Dear everyone I met whilst I was travelling,
Oh my god how are you?! It’s been too long! How’s the cat/dog/sibling? And your home town/city/village/castle/beach hut how’s that? I bet the weather is glorious/pleasant/ mundane/terrible/Scottish .
I probably tried to convince quite a few of you that London isn’t that expensive. So I am using my ten years of London knowledge and putting my blog where my mouth is. Here is my top 10 of cheap or even FREE things to do in London. I’ve included some general advice on saving in the city at the bottom.
1. Walk along Southbank.
This will be in every guide book, but for good reason. You can tick of the majority of London sights just by walking up this stretch of the Thames. I’m going to suggest starting at Tower Bridge, Have a look at the Tower of London, go in if you’re feeling flush, walk across our most iconic bridge (Tower Bridge) and then head down to the south side of the river. Turn right and head along the river.
You’ll pass London Bridge where you can take a de-tour through Borough Market. Continuing along the river you’ll pass Shakespeare’s Globe, the Tate Modern (free entry), see St Paul’s from across the river, pass the National Theatre and walk along vibrant, often decorated river side towards the Houses of Parliament (and Big Ben). You don’t need to go much further than the London Eye (don’t bother going on that).
I would actually recommend ending your walk just before the Eye for an al fresco Pimms at the Udderbelly (the big upside down purple cow theatre that appears every summer) or the Southbank Centre’s balcony (the pimms will be pricey but pleasant).
2. Swim in the ponds at Hampstead Heath
This might be my favourite thing in London. The Heath is probably the greatest of London’s parks and the swimming ponds at Hampstead Heath and Kenwood are great. The Ladies Pond (for ladies) is the nicest by all accounts, but there is a Mixed Pond and a Men’s Pond too. Be warned the Mixed Pond is a completely different part of the park to the other two. It costs just £2 for a swim.
The ponds are outdoors and there aren’t lockers, so don’t take anything you can’t afford to lose. There are life guards though. The ponds are very deep, the water temperature ranges from refreshing to hypothermia inducing, so are best enjoyed in the summer. They don’t let non-members swim in the winter because you’ll probably die. The ponds can get crowded on summer weekends, but if you’re in London, on a sunny weekday, definitely head to the Heath for a walk and a swim.
Also, it’s a pond, there will be ducks and other wildlife in there with you.
3. Lunch on Brick Lane
Arguably, London has the best food in the world. We have EVERYTHING, and it’s generally made by immigrants, or their offspring, so it’s authentic and delicious. My favourite food is curry so I had to include Brick Lane in my top 10.
It’s cheaper to eat out in London for lunch than dinner and Brick Lane is no exception. London’s Curry Mile has millions, if not billions, of curry houses all trying to out bid each other. Most offer lunch or early afternoon deals too, I’ve eaten there a few times and it’s always been good. Maybe check tripadvisor before committing to a curry house though.
There’s loads to do around Brick Lane, Spitalfields Market has something on everyday, Brick Lane itself has an impressive market every Sunday. And Brick Lane is the gateway to East London, the land of the Hipster. You can easily walk to Shoreditch, the most pretentious place on the planet, just don’t buy anything there. Especially not spirits. I’ve accidentally spent £10 on a rum and coke there, twice, and I’m still annoyed about it.
4. Get some cheap theatre tickets
It’s pretty easy to get cheap theatre tickets. My beautiful former workplace Shakespeare’s Globe does £5 tickets for Groundlings (that’s standing, open air). If you go to the Globe take layers, you cool down fast standing still outside for a couple of hours. Also go for the lean - try and nab a space on the wall around the edge of the pit or lean on the front of the stage.
Other places to get cheap tickets include the National Theatre which does £15 Travelex tickets. There are discount TKTS huts for West End Theatre which can do good deals. Or, if you’re a young one, there are loads of deals for people under the age of 25. Including shows by the aforementioned National, Royal Shakespeare Company, the Barbican and more.
5. Picnic in Regent’s Park
The second of London’s parks to get a mention. Regent’s Park is lovely. Weather allowing, my suggestion would be to take a picnic with you and hang out there on a summer evening, it’s what lots of Londoners do. It’s especially nice to sit near the lake. There are Sainsbury’s near the park, one is very close to Euston Square Station, but you might get more choice if you shop near your accommodation. There are toilets, they are free, there will be a queue. And you’re allowed to drink outdoors here, so you can leave your brown bags at home!
6. Walk Regent's canal, Little Venice to Camden Lock.
Another freebie. Little Venice in central London is a lively hub of houseboats, cafes and even a floating art gallery. You can walk from here along the canal all the way to Camden Lock (click the link for free downloadable maps). You’ll pass Regent’s park and cut through London Zoo. The walk takes around an hour and Camden is a great place to finish. It has a market and food market and pubs and Amy Winehouse’s favourite pub The Hawley Arms, also lots of live music and roughly 100,000 tourists. Getting something from the food market and a can of beer from the shop and then sitting on the canal-side is a good way to enjoy Camden for relatively cheap.
7. Free museums and Art Galleries
Pretty much all the big museums and galleries in London are free. The Natural History Museum is my favourite because it has dinosaurs. But there’s just loads. The V&A, which is dedicated to the history of art, design and fashion, is also brilliant. I mentioned the Tate Modern above which sometimes has interactive installations. There’s the British Museum, the Science Museum, the National Gallery… The Imperial War Museum is another favourite of mine, it’s a bit out of the way but presents the modern history of war in the UK in a very engaging way. Here’s a list of even more free museums and galleries.
