Visiting London on a budget? Here are some cheap or free things you can do!
One of the world’s most visited cities, London is a melting pot of history, culture and business unmatched by any other. Situated on the banks of the river Thames, London’s allure lies in its provocative atmosphere, cultural diversity and historical significance. Most people who live in London will either tell you that they love it or hate it, there’s no in-between.
London’s expansive and bustling streets are some of the most densely populated in Europe, and the city has evolved to become one of the most multicultural in the world today. Home to world-class museums, theaters, attractions, nightlife and cuisine, it’s literally impossible to run out of things to do here!
However, London isn’t a city for everybody and the cost of living and overpopulation can prove too stressful for some. But, for those who can stick it, it’s one of the most fascinating and enticing cities in the world.
It’s a well known fact that London is NOT a cheap city to visit or to live in. Everything in London seems to cost twice as much as it would in any other major European city, even down to a cup of coffee! However, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to see the city on a budget. All of the activities included on this list are under £10 or free! Wherever your interests lie and whatever the size of your budget, London has something for you.
If you’re stuck for budget accommodations, then check out this list of the best hostels in London for travelers on a budget.
Cheap Things To Do In London
Taste Some of London’s Best Multi-cultural Cuisine at One of Its Many Markets
Most boroughs in London have some sort of weekly market to offer. They’re a great way to experience the city’s cultural diversity. The atmosphere is always lively at any of London’s markets. Street performers gather crowds, stall vendors haggle their prices and the smells of delicious ethnic food drift from every corner.
If you want to pick yourself up a souvenir in the form of a vintage clothing item or an old record, then you can find anything and everything at Brick Lane Market is the East.
Camden Market is open daily and makes for a great day out. Located between Camden Town and Chalk Farm, you can find clothing, handcrafted jewelry, vintage cameras and a huge variety of delicious food that’ll leave your tastebuds spoilt for choice.
Portobello Road market in Notting Hill is a bit more upmarket, but it’s still enjoyable to wander through the maze of antique stalls even if you don’t intend to buy anything!
Borough Market in Southwark is one of the best food markets in the city, where London’s diverse range of cultures come together to exhibit the best food they have to offer. For under £10 you can pick up a plate of fresh pasta, fragrant curry or gooey raclette to munch on as you take in everything around you.
There are plenty of options for vegetarians and vegans too. We highly recommend The Big V, where you can pick up a signature seitan mushroom burger with optional vegan cheese and fake bacon. Definitely don’t come here on a full stomach!
We understand that markets sometimes aren’t the best places for travellers on a budget to visit, as the temptation to spend can become overwhelming! However, a trip to London isn’t complete without soaking up the atmosphere of a local market, where people from all areas of society come together to enjoy music, food and (hopefully) sunshine.
Museums, Museums, Museums!
One of the best things about London is the fact that most of its world-class museums are completely free of charge. Whether you’re an art fanatic, history buff or a lover of science, you’ll find a museum to suit your interests. London definitely isn’t celebrated for its great weather. If your time in this city coincides with a rainy spell (it’s likely) then meandering through the fossil lined halls of the Natural History Museum, or marveling at giant Renaissance canvases in the National Gallery is a great weather-appropriate alternative.
Some of London’s best known museums include the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Science Museum, the British Museum and the Imperial War Museum. London is home to Britain’s best art galleries, too. You could spend hours wandering the halls and corridors of major ones such as the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, where the walls tell countless stories of history, myth and legend. Tate Britain, Tate Modern and the Saatchi Gallery let you explore the raw emotions of modernist painters. A highlight is the Rothko room at the Tate Modern. Stepping into that room immediately discredits the “a child could do that” attitude that many have towards modernist painters. It’s overwhelming, emotional, and raw.
There are smaller galleries throughout the city too, which house unique collections and vibrant work from London’s contemporary art scene. We could write for pages and pages about the different museums in London, and the list is too extensive to cover in the scope of this article! For more in depth insights into London’s museums, then check out our list of some of the best museums in London to help you narrow down your options.
See an Authentic Shakespeare Performance at The Globe
There’s nothing more quintessentially English than Shakespeare. The Globe is a reconstruction of the Elizabethan playhouse where the Bard’s canonical plays were performed in the 1600s. Located on the South Bank of the River Thames, visitors are treated to open air authentic performances of some of Shakespeare’s best plays such as Hamlet, Love Labour’s Lost and As You Like It.
