London is a notoriously expensive city, but with a few tips you can spend a week here on not much cash. If you follow our tips, you can get away with seeing the sights, eating the food and even enjoying a few pints for no more than £200.
(We’re not including the cost of getting here. That one’s up to you!)
First thing to do when you arrive is get an Oyster card and load it up with money. This is the cheapest way to get around town, touching in and out as you go. You’ll have to pay a deposit, but you can get that back—and any remaining credit—from a ticket machine at a tube station when you leave.
You’re going to be doing a lot of walking and taking buses to keep the cost down, because the tube is pricey. But the top deck of a London bus is the best way to get a feel for the city. Plus, the bus is cheap: with Oyster it’s £1.50 per trip, with a second bus free within an hour. And if you’re using Oyster you’ll never pay more than £4.50 a day for your bus journeys.
But first you have to get into London from the airport. If you’re coming from Heathrow take the tube: £3.10 off peak. From London City Airport take the DLR: £2.80 off peak. From the other airports, easyBus is your best bet. If you book in advance it costs as little as £1.95 one way.
We’re assuming you arrive on Monday morning and leave on Sunday evening. Your sleeping costs will be the biggest chunk of your budget, but there’s no need to splash out on a hotel.
If you’re happy with Airbnb, there are rooms available for under £10 that look reasonable, aren’t hours away from the centre and owned by people who appear not to be psychos. Some are even doubles, which if you’re travelling in a pair will bring your costs down even further.
However, if you can’t bag one of those bargains you can book a dorm room at Rest Up London, in a period building close to Elephant and Castle. Dorm beds are from £12 a night during the week but get more expensive on a weekend—although so does Airbnb. Cost: £81
From here, it’s a half-hour walk to the South Bank or a ten-minute walk to the hive of bus activity by Elephant and Castle tube station, or 20 minutes to similar bus options at London Bridge. Check out the connections with TfL or download Citymapper to your phone (lots of places have free wifi, and keep an eye out for old phone boxes that have been turned into wifi hotspots).
You can easily blow your whole budget on a single meal in London, but you don’t need to. For breakfast, grab a pack of pastries from one of the many mini supermarkets around town. Pick up a bottle of water here too, as supermarkets tend to be cheaper than sandwich shops or cafes. Or if you’re looking for something heartier to start your day, try one of these spots for under a fiver
For lunch, look out for meal deals in supermarkets and other shops, which come with a sandwich, snack and drink for about £3. Alternatively, supermarkets will do sandwiches for as little as £1.
And for a caffeine hit, sign up in advance for a myWaitrose card and you can get a cup of free tea or coffee when you shop there. Coffee for £1 can also be found at easyCoffee in Leicester Square and Covent Garden, but free beats £1 any time.
7 days of breakfast and lunch: cost £15
With a little savvy planning, you can easily get dinner for under £10. Our top tips include Charing Cross Road institution Gaby’s Deli, which does excellent falafel and hummus; Kati Roll on Poland Street for fantastic Indian wraps and masala chai; Franco Manca has branches all over London and makes sourdough pizzas to die for. No trip to London would be complete without real British fish and chips, so call in at the Fryer’s Delight in Holborn.
Go to Dinerama in Shoreditch between 5pm-7pm Thursday-Saturday (there’s a £3 entry fee after 7pm) for an indoor street food market. Elsewhere in East London, we’ve got another whole article about cheap eats in that part of town, including the curry temple of Brick Lane.
If you’re staying at the hostel in Elephant and Castle, there are also some excellent cheap options close by. Polish restaurant Mamuska is legendary: have a hunter’s stew, side and homemade lemonade for £10. Or visit the semi-permanent Artworks development which has various eateries—pizza, Caribbean, Vietnamese, Greek—where you can have a full meal for under £10, then maybe hit up a bar after.
Six nights of dinner: cost £60
Further reading on cheap eats:
What to see and do
There are enough free museums and galleries in London that there’s really no excuse for ever paying entry for anything. Rather than give you a strict day-by-day itinerary, we’ve grouped attractions into areas so you can make sure you hit up everything in one place. Saves on travel. You’re welcome.
Here we are, museum central. Within a short walking distance there’s the Natural History Museum (dinosaurs and other animals), the Science Museum (space, cool things) and the V&A (art and design; lovely cafe). All three are free and even if you only do the highlights you’ll be there all day.
Also in the area is the Royal Albert Hall and during the summer you can pick up a £6 standing ticket to the world-famous Proms. The RAH stands opposite Hyde Park, where you can relax after a day’s museum-going or check out yet another one: the Serpentine Galleries which are also free.
The main attraction here is the British Museum (free), with its vast galleries of historical treasures from around the world. See the Egyptian mummies and Roman, Greek and Persian monuments, or get away from the crowds and discover hidden gems in other rooms.
You can easily spend a day in the BM, but you should make time to wander the leafy streets and squares of Bloomsbury. For a real oasis, head to the free (and little known) Japanese garden at SOAS, or pop into some of the specialist free museums run by University College London, covering zoology, Egyptian archaeology and art. Heading north, you’ll also run into the Wellcome Collection, which has fascinating free permanent and temporary exhibitions, and the British Library where you can see an original copy of the Magna Carta and handwritten Beatles lyrics.
South of Bloomsbury is the fabulous, and tiny, John Soane’s Museum, which is crammed full of artifacts and paintings collected by the man himself during his lifetime. It’s free and there’s usually a queue to get in, particularly on the extremely popular candlelight evenings.
The South Bank didn’t really exist 50 years ago and is now one of London’s prime tourist spots. Sadly, a lot of it (the London Eye, Aquarium, etc) requires money, but it’s still a lovely spot to stroll by the river and browse the open-air book market in the shadow of the Southbank Centre. Head east and you’ll come to Tate Modern (free), the vast modern art behemoth housed in a former power station. Even that wasn’t big enough, and an extension with free viewing gallery has been added recently.
