Free attractions for London budget trip – What? Where? How?
I returned from my budget 3-day trip to London just several days before Christmas, spending a total of around £70. Before the trip, I did massive research about travelling to London on a budget, as I was worried that with so little money I would have to trade off both the comfort and the quality of my stay. Everything in London seems so expensive. For some popular attractions such as the Buckingham Palace, even the concession price for students is to me unaffordable. Therefore, I decided to resort to free attractions for a London budget trip.
Contrary to my initial thought that free attractions in London were just crappy places, I found most of them truly amazing and worth visiting! This blog post is therefore about what I did and where I visited during my London budget trip. I will also give detailed reviews about which free attractions in London are most worth visiting when you’re on a budget!
Want to read more about saving tips for a London budget trip? I’ll cover it in another blog post soon. Stay tuned!
London budget trip 3-day itinerary
My London budget trip actually covered 5 days. Since the first and last day only involved transportation to and from London, I’ll omit them in this itinerary.
Day 1 (Friday 17/12)
Camden Lock Market (Free)
You’ll be spoiled for choice at this amazing Camden Lock Market. Lying by a scenic canal, Camden Lock Market features hundreds of shops and stalls selling everything from vintage clothing, exotic food, old books, handmade cosmetics to tourist souvenirs. It’s really worth up to half a day strolling around, trying on some cool outfits and tasting different types of yummy food here. Don’t forget to bargain before you pay though!
Little Venice (Free)
I decided to visit this place after reading about how London’s exorbitant property prices consequently encouraged many to live on boats. Little Venice is an area in London where the Regent’s Canal becomes these people’s homes.
Due to the name “Little Venice”, I initially expected this area to be as scenic and dreamy as the city with the same name in Italy. However, I was a bit disappointed to find the landscape here to be quite dull. In addition, there were plenty of trashes in the canal. Or was it because of the dark gloomy winter day that distorted my otherwise good impression of Little Venice?
Portobello Road Market – Notting Hill (Free)
* Opening time: http://www.portobelloroad.co.uk/the-market/
A must-visit for fans of the Notting Hill movie, Portobello Road is now a vibrant area where large crowds of both tourists and locals gather for exotic food, vintage clothing and many other interesting stuff to buy. Despite being smaller than Camden Lock Market, Portobello Road Market seems more vibrant and lively, especially on Saturdays.
Perhaps the most attractive place on Portobello Road is Acklam Village Street Food Market. I actually still couldn’t decide on which dish to try after wandering around this market for half an hour. This amazing food market offered a wide variety of cuisines from many countries around the world. Poland, Japan, India, Argentina, Palestine, etc. you name it. In the end I decided to get myself a Cuban baguette for £6. That’s a bit pricey but the baguette was actually big enough for 2 people to share (too bad I was alone haha). Watch how my Cuban Baguette was made in the video I uploaded below!
Can you hear Hallelujah being sung in the background of the video? There was a live band playing cool music at this market too, so you can chill and relax while eating.
Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising (£9 / £7 concession)
* Opening time and ticket price: http://www.museumofbrands.com/visitus/
I visited this place out of personal interest as I’m studying Advertising and Marketing at the moment. That’s why I still willingly paid for the £7 ticket price here during my London budget trip.
The museum featured a “Time Tunnel” where both histories and branding developments in the UK since Victoria time were introduced. With hindsight, I was actually quite satisfied with the collection of artifacts here. There were some very interesting artifacts such as women’s fashion magazines in the 19th century. In addition, you can also find out here how packages of famous brands looked like a hundred years ago. Even for a visitor who has no interest in branding and advertising at all, a visit to this museum still offers a good deal of knowledge about British history, society development and consumer culture. Moreover, the museum also has a nice cafe overlooking a beautiful garden. This will be a great spot for the summer!
Nonetheless, I’d say this museum would be more entertaining to British visitors than foreign ones. An old British couple who were standing next to me remarked that for them, looking at all the old brands and products here was like a trip down memory lane.
Overall, despite my satisfaction with the experience at this museum, I felt that the entrance ticket was too expensive. Therefore, well, 3.5 is what I think the museum deserves to be rated at.
The Wallace Collection (Free)
* Opening time: http://www.wallacecollection.org/visiting
I can’t believe this wonderful art collection is free! The Wallace Collection exhibits a wide variety of art and historical artefacts in a gorgeous mansion with delicate architecture. I was mostly impressed with the large collection of medieval arms and armours here. These include shields, helmets, axes, swords and so on, most of which look marvelous! At the lower floor you can also try these on and take some photos as well.
Other collections at The Wallace Collection include pictures and miniatures, ceramics, works of art, furniture and sculpture. They are no less impressive. The Wallace Collection is truly one of the best free attractions for my London budget trip!
