“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” said Samuel Johnson, and that’s all well and good, but I’m sure back in Samuel’s day London wasn’t so darn expensive as it is today. A recent study found that London now is the most expensive city in the world to live, with an average monthly rent for a 2-bedroomed property at £2,216 compared to £677 in the rest of Britain – and you wondered why I moved…!
However, Samuel continues,
“Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.”
With these words in mind, in this article I’m going to touch upon a few of my favourite things and places to see and do in London that require very little, other than open eyes and maybe if you’re peckish, a couple of quid for food.
Ridley Road Market, Dalston, East London
THE best place to buy the cheapest fruit and veg in London, and a great place to really witness its incredibly diverse multiculturalism. From African stalls selling salted fish, curried goat and delicious patties to stalls selling fresh eggs, meats and clothes, not to mention the fact you can arrive home with 6 huge avocado’s, a punnet of blueberry’s, raspberry’s, a bunch of bananas and a heap of kale bigger than your head for £3.00…
Columbia Road Flower Market, Hackney, East London
Open on a Sunday, Columbia Road turns into an oasis of flowers, plants and trees, not to mention a whole host of beautiful Victorian shops and independent galleries selling a plethora of hand-made goods, pottery and perfume (the list is endless). It’s like Portobello Market for the working man.
Once upon a time, Soho was notorious as being the epicentre for London’s sex and crime industries. Soho folklore states that the pubs of Soho were packed every night with drunken writers, poets and artists, many of whom never stayed sober long enough to become successful, and would wander drunkenly afterwards to ‘The White House’, a brothel described as being a ‘notorious place of ill-fame’. Nowadays, Soho has been completely gentrified, but you can still feel its past as you walk down its back alleys past book shops, record stores, tiny restaurants and independent clothes shops.
London has so many free parks, each offering something slightly different. Whether you’re staying in north, south, east or west London you’ll have a choice of parks to choose between. For more information check out my post London’s Best Parks.
The Barbican Complex
Designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon in the Brutalist style, The Barbican complex consists of a performing arts centre in the City of London (the largest of its kind in Europe) the museum of London, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, library and school for girls. I can’t help but gasp every time I walk into the complex and be astounded by its surreal beauty. Stepping inside the performing arts centre is like entering into the heart of an alien space craft; cascades of concrete weave in and out of themselves, broken up by sharp geometric shapes and boasts the most impressive concert hall I’ve ever seen. This is cubism in sculptural form. Make sure whilst you’re there to visit the Barbican Conservatory, the second biggest conservatory in London and the home to exotic fish and over 2,000 different species of plants! Some people call this building too ugly and Brutalist but I think it’s a hidden tropical oasis.
Less Touristy Museums
Though London is expensive in many ways for visitors, time and time again I hear how surprised those visitors are when they realise how many museums operate without an entrance fee. You could spend over a week in London without needing to pay for a single attraction if you’re a museum junkie. Since all the big establishments including the V&A, Tate Modern and Natural History Museum eclipse most of the smaller niche museums you may not have heard of, I recommend both the morbidly wonderful Hunterian Museum and Grant Museum of Zoology, as well as the unashamedly lavish Wallace Collection.
At the Wallace Collection with my oldest and and dearest friend, Verity.
The collection might be worth hundreds of millions, but it’s absolutely free to see it.
50% off at Itsu before closing time
When I first discovered this I felt like I had hit the jack-pot because the quality is pretty good and on-the-go sushi chains are comparatively pricey for the amount you get. But with this insider’s tip it’s definitely worth finding out where the nearest store is to you. I used to go there on an evening and buy an extra box to save it for lunch the following day. Doing this works well if you’re staying in self-catering accommodation or an Airbnb apartment. Most Itsu stores close at around 9pm so head there from 8pm onwards and earlier on a Sunday.
I bang on about Greenwich because that’s where I was living in London and I think it’s absolutely stunning by any standards. If you’re looking for somewhere to escape inner London’s oppressive crowds then here’s your answer; green, relaxing and extremely historical.
Granted this isn’t the place where you go for a night out, go to Dalston for a cheap and cheerful night on the town, or Clapham if you’re into pubs but it’s usually more expensive so you might want to bear that in mind. With its leafy suburbs and charming architecture, Greenwich is where you go if you’re looking for a mini-holiday away from London. So if you’re a visitor, you’ll be having a holiday within a holiday – now that’s what I call good value!
Also free in Greenwich is the former Queen’s house which now houses a wonderful art collection and contains the first example of a tulip staircase in the Britain. The decadence continues over at the magnificent Painted Hall, richly decorated in huge murals and has featured in many popular films including the Golden Compass, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Brit-classic, Four Weddings and a Funeral.
If your stomach is rumbling, head to Greenwich Market for global cuisine typically under £6. The only thing you’ll find difficult is choosing what to get because it all looks and smell so appetising. I make a bee-line for the Ethiopian stall almost every time, they do these deep-fried samosas filled with lentils which are utterly moreish, and there’s also a vegan stall that ticks a lot of boxes too. I like grabbing one of their veggie pots to eat in the park.
Getting food from the market and taking it to Greenwich Park where I can admire the view of London with a side of people-watching is my happy place.
I hope these suggestions come in handy for some of you. London should not alienate those restricted by their finances, as Mr Samuel Johnson said, “It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists”.
Before you go to London you should download deal apps for attractions and eating out. The ones I’ve used before are Frugl and Wriggle, you can type in your location and they’ll show what attractions are free near you and the best budget-friendly places to eat. If you’re looking for something more fancy download the Michelin Guide app where you can eat in some of London’s best restaurants at a special offer price. Needless to say I’ve done this on one or two occasions!