London is probably on 99% of travellers’ bucket lists, and if it’s not on yours then you should probably add it. The UK’s vibrant capital city has an abundant supply of things to do: beyond the tourist traps lie countless hidden gems waiting to be discovered. Although London can be expensive, there are plenty of sights you can see for free, or for a reduced fee. Here’s my guide on the good, the bad and the ugly to visiting my nation’s capital . . .
There’s always something going on
With London, there’s an unspoken guarantee that there will always be something going on; whether or not it’s your cup of tea is neither here nor there, just view these events as an opportunity to experience something new. Time Out is a great place to start: paper copies are distributed weekly on Tuesdays, or you can view their website for more suggestions. Recently, I detoured via Covent Garden to see the Heartbeat installation (on display until September 27th), which consists of 100,000 balloons, suspended from the ceiling; it’s the first time that Pétillon, the artist, has created an installation outside of France.
Travelling by train? Then there’s a deal for you!
If you’re visiting London by train there are some fantastic 2-4-1 offers available courtesy of National Rail, making your trip to London that bit more affordable. Many popular attractions, such as Madame Tussauds, ZSL London Zoo and the London Eye are all part of the scheme. For a superb view of the City (including the Gherkin and the Tower of London) head to the Tower Bridge Exhibition (£9 for two adults with a voucher.) All you need to do is head to the National Rail website (see link above) and print off your voucher; there’s no limit on the number of vouchers you can use, but you must keep your train tickets and show them when purchasing your tickets.
Museums are (almost always) free
Scattered across the city, these little cultural havens are the perfect way to spend a day spending nothing in The Big Smoke. Tate Modern is a great spot for a vehicle-free view of the magnificent spire of St Paul’s, whilst the Museum of London provides visitors with an insight into London life throughout history (including a special feature on the London 2012 Olympics.) A stone’s throw from Euston station is the Wellcome Collection; with its spacious library (open to all, for reading, doodling or relaxing) and wide selection of curiosities detailing the history of medicine it’s perfect for anyone wanting to escape the crowds found in the more well-known museums. Of all the art museums, the National Portrait Gallery, tucked behind the National Gallery, is my favourite; the BP Portrait Award 2015 exhibition is open until 20th September and is well worth a look. The British Museum made the cut for Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist; you won’t be disappointed by the vast array of artefacts on display here. For quirky displays by up-and-coming artists, akin to some of the obscure exhibitions found at Tate Modern, venture to the Saatchi Gallery.
The crowds, oh the crowds
It doesn’t seem to matter when you visit, London is always filled with people: tourists (or otherwise) meandering along at (slower than) a snail’s pace and city slickers desperately trying to dodge the hordes making a beeline for the tourist hotspots. The crowds waiting outside Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard ceremony make Oxford Street seem uncongested. Once away from the main thoroughfare, however, London can seem quite peaceful; head out of the centre for a walk along the Thames Path, discover the district of Chiswick (and the impressive Chiswick House) or take a stroll down King’s Road (stop off at Amorino for a delicious scoop or two of gelato.)
The taste of polluted air
London isn’t called The Big Smoke for nothing; when your snot turns black and you no longer know what oxygenated air is, you’ll realise why. Luckily, there are lots of green spaces across the city – or if you fancy venturing further afield, cheap off-peak tickets can take you away from the city to the coast and beyond. Whilst Hyde Park is the undisputed title-holder of most well-known green space, park connoisseurs would do well to consider the following options (nearest underground stations in brackets):
- Regent’s Park (Great Portland Street) – with beautiful landscaped gardens to the southerly edge of the park and the infamous London Zoo to the north, this is Hyde Park’s younger, nicer sister. It’s even got a boating lake – with prices at half that of going on the Serpentine.
- Richmond Park (Richmond) – the perfect rural retreat from the urban jungle, Richmond’s expansive deer park is worthy of any visitor’s time; it also has unobstructed views of St Paul’s from King Henry’s Mound. Allow plenty of time to fully explore this enormous park which makes Hyde Park look like someone’s garden.
- Holland Park (Holland Park) – to the west of Hyde Park, and just south of Notting Hill, this park offers landscaped gardens, open-air theatre productions and classical concerts.
- Victoria Embankment Gardens (Embankment; Charing Cross) – in the summertime, the grassy areas are perfect for picnics and there are also regular events held here.
There’s no two ways about it: London is expensive. However, that said, there’s something in London for every budget. Using public transport can quickly add up, so bear these tips in mind for navigating your way around the city:
- A single tube ticket currently costs £4.80 (zones 1-3); so if you plan on using the Tube a lot in one day, you might want to invest in a Day Travelcard.
- If you only plan on taking the occasional journey on the Tube, you might want to invest in an Oyster Card. For a refundable deposit of £5, you’ll be given a card which you can top up as frequently (or infrequently) as you like and you’ll benefit from much cheaper fares. You’ll never pay more than the price of a Day Travelcard. If you register it online, it will be protected in the case of theft or loss. Passengers using contactless will benefit from the same cheap fares.
- Install the ‘Tube Map’ app: it’s absolutely free and is a fantastic tool for getting to grips with the Underground – you can check for service updates, plan routes and have the entire Tube network map at your fingertips!
- You cannot pay in cash for buses; you must use contactless or Oyster.
- London is surprisingly walkable – and a pop-up map doesn’t cost the earth. Arm yourself with one of these and you’ll quickly see that the distance between some stations is negligible, and in many cases it can be faster to walk. Plus, you’ll see things you wouldn’t see if you were underground. Check out this alternative calorie-burning Underground map on Time Out.