“London is a microcosm of the whole world; you can experience so many cultures in a very short distance.”
– Timo Ten Feld: London Local.
London is one of the most expensive cities in the world, but it doesn’t stop some 19 million of us from packing our bags each year to catch a glimpse of Queen Liz. Part of London’s magic is its ability to cater to the needs of the many, and as our locals will confirm – it’s not difficult to find a worthwhile activity that doesn’t require the opening of your wallet. From museums and galleries to parks and gardens and some of the best happy hours around, once you know where to look – London is yours for the taking.
1. Getting There Cheaply
Plan your trip in advance
London is a city that banks on tourism so the longer you wait to plan your trip, the more you will pay. Remember that most ‘London’ airports are actually outside the borders of the city, so you will need to get a train or bus to the center of town. If you book at least 30 days in advance, you can purchase an early bird train ticket from Stansted and Gatwick airports. There are also railcards and group savings available. Heathrow is the only airport accessible by the tube (the subway), so if you’re flying in there you’ll need to purchase your Oyster card at the service desk or ticket machine.
If you have a choice of airport, Sara recommends the following:
- When staying in South London – Gatwick is your closest airport
- When staying in North London – Stansted or Luton are your best bets
- When staying in West London – Heathrow is the most convenient
Top Local Tip: The bus is usually cheaper than the train, but be aware that traffic can be an issue when traveling at peak times, so always factor an extra hour into your journey.
2. Cheap Transport
Avoid the tube: A true Londoner walks the walk
The tube is an iconic staple of London life, but it’s not the only way to get from A to B. More often than not, you’ll find that the distance between each station is far shorter than it appears on a map, so dust off your walking shoes and experience your surroundings by foot. Obviously, London is a considerably large city, so you will also need to buy an Oyster card for a fiver (5 GBP) which is refundable on return, so don’t forget to drop it back off at the station before you leave.
Top Local Tip: London is full of bike paths, canals, and off-road options so if you don’t fancy walking everywhere, consider renting a ‘Boris Bike’ which you’ll find dotted around the city. You can drop them off at any bike station so you don’t need to make a return trip!
3. Cheap Food
Where to get your fill for less
Let’s cut right to the chase here; London has some excellent food options. The sheer amount of choice can be rather overwhelming at times, but allow our Locals to guide you through to the best cheap eats:
Borough Market is a top spot for local street food. It’s high quality for a low price, and you can usually sample so many things that you might not even need to buy a meal! The Sam Smith’s pubs have a good selection of beer for low cost and have a very welcoming ‘Ye Olde London’ feel to them (though they’re actually a Yorkshire Brewery). Tamesis Dock is an old docked boat on the Thames that has a great atmosphere and cheap drinks. For a cheap Sunday roast – try the Winchester in Islington; they have a 2 for 1 offer! Groupon also regularly has great deals for some quality restaurants.
Top Local Tip: Check out The Nudge for soft openings of brand new restaurants with sizeable discounts!
4. Cheap Drinks
The Happiest Hour of them all
Be at One! This is a chain bar, but they have an excellent happy hour and you won’t be hard pressed to find one in the center of town. Simmons is another great chain; each location is a little different and they make incredibly strong cocktails in teapots – after a happy hour there you will definitely be drunk if that’s your aim! If you sign up to the email list for a bar called Pergola, you will receive a voucher for your first drink for free.
Top Local Tip: When looking for happy hours during the week, aim to arrive between 5-7pm. This is the standard ‘happy hour’ period in London, although some bars offer extended hours on Fridays to catch the after work crowds. Barrio East bars have ‘amigo hour’ every day until 9pm and all day on weekends!
5. Cheap Accommodation
Finding a place to rest your weary head
Booking your accommodation in advance is strongly encouraged in London, particularly if you’re staying during a weekend. If you’re looking to find something a little more cost effective, locals recommend venturing a little further outside the center. There are many quaint little boroughs with their own unique offerings if you’re willing to extend your travel time a little. Airbnb is a blessing in such a top tourist destination, and you can always find a good deal if you’re willing to rent a room rather than an entire apartment. Sharing an apartment with a local host is also the best way to acquire more local knowledge.
