London is a favourite destination for millions across the world and I worked out recently that I’ve visited the UK capital over 60 times – and yet, there is so much more still for me to discover every time I visit.
Being in such close proximity to the city, I have never even spent a night there (technically, that’s a lie; we went to an overnight marathon of the Misfits TV show, and another time I missed the last train home and stayed on the floor of a friend’s B&B room until the first train back at 5am) and therefore I’ve never been able to see or do too much on each visit (being that I refuse to pay peak hour train prices, so the earliest I ever arrive is around midday).
I’ve also never been inside the Tower Of London. I’ve never done a boat tour on the Thames. I’ve never been inside Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral or Buckingham Palace.
So you might be wondering why on earth I’m writing a guide on London.
Because I do, however, have enough knowledge to offer an absolute plethora of advice for short breaks in London, especially if you’re cash-strapped. London is notoriously expensive; and it’s noticeable even coming from an hour away, let alone from a cheaper country.
Like every city though, it’s easy to find things to do for free. In fact – hear me out here – I really think London is one of the best cities to do on the cheap, because everything is spectacular on the outside. You only have to walk around.
London caters to all cultures and interests and it does it well, so whether you’re into museums, historical architecture, art, shopping, theatre, parks, or just the must-see tourist destinations, I’ll try to cover the best bases. Here are just some of the cheap (or even free) things you can easily do or see in a day.
Let’s start with the touristy bits. Because what would a trip to London be without a visit to the royal sites?
Get off at London Victoria tube/rail station, or Green Park tube station. Buckingham Palace is a short walk from either station and is a great start to the day. You have to pay (and book) to get in, but it’s great just to look at the landmark from the outside; even better if you can catch the changing of the guard which is around 11am.
THE MALL > TRAFALGAR SQUARE
Follow the famous Mall street down from Buckingham Palace and you will reach one of the tourist hot spots, Trafalgar Square. I personally love the atmosphere here, no matter how busy the area is. It’s the start of the theatre district, so it’s close to the Strand, Covent Garden and Leicester Square.
It’s a beautiful area and definitely somewhere I always manage to sit and take everything in.
PARLIAMENT SQUARE: BIG BEN, WESTMINSTER ABBEY & THE THAMES
Now you can head down Whitehall (behind you when you face the National Gallery) for a stroll past 10 Downing Street – the UK’s “white house” – and a minute later, you’ll be standing next to the iconic Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and across the river from the London Eye.
Cross over the famous bridge for a ride on the Eye, explore the SeaLife Aquarium, or visit the newly-relocated London Dungeons.
No surprises here – I haven’t done any of these!
ST. PAUL’S CATHEDRAL – and a little surprise
Jump on the tube at Westminster and get the circle or district line to Blackfriars (you could continue to walk along the South Bank but there’s a lot of walking going on here). Turn right out of the station to be greeted by a really cool pub! But wait – there’s another one just round the corner that’s even better.
For an extra alcohol-fuelled treat, carry on up to the legendary Fleet Street (Demon Barber not included). St. Paul’s will be to your right, but I recommend visiting a little hidden gem a couple of minutes the opposite way – a wonderfully old-fashioned pub that was once frequented by Charles Dickens. Turn left up Fleet Street and look out for a sign saying ‘Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’; the pub is down a little alley way on the right but the sign is hanging on the main road – and it is SO worth the look-out!
It’s one of the coolest pubs in the UK (and I’ve been to my fair share), from the old-style bottles behind the bar to the sawdust on the floor, and you can pick one of many nooks and crannies to slot yourself into in the cellar! It’s so unique, I cannot recommend it enough. Once you’re out, you’ll be greeted with a lovely sight of the cathedral.
St. Paul’s itself is expensive (£18), but I hear the views at the top are second to none. Read on for my advice for a cheaper view of London…
This is a hugely popular yet such underrated area of London – because when most people think of South Bank, they only stick around the London Eye. You can cut straight down from St. Paul’s to cross the Millenium Bridge, which will take you to the Tate Modern – arguably one of the best art galleries in the world (although housed in a hideous, industrial building).
If art’s not your thing, walk along the riverbank towards London Bridge and just soak up the atmosphere, marvel at the street performers, and take it all in. There are some wonderful food places along here (including the fantastically-named Horniman), the Shakespeare Globe Theatre, lots of windy pathways and just before you reach London Bridge, you can visit the Clink Museum; all about one of the world’s most notorious historical prisons!
This stretch is one of my favourite walks in London, and you could always grab some food from the Borough Market at London Bridge if you don’t want to stop at a restaurant.
