I don’t know about you, but the phrase ‘Central London’ doesn’t exactly conjure up associations with cheap entertainment or saving your money. Most everything is expensive here: housing, dining out, a pint of beer, etc. I should know – I have to put up with it most every day!
But, one thing I have learned from many years spent here is how to have fun in The Big Smoke on a budget. Having been ‘forced’ to do this a few times (thanks, career!) I pass on some of my tricks to you.
1. Hit the museum(s)
Let’s start with one for the culture vultures on a budget. Central London is blessed with some of the country’s most prestigious and exciting museums. And the great news is that, for many of them, entry is entirely free! This’ll get you ‘in the door’ where you can enjoy much of what the museum has to offer, though I have to say that for a lot of museums, you’ll have to pay a fee for individual exhibitions. But hey, at least you have some choice once you’re in there…
Anyway – below is a list that contains most of the ‘big ones’. The first three museums are my personal favourites (as I studied Astronomy at the university and am a military history nerd…). That said, there’s so many around here that you must please forgive me if I miss a few…
Science Museum – Exhibition Rd, London SW7 2DD, near South Kensington Tube Station
Natural History Museum – Cromwell Rd London SW7 5BD, near South Kensington Tube Station
Imperial War Museum – Lambeth Rd SE1 6HZ, near Elephant And Castle Tube Station
(but see also…)
Museum Of London – 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN, near Barbican or St. Paul’s Tube Station
National Gallery – Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN, near Charing Cross or Leicester Square Tube Station
National Army Museum – Royal Hospital Rd, SW3 4HT, near Sloane Square Tube Station
Tate Modern – Bankside, SE1 9TG, near London Bridge Station/Tube Station
Victoria & Albert Museum AKA ‘The V&A’ – Cromwell Rd, SW7 2RL, near South Kensington Tube Station
British Museum – Great Russell St, WC1B 3DG, near Holborn and Tottenham Court Road Tube Stations
Museum entry is free, though once you’re in, some of the exhibitions might have entry fees.
2. Picnic in a green space
‘Central’ London is, on the main part, pretty built up. Despite this, over the centuries, farsighted city planners left plenty of public green spaces in the capital for people like you and me to enjoy. And when the sun is shining there are few things I enjoy more than time spent in a green space with some friends, some good food and some good drink (because it’s nice to be able to bring exactly what you want…).
There are so many parks and smaller gardens to choose from, but if we’re going on personal recommendations I’d suggest St. James’ Park, Regent’s Park or Hyde Park. These are where I usually end up, and since they are so large they’re (1) almost always open and (2) you’re always guaranteed to find a spot.
Regent’s Park – Chester Rd, NW1 4NR, near Regent’s Park Tube Station
Hyde Park – near Marble Arch or Hyde Park Corner Tube Stations
St. James’ Park – SW1A 2BJ, near St. James’ Park Tube Station
Free – though you’re probably gonna have to buy some food if you want to have a picnic.
3. Head on down to Chinatown…
Despite its small size, Chinatown has packed a whole load of Oriental atmosphere and window shopping opportunities into the little area around Gerrard Street, Westminster. Bilingual street signs, stone lions, traditional Chinese retailers selling everything from exotic cooking ingredients to traditional Chinese clothing (often more comfortable than you’d expect) – it’s always fascinating. The atmosphere is free though there are a lot of rare purchase opportunities too. Start browsing at SeeWoo supermarket or New Loon Moon and see where it takes you…
London W1D, near Leicester Square Tube Station
Free – unless your ‘window shopping’ turns into ‘actual shopping.’
4. Street theatre and atmosphere in Covent Garden Plaza
An obvious favourite of visitors to the capital, Covent Garden Plaza is a fantastic place to be in the summer. There’s the old market, full of history, character and characters. Outside you’ll usually find street performers plying their trade, or busking musicians doing much the same. Show up early in the morning (before the crowds arrive) for coffee in eminent surroundings. Or, come down around peak time (yes, it’ll be busy) for the people watching and the energy of the place. I have been dropping in here for years (and at all times of the day) and it never gets old!
WC2E, near Covent Garden tube station
Free (though if you see a street artist you like, you could donate…)
5. Try outdoor swimming
A lot of visitors don’t know this, but we have outdoor swimming pools (‘lidos’) in the UK. Though they tend to get more use in the summer months (for obvious reasons), many are open almost all throughout the year to the brave (and resilient!) people who are amongst us. As for summer, when the sun is shining the ‘lido experience’ can be fantastic – though at peak times they can get very crowded. Best to plan a little in advance – check the open hours for each one, and see what the weather is doing.
Here are a few of the main ones:
Oasis Sports Centre – 32 Endell Street, London, WC2H 9AG
Open all year last time I checked, and the pool is heated too! Probably the ‘easiest’ of the lot.
King’s Cross Pond Club – Tapper Walk, N1C 4BE, near Kings Cross or Camden Town Tube Stations.
I’m not even sure where to begin with this one. It’s actually described as a piece of ‘Land Art’ – a 40m pond that ‘encourages visitors to enter the water and participate in the installation as a piece of experiential art.’ But yeah, you can swim in it. It’s also the most expensive of these four options.
The Serpentine, Hyde Park – in Hyde Park, near Marble Arch or Hyde Park Corner Tube Stations.
