Eclectic, vibrant, edgy, modern, royal, expensive – those are the kind of words that come to my mind when I think about London. Living in Glasgow now and Berlin a few years ago, I noticed that while young creatives still flock to London for inspiration and to be part of the London crowd, many of them also flee the city and it’s soaring costs of living.
I visited London last summer to meet up with my blog friends from Travelettes and was shocked at the Aibnb prices, the cost of breakfasts and lattes and just how much they charge you for a single ride on the tube… Living on a modest student budget since I thought my next trip to London would not happen in a while, I could simply not afford spending so much money in just one weekend. However, when I recently got invited to review the MEININGER Hotel ‘Hyde Park’ for Travelettes I thought – why not prove that you can do London on a budget?
And you know what I found out? With the right amount of planning, thinking ahead and spending wisely, you can actually go do London without breaking the bank. Here is my 48h city guide to London on a budget including loads of tips for free and cheap things to do.
Want more? Check out these 40 things to do in London.
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Getting to & around London
I arrived in London by train because not only was my £60 return ticket super cheap, it was also convenient to be dropped off in the middle of the city, rather than spending 1-2 hours getting from the airport to my accommodation.
Where to stay in London on a budget
When I was travelling to London in a group, renting an Airbnb in a cool East London area like Bethnal Green was the perfect budget solution – seeing that we split the costs and saved additional money when preparing breakfast at home, or home cooking one of our dinners.
But if you travel on your own a hotel or hostel could be a much cheaper option! This time I stayed in a budget hotel called Meininger Hotel ‘Hyde Park’ which is part of the MEININGER Hotels group and is located in South Kensington, just across the road from the famous Natural History Museum. You can read my full hotel review on Travelettes, but let me just assure you that I thoroughly enjoyed the service at the hotel and even more so the view from my 5th-floor twin room. The hotel offers twin rooms from £39 per person and dorm beds from incredible £14 per bed. Its location is great for sightseeing in West & Central London, but with the tube station just a stone’s throw away you can even reach East London neighbourhoods and markets within half an hour or so.
You can book Meininger Hotel ‘Hyde Park here.
Day 1 in London: Arrive & Spend the Evening
Budget Dinner at Borough Market
After checking in, it was time for an early dinner at Borough Market – careful, it closes at 5pm! This is probably THE best market for foodies and it’s a pleasure to see and taste your way through the various delicacies. I scored one of the last potato & onion boureks at one of the food stalls for just a few pounds and a £1 cup of fresh juice. Food in hand I made my way towards the River Thames. Nothing better than an al fresco dinner by the riverside.
Sunset at View from the Shard
As I had laid out my budget neatly before the trip and researched plenty of budget eateries and free things to do, I treated myself to one not-so-budget activity – watching the golden sunset from View from the Shard. There are two viewing platforms on the 69th and 72nd floor of the Shard which is the tallest building in London. On both you get a 360-degree view of London and watching how the sun dips the entire city in a golden hue is just the prettiest way to end your first day in London. Tickets can be booked in advance (that’s cheaper) and are £21 for students (£26 standard price).
I highly recommend booking your tickets for View from the Shard in advance to save time – you’ll need it to explore more of London!
Day 2: Exploring East London
As I’m not big on traditional sightseeing I decided to spend the second day of my time in London exploring the (in)famous neighbourhoods of East London. It was Sunday, which means market day – even more reasons to head East.
The initial plan was to witness a gorgeous sunrise from Millennium Bridge, however, the tube didn’t start running until 6.30am when all the magic would be long over. My commitment to the sun wasn’t big enough to take night buses which would take twice as long, so the sunrise plans will have to wait until I’m in London mid-week when the tube starts earlier.
Early Morning Sightseeing
I still rose incredibly early, because I wanted to swing by St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge anyway before heading East for breakfast.
It was amazing to see London at this time of the day. Except for a few runners and families, there was hardly anybody in the streets. The sun was already strong enough to warm my face and hands, and the light was ridiculously beautiful.
Breakfast at The Breakfast Club
I hopped on a bus (great way of sightseeing by the way) and got off at Liverpool Street station. I had quickly researched some of the top breakfast spots in the area and found that The Breakfast Club has a branch just off the station in Artillery Lane. I had heard of it before – but always in combination with stories of queues that wound around the block. As it was 9 am on a Sunday – long before the hungover hipster crowds emerge from their broken sleep – I scored a table for one without a problem. I love a good breakfast and am happy to spend a little more if it means that I don’t have to eat for several hours. The breakfast at the Breakfast Club is not necessarily cheap, but the mountain of avocado on top of my toast and the delicious oat-fruit smoothie did their job very well! By the time I left, there was a queue forming already – lucky me!
