It’s a bit of an open secret that London, on par with other global metropolises, is an expensive city to visit. Once you add up the cost of accommodation, food and entry into London’s attractions, it’s not unheard of to spend over £200 per person a day. For those looking for a budget London experience, though, it’s still possible. There’s many free London attractions, including some of my favourite London walks. Here’s how to do 3 days in London on the cheap.
3 days in London: Day 1
On your first day in London, pick up an Oyster card (and a Tube map – you’ll need it later!) and jump on the No. 15 bus (cost: £1.50), which winds its way past a few of London’s most popular attractions, like the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Strand. Take the bus east-west and ride it all the way to its terminus at Charing Cross. From here, walk over to Trafalgar Square, where you can take in the sight of Admiral Nelson on his column and his four steadfast lions guarding the base. The National Gallery is also here, housing famous artworks – there are two daily free tours at 11:30am and 2:30pm.
From here, take a 20-30 minute slow walk down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace, taking the time to stop and smell the roses in St James Park on the way. The park has a beautiful garden dedicated to the late Princess Diana, and deck chairs dot the lawns in the summer months. There are some stunning views of the Palace from here. It costs £23 per person to enter the palace when it’s open for public viewing – save your pennies and enjoy the views of Buckingham from the outside instead.
Once you’ve taken some photos, cut across Green Park towards the Tube and jump on the Jubilee line, towards Bond Street (cost: £2.90). Put your shopping shoes on for a few hours of shopping along Oxford Street. You’ll find every high street brand under the sun in this area – look out for end of season sales, when everything is heavily discounted. To give your legs a break, hop on the tube at Oxford Street Station and ride the Bakerloo down to Piccadilly Circus, with its famous jumbotron screen and theatres. The area around Piccadilly and Leicester Square is filled with cafes and pubs and is good for a wander. At Leicester Square, pick up discounted same day West End tickets for the night from the TKTS booth.
3 days in London: Day 2
On the second of your 3 days in London, you’ll be mostly outdoors, so swap your days around or delay it if the weather isn’t fine. There’s also going to be a lot of walking, so wear comfortable shoes!
Start at the Tower of London – entry is £21.50 if you book online. The Tower is chockful of history and also houses the Crown Jewels, which are worth a gander at. The Yeomen of the Guard run regular tours of the Tower, the cost of which is included in the price of your ticket.
From the Tower, walk west towards Monument, exploring the narrow streets as you go. This area is where London was first founded, and you’ll find some of the city’s oldest, as well as its newest buildings here. Also nearby is Leadenhall Markets, which stood in for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books.
The Monument to the Great Fire was built after the sweeping fire of 1666 raged through London’s streets – now, the monument offers great views of the river Thames and Tower Bridge, and London’s skyline, including the Shard and the Gherkin, two of London’s most iconic buildings. The cost? A paltry £4.50 per person, a bargain compared to a London Eye ticket at £23. The downside, of course, is that you’ll have to power your own climb up Monument’s 311 steps.
Afterwards, cross London Bridge by bus and get off just after your cross the water. Head to Borough Markets, where a smorgasbord of food awaits. There’s hand dived scallops, fresh oysters, chorizo sandwiches, seasonal fruit, artisanal bread, local cheese, strong coffee, cold pork pies, baked goods aplenty for you to graze on. If the weather is nice, have your feast in the grounds of Southwark Cathedral or walk towards the Thames and find a riverside spot for a picnic.
Keeping the river on your right, walk along London’s South Bank, passing by Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern (entry is free). Take a detour here and walk over the Millennium Bridge towards the blue dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, a graceful church built by Sir Christopher Wren. Continuing along the South Bank, you’ll pass the National Theatre, an underground skate park, a book fair, food trucks, and a vintage carousel. There’s also the Jubilee Gardens and the London Eye, and finally, the Houses of Parliament, and Big Ben. If your cross Westminster Bridge you’ll also be able to visit Westminster Abbey, where royal weddings and statesmen burials have been held for centuries.
If you’re still filled with energy in the evening and night, take a specialised interest walking tour. While bus group tours can be expensive, walking tours are a great way of seeing London, especially at night. London Walking Tours has a wide range of £10 tours to suit any interest – some of their most popular include secret sights on their Hidden London tour, and their Jack the Ripper night walks, which revisits the sites of London’s famed serial killer. Free Tours by Foot offers tours on a donation basis, including one for Muggles looking to visit Harry Potter filming sites in London.