Hatchards Bookshop Piccadilly
* Opening time: Mon – Sat (9:30 – 20:00) and Sun (12:00 – 18:30)
Established in 1797, Hatchards is London’s oldest bookshop. I would have given a higher rating for Hatchards Bookshop had it been less crowded there though. Having to elbow my way through the crowd is to me not the best way to enjoy browsing through books. For a more peaceful bookshop visit, I’d rather opt for WHS or Waterstones where the space is larger and a nice cafe is also lying inside.
Day 2 (Saturday 18/12)
I visited London Bridge in a foggy morning and thus could hardly see anything. The visit was boring anyway as the landscape around London Bridge was quite dull. Westminster Bridge is a much better choice.
St. Dunstan in the East Garden
Hailed as a hidden gem in London, St. Dunstan in the East Garden is a peaceful haven from the hustles and bustles of this city. St. Dunstan in the East Church was heavily destroyed during WWII. Its remains of walls now lie imposingly in the Church’s beautiful green garden. The mystical atmosphere of this place makes it a great spot for photographing!
Tower of London
* Ticket price: http://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/visit-us/tickets-and-prices/#gs.egcbNiQ
* Opening time: http://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/visit-us/opening-times/
There is no rating for this attraction simply because I only walked around the Tower rather than entering it (It was my London budget trip after all). The grand appearance of the Tower of London initially seemed too attractive for me to miss. However, the touristy atmosphere surrounding the Tower, the long queues at the ticket counter and the expensive ticket price really discouraged me.
Even when I could not afford entering the Tower, walking around that area was quite worth it. From there I could see the Tower Bridge at close distance. I could also read a little about the history of the Tower of London from the information points outside. In addition, statues of lions and other exotic beasts could be seen without entering the Tower. In the old days, those fierce animals were bestowed upon the King as gifts, and then caged inside the Tower. The King and other members of the royal family would then watch animal fighting as a form of entertainment. Imagine going back hundreds of years to stand in front of this very Tower at that time, you will need great courage to enter the Tower of London amid the roar of these lions.
Brick Lane tour by Unseen Tours (£12 / £8 concession)
I never intended to book a tour in London, but this one was an exception. It was also the only paid activity in my London budget trip that I did not regret paying for at all.
This Brick Lane tour was organised by Unseen Tours – a social enterprise who worked with homeless and ex-homeless people in London. Here are some reasons why their tours are so remarkable:
- They cover non-touristy areas in London that are no less impressive. If you’re keen on seeing London off the beaten track, these tours are definitely what you need to try.
- Tour guides are homeless people who have lived in their area for a long time. Therefore, they have sound knowledge of the ins and outs of their area. They can even tell you stories you will hardly find in a normal travel guide for tourists.
- They’re a social enterprise, so 60% of their profits go directly to the homeless.
- While the tour’s content is mostly about a specific area, the tour raises awareness about homelessness and other social problems in the UK as well.
my brick lane tour with pete
My tour around Brick Lane was with a funny and knowledgeable guide named Pete. Pete had an undergrad degree in Psychology and used to work in the advertising industry. Pete was very interested in street art, which made him the best tour guide in such an area full of street art displays as Brick Lane. Seriously, here you’d find street art not only on the walls, but also on the ground and on the rooftop as well. I was most impressed with a piece of art made by an anonymous artist. Using pieces of trash on the street, this talented artist created a whole figure of Santa Claus and his reindeer right next to the trash bin!
During this Brick Lane tour, Pete also told me interesting stories about Jack the Ripper – the famous serial killer who brutally murdered 7 women in the 19th century and never got caught. The tour was supposed to last for 1.5 hours, but Pete was willing to extend the time to tell us even more stories. We covered a wide variety of topics ranging from art, history, politics to social development. I felt much wiser after the tour! It was such a fulfilling tour that I decided to give it a rating of 5/5.
Unseen Tours also organises tours in other areas in London such as Camden, Shoreditch, London Bridge and so on. If you’re also someone who’s tired of having to elbow your way through the crowded city center of London, these tours will offer you an alternative experience that’s much deeper and more meaningful. Even when you’re travelling on a London budget trip, I still think this tour is even worthier than paying this same £8 amount for a pizza or something.
Brick Lane Market
Pete has a stall selling design masks, sunglasses and other accessories at Brick Lane Market. The best day to visit Brick Lane Market is Sunday. And I was so lucky to randomly pick a tour to Brick Lane on such a day when this market is most fabulous.
Brick Lane Market initially looked not so different from the market on Portobello Road. Yet after wandering around for like half an hour, I realised the vibe there was different. Brick Lane Market was somewhat more informal and folksy, although it was still quite well organised. A food lover myself, I again spent most of my time there checking out the food stalls at the London Artisan. In the end, I bought a box of Japanese food for dinner. It cost me £5 and was the cheapest option at the market that day. I then realised that being a foodie travelling on a London budget trip, it’s such a wrong decision to venture into places like this market. To be honest, the tasty dishes there were just too hard to resist.
