First time in London? Wondering how much you can see, realistically, in a long weekend? Thinking you might have to take out a second mortgage to pay for everything?
Here’s how to do the famous bits of London on a limited budget in double-quick time, based on my years of experience of England’s extraordinary capital city.
You’ll need a transport pass or Oyster Card – all the details from Transport for London – and a pair of comfortable shoes, as there’s a lot of walking coming up!
Where to stay?
You can get relatively good deals in London, provided you book well in advance, don’t mind chain hotels or Air B&B and aren’t too fussy about location. Or you can do what we always do and stay at the brilliant YHA St Pancras, which is really handy for transport – King’s Cross station and Tube down the street, buses from right outside the door (straight to Trafalgar Square for example), and walking distance to the British Library and British Museum.
They have private rooms from £60 (ask to be as high up as possible to minimise street noise), no kitchen but decent-priced breakfasts, a cosy bar and lounge area, and big, secure lockers. The neighbourhood is entirely safe, and the staff can sell you a daily transport pass, which means you save time by walking out the door and jumping on the first bus that passes. They also sell discount passes for most of the big London attractions and organise things like bar tours and city walks. We love it, and we’ve been back several times.
It’s selfie time in the square – you and the lions – and then duck into the National Gallery for one of the finest free collections of art in the world. My tip if it’s your first time? Give yourself one aim in one hour – the Van Gogh sunflowers, the Turners, the Monet water-lily pond – because the gallery is huge, busy and frustrating if you try to do too much. You can always come back – it’s free!
Now it’s walk time through monumental royal London, down The Mall and through St James’ Park to Buckingham Palace. More selfies at the gate and a wave at The Queen (well, you never know) before a walk across Green Park to Piccadilly, where you can jump on a bus up to Piccadilly Circus. From there, you’re on the edge of Soho – a great neighbourhood for bars and restaurants – and the Tube back to King’s Cross goes directly from Leicester Square.
Money spent? Nothing on admissions, not a bean.
Back on the no.91 bus from King’s Cross, this time get off on The Strand at Charing Cross and walk down to the River Thames, where you can jump on a river bus service to Greenwich. This is a wonderful 30-minute ride that passes the Tower of London and The Shard, and cruising the Thames like this offers a different perspective on London – it’s the river that Dickens wrote about so well.
At Greenwich, the National Maritime Museum is another fantastic free msueum – the Royal Observatory and Cutty Sark have stiff admission charges, but you can get an idea of them from the outside for nothing. Then take the river bus back, getting off at Bankside for the short walk across the funky pedestrian Millennium Bridge to Sir Christoper Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral (also very expensive to get in, but hugely impressive if you walk right around the outside).
Cross back over the bridge and there’s a great riverside promenade walk, all the way along the Thames to Westminster. You’ll pass Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre and the London Eye, cross over Westminster Bridge to the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, and then walk up Whitehall, past Horse Guards Parade and 10 Downing Street, to reach Trafalgar Square again. That’s some serious sightseeing. Phew!
Money spent? The River Bus isn’t included in your transport pass, but you do get a discount. Other than that, another fab, free day seeing lots of famous stuff.
You have to make a choice on day 3, because time’s running out. For the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum and the amazing, neighbouring Science Museum – both free! – take the Tube out to South Kensington. That’s all you’ll have time for, because these are two of the most extraordinary museums in the world.
Or mix it up a bit and spend the morning at the equally mesmeric (and equally free) British Museum – you can walk from St Pancras YHA or take the bus – before heading back to King’s Cross for a final walk through a neighbourhood that is changing dramatically.
First, walk through King’s Cross station itself. Why? You’ll soon see, at Platform 9¾, where you get your picture taken as you jump through the wall at the famous Harry Potter platform. Check out the video to see how not to do it!.
Then walk up behind St Pancras station to see the development of this old warehouse and industrial area in full swing – the free viewing platform by the canal gives some great views.
After that, follow the canal towpath all the way to Camden Lock Market. It’s a really nice canalside walk, and once you get to the market there are some great cheap street food stalls.
Money spent? It’s another Big Fat Zero on admissions and entry fees.
Where to eat and drink?
Here’s where London can really eat up your savings, so it’s a good job you’ve not spent much so far. I’d start with the reliable reviews in Time Out London for the latest places, budget eats and all the entertainment news.
So that’s it – my London in a hurry and on a budget.
Tell me what you think, and feel free to add suggestions in the comments below if you want to help out others.
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YHA St Pancras by YHA
London Bus 91 by David Holt, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Trafalgar Square by Christian Reimer, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Thames Clipper passing Tower Bridge by James Blunt, via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
St Paul’s Cathedral by Davide D’Amico, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Bar Italia by Matt Brown, via Flick, CC BY 2.0
Camden Market by Richard Randall, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0