, The National Theatre, Waterloo, Strand, Aldwych and terminates in Covent Garden. Not over-long or taxing and you see plenty along the way.
A lengthier, but equally sight-filled route can be experienced by catching the 23 bus from Liverpool Street station. That passes the Bank of England, Mansion House, St. Paul’s, Fleet Street, the Royal Courts, Strand, Trafalgar Square, Pall Mall, Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, Bond Street, Marble Arch, Paddington and finishes near Little Venice.
You can also hop on and off the service, as your travelcard allows unlimited journeys while valid. This particular route is a shopper’s paradise — acheap bus tour of London sights and attractions.
The Best Free Sights for Backpackers in London
Firstly, I should mention that the major museums and galleries in London are all free, though will always welcome a donation. Don’t let that be an indication of quality however. They are immensely popular, impressive and well-organised. All are worth visiting, but if you had to slim the list down to required visits, definitely try to fit these ones in:
- The British Museum — big, vaulted, musty in places, but full of more treasure and rarities than probably any building, anywhere.
- The Natural History, Science and Victoria and Albert Museums, which are all next to one another. There’s too much to see in a day, but if pushed for time, you can easily cross between them for a whirlwind tour. Take the Tube to South Kensington and follow the signs.
- The Tate Britain and National Gallery. One at Millbank, near the Palace of Westminster and the other in Trafalgar Square. They are required visiting for art lovers and even for those expressing only a mild interest. The National has a peerless collection and the Tate focuses on British artists.
- The Tate Modern and St. Paul’s. You can cross between the two, via the Millennium Footbridge. The Tate Modern is free and the building is spectacularly cavernous, but St. Paul’s charges an entry fee. You can always walk around the outside instead, which is after all, where most of the impressive architecture is.
- Greenwich, is definitely worthy of a visit. The National Maritime Museum, Queen’s House, Royal Observatory and parkland are all free to enter. It has interesting shops, a market and bustling waterfront. Consider taking the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) back through Canary Wharf in the Docklands, as it’s free with a valid Travelcard.
Yes, they sell goods, but you don’t necessarily have to buy in order to have an interesting time.
Camden Market — is well known and worth a trip to. Lots of fashion, bric-a-brac and curiosities, especially people watching. The Lock is a good place to rest and observe the masses drifting by. If you like walking, try the canal path route from Camden Lock to Little Venice (just under 2 miles) to see a less well known trail through the centre of town. You could even combine it with a cheap bus tour and take the 23 bus back through town, when you reach Little Venice.
Leadenhall Market — worth diverting to for the architecture and sense of history. It’s architecturally beautiful and a short walk from the Bank of England and Mansion House. Try not to miss out on the City (Square Mile) as it’s ‘old’ London and so often missed.
If you fancy refreshment you can divert to a nearby pub. On a budget, Sam Smiths pubs serve a range of their own beers, including ‘Swiss Lager’ which is very drinkable and about 60% of the cost of a normal pint (1990 prices!). Consequently, they’re popular with students. Some of the best pubs London has to offer. Princess Louise, Cittie of Yorke and The Cheshire Cheese are all Sam Smiths pubs.
If you fancy a trip to the Theatre, buy from the “tkts” booth in Leicester Square on the day of the performance. You can get as low as 15 percent of the ticket cover price, as long as you’re flexible about what to see. Rest assured if you appreciate your culture however, as it’s often the better, ‘highbrow’ productions which are discounted most heavily. The mass-appeal, media-buzz-shows, tend to be less available at discount.
For a cinema visit go to the PCC (Prince Charles Cinema), just off Leicester Square, which runs showings for as little as £1.50. All their seats are 30-50 percent the cost of their nearby rivals, and you’ll be watching with movie-buffs, not the herd.
Opera and Dance tickets can also be acquired at greatly reduced rates, by applying for ‘day seats’ at the box office on the day, or by booking cheap restricted-view seats online, before leaving for London (which can be bought for as little as £5).
Also, Shakespeare’s Globe offers “Groundling” tickets starting at £5, where visitors stand in front of the stage for the performance. (Watch Shakespeare in Love and you’ll know where I mean.)
Eating for Cheap in London
There are numerous ways of reducing your food costs. Firstly, buy from supermarkets which are dotted all over town, or check the web for their locations. These are national chains such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrison’s and Waitrose. They’re often half the price of “convenience supermarkets” you find all over town and loss-leaders like fresh bread means you can stock up on basics, for very little outlay.
Eat out less in the centre of tourist London and more in the ‘worker’ area of London. Chains like ‘Eat’ and ‘Pret-a-Manger’ do good quality sandwich/soup/wrap deals and buy bottled water from supermarkets. A significant part of a food operation’s profits will come from drinks served with your snack.
Walks in London
Lastly, there’s the walking option. London is a Roman city, so grew while foot and river traffic were the dominant methods of getting around. You will never understand a city so well, as when you cover it on foot. By linking together a series of walks you can also begin to visualise the layout of the city and how the significant parts relate to one another.
Also, don’t believe the hype surrounding the British being a cold and distant race. If you’re lost, ask for help and you will find it. So why not go out on a limb and wander around, following your nose. You’re never far from a Tube stop and there will always be someone nearby to put you on track again.
So, if you visit London on a budget and have heard rumours that it’s one of the most expensive cities, anywhere. Then that would be mostly true. There are however, as there have always been — thrifty options. The city itself is the major attraction and strolling along Thames Walk in the sunshine, creeping through the backstreets of the Medieval City and contemplating Art’s Grand Masters, will probably form the abiding memory of your visit. And they don’t cost a penny.
About the Author:
Patrick Seery is the lead editor of The Inside Guide to London — a travel portal covering the known, and less well-known sights in London.