Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square

It’s no secret that London can be an extremely expensive place to visit. The main reason for this is accommodation, followed closely by travel costs. If you can find a friend who will let you take over their couch for a few days, you’re half way towards an affordable stopover.

Buying yourself an Oyster Card when you get here will also save you a packet on tube and bus fares. (By swiping your oyster card you save approximately half the price of a single ticket fare, and it also keeps track of your usage so you don’t pay more over the course of a day than a day’s travel pass would cost. They cost an initial investment of 5 quid, but you could easily recoup this value in your first day’s usage.)

For food you can easily get by quite cheaply on sandwiches, pizza slices and a range of ready made takeaway options from the numerous supermarket chains. Which leaves the rest of your budget available for actually seeing the sights and the wonderful thing about London is there is so much to do that won’t cost you a cent, (or a penny!).

Flat and easy to navigate, you can see any number of world famous sights, simply by taking yourself on a DIY walking tour. Don’t use a tube map as a navigational guide, as you may find someplace that requires several tube stops and line interchanges to get to via tube, could actually be just around the corner if you pop up above ground and actually walk.

If it’s your first time in London, put on some comfy shoes and you can easily spend a day strolling between numerous sights including the London Eye, Millennium Bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, Tower of London, Parliament Buildings and the Tower of Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Whitehall, #10 Downing Street, the Horse Guards, Trafalgar Square and the Column of Lord Nelson, Buckingham Place, Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus – all those places you’ve heard about and now are about to become a reality.

If you still have some energy left, there are some lovely parks including St James Park and Hyde Park. If your legs are getting tired but you still want the advantage of being above ground so you can see around you, jump on a bus – there nothing more typically London than a big red, double-decker bus, and a normal bus offers the same view of the sights as a specific tour bus will.

When you’ve come this far (Hyde Park), you’re right on the edge of Knightsbridge and Harrod’s, that infamous department store, is definitely worth a stop. It was starting to rain once we got here, and we managed to happily while a way a few hours in this Aladdin’s Cave of delights. The Pet’s Kingdom department was my favourite, with every accessory for your pet imaginable including a huge range of dressup costumes for your little beast.

Samantha was enthralled with the Toy Department – a whole floor dedicated to fun – and was delighted with the many interactive demonstrations encouraging kids to try out the various toys and creative materials. Being the sentimental softie that I am, I also wanted to visit the memorial to Princess Diana and Dodi, which was in an area decorated with gorgeous Egyptian antiquities.

Our final stop was the massive food hall where, after much deliberation, we decided our treat would be some delightful little cupcakes – of course they had every flavour imaginable – although I later thought we probably should have visited the chocolate section before making our selection!

If you have several days and want to break up the walking tour, include some of the wonderful (and free!) world class museums and art galleries. The National Gallery is found at the edge of Trafalgar Square so could easily round off a morning of churches and towers, before heading into Leicester Square, Covent Garden and the Westend.

My favourite London art gallery however, is the Tate Modern. You’ll find this one via a lovely stroll along the Southbank (of the River Thames) from Waterloo Station (or the London Eye). The Southbank itself is also a great place for free entertainment. Especially on weekends, there are numerous buskers and entertainers with various acts, happily strutting their stuff for a donation in their hat.

As for museums you are spoilt for choice – the British Museum, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, and Victoria and Albert Museum are the most prominent ones – all fantastic and all free. Allow at least half a day to scour the highlights in any one of these museums, although if you really want to be thorough then you could easily spend an entire day. Our favourite was the Natural History Museum, and while a full afternoon got us to saturation point for one visit, we could easily spend another half day seeing the many displays we didn’t have time for. The dinosaur exhibits were extensive and spectacular including a life size, mechanical model of a T-Rex that was so realistic (and loud) that Samantha was actually quite frightened of it.

Finally, famous landmarks, galleries and museums aside, London has such a melting pot of cultures and such an eclectic range of suburbs that make up Greater London. Put that Oyster Card to good use and travel to a random destination and then pop up and explore. The canals around Little Venice, celeb spotting around Hampstead Heath, markets in Camden and Portabello Road, a stroll along the Thames to Hammersmith Bridge – these are just a sample of the many precious delights of London that can be enjoyed for little or no money.

© Jacqui Thomas, 2010

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