Performances at the Globe are stripped back to how they would have been performed during the day, giving visitors an authentic experience. There are no microphones or lights, and all of the music is performed live on period instruments. Due to the open air nature of the theatre, the English weather can result in some drizzly performances, however the show must go on! No umbrellas allowed, sorry.
For £5 you can snag standing tickets, which allow you to watch the play from the yard. For under £20 you can purchase tickets which allow you to sit, but if you’re willing to face the elements and perhaps a bit of back pain, a £5 standing ticket is definitely worth it!
As most of you probably know, Shakespeare’s plays are pretty lengthy, so performances can end up lasting almost three hours. But, if you’re serious about seeing London on a budget then this is an amazing experience that shouldn’t be missed.
Hop On a Boris Bike
Although it may seem daunting to attempt to ride a bike around one of the most densely populated and congested cities in the world, London is surprisingly well equipped for cyclists.
Transport for London’s cycle hire scheme with Santander allows you to rent a bike with your credit or debit card. You might hear locals referring to the bikes as “Boris Bikes”, which is due to the fact that Boris Johnson was mayor of the city when the scheme came into practice. So don’t get confused! With docking stations all over the city and wide cycle lanes on almost every road, there’s plenty of places your Boris Bike can take you.
The way the bikes are charged can be confusing. So, let’s break it down. There is a £2 fee which allows you to hire a bike as many times as you wish within 24 hours. The first 30 minutes of your ride is free, then it begins to charge you £2 every 30 minutes. So make sure you dock and rehire as often as you can!
You can find plenty of cycle routes for all levels on TFL’s website. Past some of London’s best attractions and through peaceful parks, when you’re on a tight schedule, seeing London by bike can be the perfect way to avoid long walks or expensive public transport journeys.
Catch a Changing of the Guard Ceremony
A pompous display of men in funny looking bear-skin hats and red tunics is definitely necessary to complete your London experience. Or maybe not… but it’s free anyway, so we can’t complain! The Changing of the Guard takes place outside Buckingham Palace and lasts 45 minutes. The New Guard takes over from the Old Guard in a formal, and perhaps overly elaborate, ceremony accompanied by music.
For most of the year, the event takes places at 11:00 am four days a week, however in the summer months of June and July it happens daily. It’s always best to check online and ensure you don’t miss it. It’s free to watch but it always pays to show up early, as it can get pretty jam-packed.
Take a Leisurely Stroll Around One of London’s Many Parks
Although London might seem like a concrete jungle, and when you’re surrounded by towering buildings and masses of people then it certainly doesn’t feel like a natural recluse is close by. Surprisingly, London is full of parks, gardens and quiet places to just chill.
If you want to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city and get some fresh air (as fresh as the air can be in London, that is), then take a stroll around one of London’s many parks. One of the best times to go is during the autumn months, where the trees turn all hues of yellow, orange and red, and piles of leaves cover the ground. Often, especially during the summer months, you can find open air events such as theater and concerts taking place. What better way to soak up some English sunshine!
Hyde Park is the largest and best known park in central London, with over 4000 trees, a cycle route and a huge lake to chill out by. Admire the view of Buckingham Palace from St James’ Park, and watch the pelicans being fed. Marvel at the peace pagoda in Battersea park to the South of the Thames. At Hampstead Heath you can find one the best views of London from Parliament Hill, and during the summer months there are also large ponds where the city folk flock to for a dip in the icy waters. Greenwich Park is London’s oldest royal park, which boasts fantastic views of the city as well as the Prime Meridian Line and the Royal Observatory. One of our personal favorites of London’s many parks is Richmond Park to the west, where you can find over 600 free-roaming deer, ancient trees and rare species of wildflowers.
So, escape the bright lights and congestion of the city and make a day of squirrel spotting and picnicking!
Discover London’s Best Known Landmarks on Foot
Although London stretches over a great distance, the city centre is extremely walkable. The best way to discover a city is on your own two reliable feet. We recommend spending a day wandering around the centre to get a grasp of London’s vibrant and busy atmosphere.
Jump right in at the deep end in Westminster, where the hordes of tourists can be slightly overwhelming, but the stunning grandeur of Britain’s parliament buildings are well worth the slight claustrophobia. See the magnificence of Westminster Abbey, burial place of kings and queens for centuries. Start ambling slowly north of the river towards Trafalgar Square, where there’s always weird and wonderful performers and street artists to be found (and those creepy people pretending to be statues, too). Next, marvel at the bright lights and historical theaters of the West End. Meander through Chinatown, with its strings of red lanterns guiding the way. If you haven’t developed blisters yet, carry on up to Leicester Square, then wind your way through the throngs of people marching down Oxford Street.