They have plenty of vegan options too!
Free Street Art Walking Tour around Brick Lane
East London is world famous for its street art and when I researched free walking tours around the area, I stumbled upon a tip-based street art and graffiti tour of East London offered by Free Tours by Foot London. Our guide Jess took us around the little lanes and side streets of Brick Lane, told us the background of some of the most famous murals and artists of the area and explained everything we needed to know about the relation between street art and real estate speculation. It was a fantastic 2h tour which ended smack bang in the middle of Brick Lane Market and I ended up tipping Jess £15 – a great deal for such a cool activity!
If you want to explore on your own, check out this Shoreditch street art guide.
Exploring Brick Lane Market & Columbia Road Flower Market
Sunday is market day in East London. Brick Lane Market is awesome for vintage fashion and accessories and of course food. I needed a little break away from it all and found a little sanctuary in the rooftop terrace of Fika London, a Swedish cafe right on Brick Lane. I had a good rest, a delicious soup and took some time to recap on the morning’s adventures. (Update 09/2017: Unfortunately Fika has closed its doors permanently.)
My next stop was Columbia Road Flower Market, which I had visited before – in the pouring rain. This time the sun was out and I only a 15-minute stroll away. Long before getting to the market, I joined in with the crowds heading in the same direction, marvelling at the flower bouquets oncoming people had in their hands. I was in for a treat. The flower market is a local favourite because you get great deals on bouquets and potted plants, but is also popular for visitors, because it delivers a real East London experiences. The stall keepers shout their offers in the most beautiful Hackney accents and everybody calls you ‘Love’. When you’ve had enough, duck into one of the many backyard cafes or walk further to Hackney Road for more quiet cafes.
Sunset in Hyde Park
After 8 hours on my feet, I decided to leave East London behind and head back to South Kensington, take a wee break in my hotel bed and then head out to Hyde Park for an end-of-day stroll.
Here you can find more inspiration for parks & outdoor attractions in London.
Dinner at Comptoir Libanais
When I researched a few budget eateries in the area of my hotel I stumbled upon Comptoir Libanais, which is actually more like a chain. I liked the sound of a tasty shakshuka or tagine so I decided to check it out for my second dinner in town – and can now highly recommend it!
Day 3: West London & Notting Hill
For my final day in London, I wanted to get a cuteness overload and decided to make my way to Notting Hill. I had never been to the area and even though I’m not a fan of the Notting Hill film, I was intrigued by the many photos of pastel houses I saw on Pinterest.
Breakfast at Raoul’s
I started early again and took the bus up north. First stop: Raoul’s cafe for a
healthy amazing breakfast of French toast and banana smoothies.
Self Guided Walking Tour
I had seen so many pictures of cute houses and lovely lanes in Notting Hill on Pinterest and on other blogs, but to my huge disappointment, nobody cared to share which streets these hidden gems are on exactly… If you have all day, crisscrossing all the roads and lanes of Notting Hill in search of the perfect photo op might not be hard, and admittedly there is NO way that you won’t bump into a few adorable houses even without a plan, but I thought I’d still sum up some of my favourite streets to walk down:
Powis Square (oh the trees!), Colville Terrace, Colville Houses
Portobello Road, mainly for the market
Kensington Road and side streets
Uxbridge Street, Hillgate Place and anything in between
I’m sure I also missed some amazing houses and lanes, but I only had two hours before I had to catch my train back home… Still, I fell in love with Notting Hill as soon as I lay my eye on the first few pastel coloured houses. For a Monday morning stroll, this was the perfect area!
More Tips for London on a budget
Get an Oyster card to use for public transport. It saves time and money!
Book as much as you can in advance. UK train tickets are usually cheapest 3-10 weeks prior to travel and can be a great alternative to air travel – especially because you avoid the long journey into town from an airport.
Visit one of the many free museums (including the Natural History Museum and V&A Museum)!
Do your homework and prepare lists of budget restaurants in the areas that interest you. Finding a cheap eatery on the spot when you’re hungry can be a challenge.
And if you have more time at hand, here are some suggestions for great day trips from London.
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.