London is a big place with lots to see (and plenty that’s free), so plan carefully to ensure you get to see as much of it as possible! It’s super touristy for most of the year, so be prepared for crowds, but there’s history, architecture, art and theater to enjoy in the sprawling city.
If arriving via air, Heathrow airport is closest to the city center and offers direct access to the Underground into the city, but it’s not always the cheapest airport. Shop around. We found that flying into Stanstead, though father away, and buying a coach ticket into the city was significantly cheaper. Cheap enough to be worth the 2-3 hour bus ride.
London is not the kind of city you can expect to traverse completely by foot (it’s much too spread out, but you can certainly tackle portions of the city that way), But it has two main modes of transportation: The Underground (or Tube) and buses. Neither is terribly expensive if you are travelling during off-peak hours. Peak hours are before 9:30am and between 4:00 pm – 7:00 pm when most people are traveling. Getting on between these times can save you up to a few bucks.
Don’t forget a map. A map of the Underground network will be invaluable to non-London residents. I’d heard stories of people being terrified to take the Tube for fear of the complicated connections, but we didn’t have any trouble when advising our trusty map. Most guidebooks include one.
Enjoy London for FreeMuseum of London: A walk through the vast museum takes you through the city’s entire history from prehistoric times to the renaissance period to modern times. There are plenty of interactive exhibits and life-size displays, including a full-size Dalek. History buffs won’t want to miss it.
Tate Modern: This multi-story art gallery houses an impressive collection of modern art (as the name implies) from more recent artists to Picasso and Dali and several great gift shops full of art-inspired items. You can also get a great view of the London cityscape from the balconies on the upper floor.
National Gallery: If Modern art isn’t your thing, plan to spend an hour or three at the National Gallery. A veritable maze of rooms offer access to works by greats like VanGogh, Manet, Monet, Degas and other artists from around the world.
Changing of the Guards: In front of Buckingham Palace you can witness a parade of guards, horses, music and general pomp and circumstance at 11:30. From May – July it occurs every day but the rest of the year only on alternate days, so you’ll have to search online to find a schedule. The ceremony lasts for about an hour and is pretty drawn out, so be prepared to stand for a while. You’ll also want to arrive early (like an hour early) if you want a good view of the goings on inside and outside the gate.
Horse Guards: If you didn’t or couldn’t get into Buckingham Palace and are dying for the quintessential tourist photo with the guard, head down the street to the Horse Guards where you’ll find uniformed guards and horses by which to pose.
Cathedrals and Historical Sites: Many cathedrals and popular tourist destinations will charge an admittance fee, but it’s always free to admire the architecture from the outside. St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey are both stunning examples of architectural beauty and Parliament and the Tower of Big Ben (which is only open to visitors during the summer and only on weekends the rest of the year) are not to be missed. Literally, they’re so massive they can’t be missed. There is a trick to getting into cathedrals for free: attend a service. You might not get as much time to explore, but the experience will more than make up for it.
Temple District: This quiet area set off from the rest of the city with high walls is home to several law schools, private gardens and Middle Temple Hall where Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” was first performed. The Knights Templar owned the area at one point and it is still a lovely place to wander and explore.
Our Favorite Things
Sherlock Holmes Museum: This is a must if you’re a die-hard Sherlock Holmes fan. Note that I didn’t say Arthur Conan Doyle fan because the museum is set up in honor of his most famous fictional character. The museum is located at the famous 221B Baker Street and is set up to look like Sherlock and Watson’s flat complete with a violin, pipe and deerstalker next to the fireplace. Included is lots of info about Holmes and even a few wax figures of, among others, Moriarty himself. Be sure to check out the themed gift shop next door for some great Sherlock Holmes gifts. £8 is the price of admission.
Charles Dickens Museum: This was my favorite writers museum as it was set up in Dickens’ home. He didn’t live there long, but wrote several of his famous works, including “Oliver Twist,” while there. There are pictures of his wife and daughters, tidbits about the writer’s life and personality, and some of his own furniture (like his writing desk). For anyone even remotely interested in Dickens or any of his works, £8 is a small price to pay.