3 Days in London: Day 3
Day 3 is reserved for indoor pursuits, like exploring the world-class exhibits at the (free or a £5 donation) British Museum. There are daily free tours, each focused on a particular topic, for example Greek artefacts or the history of money, or you can embark on the 90 minute Around the World Tour, an enlightening tour taking in the Museum’s greatest treasures – £12 per person.
Catch the Piccadilly line from Russell Square tube station to Kings Cross Station, where Potterheads can take a photo at Platform 9 ¾ and architectural buffs can marvel at the station’s new Gothic façade. From Kings Cross you have multiple options – taking the Northern line you will find yourself in Camden, a cool, hipster-ish area with lots of street stalls and local colour. There’s not much to see or do here but it’s a great spot for people watching. There’s a lovely canal walk from Camden all the way to Regent’s Lock, which is a great way of spending a fine day.
If the weather isn’t cooperating, jump on the Piccadilly again and head south west instead. Spend a few hours in the Natural History Museum. Designers and artists may be more drawn to the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is just up the road. Once the sun comes back out, pick up the Circle or District line towards Notting Hill Gate, and end your 3 day adventure in London by exploring the pretty, quiet streets in Notting Hill. On weekends, Portobello Markets are held on the streets, selling bric brac and antiques – it’s always good for a wander and some people watching.
3 days in London: How to visit London on the cheap
Look for budget accommodation in London
The main factor driving up the cost of visiting London? Hotel bills. Find a budget London accommodation and you’re well on the way to cutting down how much you spend in London. With that in mind, these recommendations are for budget London accommodation options that come in at or under £60 a night for a double room.
The Queens Head Guesthouse, in Islington, offers 3 modern double rooms and a shared bathroom for about £55 per night in an excellent location. There are plenty of buses and guests can walk to Angel tube. Kings Cross train station is a short 13 minute journey away by bus.
If you don’t mind sharing a room with strangers or if you are travelling as a group, Wombat’s City Hostel is a fabulous budget London hotel to hang your hat at. A bunk in one of the minimalist, all-white dorm rooms starts from only £26 per person per night. Each bed has its’ own keycard locker, USB ports and power points. The common areas at Wombat’s are fun and modern, with a kitchen for self-catering, which means you can save more money by cooking, and the location, right near Tower Hill, is hard to beat for the price point.
Another hostel that’s in a great location with comfortable rooms is the Via Hostel, located near the Limehouse Marina in London’s east. Rooms in their 12 bunk dorm room start from just £13 but if you have a little bit more budget to burn, book one of their twin or single rooms with private bathroom for just £60 a night. Although the hostel doesn’t offer a self-serve kitchen, the Limehouse DLR is close by for easy access to Central London.
Get an Oyster card and wear comfy shoes
You’ll be walking a lot while in London, whether you’re on a tight budget or not, so comfy shoes and strong legs are a must! Oyster cards work on the Tube or buses (you’ll need to get a separate train ticket if you catch a train). You can pick up an Oyster at any Tube station in London. As most people fly into Heathrow, the easiest thing to do is to pick up an Oyster card at the Heathrow tube station. The £5 you pay is refundable when you return your Oyster on your departure from London.
Here’s a few local tips: Buses are much cheaper than the Tube, so to save money while visiting London, hop on a bus instead. It’s cheaper and more scenic! Also, don’t take the Heathrow Express (£22 per person). Haul your luggage onto the Tube and catch the Piccadilly line instead, which is what the locals do – for a quarter of the cost (but four times the amount of time) the Piccadilly will take you into Central London.
Do your research
While London may be expensive, there is a wealth of free or cheap things to do in London. It pays to do your research well in advance. Most museums are donations-basis, or free to visit in London, and of course all the attractions can be seen for free from the outside. You could purchase a 1 day, 2 day or 3 day London Pass, but my personal view is that you’ll never see it all anyway. If you choose just 2 or 3 paid-entry attractions you’re really excited about seeing, you’ll end up less fatigued, and you’ll also save some cash.
For discounts on everything from afternoon tea at the British Museum (£34 for 2 people) or a day trip to the Cotswolds for £44 per person including lunch, sign up to Groupon and choose your own discounted London experience.
Other money saving London ideas include buying cheap theatre tickets from the TKTS booth in Leicester Square, making a picnic lunch from the fresh food from Tesco, Boots or Pret A Manger, and cooking your own meals every now and again if possible. Booking train tickets early and online will generally save you about 10% off the full price, plus it saves you a little queuing time. If you’re planning to take a lot of train trips over a year you should also look into getting a Railcard, which will let you save 33% off full price train tickets for a membership fee.