Visiting London on a budget

I lived in London for over ten years, and still go back there almost once a month. But there’s one thing I have really started to notice since I moved away, and that’s how expensive it can be. Ticket prices to the main attractions, meals out, a few drinks – they all start to add up scarily quickly. London is an amazing city though with so much to see and do – from museums to markets, parks to pubs – so don’t let worries about the cost of things put you off visiting. In my years as a London resident I picked up lots of tips about what to see and do without breaking the bank – and more importantly what not to do. Here are some of my top tips for visitors to the capital. And do share any of yours in the comments below.

Tower Bridge across the Thames, London

Tower Bridge from the riverside walk along Southbank

Things to see and do

One of the cheapest and best things you can do in London is just wander around and see the sights (weather permitting that is…). London might be huge, but the centre is pretty walkable and you can see a lot within a fairly small area. One of my favourite walks is along the Thames, following Southbank from the London Eye to Tower Bridge, passing London icons like the Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, HMS Belfast and the Tower of London. There are also plenty of parks to explore – you can visit the rose garden in Regent’s Park, row in the lake at Hyde Park or spot the royal palaces at St James’ Park.

If you want to learn a bit more about London’s history and architecture while you’re walking, there are a couple of companies that do free guided city walks. Discover Walks run daily hour-long tours (except during winter) along three different routes. Sandeman’s New Europe also run a longer 2.5-hour tour at 11am and 1pm each day that takes you from Hyde Park Corner through Westminster to the Houses of Parliament. The tours are free but tips for the guides are encouraged.

When you’re visiting the big attractions, you can usually save money by booking in advance, even the day before – London Eye tickets are £17.96 as opposed to £19.95 on the day or the Tower of London is £20.35 instead of £21.45. Or if you plan to visit a lot of places, it might be worth investing in a London Pass. They cover over 60 different attractions and have the bonus of letting you jump the queue in some places. The cost is pricey for one day at £47 but they’re better value for a longer trip at £102 for six days.

If you’re travelling into London by train, even if it’s just from the suburbs (it has to be on a mainline train though, not the Underground), then you can get 2 for 1 entry to lots of London attractions, like Madame Tussauds, London Zoo and the London Dungeon, as well as discounts at some restaurants and tours. You need to print out a voucher from the website and bring it and your train ticket with you.

Tennyson quote on the floor of the British Museum, London

Visitors at the British Museum

Museums and galleries

London museums and galleries are one of the capital’s best bargains as the permanent collections at many of them are free to enter – including famous names like the British Museum, Tate, National Gallery, Science Museum, Natural History Museum, V&A and Museum of London. There’s a full list here. It’s also a good opportunity to try out some of the lesser-known museums, like the Wellcome Collection for gruesome medical implements or the Museum of Childhood for vintage toys and games.

A lot of museums do late-night opening on certain days of the week too, with free special events, talks, films and performances after normal closing time. There’s also the First Thursdays event on the first Thursday of each month in the East End, when over 130 galleries and museums in east London stay open until 9pm with special events, walking tours and a free ‘art bus’ running between the top attractions.

Inside the Tate Modern, London

Inside London’s Tate Modern gallery

Entertainment

London’s theatre is famous throughout the world, but the tickets can be pricey. One way to see a West End show on a budget is by picking up tickets at the TKTS booth in Leicester Square. They sell off half-price tickets for performances on the same day as well as discounted advance tickets. You can also get £12 tickets for performances at the National Theatre or standing tickets at Shakespeare’s Globe with a spot right in front of the stage for £5 (though you might want to pick one of the shorter plays…).

If you’re into live music, you can usually find a free concert somewhere in the city, whatever your music taste. You can see free classical music at lunchtimes in the churches at St Martin in the Fields and St James’s Piccadilly. There are a mix of free performances from jazz to dance at the Southbank Centre and you can always find street performers around Covent Garden. And try the pubs around Camden and Shoreditch for up-and-comings bands – many venues let you in free if you get in before a certain time.

