London and I weren’t talking for a while in the ‘90s and 2000s when the Canadian rupee was consistently languishing at nearly a third the value of the pound. But somehow I kept being drawn to this immense locus of culture and history. At the time of writing, our shitty dollar sits at exactly half of sterling—which still sucks—but London does not have to be expensive. Honest.
You’ll be amazed at all that’s free
Courtesy of centuries-long colonialism, London boasts many of the world’s finest museums and art galleries. Sure, the sun may have set on the empire but the imperialists plundered aplenty before it got too dark. Today, as meagre amends to the world, those collections are free for all Her Majesty’s subjects, plus any visitors to her green and pleasant land.
Yes, absolutely free. Signs encourage you to donate at the entrances to the British Museum, Victoria & Albert, Tate Gallery, National Gallery, Natural History Museum, Museum of London and many other free treasure troves—just like signs command you to drive the speed limit in Quebec.
Even the most touristy activities needn’t break you. Take London’s theatre scene; it’s rivaled only by Broadway. Kiosks near Leicester Square sell same-day tickets for plays in the west end at half price, often cheaper if you’re truly last minute. There’s plenty of garbage telling the story of long-forgotten ‘60s combos in the magic of song—but also lots of stupendous heart-stopping live theatre with A-list actors.
Truly budget conscious? For £5 you can see a four-hour Shakespeare play at the Globe Theatre from the standing section in front of the stage. That’s where the rabble would hang, back in the day. And, in classic English rabble style, you can get a beer in media res while Hamlet’s complaining about life.
The Underground, aka tube, is your best bet, but is rigged to ruin tourists buying individual trips. If you’re planning to be in London longer than a day, get an Oyster Card (albeit a disgusting name but a travel essential nonetheless) and spend five minutes learning how to use it.
Unlike Rome or Amsterdam, much of London isn’t great for strolling. Blitzed neighbourhoods were replaced in the ‘50s with eyesores ugly enough to rival a Bucharest shopping plaza—or even Toronto’s waterfront. Plus there’s the issue of adjusting to traffic on the left. Think twice. Every year, bucket loads of freshly jetlagged Americans are hospitalized on their first day of vacation because they weren’t looking the right way. “Smart” phones have made it worse.
Dangers and architectural abortions aside, central London is magical for getting lost in. And since the introduction of the congestion charge in 2003, the streets and air in central London have cleared up significantly. These days, walking in Zone 1 is an absolute pleasure. The Old Smoke just isn’t all that smoky any more.
Which gets us to the issue of cars.
Driving in the UK is a thrill. Most cars still feature standard transmissions, so you need to shift with the wrong hand, a bizarre and fun adjustment. Plus the roads are narrow and rarely straight. So you not only get a workout but a great sense of speed, even in lower gears. Driving in London, however, is an intrepid new level of suicidal-stupid. Do so at your peril. Even if you’ve rented a car for several days, consider parking it for your entire stay.
Eating & Sleeping Well
The popular stereotype of British food being bland has been bullshit for thirty years. London boasts two of the top 20 restaurants in the world (just making a point—you won’t be going there). Paris, the self-styled gastronomic centre of the Earth, has one. It’s the very blandness of Britain’s traditional cuisine that made it so easy for the Britons to embrace, promote and crossbreed other cookeries from all around the world.
Competition is rampant. So, in truth, it’s hard to find lousy food in London these days. Good, cheap take-away is everywhere. Currie houses and Chinese restaurants are still common enough to keep the prices honest. And the sandwiches at Marks and Spencer are sensational.
Hotels are crazy expensive, even the vilest fleapits. Consider alternatives like AirBnB or even a youth hostel. If you have friends who let you crash at their place, buy them a very good gift.
If you’re on a wicked budget but have one of those unlimited rail passes, take on London in shifts. Daytrip from nearby visit-worthy centres like Oxford, Brighton or Bristol. (Many workers commute from these cities, so you’re getting a local experience.) If you’re flying in and out of London, bookend your first and final days there. It’s a highly concentrated town and you can get a lot done, just a few hours at a time.
Avoid Being a Ripped-Off Tourist
Eschew “haunted” buildings, torture museums and anything with a Ripley’s logo on it. Skip Ye Olde Fishe n Chippe Shoppes; they’ll taste the same as those at your local mall but cost five times as much.
Lastly, if you’ve ever been in a plane or a tall building, you don’t need to go on the London Eye. It’s a slow and overpriced escalator to nowhere and, unlike skyward cities like Manhattan or Beijing, London’s grandest architecture is horizontal and best appreciated from the ground. Instead, for a commanding panorama of sprawling London, use your disgusting-sounding Oyster card to take the Northern Line to Hampstead station, then climb the hill on Hampstead Heath. It’s the best $40 you’ll never spend.