Hopefully, every visitor to London knows that the city boasts plenty of free attractions—its top museums and galleries, for example. From a great lunch for less than a fiver to free screenings at the BFI and bargain fashions deals, here are some of our insider tips for getting the best bang for your buck in London.
Dine in Style
1. Borough Market
What started as a humble fruit and veg market 1,000 years ago has grown into London’s most famous food destination, with plenty of meal options for less than £5. At Borough Market, take your pick from more than 100 stalls serving everything from steaming hot pasta (La Tua Pasta) to hand-dived scallops stir-fry (Shellseekers). Check out Brindisa for griddled chorizo buns with red pepper and rocket and wash down with some hot mulled cider (New Forest Cider)
Loved by Londoners for its vast range of affordable restaurants, Chinatown is the place to go for a wallet-friendly taste of the Far East. There are almost 80 eateries here for your Szechuan, satay or stir-fry fix. While you’re in the area, check out the mini indoor markets for some fun Chinese souvenirs.
3. The Brass Rail at Selfridges
Opened in 1966 and recently refurbished, the salt beef bar in the food hall of renowned department store Selfridges is loved for the Brass Rail Reuben: This sandwich crams hot salt beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, gherkin and Russian dressing—it’s also available in half portions (£8.95). Get there before 11.30 am and you can enjoy one of the café’s new salt beef breakfast plates (most under £10), before heading upstairs for the sales.
4. Sketch Cream Tea
Dining at a Michelin-starred venue doesn’t have to be pricey. Though afternoon tea at stylish Sketch sets you back more than £40, traditional cream tea here is a mouth-watering £10.50. Enjoy scones with jam and clotted cream alongside freshly brewed tea. Enjoy it at The Parlour room with Louis XV seating and plush décor or The Glade room with an "enchanted forest" setting.
5. Brixton Village
Escape from the cold inside Brixton Village, a covered labyrinth of affordable restaurants with a warm, community atmosphere. KaoSarn is particularly good for authentic Thai curries, and you can bring your own alcohol, also known as ‘BYO’.
Tour The City
6. Black History Tour
How did Portobello Road get its name? What caused the 1958 anti-black riots? Find out on two-hour black history tours around London. You’ll learn about west London’s Black British civil rights movement, a revolutionary Jamaican in London who plotted to overthrow the government in the early 1800s, and visit a restaurant off Portobello Road in Notting Hill where Diana Ross, Bob Marley and the boxer Muhammad Ali hung out in the 1970s. Adult £8; child £3.
7. Graffiti tour
London has The British Museum, National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain (all free to enter), and it’s also a global leader in street art. But there’s more to the art than Banksy, as this London Graffiti and Street Art Tour shows. On the 2.5-hour tour, you’ll pass through London’s east end, including Liverpool Street, Brick Lane, The Old Jewish Quarter, trendy Shoreditch and Whitechapel—Jack the Ripper’s haunt. Pay what you want. Times and dates vary.
8. The Beatles Tour
Richard Porter is the author of a Beatles guide and the owner of a Beatles’ themed coffee shop. On his Beatles In My Life walk you’ll see the restaurant in “Help!”, John and Yoko’s apartment, and a location from “A Hard Day’s Night” by Marylebone station. On the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour, you’ll visit No. 3 Savile Row, where the legends played their last live performance on the roof. Abbey Road’s zebra crossing is on both tours, naturally. Adult £10.
9. Music Legends Tours
This 2-hour walking tour focuses on Camden Town’s rock and roll history. As you hear about the swinging '60s, emergence of punk and the rise and fall of Britpop, you’ll pass former Camden resident Amy Winehouse’s memorial statue and her favourite pub, the canal and Camden market. A busker on an acoustic guitar performs songs from Oasis, Sex Pistols, The Rolling Stones, Blur and Amy Winehouse throughout. Adult £10; child £8.
