London has long ranked amongst one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in or visit. According to the Daily Telegraph (12 June 2009), visiting London's palaces, the opera or the ballet is twice as expensive as checking out the sights in Washington DC or Amsterdam.
The recent weakening of the pound, however, means that the costs of visiting London are now lower than it has been in years. With an array of tips on how to savour the cultural sights and sounds of London on the cheap, now is the perfect time for the savvy traveller to visit London.
Cheap London transport
The London Underground is a quintessentially London experience, but here's a secret - it is also the most expensive public transport system in the world. A one way ticket within central London will cost £4, more if you are travelling to the outer suburbs. The tube is also dirty, confusing and unbearably hot in summer. Ditch the Underground and take the bus instead. First, obtain a bus route guide, available from any London train station such as Kings Cross, Farringdon, Waterloo or Charing Cross station. This guide will have all major bus routes marked out in colour codes, along with maps of bus stops in central London.
Determine where you need to go to, then look up which bus routes take you there. When you know which bus you need to catch, refer to the maps and establish which stop your bus calls at. Each bus stop in London will have their alphabetical code marked in red, on a tall sign next to it. For example the number 15 bus goes to Paddington Basin from the east and calls at bus stop AB on Oxford Street. You simply need to match the bus route you need to the stop it calls at.
Catching the bus means you get to see the sights of the city instead of burrowing around deep in the darkness underground. It is also much more enjoyable in the summer compared to the heat and humidity of the tube - there is no air conditioning on the London Underground. London buses come in variety of sizes and shapes. The bendy bus is long and can fit the most passengers, and the double decker is one of most endearing icons of London. No matter which bus you catch, the best option is to invest in an Oyster card, which allows you to swipe in and out of both buses and the tube. An Oyster gives you the best possible value on both buses and the Underground. Each card costs £3 and can be topped up with as much credit as you require. They are available at all train and tube stations.
Nothing captures London's spirit quite like scoffing down fish and chips procured from the greasy corner "chippy". Sure, you can dine at Claridges for £100, but there are so many other dining options available in London, even paupers can eat well here. The cheapest option is to buy ingredients from markets or supermarkets and make your own meals. There are numerous farmers markets held all over London where fresh produce come cheap. Borough Market is both a foodie stop and a tourist attraction where punters can dine on fresh oysters, artisan breads and cheeses, and homemade brownies. Supermarkets like Sainsbury and Tesco's offer pre-packaged sandwich meals for about £3, complete with crisps and a drink. Quick eats like curry houses, fish and chip and kebab shops are also a good bet - you can get a meal and a drink here for under £5. The cheapest restaurants can be found in Chinatown. Follow the locals into perennially popular haunts like Four Seasons for roast duck or Tokyo Diner for quality sushi. Chain pubs like Wetherspoons are also fantastic value for money, serving up portions of steak and ale pies and tikka masala curries, an English-Indian creation, for around £8.
Cheap theatre tickets London
London is a godsend for culture vultures. The West End bristles with theatres hosting musicals and plays galore. For cheap tickets to a West End production, rise bright and early and head to Leicester Square, where the tkts booth offer half price or discounted tickets for performances on the day. tkts is the only official half price ticket and discount ticket provider in London and is operated by the Society of London Theatre.
Some theatre companies offer discounted tickets on their productions if you sign up to their newsletters. The National Theatre, for example, has tickets for as low as £10 on sale on new performances as part of a promotion held in conjunction with Travelex. The good seats get sold out early, so book yours early for the best deal. Pubs and bars, especially in the North or East of London, often have free comedy nights or live music gigs, where the price of admission is a drink, such as the Kings Head pub in Angel, which regularly hosts bands or comedians.
Free events in London
London hosts many events which are free for all. The South Bank is the hub for London festivals. The Mayor's Thames festival celebrates the river with open air arts, pyrotechnics, street theatre and a display of fireworks. The London Film Festival, hosted by the British Film Institution (BFI) often has events held on the South Bank. These events showcase a variety of activities, displays and performances which are often free of charge.
All museums and galleries in London are free, so you can visit the National Gallery for a brief history of art, the Tate Modern for a dose of modernism, the British Gallery to view ancient Egyptian mummies and the Natural History Museum to learn about dinosaurs, without spending a penny. Visitors are encouraged to give a donation, but you can make this as large or small as you can spare.
Walking is free, and there is no better way of seeing London than exploring her heaving, teeming streets on foot. There is a free London city tour that takes in the main attractions. This is the Sandeman's Tour, and it departs twice daily from Wellington Arch. For about three hours, a free guide leads you through London, explaining the history and significance of the city's great structures and events. At the end of the tour, tips for the guide are expected, but there is no set amount.
For the nature lovers, there are leafy rambling paths in Epping Forest or Hampstead Heath, filled with the muddied feet of happy trampers. There are also canal-side walks that take you from the posh surrounds of Paddington all the way to the rough and tumble East End of London via Regent's Canal, which eventually feeds to the river Thames.
By Peggy Tee © 2009