If you want to see a film in London, then stay away from the expensive, crowded cinemas in Leicester Square. Just up the road, the Prince Charles Cinema shows films for £8 on weekdays. Or if you’ll be in town for a while you can become a member for £10 and get discounted tickets. They also do a great Sunday night deal with a classic film plus a slice of pizza and a beer for £10 (£7.50 for members).

Pub on London's Southbank

The Anchor pub on Southbank

Top city views

The cheapest way to get a great view across London’s skyline is from one of the parks around the edge of the city. Some of the best viewpoints are from Primrose Hill, Alexandra Palace and the top of Hampstead Heath in the north and Richmond and Greenwich parks in the south.

Closer to the centre of the city, the biggest bargain viewpoint is the Monument for £3. The Monument marks where the Great Fire of London started – it’s only 62 metres high so you do get towered over by some of the other buildings, but you’re in a really central spot. Or for free you can go up to the roof terrace on top of the One New Change shopping centre which overlooks St Paul’s Cathedral.

Or if you want a great view for the price of a cocktail, try Vertigo 42 at the top of Tower 42 in the city (cocktails from £14), Paramount Bar at the top of the Centrepoint Tower at the end of Oxford Street (cocktails from £11) or Skylon in the Royal Festival Hall on Southbank (cocktails from £12.50).

Views across London from the BT Tower viewpoint

Views across London by night

Eating and drinking

You can find some of London’s best-value food in the city’s ethnic areas – try Chinatown, Kingsland Road for Vietnamese food and Brick Lane or Southall for Indian food. There are also some good-value international food chains to look out for, like Leon, Busaba (Thai), Tas (Turkish), Pho (Vietnamese) and Wagamama (Japanese). And a lot of chain restaurants (mainly Italian ones like Prezzo or Pizza Express) also offer 2 for 1 main courses or other discounts – they change all the time so check the Money Saving Expert website for the most recent discount vouchers.

Street food has really taken off in London too, with food stalls from around the world at London’s markets. There are lots to choose from but some of my favourites are Borough Market (Weds–Sat), Portobello Road Market (Mon-Sat) and the Real Food Market on Southbank (Fri-Sun). Even if you aren’t buying, you can usually get a few tasting samples as you walk around the market too.

And if the weather’s good enough for a picnic then you can’t beat Marks & Spencers. If you’re staying in an apartment or have access to cooking facilities, you can also take advantage of their ‘Dine in for £10′ dinners for two, with a main course, side dish, dessert and bottle of wine for £10.

Stalls selling food and drink at Borough Market in London

Food stalls at Borough Market

Travelling around

The most important transport tip for London visitors is to get an Oyster card. You can pick one up at any Tube station or order one online in advance. They bring the price of a single Tube fare in Zone 1 down from £4.70 to £2.20. You can buy a travelcard (valid for unlimited travel for a day or week) or top the card up with credit that gets deducted when you touch in or out at stations, up to the maximum cost of a day travelcard (£9.00 at peak times or £8.90 off peak – after 9am).

For short journeys it’s worth taking the bus rather than the Tube – the price is lower (£2.40 in cash for a single journey or £1.45 with an Oyster card) and you get a much better view. You can even use them as a cheaper alternative to a sightseeing bus by taking one of the routes that run past some of the city’s main sites – try the 88 (past Camden, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and over the Thames) or the 4 (past Waterloo, Somerset House, the Royal Courts of Justice, Fleet Street, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Barbican).

There are lots of companies running boat tours along the Thames, but the budget way to see London from the water is on the Thames Clipper river boat service. It’s a commuter service but runs along the scenic stretch of river from the London Eye to Greenwich. Adult single fares cost £6.50 and you get 10% off fares if you have an Oyster card or a third off with if you’ve got a Travelcard.