Top Local Tip: To get more bang for your buck in ol’ London Town without ending up in Essex, try looking for accommodation just outside of zone 1 and 2.
6. Free and Cheap Activities
For Museums and Galleries
There are simply too many to list as most of London’s galleries and museums are indeed free or donation based. The city boasts some of the most admired pieces in the world, so here are some recommendations from the locals to help narrow your choices:
The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery have incredible collections that you simply can’t miss.
The British Library is home to some of the rarest and ancient texts you never thought you’d see in real life.
The Westminster Reference Library is a lesser known hot spot; it’s quaint and full of rich history.
Tate Modern and Tate Britain are architecturally brilliant with some of the most impressive exhibits in Europe.
The Wellcome Collection is a really fun fusion of science and art that could fill a whole day.
Top Local Tip: Tickets to the top of the Shard are quite expensive, but visiting the bar near the top is free! Get yourself a cheap beer and take in the views without having to pay the high price of admission.
For Best Parks and Gardens
When it comes to open spaces, London is a step above the competition. One of the quintessential activities according to the locals is to pack a picnic and some bubbly and head to one of the many, many exquisite parks and gardens in the city’s repertoire. Here are a few local recommendations:
Kew Gardens: A great spot to wander towards when you want to escape the rat race!
Hyde Park: Speakers corner in the park is on every Sunday; a famous soap box dating back to the 1800s where the likes of Karl Marx and George Orwell have rallied the masses.
Kensington Gardens: The place to bring some bird feed and feed the parakeets.
Victoria Park is London’s oldest public park and if you venture in towards the lake, you’ll find a truly exceptional brunch spot at Pavillion cafe.
Top Local Tip: If traveling with kids, The Horniman Parks and Gardens is the perfect combination of leisure and fun activities for the whole family. The app Hoop has listings for all sorts of amazing things going on in London for families and you can filter by postcode and choose ‘free events only’.
For Best Walks and Views
Walking is a staple of London life, and particularly as a tourist when you don’t want to experience the city from the window of a black taxi. For picture perfect views, the locals recommend the following:
Alexandra Palace: One of the highest points in London with unparalleled views across the city.
Greenwich: Take the ferry along the Thames from Embankment through many of London’s famous landmarks and check out the famous Greenwich mean time clock at the top of the Royal Observatory.
Hampstead Heath: Rugged and raw, with beautiful running tracks and perfectly swimmable lakes. Take a short hike up to Primrose Hill for an excellent picnic spot.
Top Local Tip: For a perfect scenic walk, start from London Bridge along the Southbank past the Globe and the National Theatre towards the London Eye, then wander across Westminster Bridge past the Houses of Parliament and finally on to Green Park and Buckingham Palace.
For the Best Markets
London and markets go together like peanut butter and jelly! You will find a quality market in practically every neighborhood, but if you’re looking for a broad selection of the city’s finest, take a leaf out of the locals’ book for your weekend market hopping:
Every Day but Sunday at Borough Market – for cheese lovers and excellent street food.
Every Day at Camden Market – for good vibes, great food and arts and craft.
Saturday at Broadway Market – all the good food on one beautiful street and plenty of park space to enjoy it in.
Sunday at Columbia Road Flower Market – a road of Victorian stores, which on Sundays is filled in with flowers galore to brighten your day.
Saturday and Sunday at Greenwich Market – art and craft market and a unique village vibe.
Top Local Tip: For something a little different, head to Spitalfields and Brick Lane markets to discover the best new clothing, art and vintage shopping in London. Sundays are jam packed with crowds, but both markets are also open on Saturdays for a less crowded vibe.
So there you have it – your local guide to enjoying the best the city has to offer without breaking the bank. All of the tips in this post were provided by our network of European locals. If you have any questions about travel through Europe – join The Locals on Facebook!
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