If you've thought about visiting London before, you have probably heard that it's expensive! And it can be if you aren't careful with your spending. Nick grew up about an hour outside London and I lived in England for 3 years. We've compiled a list of our favourite budget friendly things to do in the city and travel tips that will save you money.
Our Favourite Budget Activities
1. The Royal Parks
There are 8 Royal Parks in London, including Hyde and St. James Park. On a sunny day, they are absolutely beautiful to walk and picnic in (you'll feel positively Jane Austen!). They are free to visit and sometimes host huge concerts and other events. Check the royal park website to see whats on. St. James Park has a number of resident birds and you can watch staff feed the pelicans between 2:30pm and 3:00pm every day. We love going to the parks at lunchtime to break from exploring the city for a while.
2. The Museums
In our opinion, London has the best museums in the world and the best part is: they are all free! To begin, the Natural History Museum is one of my favorite places in town and a must for anyone who loves animals. Their extensive animal anatomy exhibits (including dinosaurs and humans!) are out of this world. Not to mention, the architecture of this building is a work of art in itself. Look out for little stone animals amongst the columns and archways. We easily spend a few hours in here every time we visit. The Science Museum is right around the corner and has amazing space and engineering displays. See the linked websites for more details and to plan your day!
The British Museum is Nick's favorite place to be in London. The museum boasts the largest Egyptian collection outside of Cairo, as well as colossal Greek, Roman, Persian and Chinese collections. You can effortlessly spend a whole day browsing this museum without seeing everything and as such we suggest you have a look at the museum map to see the things you are most interested in first! Don't visit London without hitting the British Museum.
Another Museum worth checking out in London is the Bank of England Museum. Again there is no admission charge, and while not extensively long, the museum has a few quirky exhibits that you will want to say you have done, notably trying to lift a solid gold bar (see below). The museum documents the history of money, through a British perspective, and answers questions you probably wont have ever actually asked. Its a great way to spend an hour and the surrounding banking area has some fairly breathtaking architecture.
3. Art Galleries
The Victoria and Albert Museum is right across the street from the Natural History Museum. It encompasses the history of art, with objects as old as 5000 years and is completely free of charge. We think this gallery/museum is unmissable in London. I especially love the long white hall of sculptures. The National Gallery is also free and is located right in Trafalgar Square, which is an attraction in itself. It houses van Gogh's Sunflowers and a number of other famous masterpieces. Another free and close by gallery is the National Portrait Gallery. It is located right behind the National Gallery and focuses on British history. If you are especially interested in art, London is the perfect destination. We have not been to all of the free galleries in London and so we cannot comment on them but the Culture Trip has a more complete list of the best free galleries in London.
4. Banqueting House
At first we came across the Banqueting House by accident, and now we both absolutely love this place! Originally built in 1622, the Banqueting House is the last surviving structure of the Palace of Whitehall and the execution site of King Charles the First. Although, there is only one main room in this museum we think it is well worth the £5.50 price tag. Plus, children under 16 are free. The exquisite ceiling, chandeliers and columns take you into another time. Maybe it was because we were so tired that day but the bean bag chairs are a great modern touch. So grab an audio guide and sit back and relax while you take in Rubens painted ceiling. Below the main hall there is a museum documenting the history of the building in greater depth, there might not be a more regal place to relax in London without having blue blood.
5. Little Venice
Little Venice is a tranquil area with cute cafes, Victorian homes and a slower pace than the rest of this great city. You'll see traditional English house boats and waterways that were used extensively for transport in the industrial era. There are options to dine, sight see and tour on boats in this area. It is in zone 4 on the tube (so it will cost you a bit extra to visit!) but we found it to be beautiful and a little of the country trapped within the metropolis.
6. Buckingham Palace
Buckingham Palace is considered a must see by any London visitor and it's in a great location between St. James Park and Hyde Park. It's free to walk around outside of the palace and take photos. If you go at the right time, you'll also see the changing of the guard. This website has the latest dates and times to see this, as well as some visitor tips. This is one of the places your friends will want to know if you managed to see while visiting London so its well worth going to, but be prepared for bigger crowds than most of the other places you'll find on this list.
7. Walk along the Thames
One of the most popular tourist areas in London is the walk along the Thames river at the Queen's Walk, Westminster Bridge, Hungerford and Golden Jubilee Bridges. Here you'll find Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and Cathedral, the London Eye and London Dungeons among other attractions. This place is packed in the summer and we found walking along here in the evening to be much more enjoyable. To get the best photos of the iconic sights along the Thames river at night, bring a tripod for your phone or camera!
8. Oxford Street
Perhaps one of the most well known shopping districts in the Capital, it offers a uniquely British shopping experience. While we seldom actually spend any money in this area (it would hardly befit our thrifty attitude) its worth seeing at least once. Oxford Street has all the typical British stores, something people from outside of country will no doubt appreciate (AKA me...). Another uniquely British shopping experience worth checking out is Harrods Department store, the most famous high end store in the United Kingdom.
9. The Endless Courtyards and Markets
There are a number of markets in London that are worth seeing, if only to admire the foods and wares. We've been to Borough Market and had delicious lunches that are cheaper than a traditional restaurant. The industrial feel of the market coupled with the shouts of merchants is an experience in itself. We've heard so many good things about Camden Market with it's street art and edgy atmosphere at night. There are also a number of old London courtyards littered throughout the city. One instagram favourite is Neal's Yard in the city centre. A fellow blogger made a great guide on the history and location of this hidden gem.
