London is one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world. It’s also one of the most common stops on any backpacking trip, European vacation, or two week holiday. Everyone wants to come to London. People are drawn by images of pubs, museums, theater, and royalty. London is a cultural and fashion capital, a great place to go out, and an amazing place to eat. The only problem with London is that it’s very, very expensive. It can eat away at your budget if you aren’t careful. Luckily, there are many cheap things to do in London that still make it visitable but budget extra for this city. You’ll probably need it.
Hostel prices – Hostels, like everything else, are expensive in London. Expect to pay around 20-40 GBP per night for a dorm room, although some dorms start at around 10 GBP that are a bit outside the city. Private rooms will be almost as much as a hotel, starting at around 55 GBP. Equity Point and St. Christopher’s are my two favorite hostels in the city.
Budget hotel prices – Hotels in London anywhere in the city center will start around 100 GBP per night, and go up from there. If you stay on the outskirts of the city, you will pay around 40 GBP per night.
Average cost of food – London offers every type of food imaginable and for every price range. Some of the cheaper options include Asian and English cuisine for 5 GBP. Lunch specials run around 10 GBP for a multi-course meal with drink. Fish, chips, and other pub food will cost round the same price. Table service restaurants will set you back about 19 GBP or more for a meal with a drink. If you choose to cook, groceries will cost you between 40-52 GBP per week.
Transportation costs – Take the bus or underground (otherwise known as The Tube) as they are the cheapest forms of transportation in London. Fares start at 2.30 GBP, or 4.80 GBP without an Oyster Card (pre-paid card). Underground tickets and Oyster Cards are also valid on London’s buses. You can now also hire a bike from many of the new docking stations around the capital city. However, be warned that London’s streets are not the easiest to navigate and there is a long way to go before London is cyclist friendly. The Heathrow Express is 21.50 GBP. For all over airports, using EasyBus to/from the airport is the cheapest option with fares that cost 2-13 GBP, depending on the distance and time of day.
Money Saving Tips
Visit all the free museums – Most of the museums in London are free – the Museum of London, the British History Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Science Museum are all great. Get your fill of British history without spending a pence! The National Gallery and the Tate Modern are also free, and some of my favorites.
Buy an Oyster Card – This may not be free, but starting at 32.10 GBP you get a card valid for a week, and it can save you about 50% on each ride. It reduces the cost of the metro system substantially. Without an Oyster Card you could be paying 4-5 GBP for a 20 minute Tube ride, with an Oyster Card the same journey would cost you about 2.20 GBP.
People watch at the markets – Sunday is market day in London. There’s the Camden Market, the Portobello Market, the Flower Market, and a million more options. People watch, get great photos, and enjoy local London life without spending a dime.
Watch the changing of the guards – The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace is at 11:30 am, and the horse guards at Whitehall change at 11:00 am. These are both free and interesting to watch as you take in true British flare.
Just walk and explore – London is a huge city, and there are beautiful historic buildings all around. In fact, London beat me. I found this city to be totally un-walkable. I walked for four hours and barely made a dent on the route I was going to take (hence the need to get the Oyster Card.) However, once you walk and get out of the tourist area around the Thames, you’ll get to see London the way the locals do. You can pick up free maps of showing walking routes around the capital from any of London’s tourist information shops.
Last minute theater tickets – You can get last minute tickets to the theater from the official booth in Leicester Square. Availability varies every day.
Attend small theater performances – London is famous for their theatrics. If you don’t want to shell out a lot of money to see The Lion King or Les Miserables, check out smaller shows and comedy nights at theaters like Leicester Square Theater where prices can start at about 3-13 GBP a ticket.
Skip the cabs – Taxis are incredibly expensive in London and will eat into your budget just by taking them once. I stayed out past when the tube closed one night and the taxi to my hotel was 31 GBP! If you start taking taxis everywhere, you’ll end up spending hundreds of dollars per day, so keep this in mind.
Master the night bus – In London, the tube closes around 12:30am. To avoid taking expensive taxis, make sure you get a map of the night bus routes so you can get back to your hotel/hostel on the cheap. These buses go all over the city and into the suburbs. You can also use your Oyster card on these buses. In fact, buses are always the cheapest public transportation option!
Take a free walking tour – London, like any big city is Europe, has a wide array of free walking tours given throughout the city. For a historical view of the city, try New Europe, for off the beaten path tours, try Free Tours by Foot, and for super quirky ones, try Vayable.
Top Things to See and Do in London
Visit the Tower of London and Tower Bridge – The Tower of London is a great place to spend the day. It is here you can view the Crown Jewels, see a fantastic view of the Tower Bridge and take a picture with a guard. Admission fee is 24.50 GBP, or 23.10 GBP if you purchase tickets online.