10. Fire of London tour
London has survived plagues, fire, air raids and terrorist bombs, yet still it keeps going. In the London’s Burning – A City Transformed tour, you’ll see monuments to heroes who saved the city during the Blitz and the fire of London in 1666. You’ll also pass churches that have been rebuilt or restored; the Guildhall Art Gallery, which survived both fires; and the last remaining bombsite in the City. Adult £7; child £6.
Lights, Camera, Action!
11. BFI Southbank
The BFI (British Film Institute) Southbank is a paradise for filmgoers. There are multiple screening rooms, of old and new films, plus the digital library Mediatheques, filled with thousands of old film and TV shows that you can view for free. The BFI has recently launched a new scheme for young people (25 years and under) so they can save on screenings, events and question-and-answer sessions.
12. Piccadilly Comedy Club
Comedy for £7.50? Bargain. Bag tickets to a Sunday show at Piccadilly Comedy Club London. You might see an Edinburgh Comedy Award nominee, stars of TV comedy shows, or simply upcoming stars of the future. The club also offers £10 tickets on Fridays and Saturdays, which include admission to the basement nightclub until 2 am.
13. Royal Court Theatre
Since 1956, The Royal Court Theatre has developed a reputation for cultivating new and established writers, with many of its productions going on national and international tours or transferring to the West End and Broadway. This year, the theatre celebrates its 60th anniversary with six world premieres, five UK and worldwide collaborations and a European premiere. Think you can’t afford tickets? Think again—the venue offers £10 tickets on Mondays. They’re released at 9 am online and 10 am from the box office.
14. Young Vic Theatre
Full-time students, or aged 25 or under, can benefit from £10 tickets at The Young Vic. Book ahead: January highlights include Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (to 23 Jan) in the Main House, reinvented with choreography by Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin. You can also catch Bull (to 9 Jan), a comical yet uncomfortable exploration of office bullying in “The Maria”, an intimate studio inside the theatre.
15. Get Into London Theatre
Running annually, this cut-price ticket festival runs for a fabulous six weeks: 1 January to 12 February. Find tickets for £10 on over 40 plays, musicals, opera and dance shows—with no booking or postage fees—making the theatre accessible to all. Highlights include "Guys & Dolls", "The Gruffalo" and "Tosca". Priority is given to MasterCard cardholders.
Dress For Less
17. Sample sales
Sample sales have been going for years, but it’s surprising that so few people know about them. Largely aimed at the label hunter, they’re a good way of getting a designer name a discounted price—sometimes up to 80 percent off. It usually costs a nominal fee to get in. Details of the latest sales often are available closer to the date, and can be found on sites such as Sample Sale Guide or Designer Sales for more details.
If your budget is more crucial than your time, Primark is for you. Oxford Street has two shops and both are big and busy with fast-fashion shoppers. Prices are low: coats start at £9, jumpers from £6 and pyjamas from £5. What Primark does best is offer basic clothing and budget prices—think vests, socks, rather than fashion-forward items. There are often very long queues for the changing rooms and the tills.
18. TK Maxx
Big names don’t have to come with big prices. TK Maxx is for the fashion-forward shopper. Menswear, womenswear, accessories and a handbag collection often include heavy discounts on designer. The shop began life in America in the 1970s, and only opened its first central London store in 2008. For £10 or less, you can buy shoes and shirts.
Charity shops have become a go-to place for the savvy label-loving shopper. The secret is to head for affluent neighbourhoods, with items to match. (The Beckhams have previously donated Victoria’s Jimmy Choo shoes, and David’s Dolce & Gabbana suits to the British Red Cross in Chelsea.) Oxfam has a range of boutiques, specialising in great-value designer gear. It’s not just big names—for under £10, second-hand items include basic clothing, games and crockery.
20. Beyond Retro
Vintage clothing has become increasingly popular, especially in East London. Beyond Retro is one of the most popular ones, with plenty of bargains on men’s and women’s clothing. There are 3 branches in London; when we last popped in there were lace gloves for £8, hats for £10, swimsuits for £9 and belts for £10.