And finally if you’re feeling energetic you can hire a bike from the Barclays Cycle Hire (aka a Boris bike). You can pick them up from docking stations all around central London and they cost £2 to access the bikes for 24 hours then you can make as many journeys under 30 minutes as you like for free.

London red double decker bus

A classic red double-decker London bus

So those are my tips for seeing London on a budget – do you know of any more London bargains or have any money-saving tips?

Note: you can also find details of some of my favourite budget-luxe London hotels here.

Comments

  1. says

    Although you know I’m waiting impatiently for your take on Porto, Lucy, I have to say that this is really an excellent guide to London on a budget, and many of the tips are one’s I would have included myself. I’m always footsore at the end of the day, but it is such a walkable city. Who wants to beetle along underground? The views from Greenwich park are wonderful and you can do a guided walk there very cheaply, which has you imagining a joust right before your eyes. The little-known Greenwich Fan Museum is rather nice, too.

  2. says

    Very nicely done. I’ve been there twice, and I walked around a bit, then got out quick so I’d be able to survive. Money crunch…places to be…would not have had the money to move about Europe and Africa if I had stayed in London. A woman just told – or complained – about council taxes…to live in a house. Hard to avoid that. Wish I knew all this before, would have been easier.
    Later…

    • says

      London property prices and council tax are seriously scary and one of the main reasons I moved out! I think I see more as a visitor now though than I ever did as a resident as you tend not to do the ‘touristy’ things in your own city very often.

  3. says

    Great post – and a valuable guide for visitors. Well done. Another cheap cinema experience is the Coronet in Notting Hill ( a scene from the film with Hugh Grant was shot inside here) – they have £3:50 films on Tuesdays

    • says

      It’s so true isn’t it? I’ve been to three museums in London in the last few months which is more than I did the whole last year I lived in London! It’s easy to take things for granted if they’re just down the road.

  4. says

    Thanks for these tips – I’ll be sure to purchase a London Eye ticket ahead of time, and I know the museums your mentioned are superb and it’s great to know they’re still free!

    • says

      You’re welcome. London’s museums really are fantastic, I’m trying to branch out and try a few of the smaller ones now, there’s enough to keep me busy for a few years worth of trips!

    • says

      Thanks, Borough is an amazing place, not sure if it’s very good for my budgeting though, there are way too many delicious things around I can’t resist buying a load!

  5. says

    Great article. I, too, love the Borough Market, Pizza Express, Tas and Brick Lane for meals. Some other thoughts are Pret A Manger (their food is always fresh) or just a cheese plate and a glass of wine at La Fromagerie on Moxon Street. The cheese plates have themes (British, French, Italian) and are delicious. Some of the museum cafes, like the Tate Modern, offer reasonably priced food as well.

    For theatre tickets, sometimes deals can be had at lastminute.com but bookings must be made at the last minute.

    • says

      Thanks – good tip re Pret and museum cafes. I’ve not been to La Fromagerie but it sounds juts like me type of place so will check it out next time I’m in the area!

  6. says

    I did take one of those walks along the Thames and visited the Globe and the Tate before crossing the Helix bridge, it was beautiful and therapeutic.

    • says

      Thanks so much, hope that you can make use of some of the tips and have a fantastic trip around Europe. A 45-day trip is a really good amount of time to see a lot, hope you get some good weather to go with it!

  7. says

    Some top tips here. I’m going on an Easter bank holiday – should we get two day passes for the underground at euston station, or is it worth getting an Oyster card in advance just for one day? Also, can two people share one Oyster card? Cheers!

    • says

      I’d recommend getting Oyster cards (you need one each) and loading them up with credit, as it won’t cost you any more than the maximum cost of a day travelcard each day, and if you don’t use it so much then it’ll only charge you for what you use. Have a good trip!

