London is one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world. It’s also a common stop on most backpacking trips, European vacations, or two-week holidays. Everyone wants to come to London! People are drawn to it 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. I love visiting this city (though I wouldn’t live here). There’s always something new to do! 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 tons of free or cheap things to do in London that can fill your time. But just be sure to budget extra for this city — you’ll need it!
Hostel prices – Hostels, like everything else, are expensive in London. Expect to pay around 15-40 GBP per night for a dorm room, although some dorms outside the city center start at around 10 GBP. Private rooms will be almost as much as a hotel room, starting at around 55 GBP. Free WiFi is standard in most hostels, and a few in the city even include free breakfast. If you have a tent, there are a few campgrounds outside of the city for around 15 GBP per night (this usually includes admission for 2 adults). Equity Point and St. Christopher’s are my two favorite hostels in the city.
Budget hotel prices– Budget hotels anywhere in the city center will start around 105 GBP per night. If you stay on the outskirts of the city, you will pay around 40 GBP per night. Airbnb is another great budget option with shared accommodation going for as little as 25 GBP per night or an entire apartment starting at 80 GBP per night.
Average cost of food– London offers every type of food imaginable, with food for every price range. Some of the cheaper options include Asian and English cuisine for as little as 5 GBP, with fast food (like McDonald’s) costing the same. Lunch specials run around 10 GBP for a multi-course meal with a drink. Fish, chips, and other pub food will cost around the same price. Cheap restaurants with table service will set you back about 20-30 GBP for a meal with a drink. If you choose to cook, groceries (rice, fruits, veggies, pasta, chicken, sandwich stuff, etc.) will cost you between 42-55 GBP per week.
Transportation costs – The bus or underground (otherwise known as “The Tube”) go everywhere in the city. Fares start at 2.80 GBP with an Oyster Card (pre-paid card). Underground tickets and Oyster Cards are also valid on London’s buses. If you wanted to see the city by bike, you can hire one from many of the new docking stations around the capital city. However, be warned that London’s streets are not the easiest to navigate. If you’re coming from the airport, the Heathrow Express is 22 GBP (one way) if you buy it online, 27 GBP if you buy it at the station. It takes 15 minutes. However, you can also just take the tube and it’s much cheaper but takes an hour. For all other airports, EasyBus is the cheapest option with fares between 2-13 GBP, depending on the distance and time of day.
Suggested daily budget – 60 GBP / 75 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
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 are some of my favorites.
- Buy an Oyster Card – This prepaid card can save you about 50% on each metro. If you plan on using the tube a lot, get this card! If you leave and have extra on the card, they will also refund the balance!
- 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 11:30am, 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. 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, so be sure to get there early.
- 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 25 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. Tours of Parliament cost 25.50 GBP with discounts available for students, seniors, and kids.
- 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. Admission isn’t cheap, however, with adult tickets costing 37 GBP.
- 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 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 its’ 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 becomes 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…but you have to cheat. 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 tall. It 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 21.20 GBP you are better off spending that money on other 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 morbid but 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 19.95 GBP online (ahead of time).
- St Paul’s Cathedral – A great cathedral with a world-famous Dome. Inside you’ll find 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) with discounts available for students, seniors, families, and kids.
- Trafalgar Square – In many ways, this is the 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 artsy 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’s lots to check out.
- Royal Observatory – Since its 17-million USD renovation, 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 has been around since the great fire of 1666 (and there has been a pub at this location since 1538). 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.
- Churchill War Rooms – This museum focuses on the life and legacy of Winston Churchill and also includes Churchill’s secret WWII bunker. If you are like me and a huge history nerd, this is one of the best attractions in the city and I highly, highly encourage you to visit. It’s worth the price!!! Admission is 17.25 for adults, with discounts available for children and families.
- Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens – If you’re looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, head to Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens for some reprieve. Almost 250 acres are covered by the park and the gardens, so it’s a wonderful place to get away and enjoy some of the city’s green space.
- London Wetland Center – For some more green space, check out London’s Wetland Center. Here you can slow down and stroll along the water, relax at the cafe, or go bird watching. It’s great for families and kids! Admission is 11 GBP and discounts are available for families and children.