Carry on east and you’ll pass Shakespeare’s Globe; finally, you’ll get to Borough Market, foodie mecca. It’s quite pricey these days, but wander the stalls and you’ll probably pick up a few tasters. Carry on further east and you’ll get to HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge and, over the river, the Tower of London, all of which cost nothing to admire and pose for selfies by.
There is little better than spending a day exploring the medieval alleyways of the City of London, particularly on a weekend when it’s far quieter. There are also several free museums and galleries to visit.
The Museum of London takes you on a journey through London’s past, while the Guildhall Art Gallery not only has a great collection of paintings but hides a secret: the remains of a Roman amphitheatre in its basement. All are free to visit.
St Paul’s Cathedral is sadly not free, but you can get in by attending one of the services. Choral Evensong is popular, but obviously you can’t go poking about while you’re in there.
Trafalgar Square and Westminster
Two more of London’s great free art galleries are located right on the famous square. The National Gallery is packed with old masters, while the National Portrait Gallery has paintings of famous figures from British history, from the Tudors onwards.
Head down Whitehall (you can see the clock tower of Big Ben from Trafalgar Square) and to the Houses of Parliament. If Parliament is in session it’s free to enter the building and watch a debate; just be aware there’s airport-style security on the way in. Medieval Westminster Abbey is, like St Paul’s, not free to enter but you can (respectfully) attend services in the same way.
Soho: this doesn’t have any specific tourist attractions, but the whole area is an attraction in itself. Soho isn’t as grimy as it once was, and probably not quite as interesting, but there are still plenty of back alleys to investigate. Try Cecil Court, which is believed to have been the inspiration behind Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.
Soho is bordered to the north by Oxford Street, for some window shopping, and to the west by Mayfair to see how the other half live (especially the closer you get to Park Lane).
Buckingham Palace and the Royal Parks
Changing of the Guard is one of the most popular tourist events in London. We don’t understand why; it’s quite dull. Still, if you’re in the area you might as well join the crowds. Otherwise, spend time wandering the beautiful paths of the nearby Royal Parks. Don’t forget to look out for the pelicans in St James’s Park—they get fed every day at 2.30pm.
Follow in the footsteps of Hugh Grant and co. and wander round the chichi streets of Notting Hill, admiring the colourful painted houses. Go on Fridays and Saturdays for the full flavour of Portobello Road market, when stalls selling antiques, vintage clothing and collectibles spill onto the streets. Head south to Holland Park for its peacocks and peaceful Kyoto garden, and pay a visit to the Design Museum http://designmuseum.org (free).
Shoreditch and Dalston don’t quite have the underground hipster vibe of a few years ago, but it’s still fun to spot the street art and scoff some cheap eats. Bethnal Green has some cool craft beer pubs if you want to splash some cash (try Mother Kelly’s or The King’s Arms).
The V&A’s Museum of Childhood is free to enter and on Sundays, Columbia Road Flower Market is a joy to behold (and Instagram) . If you want to venture further out, catch a 388 bus to Stratford to visit the former Olympic Park.
Since you’re venturing beyond the centre of London, the 53 bus goes from Elephant & Castle to the top of Greenwich Park. Admire the view from the top of the hill and take a selfie straddling the Meridian line, then walk into town to browse the market, visit the National Maritime Museum and Queen’s House (both free) and see the Cutty Sark clipper ship—from the outside (it costs to go in).
If you stick to this budget, and only use buses on two or three days, you should have around £25 left to spend on evening entertainment.
Keep an eye on listings sites like Time Out and Skiddle for free gigs. Time Out also carries details of comedy gigs for free or a couple of quid. The Southbank Centre has free events every day, from talks to cabaret, poetry to music.
If you can handle standing for several hours, Shakespeare’s Globe has hundreds of £5 tickets for every performance. Not only do you get to see inside the recreation of the ‘wooden O’ theatre, you’ll catch a bloody good performance. Or for a £6 film, head to the Odeon Covent Garden or Panton Street cinemas on Mondays.
Of course, there’s always the time-honoured London custom of going to the pub.
Alcohol isn’t cheap in London, but there are tricks. Look out for the many happy hour offers available all over. Time it right and you can pick up a cocktail for £5, bottle of beer for £2.50 or bottle of wine for £10.
JD Wetherspoon is a pub chain worth checking out. In a city where the £5 pint is becoming ubiquitous, ‘Spoons does pints of lager and ale for around £3 and bottles of craft beer for under £3.50. The pubs are deliberately ‘old man’-ish, but can be a cosy place to hunker down. The Penderels Oak is reliable, while The Knights Templar in the City is housed in a lovely former bank.
Sam Smiths, on the other hand, is a Yorkshire brewery that seems to have taken it upon itself to buy up London pubs and restore them to Victorian glories. You can only buy its own beers—ask at the bar for prices because some are definitely more expensive than others. Weirdly, Sam Smiths doesn’t seem to maintain a list of its London pubs, so other people have had to take on the task. We’d recommend the Fitzroy Tavern, the Princess Louise or the labyrinthine Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.
If you’ve already reached your daily bus fare limit and you’re basically travelling for free, venture south to The Sultan in South Wimbledon. It doesn’t look much from the outside, but it’s owned by the Hop Back brewery and we have hazy memories of buying four pints and a packet of pork scratchings for a little over £10. Pop along, have a proper British ale and chat with the locals.
Alternatively, if the weather’s nice, grab a couple of tins and head to a park. While London has various laws against street drinking, cracking open a few beers and lounging on the grass is a well-worn tradition in this city.