London is one of the greatest cities on the planet (I should know, I live here), but if there’s one thing to say about my home city, it’s that it’s not always cheap to entertain yourself here. A pint in a pub will cost you around a fiver, and a mediocre meal will set you back at least 20 quid. And don’t even get me started on the tourist hotspots. My wallet is crying just thinking about it.
But there are certain things you learn when living in a city which tourists simply will not know about. I’m here to share these with you so that when you visit you’ll leave with a camera full of photos, a heart full of ‘happy’, and a wallet full of spare tenners (which you can gladly drop into me, I won’t say no).
So, here’s my definitive guide to seeing London on the cheap.
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Free London entertainment (or very cheap)
Of course, some of the best sights and sounds of London are completely free. It doesn’t cost a penny to walk around Westminster and hear the chimes of Big Ben, nor does it cost to take a stroll in one of the many public spaces such as St James’ Park and Hyde Park.
But there is a lot more free action than you might think, if you’re willing to travel a little. Music, comedy and drama is everywhere for those willing to find it. Some of my favourite places for free entertainment in the city are:
Museums and art galleries
A huge part of London’s lifestyle is its vibrant museum scene, and most are completely free to enter (although if there is a specific exhibitions going on, then you can choose to pay extra to enter these). Some of the best are the Tate modern, on the South Bank, the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum.
You might be surprised to read than London has a pretty extensive canal system, the most famous of which runs from Paddington in the west to Hackney in the east. It crosses some of the coolest areas of town plus even runs next to London Zoo, so you can see some of the bird enclosures for free from the canal’s edge. One of my favourite things to do is rent a ‘Boris Bike‘ and cycle the full way along, stopping at a few of the pubs along the way, or you can hire a narrow boat and cruise your way down the canals, if you want. Just make sure you know how to work a lock!
They also have regular events going on around the canals, including ‘Canalway Cavalcade‘ which I visited last year (it was one of the finest examples of British-isms I’ve seen in a long time) and the ‘Canalival’, which is surrounded in controversy and almost always cancelled (but happens illegally anyway). If you’re visiting London in May or June check them out on twitter to see if it’s on this year, and take a look at the video to see what you might be getting yourself in for.
I can’t choose between my two favourite live music haunts, so I’ll give you both.
This great local pub is deceptively big. At the back sits a huge live music and comedy area, and above are ballrooms where you can take weekly swing-dancing lessons (extra charge). Monday – Thursday you can see all kinds of bands play for free (my personal favourite is Wednesday for blues and country), and there are occasional free / very cheap comedy nights on too.
Another old pub with a cracking live music scene, The World’s End is best on Sunday nights when up and coming (but don’t let that fool you – Ed Sheeran has played here) bands and solo artists take to the stage to wow you. They also serve a selection of nibbles to patrons for free too!
If you’re a fairly confident type, you might like to try a Meet Up to hook up with people who have similar interests to yourself. Just join up and browse by category or by keyword. For example, you might be interested in photography and want to improve your skills without paying for a formal course. Meet Up is a great place to find a group of people who share the same interest, and you can join people heading out on a photography walk of London. There are Meet Ups for all kinds of interests. A quick search on Meet Ups came up with one for singles, revellers, walkers, parents, history lovers, badminton players, gay people, and ‘trendy’ people…. whatever that means. There is also one for people who want to Discover London. Perfect!
The epicentre of London’s cultural scene, South Bank is permanent home to the London Eye, the Southbank Centre and the Royal Festival Hall. But it’s the transient features of the South Bank that really interest me. I’ve seen anything from food festivals to comedy pop-ups to men building sand castles on the ‘beach’ (don’t get too excited… the ‘beach is truly rubbish so no bikini needed there!). There is always street entertainment in the summer and my favourite thing is the daily book market. So many great old books I think I’m in heaven!
Alternatives to tourist traps
London is full of busy, high priced attractions designed to suck money from tourists. Be a smart traveller and know how to still get the same (or very similar) experience by using these lesser-known alternatives to London tourist attractions.
Tourists visit: The Shard
Smart travellers visit: The Salesforce Tower (previously the Heron Tower)
The View from the Shard is high on every London visitor’s list, and it is pretty fabulous to be quite honest. It’s the tallest building in Western Europe and on a clear day you can see for up to 40 miles. Its position on the river also allows you to see almost all of the Thames river in one go. However, at £25 per ticket it’s quite pricey.
The Heron Tower, situated in the city’s financial district is 40 stories high (to the Shard’s 69) and offers amazing views, especially of the ‘Gherkin’. You can go up the tower for free, but if you want to sit in the bar then cocktails start from £13 each. Wine and beer is also available but the cocktails are seriously to die for. Another reason I love the Heron Tower is the lift (elevator) is completely clear and you get an immense view to the west as you ascend. Absolute perfection at sunset.
The Shard costs £24.95 per person, a drink at the Heron Tower is £13. Saving: £12pp (and you get a drink!)
Tourists visit: The London Eye
Smart travellers visit: Winter Wonderland Ferris Wheel
The London Eye is a sure-fire way to lighten yourself of nearly forty quid, as it’s not just the cost of getting up there, but the cost of the guide to know what you’re actually looking at. Cheeky.
