When I moved to England in the summer of 2013, I hadn’t realized how expensive it would have been to live here (at least compared to Italy and Spain, where I had lived before). I had already been to the UK several times, both for pleasure and for business but it’s only when you live here that you realise how ridiculous expensive day-to-day life can be if you do not act carefully, even more if you are only visiting. I now live an hour from London and a return train ticket to London Waterloo costs me at least 19£, off-peak. Sometimes, I can get an Easyjet flight ticket to Milan (one way) for that money. But, on the positive side, I like to know that I can always tour London spending almost nothing and still having a great day. Samuel Johnson said: “Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” I couldn’t agree more.
If you are planning to visit London, here are some tips to arrange your trip without blowing your budget.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Unless you are a fan of Courchsurfing, sleeping for free in London gets hard. If you are a hostel type, have a look at the 10 coolest hostels in London suggested on Visit London Blog. Personally, I found some of the best low budget options on Airbnb: if you book in advance, you can get a double room in London Central Area for less than £50/60. If you are visiting with a group of friends, you can also rent a whole flat through Airbnb, which usually turns out cheaper than renting individual rooms; plus, you will have a full kitchen available to prepare some meals, if you want to, and that would be a big saving too. If you are new to Airbnb, don’t be scared: before renting you can check pictures, reviews from fellow travelers (if there are any) and ask any questions to the owners to get a feel for the place and the hosts. I’ve used Airbnb extensively when travelling to the States and I only had great (and fun) experiences so I would definitely recommend it. On top of that, if you get to meet the owner, generally you can get good inside tips on where to go out and eat, what to visit in the neighbourhood etc.
If you prefer more traditional accommodation, Premier Inn and Travelodge chains offer good value rooms; there are plenty dotted around London and if you book well ahead you can get a Travelodge double room for as little as £49 in Central London. I have tried Premier Inn Blackfriars Fleet Street and have been very pleased with it (I paid £70 for a double room on Boxing Day, a Saturday last year). The earlier you book, the better price you get. £70/night may not sound super cheap but do take into account that in such a central location you will not need to get a 1 Day Travel Card (see further down) since you will be able to walk almost everywhere and that’s a big saving per person. Its location near the river was perfect to enjoy all the amenities on both sides of the Thames and at the same time it was a pleasant walk to the action of Covent Garden, Soho, the West End and Piccadilly.
It’s not true that you can’t eat cheaply in London. Plenty of excellent food chains offer affordable and yummy food perfect for a quick lunch: EAT and PRET have fresh and daily made delicious filled sandwiches to choose from (including hot options and soups). The main supermarket chains (Sainsbury, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Tesco etc…) have a vast selection of sandwiches and meal deals as well. For dinner, have a look at Opentable.co.uk to see which restaurants/pubs/cafes offer promotions and deals; plenty of restaurants offer discount if you choose to eat outside the busiest hours and pre theatre menu (usually served between 5 PM and 6.30 PM) are excellent value and in some cases you can enjoy a two courses meal in a good restaurant for as little as £12 pp (sometimes even less); just take a stroll in the West End area and you will see plenty of boards advertising dining deals. Chinatown is a safe bet for a very reasonable and interesting meal; there are plenty of options in the area to taste authentic Chinese food. We personally chose Jen Café, a very informal eatery (shared table, no table cloth) where we had a quick lunch with some delicious dumplings but the option are endless. When I am not particularly inspired and I don’t want to spend too much money on food, I choose a couple of safe food chains and I have to say I have always been quite satisfied. Try Busaba Eathai for a very reasonable and quite authentic Asian food experience in a cool and youngish atmosphere (we ate in their Soho branch and it was really buzzing and lively) or Wagamama: Asian food, quick service, reasonable priced, plenty of locations around London. For a more British experience, Browns Brasserie and Bar is generally a good bet: they have got a few restaurants in London (including one in Covent Garden and one near the Tower Bridge) and they offer a two courses menu from Monday to Friday from 12 to 7 PM for £11.95….not bad at all!
HOW TO GET AROUND
Transport in London is expensive but it’s amazingly efficient (at least from an Italian point of view!). First thing: understanding London transport and getting your mind around zones, tickets, travel cards, caps etc can take a while but it’s not impossible and if you do it properly you will save money. London public transport network is divided in 9 zones but probably everything a first time visitor would want to see/visit is located within zone 1 and 2. Since an adult cash fare for a single journey in Zone 1 (Central London) on the Tube is £4.90, it can get pretty expensive to move around town 😦
The cheapest way to do it is to get a pre-paid Oyster Card, that you can top up (just to understand the saving: using an Oyster Card, an adult single journey is £2.40 vs £4.90). The most important benefit of having an Oyster Card is that you will only pay for a maximum number of journeys per day and after that all the other journeys that you will do on that same day will be free. That’s the so-called “capping”; see Transport for London chart to check the caps per each zone. You have got 2 options: 1) Before travelling to London, you can order online a Visitor Oyster Card that will costs you £3 (plus postage) and will be mailed to your home address and it will offer plenty of discounts and promotions for attractions around London. 2) If you are already in London, you can buy an Oyster Card (refundable £5 deposit but doesn’t include any discounts nor promotions) from any Airport, Tube station, some newsagents and some National Rail Stations (for a full and accurate list of where to buy it, check the Transport for London website). If you do not wish to buy an Oyster card, 1 Day Travel card (unlimited journeys) starts at £12.10 (price varies according to zones and depending if you want to use your card before 9.30 AM on weekdays – which is considered peak hour). A 7-day travel card starts from £32.40 (in this case, price depends only on zones). Check what areas you want to visit, what time you will be using it and plan accordingly since it can save you a bit of money. Transport for London website is very accurate and it’s the best source to find out which is the best solution for your journey. If you are staying somewhere out of London and need the train to get into town, bear in mind that even though trains are generally pretty expensive, there are some big discounts for many London attractions (have a look at the full list on Days out Guide), such as 2 for 1.
