London on a Budget
You heard it here first; the best things in London are free!
In 2012, one of the world’s largest travel sites (TripAdvisor) revealed the results of its City Survey, an in-depth look into 40 key tourist cities around the world. More than 75,000 locals and travellers responded to a survey that focused on 10 categories including friendliness of locals, cleanliness of streets, public transport, value for money, friendliness of taxi drivers and shopping.
According to the survey, London left much to be desired when it came to “Value for Money”, receiving 35th place on the list of 40. A 2014 poll rated London as the third most expensive city in the world to live. And, compared with many other European cities, it is.
As a resident of London and a confessed Anglophile (a person who is fond of ‘traditional’ English culture and a lover of everything British), I feel that it is my duty to let people know that London is affordable!
Compared to my hometown in Australia, the transport is very reasonable and food and groceries (if you know where to shop) are generally cheaper. London has some of the best monuments, museums and art galleries in the world. With the exception of some exhibits, almost all of them are free all year round! Many of the museums participate in “Late nights” each week or once a month. “Late nights” are free and give you the opportunity to explore the displays and exhibits with a wine in hand while there are fewer people (and no kids).
No matter how long you are in London for, there is a multitude of things for you and your travel companions to do that it budget friendly and fun. Here are some of my favourite free things to do in London:
1. British Museum
This museum, located near Holborn, was opened in 1753 and houses more than 7 million objects fromThe Rosetta Stone, Egyptian antiquities and mummies, the Assyrian lion-hunt reliefs, the Parthenon Sculptures, the Black Obelisk, the Enlightenment Gallery, 4,500-year-old “Ginger”, the Sutton Hoo treasure, the Portland Vase, Roman gold and Celtic gold. To fit everything in, check out the free walking tour at 2pm every Saturday afternoon by London Walks. Just meet your guide outside Holborn Tube station. http://www.britishmuseum.org/
2. National Gallery
Situated on the north side of Trafalgar Square, this gallery houses an amazing collection of Western European paintings in the world from about 1300 onwards. There are works from Botticelli, Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Hogarth, and Gainsborough. The National Gallery is open late on Fridays until 9pm so you can explore the paintings, an exhibition, or a guided tour or talk with fewer crowds. There is also live music, a bar and food at the National Café. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/
3. Natural History Museum
Located in South Kensington, this beautiful Victorian building houses some of the most weird and wonderful items from the natural world. You can see the dinosaur bone collection, visit the creepy crawly room, learn about the mammals from around the world and come face to face life-sized blue whales, elephants and elk. Each year they have an incredible Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition (£10 entry). If you want to avoid the queues (and screaming children) the museum is open on the last Friday of every month until 10pm, complete with live music and a bar! http://www.nhm.ac.uk/
4. Explore London Markets
London has an array of various markets that are free to visit and full of life and colour. Covent Garden markets are some of the prettiest (and posh-est), while Camden Markets are full of colourful faces and sometimes odd titbits. Columbia Flower Markets (open Saturday before 2pm), the Brick Lane Markets (most days), Petticoat Lane Markets and the Spitalfields Markets in East London are all within walking distance of each other and are a great find for everything from a bunch of fresh lilies to vintage clothing, glassware, books and the best bagels in London. However, the Borough Markets, near London Bridge, are the ones to explore for the freshest fruit, veg, nicest cheese and best cut meat in the city. The full Borough Markets are on over the weekends and offer a sample of quality food and wines not to be missed.
5. The Science Museum
Another one of the major museums in South Kensington, the Science Museum has plenty of interactive exhibitions that cover all areas of science and technology. On the last Wednesday of each month you can experience an evening of free adult’s only entertainment until 10pm. The Science Museum Lates opens up this science themed playground for the inner child in all of us, complete with zombie costume competitions, speed dating, a DJ in the interactive galley and a free tour of the museum as a cockroach. Yes, that’s right, enjoy a Cockroach Tour of the Science Museum and get a quirky and inquisitive take on the human race.http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/
6. The V & A Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum is the third major museum in South Kensington and it a great museum of art and design. It holds the most comprehensive collection of British design and art from 1500 to 1900 among artifacts from many of the world’s richest cultures. Held on the last Friday in every month until 10pm, Friday Late activities include Live performances, cutting-edge fashion, debates, one-off displays and installations, special guests, bar and food, guest DJs, late-night exhibition openings. http://www.vam.ac.uk/
7. Parks and Green Spaces
Surprisingly, London is one of the greenest capitals in the world, featuring parks that are perfect for sunbathing and picnics in the summer and refreshing walks or a game of football in the winter. Spending the day exploring these amazing green spaces is free and some will even host free activities and events from time to time. Some of the major parks include Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, Green Park, St James’s Park (around Buckingham Palace), Greenwich Park (with fantastic museums), Hampstead Heath, Regent’s Park (also home of London Zoo), Green Park, Holland Park, Clapham Common, and Richmond Park (home to hundreds of deer).