Theater: A visit to London isn’t complete without a trip to the theater. There are lots of venues and shows to choose from on any given day and prices vary, but you can usually find reasonable tickets to one or another, even last minute. You can try the TKTS kiosk in Leicester Square, but we didn’t find anything cheaper there than we did online. We found tickets for £15 for “Les Miserables” on the day of the performance right on the theater’s website! It was a great deal, but if you want cheap tickets, know that they come at a cost: the cheapest seats are ones with a restricted view that means you might have to lean forward the entire performance to see over the balcony. Still totally worth it.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre: Fans of the Bard will love this one. For an admission price of £13.50 you can explore the exhibits and go on a guided tour in and around the working theater. There is lots to learn, but know before you go that it is neither the first nor second theater that shakespeare designed, nor is it on the same spot as the original. However, it is designed as a replica of the original, complete with wooden bench seats and an open roof. Tickets are BOGO free with the Days Out Guide coupon (info in “Money Saving Tips”). And if you want to see a show, tickets are cheap for the professional theater. It’s £15 if you want a seat and only £5 if you don’t mind standing.
Tower of London: This is another attraction you’ll probably want to use a Days Out Guide coupon for (info in “Money Saving Tips”). At £21.50 it’s not cheap, but a great way to spend an afternoon, especially for history enthusiasts. I wouldn’t say that’s what we are, but we still enjoyed the grisly stories of beheadings during the presentation by a Yeomen Warder, unsolved kidnappings and a large collection of armor and weaponry used throughout the ages. It’s also where the Crown Jewels are located. While you’re there, be sure to get a photo of the ravens kept on the grounds!
Grab a Bite
Pick any of the dozens of daily markets for a quick bite of something tasty. If you’re lucky, you might even stumble across a small farmers market off the beaten path where you can savor a locally made pasta dish or pastry.
On just about every corner there’s a convenience market/grocery store like M&S, Londis, Sainsbury’s or Tesco where you can grab a cheap bite on the go. We often made a meal of bread, cheese and fruit for less than £5 for both of us, but also grabbed a pre-made sandwich, soup or yogurt on occasion. You’d be surprised, but those stores are also good places to buy cheap breakfast pastries, warm or cold and also somewhat filling when stuffed with meat or vegetables.
Wahaca: The trendy Mexican restaurant in Southbank is a lively place for a tasty dinner. They serve more of a tapas-style menu, so be prepared to share several dishes for around £3-5 a piece.
For an afternoon treat drop by a cafe like Costa or a local coffee shop for a mocha and scone.
Money Saving Tips
Save on transportation by getting an Oyster Card. It requires a £5 deposit (which you get back when you return your card at the end of your trip) and can save you up to several Pounds per trip on the Underground and buses compared with paying cash. Just load it with whatever amount you think you might need and then add more if you need it. Anything you don’t use you’ll also get back with your deposit. You can get one at most Underground stations.
As for the London Pass, whether or not it’s worth the cash depends on what you plan to see and do while you’re there. Print out a list of the attractions included in the London Pass, then make a separate list of things you plan on seeing and doing while you’re there and how much they cost per person. Compare the lists and if your personal list of desires adds up to more than the cost of a London Pass, it might be worth it. But doing your homework first could save you a bundle!
If you don’t plan to drop the cash for a London Pass but still want to save on big attractions like Westminster Abbey and The Tower of London, check out the savings at Days Out Guide. All you have to do is go to a rail station, buy the cheapest return ticket for the day you want to visit the attraction (tell them it’s for the 2 for 1 deals and they’ll give you booklet of vouchers) and you’ll literally have your ticket to savings.
For a much longer list of London attractions, including free ones, and info on the London Pass and getting around, check out www.visitlondon.com. Enjoy your trip!