Visit London, United Kingdom on a budget
Where to stay and where to enjoy London's free locations
London is my birthplace and home. It is one of the great international, commercial and cultural hubs of the world where people from all corners of the planet have made it their home and brought their own influences to it.
Rooted in island culture London is a collection of areas that somehow retain their own spin on life despite being next door to each other. Over the centuries it has evolved from its original river-centric core and swallowed up the towns and villages that once surrounded it. The Greater London area now sprawls approx. 1,600 km2 (600 miles2) and has a population in the region of 8 million people.
Whatever you are looking for on a city vacation it can be found somewhere in this large bustling metropolis where each of its 32 boroughs has its own unique character and feel. The city has a fascinating and long history from the Romans to the British Empire and now onto its multi-ethnic colonisation. It is a melting pot, a rich and colourful stew of exotic ingredients.
Like all major international cities, London can be an expensive adventure which may feel out of reach to some people. However, I believe there is an opportunity for anyone to visit this remarkable city and take in a real London experience while avoiding the pricey trappings of the more traditional tourist attractions.
Certainly most visitors would feel cheated if they did not at least visit the major landmarks e.g. Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Big Ben etc.... However, if you were prepared to stray slightly from the beaten path you might discover how much more there is to enjoy by simply ambling through its various locations.
I will start this piece by giving a brief overview of the transport network, particularly the underground which I feel is this most convenient and cost effective mode of getting around. I will seek to research some locations that you might stay which would be less expensive yet still provide an easy commute to the heart of the attractions. Finally, I will attempt to use the nearest tube stations as references to the places I suggest you might like to visit. I will continue to expand this article as more ideas come to mind with the hope that I can make someone's trip to London an enjoyable and not too expensive one.
London has a comprehensive tube network that will take you to every corner North of the river and to the majority of places to the South. An overground rail network suppliments the underground service particularly in the South of the city. Of course there is the famous red double-decker bus although the old postcard version will only be found in and around the key tourist areas. There are nearly 1000 bus routes which may be convenient for short journeys and the familiar black taxi congregate around tourist areas and key transport hubs although they are relatively more expensive to travel in. There are also 100s of private cab firms operating around the city. However, avoid random cars that lurk around busy spots that may appear to be legitimate cabs but are likely to be unlicensed opportunists.
I would suggest getting an Oyster card at your earliest opportunity which you can obtain from any tube station and some shops. This is a plastic electronic recognition card that you place on readers at the gates of tube stations and on buses on entry and departure. It covers all tubes and buses across the London area. You can top-up the money available on the card at any tube station. However, a word of warning, if you use the 'pay-as-you-go' option you must swipe in and out during each journey as failure to do so means you will be automatically charged the maximum fare regardless of your journey. My suggestion is that if you intend to travel around a lot, get the 'weekly' option which would cost an adult around £40 if you were staying in a travel zone 4 location for example. This would provide you unlimited travel for that period without the worry of swiping in and out. Kids of 10 years or younger travel free, although you may need to carry some proof of their age in case you get asked. For daily travel I would suggest getting a normal paper ticket where the swipe in/out issue will not be a problem. A one day travel pass outside of peak rush hour times (after 9:30 am) would be your best option which would provide you unlimited travel for that day.
Where to stay suggestions?
I will research other areas as I continue to update this article. However, here is my first suggestion that I am familiar with from a commuter perspective.
Wembley Park is a largely suburban area situated to the North West of London. It is home to the 90,000 capacity National football stadium which is one of the most famous in the world and Wembley Arena which has hosted a multitude of famous musicians over the years. The close proximity of these two imposing structures has resulted in a small cluster of hotels being within its vicinity with relatively cheaper rates than more inner London locations. Other than the two landmarks mentioned, It is a fairly unspectacular area but does have the convenience of good road links to Heathrow airport (approx. 30-40 minutes) and excellent tube links into London. Within walking distance, you can find a varied number of local restaurants that reflect the ethnic diversity of the area. On the local High Street you will find banks, pharmacies etc... And there is a large supermarket near to the tube station which pretty much sells any essential you might require. Additionally, every Sunday morning an extensive street market comes alive under the shadow of the stadium. Journey time from Wembley Park to Baker Street station where you will find Madame Tussauds and the home of Sherlock Holmes is about 10 minutes on the fast Metropolitan line Southbound branch of the tube. Baker Street station is itself a useful hub offering connections to several other tube branches e.g. the Bakerloo line will have you in Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus or Trafalgar Square within a further 10 minutes. If you really cannot resist a bit of retail therapy, you can venture 5 minutes Northbound on the Metropolitan line from Wembley Park to Harrow-On-The-Hill station where you will find the nearest shopping centre. You might even be interested to make your way to the top of the Hill itself where you will find a quaint area dominated by one of England's elite public schools. Harrow boys school is where Winston Churchill was educated and I believe its historical buildings have been used in scenes of the Harry Potter films. Brent Cross shopping mall is a fairly short bus journey from Wembley Park although this centre generally large chain stores and designer outlets which is not necessarily for those on a budget.
Londoner's love parks and a remarkably large amount of city space is dedicated to the green stuff. In the summer months thousands of people simply gather some food and drink, set up camp and enjoy watching the world go by. The more centrally located parks are expansive beautifully tended spaces where locals and tourists mingle. Many parks have something interesting to do or fascinating to observe like stunning garden designs, sculptures, boating lakes, open air theatres and horse riding. When in London it is worth keeping you ear to the ground as many parks host festivals and events.
