No one who truly considers themselves a globetrotter has the respect of their fellow nomads until they’ve been to one of the big cities. And they certainly don’t come any bigger than London. The icing on the cake then – the feat that gets you your ‘traveller’s merit badge,’ so to speak – is when you get to travel to London and cover all the famous sights and sounds on a budget. That’s something worth bragging about. Worry not – I’ve got you covered.
Whoever said that the best things in life are free certainly knew their way around an expensive city. It’s true that many of the famous places come with exorbitant price tags, but when there is so much on offer, all you need is a keen nose for picking out the free stuff. Trust me, there is a lot to choose from.
This Budget Travel Guide for London will give you all the tips and tricks you need to help with budgeting for London and work out how to save money in London as a tourist.
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Free Attractions and Entrance
If you’re a history buff, head on over to the Tate Modern, National Gallery, Natural History Museum, Museum of London or the British Museum – all of which are free of cost. Immerse yourself in the historical legacy of the British empire without making a dent in your wallet.
No trip to London is complete without witnessing the changing of the guard outside the palace. That unforgettable experience also comes at no cost.
A great way to stay abreast of the latest happenings is to download a free app on your smartphone that alerts and guides you as to where to go and when. For iPhone users, the ‘Time Out’ app provides such a service. However, if you’re a bit of an old soul and prefer to wing it, we’d advise you to head to East London. For art fans, there’s plenty on offer, including the captivating work of Christiaan Nagel. In any case, something is bound to peak your interest.
Food on a Budget
As much as we feel like we can survive on just sights and sounds, we know that’s not true. You need strength and energy for the amount of walking you’ll be doing. And seriously, it’s not just for sustenance; you can’t profess to having seen a place until you’ve tasted their culinary specialties. London has been a melting pot of cultures for centuries, and as a result, you can find authentic ethnic food all over the city.
If you’re craving South Asian or Indian food, head on over to Brick Lane or Southall. There, you’ll find international food chains that cater to different ethnic cultures to satiate your craving for something different. Japanese food enthusiasts can eat at Wagamama. For lovers of Mediterranean cuisine, there’s Leon. Tas caters to Turkish food, and Busaba is a Thai food chain.
For those who are more open to experiencing street food, London is a gourmand’s delight. For as little as £5, you can treat your palate to a variety of food stalls. Some of the more popular ones are the Southbank Centre Food Market, which is open from Friday to Sunday, the Borough Market, which remains open from Monday till Saturday, the Real Food Market, which is located in Kings Cross and operates only between Wednesday to Friday, and finally, the Portobello Road Market, which is the same one that appeared in the ‘Mary Poppins’ song and is open from Monday to Saturday.
If it’s traditional English food that you want, the Caff is where you want to go. Get a taste of what the working-class people eat. It’s not only filling and tasty, but easy on the pocket as well. A healthy breakfast will cost you anywhere between £3 to £5. If you’re in the mood for cabbage and mashed potatoes, you can get those too for around £4.
The more adventurous and outdoorsy travellers can even opt for a picnic out in the open, weather permitting. You can stock up on breads, meats, and all the accoutrements needed for your basket at London’s many economical supermarkets. Many of them, like the Coop and Tesco, have branches at metro stations.
Out and About
Like any metropolitan city worth its salt, travelling in London takes a heavy toll on the pocket. Even if you opt for the metro, a single fare could cost you an average of around £4.90. However, that gets slashed down to £2.40 if you buy an ‘Oyster card’ – your answer to all your travelling woes.
You can buy one at any of the subway stations. You can also buy the card online, and there’s another option to further reduce your travelling cost if you use Mastercard, Visa, or any other ‘contactless’ payment options. However, for ease of transaction and lack of complexity, nothing beats the Oyster card.
If you’re not in a hurry and want to really explore the city and its various sights, take the bus instead of the tube. That being said, just as too much of a good thing is bad, do not try to go for longer journeys on the bus as it will take too long and eat up into your other planned activities.
But for short detours, travelling by bus beats any paid ‘sightseeing tour.’ For a truly unforgettable ride, opt for the bus to take you through London’s main sites. The best options are to try the number 4, which goes through Somerset House, Barbican, Waterloo, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Court of Justice, and Fleet Street, and the number 88, which goes through such beloved names as Piccadilly, Camden, Westminster Abbey, Oxford Street, and Trafalgar Square.
Seeing London through the Thames is like seeing it in a totally different light. However, the many river tours charge a high price. It’s recommended that you try the ‘Thames Clipper’ boat. It’s not exactly a tourist ride as it’s used by local commuters, but it still follows the same route on the river. Plus, if you use your Oyster card, you can slash your fare considerably.
For fitness freaks, ‘Boris Bikes,’ as they’re commonly known, are available to travel and see London from the back of a bicycle. The ‘Santander Cycle’ has plenty of docking stations all over the city. A simple £2 deposit gets you the bike for the next 24 hours. If you finish your journey in under 30 minutes, it’s free.
