A frugal guide to London
One organic pineapple-mint juice, one small bottle of water: $12.50. Granted, my friend and I were kicking back in Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden in London. Not a low-rent district by any stretch. Even so, 6.50 pounds for two nonalcoholic drinks that, metrically speaking, couldn’t weigh more than a milligram?
With a weak dollar against the pound and London rated the second-most-expensive city in the world (surpassed only by Tokyo) according to some statistics, why would anyone want to visit? Answer: The cultural attractions are first-rate, the Chinese food is better than New York City’s, and airfares are cheap. I purchased a round-trip ticket on Continental from New Orleans to London for $500 for travel in June. Rather than forgo a vacation to this European capital city, here are a few tips that’ll help your bank account survive the trip.
Ride a bus. Buses may be slow; after all, this is a city of 8 million. But from the top of a double decker, you see a lot of London for the £1.20 fare (the Tube is double that). With an Oyster Card, the fare is capped at £3 per day (for the Tube it is capped at £4.70) off peak, no matter how often you ride. Save on the Tube by purchasing a day pass (£4.70) or a seven-day pass (£21.40). Family passes are also available.
Take advantage of what’s free. Among free attractions is the British Library, where you can see Shakespeare’s mortgage, lyrics written by John Lennon, the Gutenberg Bible and the Beowulf manuscript. Other heavies that are freebies: the British Museum, National Gallery, Tate Modern, Wallace Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Geffrye Museum. The list is exhaustive. If your sights are set on paid attractions such as Hampton Court Palace (£11.30), Kew Gardens (£7.50), the Tower of London (£13.50) or Vinopolis, a sort of wine-tasting museum that offers tours and packages (£19), buy the London Pass. Adult passes start at £27, and bus/Tube passes are included.
Walk. London is a walker’s city. In the City of London, the Roman London, on a short walk, I discovered underground tunnels, small alleys, hidden Victorian markets and tiny churches. Visit Portobello Road or Camden on the right days and you can walk through their markets. Stroll London’s parks such as Hyde Park. Take a walking tour with London Walks and you’ll learn, too. A two-hour walk/history lesson is £5.50. Some themed walks are “Darkest Victorian London,” “Jack the Ripper Haunts,” “The Beatles” and “Christopher Wren’s London.”
Be creative. Rooms at the stylish Claridge’s are approximately £400 per night. Experience the hotel by taking tea there, £27.50. Tickets for the Royal Opera are typically upward of £50, but you can snag a cheap look. The Backstage Tour gets you a guided 90 minutes of opera-history lessons as well as a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the costume rooms, the Royal Box and others areas generally not accessible to the public. You may even see the Royal Ballet practicing. Price: £8.
Eat ethnic food/eat in a pub. Go Turkish in Dalston. Try Chinese noodle dishes or crispy duck at one of the many places in Leicester Square or in Bayswater. A plate of Singapore fried noodles: £4. Kebab places abound in East London. A kebab may only set you back £3. Some pubs offer cheap grub. Sunday roast is a tradition at a pub and typically costs £10 (for London, that’s a bargain).
Go local. Wander outside the central districts of London, and it’s like leaving the pricey, touristy French Quarter and discovering London’s version of Faubourg Marigny or Bywater. East London has the stellar Geffrye Museum (free, remember?). Then there are the less touristy neighborhoods, like Stoke Newington, Angel and Shoreditch (Hoxton Square is a cool bar hub), more suitable for a 20s-to-40s crowd.
Get more than you paid for. The Crowne Plaza The City Hotel puts you near East London and near the Thames, in the middle of Roman London, which is a 15-minute walk to Covent Garden. The Crowne Plaza is more hip and boutiquey than what Americans typically associate with this hotel brand. It also has a branch of Chelsea’s famous 606 Club. At the Hyatt Regency London/The Churchill, you get access to Portman Square across the street (tennis courts); a new package, which starts at £185, gets you two tickets to the Churchill Museum, a bottle of Pol Roger champagne (Churchill’s favorite), a full English breakfast and other items. The Sherlock Holmes Hotel has copies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle books in the top drawer rather than Bibles. Weekend rates start at £99, and it’s a two-minute walk to the shopping hub of Oxford Street.
By the way, after we slurped down our drinks, Artur and I wandered to Neal’s Yard Dairy, a famous cheese shop. The counter people there were handing out free slices. We bought a chunk of Westcombe cheddar and a baguette and wandered past the Royal Opera House and had a sunny picnic. Cost for two: £5. •