Most cities have caught onto the idea of free walking tours, which are essentially free but out of courtesy you’re expected to provide the guide with a small donation after everyone has applauded at the end. There are numerous free tours that you can join in on in London. Your accommodation with most likely have information about companies they promote or work with. If you need help finding budget friendly accommodations the check out our list of the best hostels in London
Strawberry Tours is a great company which offers a variety of tours to suit everyone’s interests. Their “London in a Day” tour will take you on a journey past some of the city’s most iconic landmarks such as St Paul’s Cathedral and the City of Westminster. At lunch time you’ll stop at a traditional pub for a delicious lunch of fish and chips, where you can ask your guide any unanswered questions you might have so far. Then you’ll carry on to see the Queen’s abode Buckingham Palace and St James’ Palace which King Henry VIII had built for his most infamous wife Anne Boleyn.
Explore London’s dark underbelly with the Free Ghost Tour or learn about one of London’s most notorious and mysterious cold-blooded killers in the Free Jack the Ripper Tour.
If terror and gore aren’t really your thing, then opt for the Free Street Art and Graffiti Tour which takes you through the eastern areas of Shoreditch and Old Street. The guides will take you down hidden streets and alleys to ensure you don’t miss out on some of London’s best street art and graffiti.
Let’s be honest, who doesn’t love Harry Potter? If you say you don’t then you’ll probably be met by glares and looks of disbelief from avid fans of the book and film series. The Harry Potter Tour explores some of the magical places in London that inspired author J.K. Rowling, as well as places which appeared in the films.
Pay Your Respects at Highgate Cemetery
Perhaps going to a cemetery isn’t exactly at the top of your list of things to do in London… But this one is worth it, trust us. Located in North London (Archway tube stop), Highgate Cemetery is an eerily beautiful maze of tombs and graves belonging to normal Londoners as well as some great philosophical and literary thinkers.
You can find the graves of novelist George Eliot, poet Christina Rossetti, and most notably, the tomb of sociologist and author of the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx. If your inner socialist is feeling particularly adventurous, you can delve further into the cemetery to find Marx’s original burial place. It’s smaller, less ornate and more authentic than the new tomb where his body was reburied in 1954. Just keep your eyes peeled!
The East Cemetery is open daily for visitors, and admission is £4 for adults.
Witness Stardom in the Making (or Not) at One of London’s Open Mic Nights
London’s nightlife is fantastic. Each part of the city offers something completely different. From huge clubs for those who want to go until 8:00 AM, to the more alternative venues with live music in places like Brixton and Shoreditch, to the traditional night spent singing karaoke classics in a dingy but traditional pub.
However, with a pint in London setting you back at least five quid most of the time, a night out in this crazy capital can certainly derail your budget. Open mic nights have become a part of British culture over the years, and lots of pubs around the city offer open mic nights on weekdays and weekends, and they’re happy to welcome anyone!
Of course, like any talent quest, open mic nights can be hit and and miss, and you might find yourself with your fingers in your ears trying to block out what sounds like a cat being strangled. But more often than not there is some incredible talent on show. The cosy atmosphere of a quintessential British pub is a the perfect place to spend a relaxing evening listening to jazz, blues, or rock and roll. If you’re confident enough and undeterred by the harsh critics in the audience, you can sign up to play yourself. Who knows, there might be a talent scout hiding in the crowd!
Survey the City From a Giant Walkie Talkie
The Sky Garden is probably the best place to score a breathtaking free view of central London’s skyline. It’s strange and distinctive shape has earned 20 Fenchurch Street the nickname “the walkie talkie”, so don’t be surprised if you hear locals talking about a seemingly obsolete object all the time.
Although this skyscraper isn’t the most beautiful addition to London’s skyline, it’s architectural misgivings can be forgiven. They made up for the visual atrocity by providing a free viewing garden, where you can take in London’s vastness from above. You could spend a fortune reserving a table to eat here, but if you’re on a budget all you need to do is book your free visit in advance.
If you’d rather watch the sun set on this concrete jungle from outside, there are plenty of other spots around the city to get a fantastic view. Check out the view from Primrose Hill, Parliament Hill or Greenwich Park. The view from the viewing platform at the Tate Modern is a great option too! Or, get a different view of London each night and try them all!