One Pass for All Your Visits
Seeing the buildings is one thing, but if you’re into exploring museums and galleries, the cost of buying a pass for each individual London attractions can start to add up. You can purchase a ‘London Pass,’ which is valid for two days and lets you inside more than 30 places. In addition, it provides the option of free transportation. The London Pass isn’t cheap but if you consider get access to the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour and Entry to Over 80 Attractions including visit Britain at War Museum, the Tower of London, and Westminster Abbey.
If you’re very particular about what you want to see, you should save up for the £11 it will cost you to see Buckingham Palace from inside. Similarly, entrance to the Eltham Palace is £6.
Where to stay while in London on a Budget
Staying in London can be an expensive affair. But even if you can afford it, staying at a high-end hotel is not the way of the budget traveller. If you want to save your travel budget for your food and cheapest way to sightsee in London and spend the bare minimum for your accommodation, then the best option is to scour Airbnb for something suited to your taste. We have also written an extensive guide on Where to stay in London.
A word to the wise: know what you want. Be watchful of the things you can do without – removing them from your preferences can drastically cut down the cost. If you plan to eat outside most of the time, opt for renting a single room instead of an apartment. The further you stay from the main city, the cheaper it will be. Remember, you already have the Oyster card, which solves all your transportation problems, so that distance is no longer an obstacle.
Free Walking Tours
If you’re up for it, nothing beats seeing the city from the ground level. There are plenty of free walking tours available. ‘Sandemans’ provides tours free of cost, as does ‘Undiscovered London.’ In both cases, the guides are not trained professionals, but rather locals who are, in most instances, students. You’ll appreciate the personal touch of being shown around by a local as you get to learn interesting tidbits and the less touristy places to go and foods to eat from the perspective of a local.
Any modern city is judged by the quality of its street performances. And this is where London really shines. Any time of the day, you’re sure to find a variety of options to choose from at the Covent Garden. If classical music is your thing, you can enjoy those for free during lunchtime at St. James’s Church on Piccadilly and St. Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square. For contemporary music lovers, there are free performances on an almost-daily basis at the Southbank Centre.
Movie buffs can enjoy their favourite actors on the big screen at the Prince Charles Cinema, which is a bit further down the road on Leicester Square. During the week, a movie ticket will cost you £9. However, if you’re planning to stay in London for a bit longer and are someone who values their movies, then it’s suggested that you become a member for just £10. Doing so will shave £4 off each movie ticket. Additionally, you’ll get discounts on drinks.
For fans of theatre, you can get theatre tickets for a West End show at the TKTS booth. You need to go to Leicester Square to buy the tickets if you’re looking for a discount. The ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’ is another venue where you can buy a ticket for just £5. The catch is that you’ll have to watch it while standing. £15 can get you tickets to see a performance at the National Theatre.
Catching a glimpse of the London skyline is an unforgettable experience. Doing that on a budget requires knowledge of the best vantage points in the city. The most cost-effective places are the parks, which offer panoramic views of the skyline. In the north side of London, you can get the best views from Hampstead Heath, Primrose Hill, and Alexandra Palace. If you are in the south of London, head for Greenwich or Richmond park.
However, if you want a more central view and are also willing to cough up a bit more money, nothing beats the view from the Monument. Tickets are £4 for adults and £2.30 for children between the ages of 5 and 15. The Monument was constructed in the 17th century to commemorate the Great Fire of London. It stands at only 62 meters though and is overshadowed by the surrounding sky scrapers. But if you want to be in the centre of the city, it doesn’t get any better than that.
The Sky Garden is another great option for a beautiful view of the city. Although it’s free, it does require advance booking as the place is in great demand throughout the year. The Garden is located at 20 Fenchurch Street and is commonly known as the ‘Walkie Talkie.’ Another option is to try the rooftop terrace of the One New Change shopping centre. The building is close to St Paul’s Cathedral, however, it’s only open from 6am until midnight.
For those looking to kill two birds with one stone, you can have a drink with a great view at the Gong. The bar is situated on the 52nd floor of the Shard near the London Bridge. The Aqua Shard, which is on the 31st floor of the same building, is also worth visiting.
Recommend budget tours in London:
- London Pass Including Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour and Entry to Over 80 Attractions
- Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter
- London Rock Music Tour
- Downton Abbey and Oxford Tour from London Including Highclere Castle
- London Eye: Champagne Experience
- Buckingham Palace Tour Including Changing of the Guard Ceremony and Afternoon Tea
- Royal London Walking Tour Including Early Access to the Tower of London and Changing of The Guard
- Luxury Paris Day Trip with Champagne Lunch at the Eiffel Tower
- Stonehenge, Windsor Castle, and Bath from London