If you’re just looking for a bit of a go on a giant ferris wheel, you can’t go too far wrong with the wheel at Winter Wonderland. Of course, the obvious drawback is it’s only available in December and January but entry to Winter Wonderland is free, and the wheels is about 6 pounds. Plus you get your very own pod instead of sharing it with 20 others, and you even get to blast Christmas tunes in there, which is worth the money in itself!
I visited Winter Wonderland last year, take a look and see what else you’ll find to entertain yourself.
In a city which thrives on getting people from A to B, you shouldn’t have too much trouble buzzing around town with a pre-paid oyster card on the massive tube and train network. However, if you want to know how to do this the cheapest way possible then read on.
Did you know that there’s one bus route running through London which hits loads of the tourist hotspots and is a public service bus and therefore so much cheaper than a guided bus? Well you do now, and it’s easy to remember… it’s the number 11 bus and I like to remember it by thinking of the number 11 as a pair of legs, and that’s what you’ll be saving by using the bus. OK I know my brain is strange sometimes.
Anyway, this magical bus hits loads of the good spots, starting in Liverpool Street (close to Spitalfields market and Brick Lane, famous for its curries), and passing St Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, Westminster (for Buckingham Palace), Chelsea and ending in Fulham Broadway. All this, and just £1.20 a ride, capped at £4.20 for oyster card users, meaning you’ll only ever pay £4.20 in a day, no matter how many times you jump on and off. That’s a saving of £17.80 off a London bus tour!
Over the last few months, a lot of London taxi apps have sprung up, amongst a lot of controversy. London black cabbies argue that they’re undercutting the business and should be stopped, which I can understand. London cabbies are the best in the world, all of them having passed a test called ‘The Knowledge’, which means they turn into a human GPS and say things like ‘Oh, you want to get across to Soho at this time of the evenin’? Best to steer clear of Seven Dials, I might take you raand the back way’, and then they proceed to weave in an out of traffic like an expert to get you there bang on time somehow.
Be that as it may, there are now actual GPS’s and things are sadly moving on. The fact is, taxi apps are here to stay and they are a hell of a lot cheaper than a black cab. Two of my favourites are Uber and Kabbee, who have always delivered a great service, and who often give free credit when you sign up, so you can get your first trip for free! Bargain!
Eat for free (or very cheap)
I dare you not to act like a kid in a candy store when visiting Borough Market. Hundreds of different types of cheese, cured meats, seafood, breads, pates, chutneys, jams and even a little Biltong (god, I love Biltong). Plus you actually don’t have to buy a thing! They have free samples laid out for passers by to try and if you get a little banter going with the server, you can score some bigger sample sizes. In fact, it’s possible to almost have an entire lunch in bite-sized pieces without spending a penny!
Group buying websites
You can usually find a really great deal for a good quality dinner on group buying sites. I’ve seen afternoon teas, steak dinners, Thai, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Indian, and almost anything you can think of at ridiculously cheap prices. And they might throw in a glass of wine or two too. Some of the best sites to try to look for a cheap dinner are Groupon, Living Social, Travelzoo Local Deals and Time Out. You can also find great deals on theatre, comedy, pampering, and even hairdressing.
London Restaurant Festival
If you’re visiting in the Autumn, you might be lucky enough to coincide your visit with the London Restaurant Festival. Hundreds of restaurants take part in this 3 week showcase of the capital’s best food establishments, offering event or taster menus for set prices. These aren’t just any restaurants either. They are specially selected for their quality, some even have Michelin stars. Last year most places were offering around 50% off of their normal prices, so there are some serious savings to be had.
One of my favourite travel websites, Airbnb is full of quirky little places, some of which are people’s homes which they rent out (fully or just one or two rooms), and some of which are fully fledged hotels or serviced apartments. You’re fully protected by their insurance if something goes wrong with the booking, and it’s a fantastic way of staying in some unique places you wouldn’t necessarily have access to otherwise.
In recent years, the concept of couch surfing (staying in someone’s home, usually on a couch or pull out bed) has got a bad rep. But I think it can still be safe, provided you keep a level head. If you’re a single girl travelling by yourself to a new city personally would not recommend couch surfing simply because I wouldn’t want to put myself in a position of vulnerability. But if you’re travelling in a pair or a couple, that old saying ‘safety in numbers’ rings true. Plus most people are inherently good. Check out Couchsurfing and Global Freeloaders, for free digs in London.
Top Secret Hotel
If you still want to stay in a proper hotel but aren’t particularly bothered about which one you end up in, as long as it has a good location and is comfortable, then Lastminute.com’s Top Secret Hotels is a fabulous way to save some dough. They sell hotel rooms as really reduced rates but only tell you a few facts about the hotel itself, for example it has 2 restaurants and is in the Kensington area. But with a little light detective work, you can normally find out the name of the hotel before you book. Just type in the facts you have into google and normally you can work it out.
As always, to make sure you’re getting the best deal on any hotel, it’s a good idea to run the name of your chosen hotel through HotelsCombined, who will scour the net and compare all the prices for you. Check out their London hotels page and their blog on London pub crawling, breweries and pub hotels for more inspiration.
I hope you found a way to save some cash on your visit to London. I’d love to hear your tips below, too!