With all those glitzy shops and grand hotels, you can easily spend a fortune in London. But you don’t have to. Few of the world’s great cities offer so much scope to have a good time on the cheap.
To enjoy London free of charge is easy — just walk through it! It's a huge city, but central areas are compact enough to explore on foot. Information centres can provide plenty of ideas for self-guided walks. For an inexpensive sightseeing tour, take one of the many organised walks on offer, typically costing around £8 per person (some are free).
At any time of year, London seethes with activity and spectacle. Each of its neighbourhoods is different — even those well off the tourist trails can be full of surprises. A sharp-eyed stroll through London’s historic quarters reveals a fascinating array of architecture and public monuments — backdrop to a heady bustle of metropolitan street-life.
Look out for 'Blue Plaques' on buildings, indicating celebrity status of former residents. Discover the Square Mile's mazelike alleys, where Roman walls rub shoulders with Wren churches and glittering office blocks. Follow the river along the Thames Path, or take a panoramic overview from any of its bridges. Soak up the scent of summer roses in Regent’s Park, or the jewel-bright rhododendrons of Richmond Park’s Isabella Plantation.
If your feet get tired, just hop on a London bus. It’s amazing how much you can see from the top of a double-decker. Lines nine, 11 and 15 take you past many of the central sights (on an old-fashioned Routemaster bus, if you’re lucky). To see less obvious aspects of London, take the overground Docklands Light Railway through the rapidly regenerating East End, or a tram-ride through the southern suburbs.
The cheapest way to use London’s public transport system is by prepaid Oyster Card, which is valid on buses, tubes, trams and the DLR (a TravelCard may be better value if you want to use the suburban rail network).
London has well over 200 free museums and galleries, and many others cost less than a fiver. You can visit the permanent collections of world-class institutions such as the British Museum, the two Tates (Britain, and Modern), the National Gallery, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Science and Natural History Museums completely free of charge.
Not to mention dozens of smaller, specialist museums scattered all over the city. Track down the Clockmaker’s Museum, the Bank of England Museum, the Museum of Garden History and the weird and wonderful Sir John Soane’s Museum.
If you’re an avid sightseer and want to catch lots of pay-to-enter attractions as well as free ones, consider one of the inclusive deals available, such as the London Pass (50+ pay-to-enter attractions), or the GoSee Card (a 3- or 7-day pass covering 17 galleries and museums). Making the most of these means setting yourself a fairly gruelling schedule.
Accommodation is likely to be your biggest expense. Many London hotels are expensive, but there are ways to cut the costs. Pre-booked packages or special breaks can be excellent value, especially if arranged online through a reliable operator. For the best deals, book well ahead, or at the last minute.
London is busy more or less all year round (mid-Jan/Feb is the nearest it gets to low season), but many business hotels charge lower rates at weekends. It’s always worth asking for a discount on rack rates. Check whether breakfast, VAT and service charges are included. Several budget hotel chains are well represented in London, including Travelodge, Premier Inn and Ibis (double or family rooms sleeping up to four people start from around £50).
A bed-and-breakfast or guesthouse can save quite a bit, especially if you’re prepared to stay outside the centre. Various agencies organise stays in private homes, which can be a pleasant and personal experience. Check the website of At Home in London for some ideas.
Apartments are good value for families or groups of friends, and out of term, London's halls of residence offer student rooms on a B&B or self-catering basis. London has a good range of hostels too, including half a dozen very popular YHA ones. Most offer single or double rooms as well as dormitory-style accommodation. An even cheaper hostel option is Piccadilly Backpackers, with no-frills dorm beds from as little as £15.
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