Visiting London on a budget
I lived in London for over ten years, and still go back there almost once a month. But there’s one thing I have really started to notice since I moved away, and that’s how expensive it can be. Ticket prices to the main attractions, meals out, a few drinks – they all start to add up scarily quickly. London is an amazing city though with so much to see and do – from museums to markets, parks to pubs – so don’t let worries about the cost of things put you off visiting. In my years as a London resident I picked up lots of tips about what to see and do without breaking the bank – and more importantly what not to do. Here are some of my top tips for visitors to the capital. And do share any of yours in the comments below.
Things to see and do
One of the cheapest and best things you can do in London is just wander around and see the sights (weather permitting that is…). London might be huge, but the centre is pretty walkable and you can see a lot within a fairly small area. One of my favourite walks is along the Thames, following Southbank from the London Eye to Tower Bridge, passing London icons like the Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, HMS Belfast and the Tower of London. There are also plenty of parks to explore – you can visit the rose garden in Regent’s Park, row in the lake at Hyde Park or spot the royal palaces at St James’ Park.
If you want to learn a bit more about London’s history and architecture while you’re walking, there are a couple of companies that do free guided city walks. Discover Walks run daily hour-long tours (except during winter) along three different routes. Sandeman’s New Europe also run a longer 2.5-hour tour at 11am and 1pm each day that takes you from Hyde Park Corner through Westminster to the Houses of Parliament. The tours are free but tips for the guides are encouraged.
When you’re visiting the big attractions, you can usually save money by booking in advance, even the day before – London Eye tickets are £17.96 as opposed to £19.95 on the day or the Tower of London is £20.35 instead of £21.45. Or if you plan to visit a lot of places, it might be worth investing in a London Pass. They cover over 60 different attractions and have the bonus of letting you jump the queue in some places. The cost is pricey for one day at £47 but they’re better value for a longer trip at £102 for six days.
If you’re travelling into London by train, even if it’s just from the suburbs (it has to be on a mainline train though, not the Underground), then you can get 2 for 1 entry to lots of London attractions, like Madame Tussauds, London Zoo and the London Dungeon, as well as discounts at some restaurants and tours. You need to print out a voucher from the website and bring it and your train ticket with you.
Museums and galleries
London museums and galleries are one of the capital’s best bargains as the permanent collections at many of them are free to enter – including famous names like the British Museum, Tate, National Gallery, Science Museum, Natural History Museum, V&A and Museum of London. There’s a full list here. It’s also a good opportunity to try out some of the lesser-known museums, like the Wellcome Collection for gruesome medical implements or the Museum of Childhood for vintage toys and games.
A lot of museums do late-night opening on certain days of the week too, with free special events, talks, films and performances after normal closing time. There’s also the First Thursdays event on the first Thursday of each month in the East End, when over 130 galleries and museums in east London stay open until 9pm with special events, walking tours and a free ‘art bus’ running between the top attractions.
London’s theatre is famous throughout the world, but the tickets can be pricey. One way to see a West End show on a budget is by picking up tickets at the TKTS booth in Leicester Square. They sell off half-price tickets for performances on the same day as well as discounted advance tickets. You can also get £12 tickets for performances at the National Theatre or standing tickets at Shakespeare’s Globe with a spot right in front of the stage for £5 (though you might want to pick one of the shorter plays…).
If you’re into live music, you can usually find a free concert somewhere in the city, whatever your music taste. You can see free classical music at lunchtimes in the churches at St Martin in the Fields and St James’s Piccadilly. There are a mix of free performances from jazz to dance at the Southbank Centre and you can always find street performers around Covent Garden. And try the pubs around Camden and Shoreditch for up-and-comings bands – many venues let you in free if you get in before a certain time.
If you want to see a film in London, then stay away from the expensive, crowded cinemas in Leicester Square. Just up the road, the Prince Charles Cinema shows films for £8 on weekdays. Or if you’ll be in town for a while you can become a member for £10 and get discounted tickets. They also do a great Sunday night deal with a classic film plus a slice of pizza and a beer for £10 (£7.50 for members).
Top city views
The cheapest way to get a great view across London’s skyline is from one of the parks around the edge of the city. Some of the best viewpoints are from Primrose Hill, Alexandra Palace and the top of Hampstead Heath in the north and Richmond and Greenwich parks in the south.
Closer to the centre of the city, the biggest bargain viewpoint is the Monument for £3. The Monument marks where the Great Fire of London started – it’s only 62 metres high so you do get towered over by some of the other buildings, but you’re in a really central spot. Or for free you can go up to the roof terrace on top of the One New Change shopping centre which overlooks St Paul’s Cathedral.
Or if you want a great view for the price of a cocktail, try Vertigo 42 at the top of Tower 42 in the city (cocktails from £14), Paramount Bar at the top of the Centrepoint Tower at the end of Oxford Street (cocktails from £11) or Skylon in the Royal Festival Hall on Southbank (cocktails from £12.50).
Eating and drinking
You can find some of London’s best-value food in the city’s ethnic areas – try Chinatown, Kingsland Road for Vietnamese food and Brick Lane or Southall for Indian food. There are also some good-value international food chains to look out for, like Leon, Busaba (Thai), Tas (Turkish), Pho (Vietnamese) and Wagamama (Japanese). And a lot of chain restaurants (mainly Italian ones like Prezzo or Pizza Express) also offer 2 for 1 main courses or other discounts – they change all the time so check the Money Saving Expert website for the most recent discount vouchers.
Street food has really taken off in London too, with food stalls from around the world at London’s markets. There are lots to choose from but some of my favourites are Borough Market (Weds–Sat), Portobello Road Market (Mon-Sat) and the Real Food Market on Southbank (Fri-Sun). Even if you aren’t buying, you can usually get a few tasting samples as you walk around the market too.
And if the weather’s good enough for a picnic then you can’t beat Marks & Spencers. If you’re staying in an apartment or have access to cooking facilities, you can also take advantage of their ‘Dine in for £10’ dinners for two, with a main course, side dish, dessert and bottle of wine for £10.
The most important transport tip for London visitors is to get an Oyster card. You can pick one up at any Tube station or order one online in advance. They bring the price of a single Tube fare in Zone 1 down from £4.70 to £2.20. You can buy a travelcard (valid for unlimited travel for a day or week) or top the card up with credit that gets deducted when you touch in or out at stations, up to the maximum cost of a day travelcard (£9.00 at peak times or £8.90 off peak – after 9am).
For short journeys it’s worth taking the bus rather than the Tube – the price is lower (£2.40 in cash for a single journey or £1.45 with an Oyster card) and you get a much better view. You can even use them as a cheaper alternative to a sightseeing bus by taking one of the routes that run past some of the city’s main sites – try the 88 (past Camden, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and over the Thames) or the 4 (past Waterloo, Somerset House, the Royal Courts of Justice, Fleet Street, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Barbican).
There are lots of companies running boat tours along the Thames, but the budget way to see London from the water is on the Thames Clipper river boat service. It’s a commuter service but runs along the scenic stretch of river from the London Eye to Greenwich. Adult single fares cost £6.50 and you get 10% off fares if you have an Oyster card or a third off with if you’ve got a Travelcard.
And finally if you’re feeling energetic you can hire a bike from the Barclays Cycle Hire (aka a Boris bike). You can pick them up from docking stations all around central London and they cost £2 to access the bikes for 24 hours then you can make as many journeys under 30 minutes as you like for free.
So those are my tips for seeing London on a budget – do you know of any more London bargains or have any money-saving tips?
Note: you can also find details of some of my favourite budget-luxe London hotels here.