10. Kew Gardens
For anyone who loves gardening and appreciates the quiet English outdoors, Royal Kew Gardens is a must. This place is massive and full of beautiful ponds, Victorian architecture and places to picnic. Although there are indoor exhibits, you'll need a clear day and a lot of time to truly enjoy this place. Save money by buying your tickets online at least a day in advance and bring your own lunch. The cafes within the grounds are expensive! They also have children, student and senior discounts. Part of your ticket price goes to the science and conservation of plants around the world.
11. St. Dunstan-in-the-East Church Garden
St. Dunstan-in-the-East is a church that was heavily bombed in World War II. What remains of the church has been transformed into a public garden and the high church walls covered in vines make it simply magical. Sitting in the middle of high rises and modern architecture, visiting the church feels like leaving the capital entirely. It is free to enter and has a number of benches. It is a popular lunch break spot for London office workers so try to time your visit around this. It has a central location and is very close to the Monument to the Great Fire of London. If you find yourself at this attraction, why not give this beautiful garden a visit.
We've also been to or heard a lot about some of the more expensive attractions. Depending on your individual interests, you can decide whether the cost is worth it!
Westminster Abbey and St. Pauls Cathedral
We personally think Canterbury Cathedral has a more interesting history and at about half the price, is more worth your time and money. However, if you aren't planning on taking an excursion out of London and need your cathedral fix, these two are still more than worth your time. Although Westminster Abbey is a little pricey (£22 at the door) you can save yourself £2 if you purchase your tickets online here. FYI, they are known to have long lines in the summer!
The London Eye
The London Eye is one of the iconic landmarks of the capitals skyline, however we found for many reasons its not for us. The price to go on the eye seems a little excessive, the cheapest being £25 when you buy online. You have to wait sometimes up to 2 hours in line for your turn to go onto the eye (or you can pay another £10 to skip 'most' of the line) and your day depends totally on the visibility in the city. If you go on a day where its overcast, raining or foggy you really wont be able to see a great deal. While we have heard some good things about the London Eye, just be sure to keep in mind the queues, the price and the weather!
Tower of London
The Tower of London is an iconic part of English history. You'll also find the Crown Jewels here (which are in a rather tacky display complete with a conveyor belt so you don't crowd them for too long). Although, it'll cost you over £22 or £17 if you're a student, we've gone here for it's historical importance. If you don't want to fork up that much cash, consider taking a walk around the outside. You can still see the massive tower and the famous Tower Bridge is right beside it. It is worth noting that the Tower of London is both indoors and outdoors so its best to plan your visit on a day with comfortable weather! Although going when its a little wet or cold will not doubt whittle down crowds if you are so inclined.
Food & Drink
If we are going to be eating out in London, we usually do lunch and not dinner. Stay away from places to eat near main attractions and choose a pub lunch over a restaurant. If I have time before our trip, I'll pack food and we avoid eating out all together. London is an expensive place to eat and a restaurant meal will set you back at the very least £20 per person.
The most cost effective way to get lunch in the UK is in the form of a meal deal. A meal deal is a combination of a sandwich, a bottled drink and a snack that you can get from almost big shops in the country (WHSmith, Boots, Tesco, etc), they are our go to choice for saving money on food in London. We usually pick up a meal deal in Victoria Station and have a makeshift picnic in one of the Royal Parks. If you want to save even more money, stay in an Airbnb or hostel with kitchen access and make food at your place.
As for drinks, and without sounding too much like were back at university, having a couple of 'pre-drinks' at your accommodation will save you a lot a money. I still remember ordering a screwdriver (vodka+orange) in what I thought was a relatively cheap bar in Soho, only to be charged £8 for it.
The Underground in London covers a large amount of the cities attractions, is fast and frequent. Do not purchase individual tickets for this service! It will get very expensive and fast! We think the pay-as-you-go Oyster Card is the cheapest option. This is especially true if you are staying longer than a day or two and it works on most London transportation, including buses. You can purchase and top up these at any tube station machine or attendant. It will cap your daily spending depending on the zones you've traveled to. Although it has a £5 deposit fee, you will be refunded this and any credit under £10 at a tube station machine when you cancel your card. The London Tool Kit has a price guide that explains why an Oyster card is cheaper. As I said above, be careful of the zones you are entering as the charges go up the further you travel. As a general rule, the cities attractions are in zone 1 or 2. Here is the official London tube map. Make sure to always tap in and tap out when using London transportation to avoid problems with your card. And remember to move to the right if you are traveling slower, Londoners are usually in a rush and will let you know about it if you hold them up!
Because we lived out of town, we used thetrainline to book tickets to London. An advance, off peak and return ticket is much cheaper so it pays to plan your trip a few weeks early! We have also traveled to London from other parts of the UK on National Express and Megabus for a great price.
Places to Stay
Location is key in London and your trip could end up costing a lot more if you are far away from the city centre. However, there is also fantastic public transport in London and tons of well priced Airbnb's there, we definitely recommend using it! I also stayed in a few hostels when I had a YHA membership. Although the facilities of the YHA hostel near St. Paul's Cathedral were great and the location was perfect, I found the church bells kept me up all night! If you are a heavy sleeper, it's one to consider!
We hope this guide was helpful! If you are from outside the UK, keep in mind that the pound sterling is the strongest currency in the world. Although £10 can sound like a deal, try to remember roughly what the conversion rate is to your currency.RSS Feed
Please don't hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about London or budget travel planning!