TOWER BRIDGE, MONUMENT & THE TOWER OF LONDON
I will admit this is a lot of walking! But now you’re at London Bridge, and you can see the iconic Tower Bridge (lots of people get the two mixed up, but the famous one is Tower Bridge). It’s a cool view from across the water, with HMS Belfast anchored in the foreground (not in the above pic, obvs) and the Tower of London to the left.
If you make it to Tower Bridge, you can pay a small entrance fee to go into the engine rooms and museum (something on my to-do list). The Tower of London is a touristy must, however it is expensive unless you have a city pass, and the queues are long.
If you fancy a view from above, cross over London Bridge instead and look for the giant pillar on your right.
You can get a fantastic view of London from the top of Monument, which commemorates the devastating Great Fire Of London. It costs £4 to climb, but it’s well worth it! And much cheaper than the Shard, which will cost you a crazy £30, or St. Paul’s which costs £18.
Evening is probably setting in by now, so I’d recommend hopping back on the tube to…
THE THEATRE DISTRICT
Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden go hand-in-hand, and are indeed a stone’s throw away from each other. Leicester Square is the home of all the UK film premieres (and M&M World!!!) and Covent Garden is ideal for dinner before a show.
There are absolutely tons of little alleyways waiting to be discovered, including the colourful little Neal’s Yard and lots of back streets with less touristy restaurants and boutiques. Chinatown hides conspicuously just off Leicester Square and Covent Garden has plenty of side streets of eateries. I learn more about this area each and every time I visit.
And that brings me to the end of my lovely walking (mostly) tour of one of the greatest capital cities in the world! Phew! And you’ve barely spent a penny.
Of course, you can easily split this itinerary over a few days – if you go inside some of the attractions or visit a museum, you’ll definitely need to! But if you are seriously time- and cash-strapped, this is the best way to see all the must-do landmarks.
Let’s get onto some other places that I think you should visit.
NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
This is an incredible museum in a beautiful (SO beautiful) building. I could spend hours here looking at dinosaurs, and they always have interesting and different exhibitions on. The best thing? Like a lot of the major museums in London, it’s FREE!
Closest station: South Kensington.
Another free museum, and one of the best. Ironically, you will find everything but British artefacts in here – the most popular exhibits include the Egyptian room of mummies, and all the Greek and Roman architecture. Honestly, the whole place is fascinating and you could probably spend a day just in here!
Closest station: Tottenham Court Road.
There is literally a plethora of museums in London so it’s very difficult to pick and choose the best! Imperial War Museum, Transport Museum, Science Museum (another great one, also free), and we still haven’t even covered the main ones.
Camden is my absolute favourite place in London. Unless you’re in the alternative (punk / goth / skater) scenes, you probably haven’t read much about Camden in your London guide books or in travel advice for the city.
Honestly? No matter what you like, visit it.
It’s the most unique market in the world (I feel like I can say that now!), but it’s so much more than that. It is a lot more commercialised than it used to be, so you might not find punks and goths hanging out on the bridge over the canal, but as well as the main outdoor market, the indoor Stables market is fantastic. With all the street food, you certainly won’t go hungry, and there are pubs upon pubs to rest your feet and quench your thirst. The buildings are amazing; the wall art is second to none. You will come home with a pocket full of leaflets advertising tattoo parlours and takeaways and clothing and bands, but also with a sense of having seen one of the most unique places in London. Oxford Street? Pah.
Alternative: Portobello Market in Notting Hill. Less alternative, more hippie.
If you need a bit of green among your city break, look no further than Hyde Park. I haven’t even explored the whole thing yet. While it’s not an “essential” to your London trip like Central Park would be to a New York City trip, it’s worth a visit if you have the time. Closest station: there are several, but I’d recommend Marble Arch, right next to Speaker’s Corner in the north end. You can also walk up from Buckingham Palace, or along from Oxford Street.
Alternative: Regent’s Park, home to London Zoo. Yes, you can see giraffes in the centre of London! Closest station: Baker Street or Regent’s Park.
Of course, London offers some brilliant places to shop. While I much prefer all the markets (and there are tons – as well as the above, Spitalfields is good too, and Borough Market is fantastic for food), there’s no denying that London has it all when it comes to shopping.
Look no further than Oxford Street, and Regent Street, which slices through it with famous stores like Harrods and Hamley’s. There are plenty of little streets around here offering designer and boutique stores, but don’t ask me about those – I’m here to keep you on a budget, remember?
Which is why I highly recommend – PRIMARK! This store is huge, and everything is cheap. What I love about Primark these days is they stock a ton of pop culture merchandise, including Friends, Disney and HARRY POTTER. Cheap HP merch!
KING’S CROSS STATION
Let’s see: how many guesses do you need for why I’m including this?
Do you agree with my list? What are some of YOUR must-see places in London?