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8 Tips for Visiting London on a Budget

Yes, London is expensive. But there are workarounds to enjoying the best of the city—world-renowned art and architecture, standout pubs and restaurants, centuries-old traditions—without it costing a fortune. Just follow these eight tips and tricks for visiting London on a budget.

Invest in a Visitor Oyster Card

This pay-as-you-go smartcard is your key to the city’s public transport, and comes with some serious cash-saving perks. Each journey on the Tube (London’s subway system) using this card is 50% cheaper than what you would have paid with cash. Planning to cover a lot of ground during your marathon of sightseeing? The card maxes out at £6.50 per day, meaning every ride after that (on the same day) is free. And it’s not just good on the Tube: use your oyster card to take advantage of discounted fares on riverboats, or flash it at more than 40 restaurants and shops in town to score freebies like a complimentary cocktail or up to 20% off your bill.

Look into getting The London Pass

If you’re visiting London for the first time, or just checking off its famous landmarks, the London Pass is like gold. Pay a one-time fee, and you’ll gain access to over 60 tours and attractions—often for far less than standard admission. Planning to experience the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and a Thames River Boat Cruise (a total value of £64)? A one-day pass (£62 per adult) will have already saved you money—and that’s not counting anything else you may want to hit, from Tower Bridge to Shakespeare’s Globe to the London Zoo. The card also grants you Fast Track Entry, so you can skip those inevitably lengthy lines and move on with your day.

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Photos courtesy of Visit London

Take advantage of free museums

One of the most incredible things about London is its arsenal of world-class museums on art and history—many of which are completely free to enjoy. After taking in the grandeur of St. Paul’s Cathedral (where Charles and Princess Di tied the knot), head across the Millennium Bridge to Tate Modern, whose permanent collection of contemporary art includes pieces like Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych and whose new Herzog & de Meuron-designed extension features a 360-degree viewing deck on the top floor. For a bit more history, Trafalgar Square is home to both the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, where you can see works by famous British artists including J.W. Turner and Hans Holbein as well as international icons like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Before a round of shopping at Harrods in Chelsea, be sure to pop into the V&A Museum to see royal jewels, followed by dinosaur bones at the Natural History Museum just down the road.

RELATED: 42 Ways to See London for Free

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Day trips can be wallet-friendly

Between transportation, meals, and attractions, day trips outside major cities have a tendency to rack up the fees. But there are a few you can enjoy right within London’s city limits. A tube ride to Canary Wharf, followed by a short connection via the Docklands Light Railway, lands you in Maritime Greenwich, an outlying district of London and UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s home to some of the most significant symbols of English architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries. The Old Royal Naval College, designed by acclaimed English architect Christopher Wren, contains both the Painted Hall (beloved for its vast Baroque painted ceiling) and neoclassical Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul. The National Maritime Museum, also free to enter, recounts the tales of famous explorers using cartography and ship models. Head up the hill, through Greenwich Park, to the Royal Observatory, where, for £9.50 (£5 per child), you can straddle the Prime Meridian.

Have a London Pass? A half-hour train ride from Waterloo station arrives in Hampton Court, where you’ll gain free express entry to Hampton Court Palace, the former home of King Henry VIII. Costumed guides lead free tours through its hallowed halls and manicured gardens. Try your luck in the famous Maze, then head to the gift shop, where London Pass holders get a 10% discount.

RELATED: 6 Best Day Trips from London

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Get back to nature

Greater London is nearly twice the size of New York City, which allows for some gorgeous public spaces. Hyde Park is a grade-A picnic spot in central London, home to 350 acres of verdant meadows and flower gardens, stone monuments, and miles of walking trails. Stroll past Speakers’ Corner and the Old Police House before setting up your blanket by Serpentine Lake to watch curious geese or, during spring and summer, twosomes on paddle boats float by. You might consider Kensington Gardens, just adjacent to Hyde Park, the front lawn of Kensington Palace—Princess Diana’s former home. Admission is free to both Serpentine Galleries, renowned for their modern and contemporary exhibitions. If you’re near Buckingham Palace, you’ll likely run into the 57-acre St. James’s Park that extends eastward. The Blue Bridge, which crosses over the park’s small lake, home to ducks and a small population of pelicans, is a perfect spot for snapping photos of the distant palace façade or, in the other direction, St. James’s Palace and the London Eye.

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Photos courtesy of Visit London

Don’t miss out on free events

The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is a colorful, ceremonial spectacle that should be seen once in one’s lifetime. People several layers deep line the streets outside the palace to watch as the Old Guard, decked out in their iconic scarlet uniforms and tall black bearskin hats, pass over responsibility to the New Guard. All is accompanied by a flurry of music and pipers from a Regimental Band or Corps of Drums. (It’s recommended you arrive an hour early to secure a good standing spot.) Another age-old tradition is the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London, the ceremonial locking up of the tower, which has been enacted every night for the last 700 years. But be warned: though tickets are free, bookings are required for entry and fill up to a year in advance. Have a future politician in the family (or just love watching people verbally duke it out)? Anyone is allowed to sit in on a debate at the Houses of Parliament, be it in the Commons Chamber or Westminster Hall.

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Eat like a king; pay like a pauper

In the past few years, London has come into its own as a culinary capital, but if you’re looking to save, there’s more delectable food to be had for far less. Chip shops, found on many street corners and in London’s busier squares, are aplenty and a great way to dive into the English culinary scene. Pub food is also hard to beat on price—especially when daily specials are thrown into the mix (often with a free drink). The Anchor and Hope and The Canton Arms are well-loved for their low-lit atmospheres, fine ales, and hearty, reasonably priced entrées like duck confit and garlic pea risotto. For picnic fixings (or just a tiny taste of, well, anything), it’s time we introduced you to Borough Market. Right by London Bridge, the oldest food market in London is a labyrinth of shops and stalls where actual farmers hawk their own fresh fruits and vegetables as well as steaming street food. Go hungry—and go for every free sample. Stalls known for their generosity include Borough Olives and Neal’s Yard Dairy, where you’ll be presented with as many cheese varieties as you can stomach. A few more favorite stops: Bread Ahead for their pillowy doughnuts and breadsticks (a perfect on-the-go snack), Scotchtails for proper scotch eggs and too-temping-to-resist sweet potato fries, and Gelato 3BIS, where one bite of their inventive flavors, packed in cones filled with melted chocolate, will transport you straight to Rome.

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Sleep on the cheap

Trust us: while living in luxury can be swell, you don’t have to bunk up at The Savoy or The Dorchester to get the full London experience. After all, you’ll be hitting the pavement during most of your waking hours—why waste any more time in bed? London is well-known for its glitzy grande dames, but there’s also value hotels to be found if you’re willing to give up some creature comforts. The funky-hip Generator Hostel London couldn’t be more conveniently located—it’s just up the street from the British Library and King’s Cross—and has colorful dorm-style bunks if you’re a penny-pincher as well as private rooms if you’re not. And though it may be a little far from the center of town, we also love the Qbic Hotel London City for its free coffee and tea, buzzy bar, proximity to both Brick Lane (hello, thrift shops!) and Spitalfields Market, and that too-good-to-be-true price tag.

RELATED: Where to Stay in London for Under $250

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Photos courtesy of Qbic Hotels

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Top photos by Nikolas Koenig, bottom photo by Sinue Serra

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