    • says

      Hi Caroline.
      Some good budget options are the Tune Hotels (www.tunehotels.com), with doubles from £45 a night – they’re quite tiny but have en suite bathrooms and good locations in King’s Cross/Paddington/Westminster/Liverpool St. Other budget hotel chains worth trying are the Premier Inns and The Hoxton (www.hoxtonhotels.com) sometimes has rooms for £1.
      If you are looking at hostels there are a couple of boutique ones which also have private rooms – Safestay in south London (www.safestay.co.uk) or Palmer’s Lodge in north London (www.palmerslodges.com). There’s also a modern YHA near King’s Cross (www.yha.org.uk/hostel/london-central).
      Otherwise the sites where you can rent an apartment (or a room in a house) like AirBnB, Roomorama, Go With Oh and Wimdu are worth a look.
      Hope this helps!
      Lucy

  8. says

    Great post. I got an amazing shot over London from Greenwhich village! You can see the picture under “the world in photograps” I’d be happy to hear your toughts on it! :)

  9. says

    Brilliant post! I was wondering if you have any recommendations for where to stay in the city as well? I am thinking of going down in the Spring and I’ve seen a few hostels in Shoreditch or Swiss Cottage and the like – do you think these areas are too far out or would the travel pass make it feasible? Cheers in advance!

    • says

      Thanks! Staying in central London is very expensive so accommodation a bit further out tends to be a much better deal and the Tube will get you around easily (though it doesn’t run all night so if you’re planning to be out late you’ll need to get a night bus). Of the two places you mention Shoreditch is probably the closest into town, with easy access to the centre as well as the East End and down to Greenwich etc. Have a great trip!

  10. Elaine says

    Does anyone have recommendations for day trips outside of London? Looking for walk-able towns/villages with interesting street life, good pubs, unique shops, etc. Going beginning of October 2014. What do you think about Brighton Beach for this time of year? Thanks!

    • says

      On a sunny day Brighton is a great place off-season (it can get packed in summer). Whitstable is also really nice by the coast, or if the weather isn’t so good you could try Oxford or Cambridge, or closer to the city there is Windsor too. Have a great trip!

      • Elaine says

        Thank you Lucy. We will be on a tour for 11 days seeing many of the hot spots along with Castles and Museums, so looking more for a fun town. We have 3 days post tour to venture out on our own, relying on public transportation. Brighton seemed to have the atmosphere along with some different stores to browse. Any suggestions on a good pub there? Places to see or stay away from there? We have been to Windsor on a prior trip to London. We will have to check out Cambridge or Oxford if weather is too bad. Thanks!

  11. says

    Thank you so much for all these tips, I’m leaving tomorrow for a 5-day stay in London with my 12-year old daughter and we’re really looking forward to it ! I also got other ideas from an article that advises people to go to the following places :
    Bar Bruno for a real English breakfast (101 Wardour street – Soho)
    Fish and chips from The Dining Plaice (20 Berwick Street – Soho)
    or Hummus Bros who apparently have big servings at fairly reasonnable prices (I found them while looking for free wifi spots)
    They say that a trip to any of London’s Magnificent Seven Victorian cemeteries can be uplifting because of the stunning architecture and landscaping (especially on misty mornings)
    Then there is the stroll along the South Bank, the free museums, and some other suggestions (that we won’t follow for lack of wanting to hang out at night, considering my daughter’s age) are a pint of bitter at the Hope and Anchor (207 Upper st in Islington) or at the Angelic for a quieter experience (57 Liverpool Road) and a 3-pound pint.
    If at 2 am you’re still standing, then they recommend Bar Italia (22 Frith St) where the late-night cappuccino is £ 2.50 (and one of the best in town).

    • says

      Hope you and your daughter have a great trip Carole! Some good suggestions there too – I lived around the corner from the Angelic and it’s a great pub that does good Sunday lunches (though not sure I’d call it quiet!). The cemeteries are really interesting too, I think Highgate is probably the most impressive, though Abney Park in Stoke Newington has much more of an overgrown, eerie feel.

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