Five Awesome Free Things to do in London

London is a difficult place to keep on a budget. It’s really a buffet of things to do, history to understand, and information to absorb. In the madness and chaos that it is, there’s remarkably wonderful free things. After scouring the city for ourselves, we found the following attractions the best way to spend free time (as they can consume a lot of it) and keep your money in your wallet.

1. Imperial War Museum

Making bullets as the voice overhead observes Mark's job
Making bullets as the voice overhead observes Mark’s job

This is not any ordinary war/ history dull experience museum. There are voice overs, interactive whiteboards where you can touch and manipulate things as it shows you how long it took to create artillery, make bread or assemble shoes. There is gunfire and men and women shouting overhead. Lights are strategically positioned to make you feel like a time capsule has transported you back to The Great War. Incredible facts abound. We spent nearly three hours at the museum and didn’t finish the ground floor (there’s five of them). We learned:

  • Britain received gifts from all of her territories during World War I, including sheep, money, and food from Canada; rum from Jamaica; food and cocoa from Africa; and an assortment of goats.
  • Each participating military had its own unique outfit: colors, designs, emblems, embellishments, even if they were on the same side.
  • Germany’s army pushed Russia back an impressive 300 miles in one invasion! But it was not enough to defeat the Russians.

The museum is free of charge to enter; a map will cost a pound. There is also an entire floor devoted appropriately to the Holocaust.

2. The British Museum

Well done, Britain, this is an extraordinary place to visit. It’s also extraordinarily crowded, though people typically move about at a good pace. To avoid crowds, go on a Wednesday afternoon. I won’t tell you all the reasons you should go, because you’ve probably already put it on your list. But here’s the coolest parts:

  • Holding a 2,500 year old silver Greek coin, and learning that the symbol on that coin is on the Greek euro.
  • Seeing clocks from the 1500s. I watched the interactive video multiple times and I’m still convinced it’s part mechanics, part magic.
  • Seeing this poster which shows it’s cheaper to print on this currency than paper.DSC_0191
  • One of the first cash registers, created aptly by Tiffany and Co
  • The largest paper money denomination is 20 ‘million billion’ Hungarian. Wow.

3. The National Gallery

Simply wonderful. If you took your time through it you couldn’t cover the gallery. It’s simply stunning. People are milling about from the time it opens to the time that it closes. These pieces of art are so varied in size, emotion and structure. There’s one in particular, a painting of a horse that stretches from floor to ceiling. The walls are 20-30 feet high? The painting is so phenomenally large you’re captivated by the thought that one hand of one person painted this enormous horse. It’s held by chains that come down from the ceiling. 

The Gallery is best broken up into two afternoons if you want to really feel like you’ve experienced it. Suggested itinerary, do something paid in the morning then head over to the gallery for the later part of the afternoon. 

Van Goh's Most Famous: Chair, Sunflowers and Two Crabs
Van Gogh’s: Chair, Sunflowers and Two Crabs

Pro-tip: want to know what the fuss is about over an artist or a painting? Plenty of educated art enthusiasts at the entrance and exit of each gallery room to tell you about those works. Chat em up. 

BONUS: The buskers outside the National Gallery are extremely talented. There’s one gentleman, The Homeless Bard, who writes exceptional poetry detailing his highs and lows and major mistakes. Everything he writes is impromptu, spoken from the heart. Talk to him, he’s got a sweet drawl and tired blue eyes. He is optimistic, despite losing everything, and is currently rebuilding his life through his gift of penmanship.

Homeless Bard prays before writing his fourth poem of the day.
Homeless Bard prays before writing his fourth poem of the day.

Finally, here’s a separate list of interesting places that are also free, but unfortunately we’re missed because of time:

4. Geffrye Museum – quirky and fun facts about the evolution of furniture throughout centuries. Even shag carpet has its genetic roots somewhere. And it’s always amazing to me how much SMALLER all the furniture is. An adult chair would maybe fit today’s child.

5. King George V Park evidently has alpacas, which are my favorite animal. If I ever had the opportunity to have land, I would certainly get a herd of alpacas. And feed them apples. Because they don’t have incisors that allow them to cut up food and all that.

Travelling to London and looking for more helpful hints? Click here to learn how to travel around London efficiently and cheaply.

MarkandMelody

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London on a Budget: Don’t Forget This! 

When looking to travel in a big city like London, it’s easy to be seduced into picking the lowest price for hotels/ lodging. We found out the hard way that the cheapest place actually ends up costing more…

Big Ben.

How? Because time is valuable too. 

Our 100+ day journey (no return ticket!) started with a week in London, so this is sage advice for long journey travelers and ambitious tourists who believe they can absorb London in a week.

It’s hard to find a way around London being pricey: bargain hotels start at $130 USD near the main attractions and hostels are mostly dorm style. AirBnB is typically the best way to get quality lodging at a deeply discounted rate. Unless you’re the worlds greatest hotel rewards points collector of course, in which case, don’t be afraid to share.