The area around The Serpentine is quite historic and beautiful, but I’ve been told it can ice up in the winter. You have been warned!
The Hampstead Ponds, Hampstead Heath – in Hampstead Heath, near Hampstead or Tufnell Park Tube station.
This one is a bit of a trek north, but, boasting some of the best views of London, Hampstead Heath might be worth the journey. These are actual ponds, as far as I can tell, and can also get very cold in the winter!
Rarely more than £5 per adult, and cheaper for children.
6. Find some last minute/‘standby’ theatre tickets on the West End
West End shows can be a little pricey, but for the price conscious (and kinda adventurous) amongst us there are two more… economical ways to get a theatrical fix. There is, of course, a catch. The reason why these tickets go cheaply is because they’re offered up at the last minute. So provided you’re not too bothered about making last minute plans, or if you’re open to not being sure what you see on the night you come down, this could be for you.
Option one: ‘TKTS’: Head down to the TKTS booth in the middle of Leicester Square. It’s open 7 days a week, and you can save all the way up to 66% off of the regular price on standard ticket prices (…if your timing is right!)
Option two: ‘day tickets’: Show up at the box office of whatever theatre you’re interested in seeing a show at. Ask them about ‘day tickets’ – tickets they have released for shows that are running today. Of course, there’s no guarantee that they’ll have any, or that available ones will be for a show that you want. But ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get.’
TKTS: The Clock Tower, Leicester Square, WC2H 7DE, near Leicester Square Tube Station
Theatres: All throughout the West End!
Variable – often (though not always) under £10
7. Arrange your own ‘DIY Sightseeing’ bus tour
‘Hop on, hop off’ style sightseeing tours have been popular in London as long as I have lived here. You can’t miss them, open topped buses lumbering around the city, full of people taking in the sites. But – did you know you can do much the same thing on certain ’regular’ public transport routes?
The two best ones are Route 4 and Route 88. The 4 will take you past The Houses of Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Fleet Street and the Barbican. The 88, amongst other places, will take you down Oxford Street, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey and Tate Britain. The catch? No tour guide narrating the sites, and no open top on your bus.
Usually £1.50 – remember that you’ll need an Oyster Card or Visitor Oyster Card since TFL buses no longer take cash.
8. Explore the Silver Vaults
A lot of people don’t know, but the Silver Vaults in Chancery Lane (which are exactly what you think they are…) are free to enter. Head down the stairs and you shall find yourself in one of the largest silver markets on the planet. As a market, there are plenty of opportunities to purchase stunning silver things. However, you don’t need to, and if you’re anything like me, will find the memorising sites reason enough to visit.
Considering the history of a lot of the stuff on offer, it can have a ‘museum’ feeling to it. What to see? Silver merchants, jewellery shops, antique dealers specialising in silver things, Georgian era pocketwatches… The atmosphere down here is on the main part friendly, and merchants are used to people coming in just to browse. So do.
Chancery House, 53-64 Chancery Ln, WC2A 1QS, near Chancery Lane Tube Station
Free, unless you choose to buy anything…it might be beautiful but it sure isn’t cheap!
9. Free live music!
London is full places to go and ‘find’ live music. Depending on how far you’re willing to travel and how eclectic your musical preferences are – there’s probably something here for you. Now it’d be impossible for me to list every musical spot but I can tell you about a few of the more ‘reliable’ places and the kind of music you might find there.
Covent Garden Market – WC2E, near Covent Garden Tube Station – An eclectic mix. I’ve seen everything from opera singers, lone jazz guitarists and acapella groups there
HMV Oxford Street – 363 Oxford St, W1C 2LA, near Bond Street Tube Station – Probably the most difficult of the lot as HMV tends to draw some big names from the world of music for performances in the store. You have to queue early in the day if you’re keen.
The Royal Opera House – Bow St, WC2E 9DD, near Covent Garden Tube Station – They offer free ‘lunchtime recitals’ on Mondays around 1 pm. However, It helps if you book online beforehand.
St. Olave’s Church – 8 Hart St, EC3R 7NB, near Tower Hill Tube Station – Also offer lunchtime recitals around 1 pm, last time I checked these were on Thursdays and Fridays.
St. James’s Piccadilly – 197 Picadilly, W1J 9LL, near Piccadilly Circus Tube Station – Continuing the lunchtime recitals theme, St. James’s afternoon recitals are from 1 pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays
Southbank Centre – Belvedere Rd, SE1 8XX, near Embankment or Waterloo Tube Station – There’s usually lots happening at the Southbank Centre. Asides from a regularly changing lineup of people busking in front of it/nearby, The Centre’s Clore Ballroom often hosts free concerts (though it’s best to check online beforehand to see about those!)
Free – but if you like the music, leave some money. Support the artists!
10. Try a free walking tour
Though there are plenty ‘commercial’ walking tours to choose from, you might be surprised by the number of companies offering to show you around the Big Smoke for free. Of course, most of them appreciate your custom, but you’re not obligated.
As a local, I tend to ‘arrange’ my own walks but I have heard a few good things about Free Tour Of London, Free London Walking Tours, Free Tours by Foot and Sandeman’s Free Tour Of London. There are a few more, but maybe start with these?
They tend to start at different points in London, check the site for each one for details.
Free – though they usually appreciate a donation if you have enjoyed yourself (giving under £10 is acceptable)££