Things to do in London on a budget

London is famous for many things, and one of them is being expensive. It’s even worse if you’re dealing with a currency that isn’t as strong as the pound. When we were in London, the exchange rate averaged at about $1.60 USD per pound. That means something that costs £5 comes out to over $8 USD. It adds up fast. However, there are still plenty of things to do in London while pinching pennies.

things to do in london

Food

Restaurants can really get you. However, if you get your meals from the smaller shops instead, you’ll save a lot more. By eating in the shops outside the major tourist zones, it wasn’t hard for us to have an enjoyable meal for two people for around £6.

Grocery and convenience stores usually have sandwiches and ready-made meals for around £2. They often have deals like a sandwich, small bag of crisps (chips in the US), and a soda for just over £3.

The local markets usually have plenty of food vendors as well, and they are pretty reasonably priced. Tigger had a lovely egg and bacon bap (sandwich on a soft roll) for £2 at the wildly popular Borough Market (tube: London Bridge). By the way, I would definitely encourage you to visit this market. It’s absolutely wonderful, has an amazing variety of foods, and we bought the most delicious strawberries we’ve ever had there. You can pick up ingredients to make a meal or buy something they’ve prepared at quite reasonable prices.

In Chinatown, located outside Leicester Square, you can find many low-priced street food vendors. Friends tell me the best Peking duck outside Beijing is found in this locale.

Don’t let business names fool you. We popped into Perfect Fried Chicken to escape the rain one day and discovered they also had biryani and lamb and chicken curries on the menu, in addition to many other items. Chicken was actually a small part of their offerings. My lamb curry with rice was £4, and that was the most expensive item on the menu.

As is the norm, if you want to eat out in a restaurant, try to go during lunchtime when they have more specials. We saw many special lunch deals for 2 people that would work out to about £3-4 per person.

things to do in london

Sightseeing

Admission fees for these venues are criminal. At places like Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, Hampton Court, etc., you can expect to pay around £15-20 ($25-32 USD) or more per adult. Sometimes you can walk the grounds for free, and even just walking around the perimeter still affords great views of the structures and the grounds.

The Tower Bridge is probably the most unique bridge in the city, and it is free to walk across. You can do an interesting loop by crossing the Tower Bridge, walking around the Tower of London, crossing the London Bridge, and completing it with a visit to the Borough Market. The London Bridge isn’t all that exciting, but it’s fun to say you’ve been on it. The market makes the journey worth it.

things to do in London

Near many of the popular sites are wonderful parks which are great if you’re traveling with kids. In between walking by all the old buildings, they can have a nice run and enjoy the playground in a gorgeous park.

Buckingham Palace isn’t all that exciting unless you want to catch the Changing the Guard ceremony.

Walk away from the palace and past the Victoria Monument, and you will find the absolutely gorgeous St. James Park on your right. During the spring and summer when the flowers are in bloom, it’s quite stunning. If you’re a fan of Princess Di, there is a 7-mile-long walk that is charted by plaques and takes you past locations associated with her.

After walking by Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and the Victoria Tower, there is another park with a really cool playground near the bridge. Even Tigger had fun there.

Kensington Gardens have some great paths for cycling and is a popular picnic spot.

Neighborhoods can be quite intriguing, have fun quirks, and the buildings can be very interesting as well. They are sometimes full of little surprises, so they’re really fun to explore. We spent a lot of time just exploring various neighborhoods.

Some of the really worthwhile markets, such as the Camden Street Market, are best visited on the weekends. If you have some time on a Saturday or Sunday, you’ll want to check them out.

The Spitalfields Market in London’s East End has a very diverse offerings from around the world. You won’t find as many food vendors here, though. It’s an interesting area to visit, and the East End has a lot of history and ethnic diversity, so it’s worth a visit for sure.

things to do in london

Getting Around

While London is quite huge, it’s still easy to explore many areas on foot.

London has a really great transportation system as you might imagine. The London Underground (the tube), Overground, DLR, and others make getting around the city pretty easy. But transportation is not cheap. If you plan on using public transportation, you will want to purchase an Oyster Card. You will want to pick up one of these cards as soon as you arrive.