Big Ben and the House of Parliament – Although you can’t go up the bell tower, you can view its Gothic structure from the street. You can do tours of Parliament. Get there early as the line can get very long. The best view of it is from the opposite side of the river near the London Eye.
Visit Buckingham Palace – Buckingham Palace can only be visited from the inside during the summer but you can join the crowds taking photos outside any time of year. You can watch the changing of the Guard at 11:30am from May until the end of July.
Visit a wide array of museums – London has more museums than you could see in one visit and they are all free. From the Tate to the City Museum to the National Gallery to the Historical Museum, you’ll be able to spend days here without spending a penny!
Grab some food in Borough Market – With more food stalls than you can imagine, Borough Market has something for every eater. It is home to some of the best British and international produce and dishes. Come here hungry and leave satisfied. Already ate? Nibble of the free samples being given out at most stalls. Open for lunch Mondays and Tuesdays, all day Wednesday-Saturdays and closed on Sundays. The crowds are terrible on Saturdays, but if that’s the only day you can fit it in, I’d go anyway!
Take in the theater – London is known for it’s famous theater. Attend a show while you’re here and see some of the shows that make London famous. Tickets can be pretty cheap and there’s something playing every night.
Brick Lane – On Sunday, this little street and the car park become a great place for cheap food. You can get a wide variety of food here, spend the day at the outdoor market, or have some great local curry. It’s a popular place with the locals and has some of the best food in London. This street is also a great place to bring a camera, as its’ walls are basically a gallery for London’s best graffiti artists.
See Westminster Abbey – You can get into Westminster for free. You have to cheat slightly though. Westminster will not charge you entrance if you’re there for worship. (Maybe worshiping its beauty?) If you want to get in and not pay, say you are worshiping. Otherwise, it costs 20 GBP to visit. It is only open to worshipers on Sunday.
Ride the London Eye – The London Eye is almost 500 feet high. The London Eye has become the most popular paid-for UK visitor attraction. It’s across the street from Parliament and gives you great views of London, especially on a clear day. But honestly, for the 20 GBP it costs (or 23 GBP if you buy in person), you could use that money for far better attractions.
The London Dungeon – The London Dungeon calls itself “the world’s most chillingly famous horror attraction.” It covers 2,000 years of London’s gruesome history. It’s a gruesome but morbidly interesting museum to see about England’s past. After all, torture was a popular thing to do for awhile, especially in old England. They loved torturing people! Ticket prices are high at 25 GBP (at the door), but tickets can be found for 19 GBP online (ahead of time).
St Paul’s Cathedral – A great cathedral with a world-famous Dome. Inside has glittering mosaics and elaborate stone carvings. You can also climb the Whispering Gallery or higher still to the Stone Gallery or Golden Gallery for the amazing views of surrounding London. Entrance is 18 GBP (cheaper than the London Eye and with similarly breathtaking views).
Trafalgar Square – In many ways this is center of London. There is no cost attached to spending some time avoiding the pigeons while looking at some of the famous monuments such Nelson’s Column. Lots of people just hang out here so it makes for a good place to people watch. This is also a good starting point for a walk along The Mall to Buckingham Palace.
Covent Garden – A great place to just hang out: lots of quirky stalls, musicians busking, an arty market and selection of more unusual pubs and coffee shops that break the Starbucks mold. Covent Garden is also walking distance to all the big musicals so is a great place to spend a few hours before catching a show.
Shakespeare’s Globe – An integral part of England’s history, the Globe Theatre is a must see for lovers of Shakespeare. The performances here are considered to be a near–perfect replica of Elizabethan staging practices. You can even sit in front where the groundlings did, for shouting and heckling! The theater is open-roofed so bundle up in the winter. Entrance is around 14 GBP.
Camden Market – For some great shopping and people watching, this market has consistently been a top attraction. It is busiest on the weekends, particularly Sunday, drawing crowds all the way from Camden Town. It is composed of many separate markets, so there is lots to check out.
Royal Observatory – Since its 17-million USD renovations, this observatory is now divided into two sections. The Northern half is intended for time, whereas the southern half is devoted to astronomy. In the Meridian Courtyard, you can actually stand on either side of the meridian line—straddling the two hemispheres of the Earth. The Peter Harrison Planetarium is also housed here.
The Strand – This area is considered to be one of the most prestigious places to live. First developed in the 12th century, this area is still seen as a grand display of wealth and beauty. It was dubbed “the finest street in Europe” by the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in the 19th century.
Have a beer at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese – This old pub, just off The Strand, has been around since right after the great fire of 1666 (and there has been a pub at this location since 1538). They’re held off on renovating it so it’s kept its old gloomy English charm. It’s surprising large inside and in the winter, fireplaces keep pub goers warm. When you step into it, you feel like you’ve actually stepped back in time. Famous literary geniuses like Charles Dickens, R.L. Stevenson, Mark Twain, Oliver Goldsmith and others used to frequent (and write about) this particular pub.