Home to the Royal Empire where the Sun never sets, London is a cosmopolitan city bestowed with magnificent landmarks, famous museums and fantastic city life. From the bars, restaurants, sports arenas, to recreational parks, the city has it all to drain your budget very quickly. We will provide commentary and tips to navigate the expanse of the city on a budget without sacrificing the top points of interest.
While there are literally a million things to do in the city, we sum up some of our favorites here –
Take a look at the grand Royal residences of Buckingham Palace. But more than the experience of admiring the palace, the change of guards at 11.30am every day is a worthwhile sight. Admission tickets are expensive and we recommend skipping the inside tours unless you are in London for an extended period of time. We will use this time for some more interesting stuff.
Victoria and Albert Museum
For ardent lovers of art and design, this free museum is a must visit. It has a huge permanent collection ranging from Gothic art, Victorian fresco and glass painting, Medieval Renaissance galleries. We spent less than 3 hours here.
Big Ben and House of Parliament
From the other side of the Thames River, you can see a panoramic view of the tower and the parliament. It is said that the clock tower was named after the clock maker Benjamin Vuillamy, and his large structure. But there are other theories that range from fantasy to semi-reality. But the hands and the face of this gigantic clock can be seen from more than 1 mile away and the first strike of the hour is accurate to the second. Shame that you cannot climb up to the top of the tower, but tours of the parliament are available. It is worth spending about an hour here (ticket price ~GBP 25).
Tower of London and London Bridge
This is one of the most photographed bridges in the world. There are rhymes and historic tales written about the bridge, and once you get there, you will recognize the emotions attached to it. Witness to a number of keystone events, such as the fire, the plague, the bombings of WWII, and other disease outbreaks, the London Bridge stays upright. It is a great idea to spend 4-5 hours here to understand the history and merely take photos all around. If possible, take the ferry from here to the London Eye along the river and witness some more historic landmarks while traveling under multitude of bridges across the river.
One of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, this is a large Gothic abbey church located next
to the Westminster Palace and about 5 minutes walk from the Big Ben. The pristine artwork and architectural intricacies inside the church is awe striking. There are a number of The GBP 20 entrance fee is worthwhile not only because of the visual treat and historic significance but also the fact that the fee goes towards charitable causes. This masterpiece presents a unique perspective on the British history and is home to burial grounds (or commemoration) of many famous personalities (incl. Sir Issac Newton, Charles Darwin)
Probably the most popular paid attraction in town, this Ferris wheel is a slow turning, 500 ft tall structure that features in almost every London skyline photo. You can get a fantastic aerial view of the city, but the long queues, and GBP 20 fee makes it a fairly bad investment of your time and money.
National Gallery at the Trafalgar Square
Free art museum that houses some of the most exquisite artwork from the masters like Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Botticelli, Bellini. There are not many art museums in the world that houses paintings from 13th century to 20th century under the same roof and can tell a story from the Renaissance and Impressionism era at the same time. While you are here, sip some lattes and people watch in the famous Trafalgar Square. We spend close to 4 hours here, and the best perk – for free!
For shopaholics and fun lovers alike, dress up and visit Harrods mall in one of your leisurely evenings in town. You are surely going to see celebrities, fancy cars and elegantly dressed couples pouring in the building for shopping, dinner or late evening drinks to socialize. While you are here, buy a few souvenirs and memorabilia from Harrods. We spend less than 3 hours here for shopping and a few drinks.
Sherlock Holmes Museum
221b Baker Street, near the Baker St. Underground station is a welcoming place for the Holmes lovers. Expect a small line but if you are a fan, you must not give up on this opportunity. Even though we know it is not even worth the time and money, the thought provoking exhibits that link back to the stories brought back memories from our childhood days.
Lord’s Cricket Ground
As ardent Cricket lovers, this is an emotional treat more than being spectacular. If there is not a cricket match going on, you can buy a tour ticket that takes you through the history of the ground, reminiscing on some of the historic games and take you to the cricketers’ pavilion. A view of the pitch directly behind the wicket from one of the balconies drew vivid pictures, in my mind, of a few famous matches held here. Must go for cricket lovers.
While there are numerous other museums and attractions like Churchill War Rooms, Royal Observatory, Greenwich, Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and more over the downtown London where the big multinationals are housed, a lazy walk along the miles of city parks and a couple of drinks in the local pubs should not be missed. In the weekends though, if you are in a mood to splurge a little bit for fancy fine dining, make reservations early. It is almost impossible to walk-in and get a table even for two in some of the best restaurants in town.
Some Money Saving Tips
As you may have already found out from travel sites, staying for a few days in London can really be expensive. Apart from getting a Oyster Card for transportation, and eating out in Asian food joints, there are a few money saving tips you may find handy. Read on..
- Oyster Card and Buses – 50% fare on the Underground metro with the card with potentially getting a refund if you have extra money. Easy to fill in money using cash or card in all metro stations. Keep a bus map handy. Google Maps show bus routes and timings.There is a good offline map app called TubeMap that you can use in your phones. The night bus routes are different than the day routes and is much cheaper than taxis.
- Free Museums – Most museums here are free including the Natural History Museum, Art Museum, Victoria Albert Museum, etc. Do not miss out on a chance to dive into the rich history of the world, for free.
- Walking Tours – There are several free walking tours arranged by different agencies. Some are government, some are non-profit organizations. Free Tours by Foot is a good one. There are a few self-guided tours as well, the pdf of the maps and descriptions can be found online relatively easily.
- Bus Tours – We found the Big Bus Tours to be fairly good in terms of navigating the city and still getting a good value for your money. For about GBP 30, you get 2 days of bus rides. Our favorite part of the tour is that you don’t have to spend any more than the ticket price to literally roam around the entire span of the city. We have taken advantage of these bus tours several times in different cities as a Day 1 activity to get a good highlight of the city, and then depending upon what we like, we explore in further detail in the later days. If you are short on time, this is a great idea as well. If nothing else, your transportation costs are easily covered in these tours.