Without the Oyster card, you will be paying at least double, sometimes more. They’re easy to buy. You can find machines in almost every tube station (and Overground and DLR stations). You can top them up at the machines, ticket windows, many of the convenience stores and kiosks, and online. The machines will accept credit/debit cards as well as cash. It really couldn’t be easier.

It’s still going to be a bit pricey, so this is one of those times when planning your day can save you money. Generally speaking, the average one-way journey will cost you around $3.60 USD per adult.

When you’re leaving London, make sure to stop at a ticket window after you’ve exited your last pay point and turn in your Oyster cards for a refund of any money left on the card. If you don’t live in the UK, have your passport handy as you will also get a refund of all the VAT (value-added tax) you’ve paid. We used the cards for about 4 days of travel, and we got back over £8 for our VAT refund. That’s a nice chunk of change!

As mentioned previously, many attractions are within walking distance of each other, and it’s a fairly pedestrian-friendly city.

Buses are cheaper than the metro system at just over £1.

Child discounts

Unfortunately, the Oyster card does not include child discounts. You can buy child tickets at the machines or ticket windows.

The photo Oyster card will give discounts (and buses and trams are free), but it’s more of a process, and there is a £10 fee. Unless you’ll be spending a lot of time in London, I doubt it’s worth it to invest in the photo card.

Here’s the nice part for families with younger children: Kids under 11 can travel free when they are accompanying an adult with an Oyster card or valid ticket; up to 4 children per adult.

On 2 wheels

Like many large cities, there is a network of rental bicycles throughout the city. Unfortunately, the posted rules state the bicycles are for people 14 and older. Not as helpful for families.

You pay £2 for 24 hours of access. Rides for under 30 minutes are no extra charge and unlimited. You can conceivably ride all over the city all day for £2 just by ensuring you dock your cycle and get a new one every 29 minutes or so. But an hour only costs £1 extra.

There are many routes, and the city is fairly flat so cycling is a great and inexpensive way to tour.

things to do in london

Museums & Galleries

There are a ton of museums and galleries throughout the city, and thankfully many of them are free! These include some rather impressive collections. You could spend days visiting all the places listed with free admission.

The city can keep you quite busy. There are so many great things to do in London, and thankfully you can still enjoy yourself without spending an absolute fortune.

What’s your favorite low-budget activity or place to visit in London?

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38 Comments

  1. I would add Reagents Park and Canary Warf. Reagents park offers a great view over London whioe canary WARF is the business district of London.

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  2. I’m a proud Londoner and love Borough market – there are some great finds there! Another great and quirky free thing to do in London for this – how does a library in a phonebox sound?! http://wp.me/p3Lian-8W (and if you go on a saturday, the nearby Brockley food market is worth a visit too) 🙂

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    • I just recently read about that library. So cool! London has a lot of quirky areas and things, and that is one of the things I love about that city. I haven’t heard about Brockley. If we return to London, I’ll have to check that out.

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  3. Not going to lie, Talon—reading this post has me panicking a bit, though I’m grateful for all the advice. London is going to be our first stop after Asia and man oh man is it going to sting. $3.60US for a subway ride? I don’t even like paying that for a TAXI ride anymore! 😀 It’s going to be an adjustment, that’s for sure, but I’ll be bookmarking this and returning it in a few months time because anything that we can do to help lessen the blow is very much needed!

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    • Oh man, you’re going to have some serious culture and wallet shock for sure. At least the bikes are cheap and make it easy to get around! It’s a great city, but after Eastern Europe and Asia the prices are a bit of a slap in the face.

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  4. Great practical information for making a trip to London affordable. I especially appreciate your tip about eating from small local markets and renting bikes if traveling with teenagers or other adults.

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  5. Great tips Talon. We loved Borough Market too and you are completely right about London there are not expensive activities to do and food to buy in what is always pictured like one of the most pricey city to visit.

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    • I was quite relieved to find that groceries weren’t as killer as I expected and that one could enjoy some good food without paying triple to quadruple of other places.