Check out this awesome free walk in Epping Forest (in zone 6).
8. Public Gardens
Other than some of the most splendid parks in the world, London is also home to an array of stunning public gardens that house a variety of plants, bridges and outdoor galleries. If botany is your thing, check out magnificent World Heritage Site covering 300 acres that is Kew Gardens, the recently resorted Chiswick House and Gardens, the oasis of Isabella Plantation, the rock gardens in Chelsea Physic Garden, and landscaped parks of Syon House and Park.
9. Somerset House
Somerset House is a major arts and culture center in the heart of London overlooking the River Thames, just east of the Waterloo Bridge. Somerset House features large-scale contemporary exhibitions, galleries, events, two elegant staircases and balcony views over the Thames. The famous courtyard and vast Georgian building provide a beautiful backdrop for 55 dancing fountains in the summer and an ice rink during the winter months. Open between 10am and 6pml every day, most galleries are free, as are guided tours every Thursday and Saturday. Some exhibitions, like Valentino: Master of Couture, will set you back about £13 and it is advised you book ahead. http://www.somersethouse.org.uk/
10. Tate Modern
One of the most visited modern art galleries in the world, the Tate Modern houses UK’s collection of modern and contemporary art from 1900 to the present day. It is housed in the former Bankside Power Station near the pedestrian Millennium Bridge and Shakespeare’s Globe. There are seven floors of gallery space, exhibitions, collection displays, performance spaces, auditoriums, cafés, small merchandise shop and a bar and restaurant on the 7th floor. The Tate is open until 6pm most nights and 10pm Fridays and Saturdays. Admission is free, except for special exhibitions. http://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern.
11. Changing of the Guard (Free)
Changing the Guard takes place at 11.30am daily from April to July and on alternate days from August to April (unless planned events change the schedule). The nearest underground/ tube stations are Victoria Station, Green Park and St James’. The activity starts at 10.45am but some people arrive as early as 9.30am to get a good position.
12. Buckingham Palace (Free to look at, £19 – £33.25 for a tour in summer)
The State Rooms, Buckingham Palace and Garden Highlights tours take place from July to September and last between 2 and 3 hours. Admission prices vary from £19 (The State Rooms with Audio Tour) to £33.25 (The State Rooms, The Royal Mews, the Queen’s Gallery and a Garden Highlights Tour).Note, from Buckingham Palace you can easily walk to; Houses of Parliament,Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, St James’ Palace, 10 Downing Street, The Thames, Trafalgar Square
13. Imperial War Museums
The museums cover conflicts, especially those involving Britain and the Commonwealth, from the First World War to the present day. There are several national museums branches at five locations in England, including three in London. The IWM London, near Lambeth North tube, features exhibitions of the Battle of Britain, crimes against humanity, the Second World War, and the air raids in London.
14. Museum of London
To learn a little more about the history of London, check out the seven permanent exhibition galleries telling the story of London from prehistoric times to the end of the 19th century at the largest city museum in the world. The museum is located in the City of London betweenBarbican and St Paul’stube stations. Entry is free with the exception of several Lates activities throughout the year that are always themed and fun. Every Valentine’s Day theannual Valentine late (£7) celebrates the ‘roaring twenties’ with live music, authentic 1920’s talks and Charleston lessons. http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/London-Wall/
15. Speakers’ Corner
Free entertainment in the north-east corner of Hyde Park! Speakers’ Corner was officially recognised in 1872 and allows people from all corners of the globe gather to theatrically share their opinions from atop their soap box or listen to the varied and fascinating rants and ramblings. Lenin, Karl Marx, George Orwell and William Morris are but a few who have used this spot to take a stand on their ideals and beliefs. Sunday morning was traditionally the best time to visit, but speakers can now be found on the corner throughout the week.
16. Harrods (Free to visit)
One of the world’s most famous department store is a must! Located in London’s posh Knightsbridge (where a 27sq meter apartment sells for more than £500k), the store is a rabbit warren full of the most incredible clothing, bags, furniture, gifts, toys and more than 12 premium restaurants and cafés featuring cuisine from across the globe. Things not to miss include the Disney themed princess room on the 5th floor where you can try on a Cinderella slipper or a princess dress. Just around the corner is the Harrods pet store and grooming centre. Here you can pick up a labradoodle for £2,100, or a hamster for £15. The Egyptian themed escalator lobby is certainly something to see, as are the two Dodi and Princess Diana memorials. In the basement you will find the food sections where you can by delicious deli items, red velvet cakes or an array of tea and coffee. Don’t forget to check out the interactive toy store!
