You don’t have to be the Queen of England to have a great time in London. Check out our list of great things to do in the UK’s vibrant capital for less than £20.
We would love to hear your own tips in the comments.
Street Art Tours
Photo: Street Art London
There are all kinds of tours that you can take for under £20 in London, including tours of the city’s famous literary pubs (londonliterarypubcrawl.com) and even Harry Potter tours. But possibly our favourites are the Street Art tours of London’s East End (streetartlondon.co.uk). The new home of London’s creative community is a magnet for graffiti artists and the walls are covered in paint. The tours will show you some of the best.
Catch a gig in a record store
While there are no shortage of great venues to see a band or DJ in London for less than £20, one of the most interesting and intimate ways to do it is to see a gig at a record store. Rough Trade is probably London’s most famous independent record store (with attached record label) and you can find their in-store listings here.
If you like your music electronic, Phonica on Poland Street is one of the last great independent dance music shops left in the city and has an unparalleled range of vinyl, as well as in-store performances by top DJs (including Four Tet, Simian Mobile Disco and Josh Wink in 2012). Many of the world’s most respected DJs make the pilgrimage when in London.
East End markets…
Photo: Garry Knight
London’s markets are part of a tradition dating back for many centuries. Some, like Camden Market in North London, have become massively popular with tourists, but the markets in the East End of London are still largely populated by Londoners.
The markets are overflowing with interesting vintage clothes and affordable original designs. You don’t even need to buy anything to enjoy the authentic atmosphere. The food around Brick Lane is legendary and reflects the many immigrant communities that call the area home.
Some of the best are Broadway Market (Saturday), Brick Lane Market (Sunday) and Spitalfields Market (Sunday). Check out this map.
…and charity shops
If you are willing to sort through the junk, you can find some incredible bargains in London’s charity shops. As the name suggests, charity shops are shops set up by charities. They collect and sell people’s unwanted goods, including clothes, music, instruments, furniture… everything under the sun.
Many of the clothes on offer are frankly horrible, but you find the occasional gem and the prices are excellent compared to buying new stuff from international chains. If you are a music collector, charity shops are a fantastic place to dig through boxes of old vinyl records. What’s more, you will be supporting local charities with your purchases.
You need a bit of good fortune with charity shops because the stock depends entirely on what has been donated. Arrive on the right day and you can strike gold.
Traditional ale in a traditional pub
While it is increasingly rare to find a pint of lager under £4 in Central London, real ales are often a little cheaper and offer an authentic taste of Britain. They also have fantastic names like Bishop’s Finger, Boondoggle and Cocker Hoop. For an authentic way to enjoy them in the same pubs as legendary Londoners of the past, you can find pubs around the city that can trace their history back for 400 years or more.
Santi Brea from British Study Centres in Central London recommends The George Inn next to Borough Market in London Bridge (pictured). It’s one of the oldest pubs in town and once counted Charles Dickens among its regulars.
Museums & Galleries
If you enjoy spending an afternoon in the company of Monet, Van Gogh, Magritte and friends, London’s galleries await. There are dinosaur skeletons in the Natural History Museum, Egyptian mummies and controversial marbles in the British Museum, modern art at the Tate… simply take your pick of free museums and galleries. See our London Tips for more.
Fish & Chips
Santi from British Study Centres recommends The Golden Hind at 73 Marylebone Lane for fish and chips: “This place is good for several reasons… it is minutes away from our school in London, it has been serving fish and ships for 100 years and it allows you to bring your own wine!”
Enjoy the view…
Some cities are carefully planned masterpieces. London, on the other hand, is a chaotic mix of everything, with an ever-evolving skyline to show for it.
One of the best places to enjoy the view is from Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath, from where you can see all over London. It is a lovely spot for a picnic or swimming during the day (see below) but particularly spectacular at night, when the city lights twinkle for as far as the eye can see. Just after sunset is probably the best time to go as Hampstead Heath at night is a popular gay cruising spot.
Alternatively, the new(ish) Emirates Air Line in East London is a cable car that runs high above the Thames. A single journey costs £4.30 or less with an Oyster Card.
…and high tea
Photo: David Ooms
In the city centre, the galleries also offer some of the best views of town. The restaurant at the Tate Modern is popular not just for its excellent food, but for the fantastic views across the Thames to St Pauls Cathedral. High tea can be yours from 15.00–17.30 for under £5 (tate.org.uk). There are also a couple of cafes to enjoy.
The restaurant at the top of the National Portrait Gallery offers traditional High Tea from 15.30–16.45 for £19.95, but you may be content with a cup of tea and scones for £7.50 (npg.org.uk). Be sure to get a table by the window!
Go swimming in the open air
London’s parks are famous, but its swimming pools are a well-kept secret.
The Serpentine in Hyde Park is an oasis of calm in the heart of the city. Harrods is just a short walk away, but entry to the cordoned-off swimming area costs less than “a fiver” (£5). On Hampstead Heath there are three swimming ponds: men’s, women’s and mixed, along with a stylish art deco lido on Parliament Hill. The ponds are open all year round and you will see brave swimmers there during the winter months!
Elsewhere, a number of open-air lidos offer cheap swimming in art deco surroundings.
Watch the street performers in Covent Garden
Covent Garden is a top place to shop and pick up souvenirs. If you have spent all of your money, you can still enjoy yourself watching the street performers who fight for your attention (and donations). If you are on a really tight budget you can watch the performance and then run away at the first sign of an upturned hat, although if you have enjoyed it, you really should donate.
If all else fails, head to the coast
On the off-chance you get bored in one of the world’s greatest cities, you can get to Brighton and back on the National Express coach for just £10 if you book in advance, leaving you enough for fish and chips on the beach and a tasty drink in the sunshine.
That’s not 10, not 11… but 12 great things to do in the British capital for under £20! Find out more about an English course in London here and share your tips for Britain’s pulsating capital city in the comments below.
Thanks to Santi Brea for the help with this article.