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  6. I generally agree with your tips…though I was surprised to see you ate at one of the ubiquitous and similarly named chicken shops of East London (a fixture from my childhood) as at least when I lived there, they used to have a terrible reputation for being extremely bad quality and sometimes unsanitary. I guess this has changed, though! Indeed, the saving grace for London sightseeing is the fact that most museums are free: I do love that!

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    • It wasn’t the best food I’ve had for sure. The shop we ate at, though, had a level 4 rating for hygiene so I guess some things have changed. At least at that one shop. 😉

      It’s wonderful that so many wonderful museums are free.

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  7. Great tips! We loved the bacon bap and fresh fruit smoothies at the Borough Market. Yum.

    With our boys (then 9 & 10), we also went to Hamley’s Toy Store. We spent a lot of time in there just looking and playing. We knew we weren’t buying anything (traveling with backpacks), but had fun looking at all of the Lego creations, trying out the racing cars, etc. I think we ended up spending a few dollars on some British candy and birthday candles.

    Loved the driftwood playground near the London Eye. The Princess Diana playground in Kensington Park was pretty fun too.

    We took an evening water taxi (a cheaper way to “cruise” the river!) hopped off, had dinner in a different area, then hopped back on. Beautiful views of the bridges, the Shard and the London Eye, from the river.

    Boys also loved combing the beaches along the river for 19th century clay tobacco pipes. Our Airbnb host told us about them. It was a fun, and cheap, scavenger hunt.

    Loved the Museum of Natural History – my son’s pick. We didn’t make it to the British Museum (darn it!), but this was a great (free) way to spend an afternoon. Did you and Tigger take the Beefeater tour at the Tower of London? After paying that hefty entry fee, I forced my family to! We are glad we did though, because at that point on our UK adventure, my boys were kind of over castles. It was quite entertaining and I love the stories!

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  8. Wonderful tips,I’ll be visiting in fall so I plan on doing some of these things especially using the bicycles, what a wonderful way to tour the city…hope it’s not too dangerous!

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    • It’s pretty good. Lots of bike lanes, some special routes, too. Many of the traffic signals have special bike zones.

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  9. Thanks for the tips, Talon! I went to London the very first time I traveled solo and probably spent double the amount I should have. Wish I’d taken your advice before that, haha!

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  10. Oyster is expensive. It’s better to get a Travelcard.

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    • Actually, Oyster is cheaper unless you’re taking several trips a day. We did quite a bit of sightseeing using the public transportation, and our day of highest usage was still less than a single day on the Travelcard.

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      • Yes, I intend to use at least two means of transport a day when I’m in London in May.

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          • I have chosen a travel card Adult Zones 1-3 for 7 days at £36.80. It allows unlimited use of transport in London zones 1-3, which is what I need. Might Oyster be cheaper, do you think?

          • It just depends on how many trips a day you think you’ll be taking, what zone you’ll be spending most of your time in, etc.

  11. we have a 12 hour wait – enroute to France later in May – I wonder if it will be worth taking the tube to the Borough market and enjoying part of the day here? Worth it or should we just hang around the airport (Heathrow)?

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  12. Top tips, Talon. We used to live in London, so can recall quite easily how much more expensive it is to reside there there Gran Canaria. They say that if you ever move out of London, it’s almost impossible, lottery win aside, to be able to afford to return.

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    • I can believe that. Homeowners are already priced out of the market, and now renters are being priced out as well. Really a shame.

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  13. Talon, don’t miss the Kyoto Garden in Holland Park in Kensington. In fact, just walking around Kensington is a real trip back into old residential London that doesn’t cost a thing.

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  14. Great tips Talon! Everyone loves to complain about the price of London, but being such a big and diverse city certainly helps quell some of the costs. I wrote about my favorite free museums in London as well: http://travelsofadam.com/2013/10/london-museums/ I definitely think it’s possible to visit London on a budget! Borough Market is great but I’d also recommend the Brick Lane markets on Sunday — there are a lot of great street food vendors who show up there on Sunday and I think it’s even cheaper than Borough Market!

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