Don’t try and buy food in or around the museums. It will be expensive and will probably be a bit rubbish. But if you take a picnic most have lovely outside areas where you can sit and eat.
8. Take the Thames Clipper to Greenwich,
The Thames Clipper is one of the more expensive things on my list. You can get on at the London Eye, Embankment or up at London Bridge and getting to Greenwich will cost you £7.30 if you use contactless payment. It’s still a much cheaper way to sail up the Thames than a boat tour. Normal Londoners use it to commute. And, AND, they have a bar on board?! So much better than the tube.
When you get to beautiful Greenwich you will find an antiques market, a Maritime Museum, and another lovely park. Definitely head up the hill in Greenwich Park to find the Greenwich Observatory and the Meridian Line. The GMT Line is, in the words of celebrated British Documentary maker Philomena Cunk, ‘…where time comes from’. You should probably watch her 4 minute film on Greenwich Observatory before you go yourself, so you can fully appreciate your visit.
9. Do the Parkland Walk
Once upon a time there was a railway line that ran from Finsbury Park to Alexander Palace. Then it shut down. Then they turned the old railway into a long path/park and it was brilliant.
It’s the third and final walk of my list and involves parks four, five and six… Start at Finsbury Park, walk though the park and get yourself onto the Parkland walk. Here’s a very useful map. Follow the track to Highgate. At Highgate you have to come off the trail, so could use the opportunity to have a pint at one of my favourite pubs The Boogaloo. You then need to head through Highgate Woods, another of my favourite places, before picking up the track again. The Highgate to Alexandra Palace stretch has some excellent views. Then you’re into Alexandra Palace park (known locally as Ally Pally). Alexandra Palace itself is a beautiful building, it has epic views and a bar that somehow has no atmosphere at all. There’s also a Theatre and Ice Skating rink hidden in there. It’s easy to get back to Finsbury Park, the W7 bus goes from near where you will have come into Ally Pally Park.
10. Find the Freebies
There are SO MANY free events that happen in London. I’ve been to see giant fire puppets, Jazz Festivals and a flotilla of tall boats amongst other things.As with many cities, the place to start your search for free events is Time Out. The Londonist also lists some interesting stuff. Londoners are pretty good at finding the freebies so expect events to be busy. Maybe take food and drink to avoid long queues and pricey food huts.
And as promised here are some general money saving tips for the Big Smoke:
Tips for travel
Travel in London, and in the UK in general is a budget killer. Use the same contactless card on London transport and it will give you the cheapest deal possible. TFL is your friend. It will tell you the quickest way to get where you’re going. Buses are cheaper than trains. And if you’re going around central London, consider walking. It’s all closer together than it feels when you’re underground. You can easily walk from Buckingham Palace to Covent Garden for example.
Book any trains out of London as soon as you know you’re travelling, use National Rail enquiries which doesn’t have a booking fee. There are cheap ‘Advanced’ tickets that will get you to Brighton for a few quid and similar, but you’ll need to buy this around a month before you travel and make sure you get that specific train. For a long journey (London to Edinburgh for example) NEVER buy train tickets on the day of travel. it will bankrupt you.
The coach is a good option, London to Bristol for example takes the same amount of time on the coach and is a fraction of the cost. Check Megabus for really cheap intercity tickets. National Express is good and runs routes to major festivals and sports events. Also have a look at the new, very cheap, Sn-ap which uses premium coaches for routes mostly in the South West (hopefully that link will get you some money off).
Tips for accommodation
Couchsurfing is probably the easiest way to save money on a bed in London because you’re staying with someone, on their sofa, for free. It’ll also be a nice way to get to know some Londoners and see what their life is like (busy and angry?).
Are you already a house sitter? That’s something to look into if you want to come for a week or more and have your own space, although they do have a joining fee. Booking.com might help you get a little money off hostels or hotel rooms and if you’re a first time user that link will get you 10% off. AirBnB is okay although it will rip you off with cleaning fees.
Staying out of central London will save you money although your travel will be more expensive. If you stay in zone 6 (a long way out) your contactless card will cap the travel for the week at £35 (2019 price). Where ever you stay you’ll use transport, although if you stay somewhere like London Bridge you can walk to everything in Central London… Thinking about it don’t stay in zone 6 unless it’s free. Actually if you’re staying out of zone 1 (central) message me before you book, there’s lots of TERRIBLE PLACES in London.
Tips for food
I’ve mentioned above the lunch time/ early dinner deals. If you’re a foodie check out this list of soft openings, where new restaurants will road test their menus for less than they’d normally charge. Also have a look at my go-to Timeout for their list of cheap and cheerful fooderies. If you go to any chain, like Pizza Express, Bella Italia, Carluccio’s etc there will almost definitely be discount voucher you can use. Most are listed on vouchercloud.
If you’re self catering most of our supermarkets are much of a muchness. Aldi and Lidl are the cheapest and there’s a few about. Otherwise Tesco is good and Sainsburys is fine, the bigger the store the cheaper it will be.
Here ends my London Top 10. Let me know when you’re coming. I now live in Bristol, which is a couple of hours west of London (and BEAUTIFUL). I’d love to show you round my little corner of the West Country.
Safe travels and happy trails friend!
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