17. Museum of London Docklands
This museum explores London’s history from Roman settlement to Docklands’ regeneration and observes the history of London’s river, port, trade, migration and commerce. The museum is two minutes’ walk from West India Quay DLR station in East London. You can also get there via a10-15 minute journey on a Thames Clipper riverboat from Bankside or Maritime Greenwich Pier to Canary Wharf Pie http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/docklands/
18. National Maritime Museum and Greenwich World Heritage Site
Located in the beautiful Greenwich World Heritage Site, the National Maritime Museum is made up of the Maritime Galleries, the Royal Observatory Astronomy Centre, and the 17th century Queen’s House. Some of the National Maritime Museum wings are open late until 8pm every Thursday. While these are all free, charges do apply for Cutty Sark (£12), Flamsteed House and the Meridian Courtyard (£7) where you can see the Greenwich Meridian Line, which represents the Prime Meridian of the World – Longitude 0º.http://www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum/
19. Geffrye Museum
The Geffrye Museum, in East London, offers a vivid physical history of the English interior in a set of 18th-century almshouses. You can observe the domestic history in a display of original furniture, paintings, textiles and decorative arts from the 1600’s.www.geffrye-museum.org.uk
20. Big Ben (Free but for UK permanent residents only)
The famous tower of Parliament, popularly known as Big Ben, is actually the Elizabeth Tower. Located at Westminster, Big Ben is the nickname of the bell housed within the Elizabeth Tower and is officially known as the Great Bell. The free tour isopen to UK permanent residents only and must be arranged through a local MP or Member of the House of Lords. The tour takes you up the 334 stone spiral steps to the top of the 153 year old Elizabeth Tower to hear Big Ben strike the hour.
21. Tower of London Ceremony of the Keys
The Ceremony of the Keys is the traditional locking up of the Tower of London and has taken place every single night, without fail, for the last 700 years. While the Monarch no longer resides here, the Crown Jewels and many other valuables still do. Tickets are free but you are required to write to the Ceremony of the Keys Office, (Tower of London, London EC3N 4AB) with a return envelope and request 2 possible dates you can attend at least 2 months in advance. The Ceremony commences at 9.30pm precisely and will conclude at 10.05pm after which you will be escorted from the building.
22. New London Architecture
The Building Centre, near Goodge Street Tube or Tottenham Court Road Tube, is open free of charge Monday – Saturday. The centre features wall displays of new builds in London and a plastic model that stretches dozens of metres, displaying the Docklands and Olympic Park in the east, and Battersea in the west. This is a fantastic overview of the entire city, offering a whole new outlook of the capital. http://newlondonarchitecture.org/ Note: New London Tours on the second Saturday of every month, 2 – 4pm, explore major new architectural landmarks and the ever-changing streetscape. The cost per person is £12 and prebooking on the website is essential.
23. Check out A City Farm
For all things cute and adorable, check out one of London’s city farms that are scattered throughout the capital. We recently took the DLR to Mudchute where we visited Mudchute Farm, a quaint farm complete with sheep, pigs, goats and llamas, with a Canary Wharf backdrop.
Tips for getting around London:
Don’t be scared to explore London by foot as it is flat and very easy to navigate above ground. When walking, don’t refer to the Tube map which can be deceiving when it comes to distances between stops. In actual fact, it is an easy walk between Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Circus. It would only take you about an hour to walk from Buckingham Palace along the river to London Bridge via Westminster, Southbank, Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, and the Borough Markets.
Barclays Cycle Hire is an easy, cheap and quick way of getting around central London. The scheme is intended for short journeys and will cost you an Access Fee + a Usage Charge each time you use it. Hint – if all your journeys are under 30 minutes all you pay if your access fee. The best way to use the bikes is to pay the Access Fee then only ride in less than 30 minute stints, dock your bike, collect another bike and ride again for another 30 minutes. This way you only pay for the Access Fee. (The Access Fee for 24 hours is £2 and 7 days is £10. Up to 30 minutes is free, up to an hour is £1, up to on and a half hours is £4 and up to two hours is £6. )
Public Transport travel is easy, and relatively cheap for Zones 1-2 – the Underground (Tube) and red buses go everywhere in zones 1 and 2 that you could want to go. Make sure you get a Tube map, or download one of the many London travel apps for your stay. (Zones 1 to 2 – Oyster £2.80 peak, £2.10 off-peak, Cash fare £4.50, Daily Travelcard: £7.30 OR Zones 1 to 6 – Oyster £5.00 peak, £3.00 off-peak, Cash fare £5.50)
Get a travel card that can be used for discounted travel all over London on the Tube (Underground), the Overground, the Docklands Light Rail (DLR) and the buses. You can top up your card as you go (at any station) and multiple journeys within the same zone(s) are capped at the equivalent Day Travelcard rate.
Other Useful Tips
Travellers, if you are trying to make a friend in London, my recommendation is to be amused by their persevering politeness and simply start a conversation about the weather, nothing gets a English folk more excited than talking about the unrelenting rain or unseasonal sunshine
For more London travel tips, check out the “London” section of this website!