Exploring London For Less
I fell in love with London in 1998, when I made my first trip there. Since then, I have traveled there dozens of times, and managed to live there for a couple of years, from 2006 to 2008. During that time, traveling and living on a budget were paramount, and I have learned how to have a good time without spending a lot of money. I hope these tips will help you enjoy London and come to love it as I do.
A huge money-saving tip is to take advantage of all the free museums in London. Virtually all of the major museums (the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, British Museum, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, among others) are free. And the gift shops have unique and reasonably priced items for yourself or to take home as gifts. Avoid the tourist-trap shops like the plague! What a bunch of junk, especially compared to getting something really nice and special at one of the museum shops.
The museums also have very nice dining options, although they can be a little pricey. But if you just want to take a break and have something to drink and a little snack, there are some very nice cafes in the museums where you can rest your feet and take a breather.
Any of these museums could well take several days of your time, so decide what interests you most and plan your time. The British Museum in particular is enormous and overwhelming, and even after a dozen visits, I have not seen it all. I recommend taking the British Museum London Walk (see below) for a good overview of the major treasures, and then spending more time on your own after the walk to explore the exhibits that interest you most.
Enjoy their websites while you plan a visit:
THE TOWER OF LONDON AND OTHER ROYAL PALACES
Some of the major attractions, such as the Tower of London, are quite expensive to visit -- 17 pounds for adults and 9.50 pounds for children. However, you can buy a membership to the Historic Royal Palaces for 39 pounds for an individual or 77 pounds for a family, which allows admittance of two adults and up to six children to five of the royal palaces. There are also options for two adults or for one adult plus children that cost in between those amounts. The annual membership allows free admission not only to the Tower of London, but also to Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, and Kew Palace. It also includes admission to member-only rooms at the various locations, discounts at the gift shops, and lots of other perks. Information on all the palaces is available here.
One of my favorite low-cost activities in London is to take an Original London Walk. These tours take about two hours, and cover a wide variety of interests, from the most popular, the Jack the Ripper Walk (not suitable for young children), to tours of Chelsea, Little Venice, and Clerkenwell. The ghost walks, pub walks, and Harry Potter walks are also very popular. The guides are all extremely knowledgeable and entertaining, and it's a great way to get a real feel for the city and learn something. I've taken most of the walks and know the guides well, and even have managed to get some of my London friends to act like tourists now and then and go on a walk with me. Even they learned something new, and several of them have become addicted to the walks as well.
The walks cost 7 pounds each and you can buy a discount card from the guides, which is worth the cost if you think you'll take more than a couple of walks. And they're so easy to do. Each walk starts outside a tube station, so you just show up at the appropriate tube station at the stated time, pay the guide (have correct change), and start walking. If you time it right, you can take three walks a day, but I did that once and could hardly walk the next morning. Each of them covers about two or three miles, so wear comfortable shoes, appropriate cold-weather gear if necessary, and stow an umbrella in your pocket or handbag just in case.
One of my favorite ways to introduce new visitors to the city is to take a river boat ride. For centuries, London Bridge was the only bridge across the river, and to avoid the muck-filled streets, Londoners traveled by boat. Very few tourists do this, and it's an enjoyable, relaxing way to see things most people never experience. My favorite ride is from Millbank Pier, outside the Tate Britain, to the Tate Modern. The boat stops at the London Eye on the way, and you cruise by the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Cleopatra's Needle, the Savoy, and many other interesting sites. Once you reach the Tate Modern, the Globe Theatre is just around the corner, St. Paul's is a short walk across the Millenium Bridge, and Borough Market is nearby. You can also take the boat a little farther to the Tower of London, and for a day out, take the boat to Greenwich and explore there. For more info, go here.
CATHEDRALS AND CHURCHES
If you have an interest in the many historic churches and cathedrals in London, it can become expensive quickly to visit them. Many of the most well-known churches, such as St. Paul's and my favorite, St. Bartholomew's the Great, charge admission. Adult admission to St. Paul's is 11 pounds, and to St. Bart's is four pounds. However, admission is free if you attend a service. The services are high Anglican, and are experiences well worth the price of dressing appropriately and sitting quietly as the service proceeds. Even if you are not interested in the spiritual aspect of the services, listening to a beautiful choir and experiencing the same thing that countless generations of Londoners have experienced is a unique opportunity. On my last visit to St. Bart's, the verger provided a tour of the church after the service, and it was a wonderful chance to see and learn about things I would never have discovered on my own.
Not all of the churches charge admission, however. St. Bride's Church in Fleet Street is a remarkable place to visit. You'll notice immediately that the church's spire looks like a wedding cake. The reason for that is that centuries ago, it was the custom to have a confectioner construct a model of the church where a wedding took place and present it at the bridal reception. The spire of St. Bride's is so lovely, it eventually became the model for all such wedding confections, and eventually wedding cakes. The church site has been a place of worship for 2,000 years, and the basement of the church has a fascinating museum, complete with the foundations of a Roman temple that began the holy life of the site. The original St. Bride's was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, the master architect of St. Paul's and many other churches and public buildings in London. St. Bride's was devasted again during the London Blitz, but has been rebuilt in all its former glory.
One of the most magical experiences I have had in London was one afternoon when I had been visiting the pubs along Fleet Street and the legal district while planning a pub crawl for some Texas lawyers who were coming over for a visit. After visiting several pubs and having a glass of cider in each, I was in need of a rest. It was almost rush hour, so I didn't want to go to the tube station just yet. I walked into St. Bride's as a rehearsal was taking place by a chamber orchestra, and spent the next half hour enveloped by beautiful music, as the late afternoon sun poured through the huge windows into the exquisite sanctuary. Only in London can you simply walk down the street and happen upon a magical experience without warning, that will live with you for the rest of your life.