Feel brave enough to cycle around London? Riding London Cycles (also know as Boris bikes, named after the London mayor) is a cheap and fun way to view the city (provided you can cycle!). You can hire one from as little as at £2 and there are more than 10.000 bikes over 700 docking stations throughout the city!
BEST FREE THINGS TO DO IN LONDON
Once the initial arrangements have been done, here are some of the best free things to enjoy London:
Walking: the only free transport and probably the best way to really get to know London if you have got only a few days. Get one of the free maps available (at the Information points or Railway stations) and start your journey. London is huge so if you are planning to move around walking, you should plan your walking wisely to avoid ending your day with destroyed feet. As you will see, all around London there are plenty of signs, monoliths, totems and all sorts of signage you could possibly need to find your way around the city that sometimes you wouldn’t even need to open your map. Despite being a huge city, it’s pretty hard to get totally lost!
My favourite walk is undoubtedly the river walk from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge and back. Both river banks are buzzing with plenty of things to see and do and you could easily spend hours strolling up and down the river: starting from the London Eye, walk through the Southbank Centre, have a stroll in Gabriel’s Wharf and Oxo Tower Wharf (in both there are plenty of individual and quirky shops, restaurants and cafes), admire St. Paul’s Cathedral from the Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge; pass the Shakespeare’s Globe and continue up to the Tower Bridge, keeping your head up for The Shard and making a detour for Borough Market if it’s open (check their opening hours on their website), one of the best food markets in town. Cross to the other side, reach the Tower of London and walk all the way down to the Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben, passing through the beautiful Somerset House and admiring some of the most impressive architecture of the British capital.
In my opinion, any trip to London should start from its river.
If you want some suggestions for other walks around London, have a look at City of London Walks (self-guided walks around the City with maps and explanation) and Time Out Walks. Alternative London Tours offers off-the beaten-track tours to discover East London, its street art and the historical and cultural events that marked the area. It’s not totally free since it works on a pay-what-you-like basis but if you are interested to know the area it could be a very good option.
Visit a park: London parks are possibly some of the best I’ve ever seen in a big city. Green (all this rain must be good for something!), well kept and busy, they are definitely a safe escape from the buzz and frenetic London life. Even though England is not renowned for its mild climate, if you are lucky enough to visit when the sun is shining a long stroll in one of the city park is a must (even in winter, if you wrap up properly). In summer time (weather permitting), grab a meal deal from any food establishment and spend a few hours in the park or in any of the lovely garden squares around the city, enjoying the outdoor and the park residents (swans, geese, squirrels and many more).
Visit a museum: plenty of museums and exhibitions are free and you should take advantage of that for a free culture boost. National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Gallery and Tate Modern, British Museum, National History Museum, V&A, Museum of London and Science Museum are just some of the free museums around London. Have also a look at Time Out London to see what free temporary exhibitions are on. Everyone has got his own taste but personally I really like the National Gallery (beautiful Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet and Seurat paintings) and the National Portrait Gallery.
I visited the Tate Modern quite recently and, to be fair, I struggled a bit to understand some of the art pieces on exhibit….but that must be me and I am sure plenty of people will love it.
Do you prefer to spend all day doing outdoor sightseeing and leaving the museums for the evening? Check out the late openings of museums and galleries throughout London; plenty of them organise events, talks, tours, DJ sets…and most of them are free!
Other free interesting buildings/attractions to see: visiting some of the most iconic buildings in London is expensive. Just to give you an idea: St. Paul’s entrance ticket is £18, Tower of London £24.50, Westminster Abbey £18 and so on. You can save a couple of pounds with online booking but the cost is still quite high. If you are interested in visiting different attractions and iconic buildings that require a ticket, London Pass is probably the best choice: it’s not cheap (they offer 1, 2, 3 and 6 day pass that you can combine with an Oyster Card; 1 day adult pass is £55) but if you plan to visit several attractions it’s definitely worth the money. Personally, I think that the major London attractions should all be done at least once in a lifetime but, if you are not prepared/haven’t got the budget to do them all now, here are my choices for best free buildings/attractions in London:
- Westminster Cathedral
- Southwark Cathedral
- Sky Garden: I know, it’s not the London Eye but it can give you a good view of the London skyline for free (you have to book in advance).
- Royal Courts of Justice
- Changing of the Guard Ceremony outside Buckingham Palace
- Ceremony of the Keys in the Tower of London: it has to be booked well in advance since it sold out very quickly.
- St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church: next to Trafalgar Square, it’s free to visit and to attend its lunchtime concerts.
- Somerset House
Plenty more to do in London (and plenty more to write), but for now this should be a good start to keep you going for a few days at least!
Though it’s not impossible to do London on a budget, it does take a good planning and a bit of research to choose where to eat, sleep and go out but, once the planning is done, you will have plenty of time to enjoy this amazing city.