A beautiful undulating expanse of green that is straddled at one end by London Zoo and surrounded by areas like the elegant St John's Wood and the West End where you will find Oxford Street. The park has a boating lake, several uniquely designed gardens, a fantastic children's tree house, an free open air theatre and is popular with groups of people playing sports. It is not unusal to see typically un-English games like baseball taking place.
Royal Parks - Hyde, Green, St. James Parks and Buckingham Palace Gardens
Surrounded by Marble Arch at the foot of Oxford Street, Buckingham Palace, Holland Park, Mayfair, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament this beautiful flat expanse of interconnected lawns, gardens, tree lined pathways, monuments and statues is the UK's Regal and governmental heartland. A day strolling these elegant surrounds is effectively a tour of some London's most recognisable landmarks. The largest green space is Hyde park which is a popular hangout for Londoners on a warn summer's day. At its centre is the 'Serpentine' lake where you can hire a paddle boat and wade its extensive waters. New couples beware, inability to synchronise your strokes can be damaging to romance as you spin aimlessly and embarrassingly in the middle of the lake while others pass you by. Its broad extensive paths make it an ideal spot for in-line skaters who periodically weave their way past you. Horse riders strut dedicated paths from stables nearby and if you are lucky you may even encounter Royal Guardsmen riding to or from the Palace. Cross over the road via Belgravia into the stunning Buckingham Palace Gardens and a further stroll through Green Park will bring you to the gates of the Palace. Make your way to the elegant St. James park and you will find at its South Eastern exit Westminster Abbey with Big Ben a little further on.
Greenwich Park, Millennium Dome and Canary Wharf
The oldest of the Royal parks, it is situated on the South Eastern banks of the Thames and hosts the elegant Greenwich Place, the Royal Naval College, the Royal Observatory and Maritime Museum. Here you will find the zero point in time and can straddle the Meridian line. Beautifully tended historic grounds are contrasted by the towering backdrop of Canary Wharf and the Docklands area, London's mini Manhattan skyline. Greenwich is a popular film location where stars like Harrison Ford, Hugh Grant and Angelina Jolie have all shot scenes. The palace was used in Patriot Games as a stand-in for Buckingham Palace. It is also well worth visiting Greenwich Town, the old Cutty Sark sailing ship, the 02 Millennium Dome and if you get time, jump on the driver-less Docklands light railway and visit Canary Wharf.
Hampstead is a beautiful highly sought after part of town where it is worthwhile stopping for some refreshment in a cafe on its High Street and wondering its hilly back streets. It certainly has a feel of Dickensian times and you might even bump into one of the famous people who have unsurprisingly chosen this area to be their home. The area has an incredible semi-rural feel for somewhere so close to the heart of the city and this is wholly attributable to the approx. 790 acres of hills, woodland and heathland known as Hampstead Heath. This is definitely one of my favourite places to go when I want to get away from the hectic city life as once you have wondered to its heart through magnificent ancient trees you will hardly believe that you are still in London. See the elegant Kenwood House or on a hot day you can paddle in its pond. Do not miss the giant sculptured chairs and climbing up to the top of Parliament Hill is a must. At approx. 320 feet you will observe one of the most spectacular natural panoramas of London. You may even wish to amble over to the adjacent Golders Hill Park where you will find a small free children's zoo.
Unlike some cities, you cannot really say that London has a single hub for bars, cafes and clubs. Instead there pockets of locations dotted around the city that offer their own unique experience. There are many areas of London that will cost you nothing to just turn up and enjoy the atmosphere and entertainment.
If you like the weird and wonderful, this area will be right up your street. Unique fashions, unusual artifacts, eye-cathcing facades and colourful characters make the throbbing narrow streets of this part of town a place to remember. London's Grand Union canal is also a dominant watery landmark that provides the setting for the equally mind-boggling Camden Lock market. Food stalls are plentiful and as evening falls a mutitude of pubs and bars come to life with many being noted as the platform for young aspiring performers who you can sit and watch while enjoying a pint of beer.
An area that runs along the Thames footpath roughly between the London Eye and Waterloo Bridge with the nearest tube station being Waterloo. Fantastic free day out with a multitude of unusual street entertainers, festivals and themed events. Plenty of restaurants and watering holes along the way. An addition bonus is its vicinity to Westminster Bridge which on its other side you will find Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament with Big Ben.
Portobello Road, Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill
Another one of my favourite locations for doing nothing other than ambling around and enjoying the atmosphere. These interconnected areas are the epitome of London's diverse mix. People from all walks of life, from all corners of the planet intermingle around the somewhat eccentric shops and stalls of Portobello Road and harmonise in the numerous cafes, bars and restaurants that pepper the surrounging streets of Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill. During my last trip to the area I found myself talking to an elderly pipe smoking ex-teacher from Germany on one shoulder and conversing with two Italian students on the other while eating some freshly barbecued Jamaican Jerk chicken to the sound of Reggae music - surreal.
For the less faint hearted, the time to really hit this area is during the Bank Holiday weekend at the end of August. Over two days, an annual pilgrimage of one million people many from Europe and all over the World join the continent's biggest street party. The Notting Hill carnival began in 1966 as a small event organised by Caribbean immigrants for which this area was one of their original settlements. This somewhat unauthorised event grew bigger and bigger to the point it was deemed out of control by the authorities which led street clashes in its earlier years as riot police attempted to clear the crowds as evening fell. Today it is a huge, noisy and spectacular feast of floats, costumes, music, dancing and exotic foods that is well organised and managed. In my book, it is an event not to be missed if your in town at that time.