Like all great things, my trip to London began on a whim. I booked my flight on Saturday and was off to the UK on Tuesday’s red-eye. I wasn’t expecting a vacation so my flight of fancy necessitated utter financial prudence. Of course, I still wanted to have a good time. With some research, and a little luck, I ended up with this frugal girl’s guide to London. I will share with you, dear readers, how to get the London experience—places to stay, eat, and play—on even the most sparing of budgets.
Oh, and what was bringing me to London on such a capricious holiday? Well, a boy—my manfriend (yes, manfriend) actually. We met while ex-pats abroad and he was going home for a couple weeks to remind his friends and family he still exists. I thought I might show them I exist too!
Well…to the guide!
London is home to some really cool boutique hostels like the Palmer’s Lodge and party hostels such as Generator Russell Square. If you’re really looking for a deal, check out Air BnB where there are some really great hosts with sweet locations. Let’s be honest, the goal is not to spend too much time in your room so just find a place that is conveniently located and you’ll have a great time!
I couldn’t come to the UK and not have a Chicken Tikka Masala! Located in the posh north London village of Hampstead, this welcoming Indian restaurant is the perfect indulgence after a day of walking in Hampstead Heath and window shopping along the high street. I learned new words and flavours that blew my mind and taste buds: Aloo Gobi Bhajee, Kashmiri, Chicken Chaat, lamb Samosa…my mouth is watering just thinking about them! The warm lighting, elegant décor and reasonable prices made this eatery inviting rather than stuffy. Bonus: the service was excellent—drinks on the house for our culinary audacity? Yes, please!
This bar’s inconspicuous location is marked only by a small bronze plaque engraved with a nightingale. Nightjar is a reincarnation of the Prohibition-era speakeasy that I learned while writing this was voted the 3rd best bar in the world in 2012. The cocktails are inventive and elaborate and the tapas are delectable. I ordered the Cold-Buttered Rum: 23-year old Zacapa, a chai tea infusion and a hot coconut butter float. The manfriend’s cocktail was served in a metal bird—a metal bird !
I felt like the bee’s knees and I had to contain my excitement to maintain some semblance of being cool. It’s the perfect place to meet a tall, dark stranger if not canoodle with one!
I was feeling like a laid-back afternoon at the movies so we headed to this lovely vintage theatre in Notting Hill. The 100-year old cinema’s vibe is more about the movie-watching experience than the film itself: individual leather armchairs, two-seater couches and a set of beds complete with pillows, footstools and cashmere blankets. The bar in the back serves fresh snacks and beverages. Afterwards, we took a walk down Portobello Road looking at all colourful houses and haggling with all the street vendors!
Tips & Activities
Late at Tate
On selected Fridays the Tate Britain hosts ‘Late at Tate’—an evening of music, art, fashion, philanthropy and roundtable discussions. It’s a really fun way to explore the galleries after hours and interact with people in the community. Whether you’re sitting outside with wine and ice cream or dancing to re-appropriated experimental music next to a Picasso, you’re bound to have a good time.
Discover the Pop-Up Scene
Now you see them, now you don’t: with no fixed addresses, these pop-up bars, restaurants, shops and galleries are taking over London marketing. Driven by Twitter and other social media, businesses set up shop for a few days in a random location and offer special deals or interesting activities. I went strawberry picking in Covent Garden! Keep an eye out on Twitter or follow this helpful blog to find a pop-up near you.
Alternative London Walking Tour
The Banksy phenomenon may be a few years old, but as our fun tour guide Doug pointed out, we’re in a post-Banksy street art world and there are plenty of other artists to appreciate. This PWYC tour along in East London was a great way to see the area, learn some of its history, and keep up with this rapidly growing scene. Doug pointed out some pieces, gave us some interesting tidbits about the artists and as if on cue, we saw Malarky, a Barcelona-based street artist, finishing up one of his murals. This tour opened my eyes to looking for this kind of art not just in London, but Toronto too!
Ride the Routemaster Bus 15
It’s not free (unless you’re brave enough to try escaping the transit police) but it’s dirt cheap. If you’re not in a rush this heritage double decker bus route crosses London to show you Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London and St.Paul’s Cathedral. Sit up top and look out the window and you’re on a bus tour of the city—at a fraction of the price. A few other buses offer great sightseeing so check the Transport for London website for more routes.
Fish and Chips & Other English cuisine
I’m a bit of a foodie and having a British manfriend who cooks means I had heard lots about all things English food. While I was there I had Bakewell tarts, Sunday roast, scotch eggs, afternoon tea, Cornish pasties, bangers and mash… One thing that stood out was Toff’s Fish and Chips in Muswell Hill. The fish was fresh and the portion was bigger than my head—I thought, “On what terrestrial realm could one person eat that!?” (Yes, I often think in Charlie Sheen quotes) Not to worry: washing it down with a cider or two means you’ll be in a food coma in no time.
This dish descending from the Huguenots’ (French Protestants who immigrated to London in the 1650s) tradition of serving fried fish and fried potatoes is probably the first thing we think about when we hear “English food”, so I had to try it!
I know you’re wondering: between the pubs and food, I definitely put on a couple pounds…but I think of them as souvenirs that I didn’t have to check in my luggage at the airport!
Bonus tip: Wander around Borough Market near London Bridge for good English grub at decent prices.
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
There are so many cool things to see and do in London, but if you’re on a tight budget like I was, pick the really unique things to splurge on and seek out free-to-less-expensive ways to explore. It didn’t take too much planning—I only decided to go 3 days before my flight left! Use Twitter, read a guidebook, check out some London blogs…
Bonus tip: The tube is pricey so don’t let its map fool you, what may seem like a long way may only be a 15 minute walk. So take the bus or use your feet—it’s a great and cheap way to see the city. Also, you won’t end up with black snot. True story.
In case the Big Smoke is leaving in need of fresh air, here’s my article about how to get out of London!