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Backpackers’ Tips – A Cheap Date With London
Tired of London, tired of life, iadda-iadda, but most people forget the second half of Samuel Johnson’s popular aphorism: ‘for in London there is all that life can afford.’ Although he was no doubt referring to the extraordinary diversity found in London, he also hit upon another significant aspect of the Great City. That’s expensive.
However, there are numerous ways to enjoy your stay on a budget, and this will be a quick primer on how to maximize your budget while still seeing the great deals on offer.
First – where will you stay? Well, not only could you write a book about it, there are hundreds out there right now testifying to it. However, some of the cheapest rooms are around Heathrow Airport, so a quick scan of ‘Laterooms.com’ will return daily rates from around the city. You can quickly see that Heathrow specializes in discount rooms, Bloomsbury: between the City and the West End has some bargains, and Hackney on the edge of town is also convenient and cheaper. In addition, you should factor travel expenses into the room price. Use the Tube Travelcard in 1, 3 or 7 day flavors. They get more expensive depending on how far you are from the center, so consider that when staying near Heathrow. The surrounding area is zone 4,5 and 6, compared to Bloomsbury and Shoreditch which are zone 1 and 2. The travelcards offer unlimited travel, and in weekly form there is no peak limit. So it’s your room and travel fixed, which is the bare minimum: there’s no way around these costs unless you plan to spend your visit walking and sleeping under bridges (not recommended).
The first tip is the city tour, which is sold through official channels for around £25-30 per person. Or you can opt for the regular version of the bus without comments. Go after 10am to avoid being squeezed by chubby passengers and you’ll find plenty of free space. The two best options are: the RV1 bus which you can catch outside Tower Gateway tube station: which goes past Tower Bridge, Tower of London, Tate Modern, National Theatre, Waterloo, Strand, Aldwich and ends at Covent Garden. It’s not too long or strenuous and you can see a lot along the way. A longer but equally fulfilling route can be experienced by catching the 23 bus from Liverpool Street Station. It passes the Bank of England, Mansion House, St. Paul’s, Fleet Street, Royal Courts, Strand, Trafalgar Square, Pall Mall, Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, Bond Street, Marble Arch, Paddington and ends near Little Venice. You can also hop on and off the service, as your travel pass allows unlimited travel while it’s valid. This particular route is a shopper’s paradise.
The best free sights
Firstly, I should mention that all the major museums and galleries in London are free, but a donation will always be welcome. However, don’t let that be an indicator of quality. They are extremely popular, impressive and well organized. All are worth a visit, but if you had to narrow the list down to the must-sees, be sure to try to fit these in:
- The British Museum – large, vaulted, musty in places, but full of more treasures and rarities than any building I’ve visited, anywhere.
- Natural History, Science and Victoria and Albert Museum, which are all next to each other. There’s too much to see in one day, but if you’re pressed for time, you can easily switch between them to tour the maelstrom. Take the Tube to South Kensington and follow the signs.
- Tate Britain and the National Gallery. One in Milbank, near the Palace of Westminster, and the other in Trafalgar Square. A must visit for art lovers and even those with only a mild interest. The National has an unrivaled collection and the Tate focuses on British artists.
- The Tate Modern and St. Paul’s. You can cross between them, via the Millennium Pedestrian Bridge. The Tate Modern is free and the building is a spectacular grotto, but St. Paul charges admission. Instead, you can always walk outside, which is where most of the impressive architecture is, after all.
- Greenwich is definitely worth a visit. The National Maritime Museum, the Queen’s House, the Royal Observatory and the park are all free. It has interesting shops, a market and a lively waterfront. Consider taking the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) back through Canary Wharf at Docklands, as this is free with a valid travel ticket.
Yes, they sell merchandise, but you don’t necessarily have to buy to have an interesting time.
Camden Market – is well known and well worth the trip. Lots of fashion, trinkets and curiosities, especially people watching. The Lock is a good place to rest and watch the masses float by. If you like to walk, try the canal path from Camden Lock to Little Venice (just under 2 miles) for a lesser-known route through the city centre. You can even combine it with a cheap bus tour and return on bus 23 through the city, once you reach Little Venice.
Leadenhall Market – worth paying attention to for the architecture and sense of history. It is architecturally beautiful and a short walk from the Bank of England and the Mansion House. Try not to miss the City (Square Mile) as it is ‘old’ London and is often missed. If you want refreshments, you can detour to the nearby pub. On a budget, Sam Smiths pubs serve a range of their own beers, including ‘Swiss Lager’ which is very drinkable and costs around 60% of the price of a normal pint (1990 prices!). This is why they are popular among students. The Princess Louise, Cittie of York and The Cheshire Cheese are Sam Smiths pubs.
I’m going out
If you want to go to the theatre, buy from the ‘tkts’ stand in Leicester Square on the day of the show. You can get as much as 15% off the ticket price, as long as you’re flexible about what you see. However, be sure if you value your culture, as it is often the better, ‘high’ production that gets discounted the most. Mass appeal, media shows are usually less available at a discount.
For a cinema visit – head to the PCC (Prince Charles Cinema), just off Leicester Square, where shows are shown for just £1.50. All of their seats are 30-50% the price of their nearby rivals, and you’ll be watching with moviegoers, not the herd.
Opera and dance tickets can also be obtained at greatly reduced prices by applying for ‘day seats’ at the box office on the day, or by booking cheap seats with limited views online, before leaving for London (which can be purchased at the lowest price ). as £5). Shakespeare’s Globe also offers ‘Groundling’ tickets for £5, where visitors stand in front of the stage for the performance. (Watch ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and you’ll know what I mean.)
There are many ways to reduce food costs. First, shop at supermarkets scattered throughout the city or check their locations online. These are national chains such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Morrison’s and Waitrose. They’re often half the price of the ‘supermarkets’ you find around town, and loss leaders like fresh bread mean you can get the basics, for very little cost. Eat less in the center of tourist London and more in the “working class” part of London. Chains like ‘Eat’ and ‘Pret-a-Manger’ offer quality sandwiches/soups/wraps and buy bottled water from supermarkets. A significant part of the profit in the food business will come from drinks served with snacks.
Finally, there is the walking option. London is a Roman city, so it grew while foot and river traffic were the dominant modes of transportation. You will never understand a city as well as when you cross it on foot. By connecting a series of walks you can also begin to visualize the layout of the city and how the significant parts are connected to each other. Also, don’t think the British are a cold and distant race. If you are lost, ask for help and you will find it. So why not go out on a limb and wander around, following your nose. You are never far from a metro station and there will always be someone nearby to get you back on track.
So if you’re visiting London on a budget and you’ve heard rumors that it’s one of the most expensive cities, anywhere. Then that would be mostly true. There are, however, as always – frugal options. The city itself is the main attraction and a walk along the Thames in the sunshine, crawling through the streets of the medieval city and contemplating the Great Masters of Art, is likely to form a lasting memory of your visit. And they don’t cost a penny.
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