Day 3 (Sunday 19/12)
Horse Guards Parade on Whitehall St.
* Date and timing: http://changing-guard.com/life-guard-schedule.html
Here are some tips for you to make the most of this experience. First, check the timing of the parade both on the website and on its Facebook page. The normal parade time can sometimes change and will show on the Facebook page if it does. For example, the ceremony was supposed to start at 11:00 on the Monday that I visited, but then it was changed to 10:00 instead! Second, secure yourself a better spot for photographing by arriving around 10-15 minutes early. There will be lots of tourists, all of whom are desperate for the best photos.
National Gallery (Free) + trafalgar square
* Opening time: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/visiting
The National Gallery is another wonderful free art collection in London. Though the building interior itself was not designed as grandly as the Wallace palace, the collection at the National Gallery was much larger. I spent two hours here going through the gorgeous artworks being displayed and still felt that was not enough!
The National Gallery is situated at Trafalgar Square. This area, known as Charing Cross, features beautiful statues and marvelous buildings with classical architecture. It’s great for a walk around!
Westminster Bridge and Big Ben
One of the main reasons for me to rush to London in this cold winter is because in early 2017, the Big Ben will be covered for maintenance for 3 years. The maintenance will cover up the clock dials and scaffold the Tower. No more Big Ben sightseeing to be done!
And I was totally not disappointed. Even in the foggiest afternoon of my stay in London, the Big Ben still appeared magnificent, striking, impressive, outstanding, etc. all the beautiful words I could think of to describe it. The best place to take a photo with the Big Ben is on Westminster Bridge. Though I normally boycotted typical-tourist activities, I also joined hundreds of other visitors to stand in the middle of Westminster Bridge for a cute photo with the Big Ben myself. Overall, this is definitely one of the highlights of my London budget trip!
Houses of Parliament (Free)
Despite careful research before my London budget trip, it was still initially unclear as to how I could enter the Houses of Parliament for free. It turned out the entrance for visitors would be a place called Cromwell Green. Upon getting there, I needed to inform the guard where I was planning to go (House of Lords / House of Commons). After waiting for some time in the queue, I was allowed in to watch the debate at the House of Lords. The security process would look like those at the airport, where you’d have to scan all your stuff and electronic devices. Then there was a long queue of around 25 more minutes at the public gallery before I could actually enter the House of Lords’ debate hall.
It was a great experience to sit at the beautiful hall of House of Lords and watch the ongoing debate beneath! There’s no time limit though, so I left after around 15 minutes. Of course no photography was allowed inside the House of Lords, so here’s the only photo I have of the gorgeous public gallery there.
National Portrait Gallery (Free)
* Opening time: http://www.npg.org.uk/visit/opening-hours.php
I know this attraction deserves a higher score. However, when compared to the National Gallery lying nearby, this National Portrait Gallery seems a bit less impressive. In addition, I had expected to find more photographs in this museum, but the majority of portraits there were actually paintings. With hindsight, I could have omitted this attraction in my London budget trip once I’d already visited the National Gallery nearby.
Other tips about having a London budget trip
- Know the weather before you go. I know it’s likely to be foggy every day anyway. Yet when it rains, and it does rain a lot in London, your visit will be ruined.
- Make a detailed itinerary to avoid unnecessary time on public transportation. I spent an incredible amount of time catching buses and trains to, from and between all my attractions. It’s definitely not a walking distance between Camden and Westminster Bridge, for instance. It’s best to make a list of all attractions you plan to visit. Then, group the ones that are close to each other together, so that you can easily decide which group to visit on which day.
- This tip actually comes from a local. If you’re here for London’s bustling Christmas atmosphere, you don’t have to go to Winter Wonderland! Although it’s the most heavily advertised Christmas market in London, it tends to be overpriced and overcrowded to a point that your visit will just be exhausting. There are many other smaller yet no less impressive Christmas markets around London for you.
- Food markets in London are the best. And I’m not saying this just because I’m a food lover.
- Lower your expectations for breathtaking photos of London’s landscape and attractions. On the internet, photos of Little Venice, London Bridge or the Thames river might look spectacular. Yet when you’re really there on a dark gloomy day in December like I did, it definitely will not look the same. Moreover, during winter time it gets dark already at 4, which makes it harder to take photographs of outdoor attractions in the late afternoon.
And to sum up…
Alright, so I hope my lengthy yet detailed post has given you some ideas of 14 free attractions in London (and some other paid ones). If you have already made a similar London budget trip, don’t hesitate to share you experiences with me by commenting below 🙂 Happy travelling!
Note: All photos and videos in this blog post are mine. Please mention this blog post when you share them. Thank you! 🙂
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PS. If you’re travelling to London with kids, I’d recommend checking out this list from The Wandermust Family so that it’s easier to plan your budgets :).