After looking into our options, we found a beautiful little place ‘just outside of London City Center’ for a modest $38 per night. That’s just $19 per person, per night. We had a nice little kitchen to cook in and a living room – excellent!

We flew ‘Into London’ (rolls eyes) and began working our way toward the house. Color me surprised to find that it would take us nearly an hour and a half via train and underground to get there.

Geograph-2430114-by-Malc-McDonald

Transit into London came at a steep cost of $77 via train on the express, taking about 45 minutes. Buy your ticket in advance and you might not get taken advantage of like we did. After another two transfers, we ended up on the train that would take us 45 minutes outside of London City Center ($4). We then walked / climbed the hill that brought us to the house we would call home for the next week.

Side note: This hill did not mess around. It puts San Francisco to shame. I’ve been on trail hikes less exerting than this. I felt like a winded mountaineer. What’s worse is these delightful little British kids are running all up and down this hill like it’s the easiest thing they’ve done all day. Ah.  Good ol days.

EVERY day we went into London to visit the Tower of London, or Tower Bridge, or the Beefeater Gin Distillery, or to visit a random park to have lunch, we were literally travelling uphill both ways. So that’s what my grandparents meant.


We took the bait for the cheapest place and paid a lot in time; over 18 hours was spent traveling to and from London city center which was $148 in fare over seven days for two people. The underground, overground and Thameslink train are surprisingly inexpensive, but we definitely could have used that 18 hours to spend another day at the Imperial War Museum, the National Gallery or the British Museum. 

Taking into account travel costs, the weighted cost of lodging became $415 – not taking into account our time (which of course everyone values differently). That brought the nightly rate to $59.29 or $29.65 per person.

We may have been able to find something that was more accessible and end up spending the same amount (or less), by opting for something a little higher in initial cost.

Pro-tips:

London’ is broken up into six zones. Zones one and two are where most of the popular attractions are. We were technically staying in London, but zone six, which was an hour away from the center. A trip to the Jewish Museum, a little further afield, was over 90 minutes away and back.

If you are staying at an airbnb (which we totally recommend) please ask them what zone they are in and what station they are near. Give us a shout if you need help deciphering the infamous London Underground map. 🙂

Think about how much time you want to spend getting to your points of interest each day, and always account for potential delays when you are further away. Remember – time is money!

Cheaper accommodation usually sacrifices: Convenience, Amenities, and/or Access to Transit. Even if you do not mind spending more time in transit, always take the everyday travel cost into account when making your decision.

AirBnB London

Consider a slightly more expensive accommodation to save yourself time or money overall. Looking back now, we could have spent $40-50 per night at a different AirBnB and found ourselves at a spot near London City Center, which would have saved us $65-135 – not to mention the time we spent and the stress incurred by the longer transit.


Whether you are on a mission to visit every country in the world as we are, or you’re just looking for a quick getaway to a world city, we hope that the information here might prove enlightening whilst you are planning.

Please send us a note of the travels you wish to embark on, and don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite.

Mark & Melody

The Oystercard Doesn’t Get You to London Airports, and other London Travel Tips

More about the benefits of an Oystercard and why you should by one in London here, but it’s a little known fact that it doesn’t cover transport all the way to ANY of London’s major tourist airports: Gatwick, Heathrow or Standsted. Instead, each airport offers its own express train. 

For flying into London Gatwick, please note, it’s about two hours from London City Center, so please calculate an additional $70 USD/ £40 for two people for the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station. From there you can buy an Oystercard and get just about anywhere in London via the tube/ underground. 

For flying into London Heathrow, it’s about an hour from London City Center. The Heathrow Express travels to Paddington station in 15 minutes for about $30 / £21 if you purchase in advance. To buy the Express ticket upon arrival into an airport it’s an additional $8 / £5 per ticket. 

For flying into London Stansted, there are two public transport options to get near city center. For $14/ £9, a 55 minute bus ride will take you from the airport to Liverpool Street. For $27/ £18, a 45 minute Stansted Express train will get you from the airport to Liverpool Street. 

NOTE: once you get to Liverpool street, you can use your Oystercard to get anywhere else on the tube, the overground, or the bus system. 

If you’re traveling with a group or you don’t want to deal with inevitable crowds, a third option is a taxi from Stansted which costs between $120-150 (£80-£100), though I’ve never taken it. You’re better off downloading the Gett app and hailing a taxicab that way. 

This is important so I’m saying it twice: buy your Oystercard in London. Do not get a travel card. Do not buy one-way tickets.  And please look hard at the London Pass before subscribing. The Oystercard lets you travel like a Londoner through nearly all the zones and you can refill/ top up the card as you go. 

Happy travels! 

How A Missed London Flight Became the Best Day Ever

We had a flight from London-Gatwick to Oslo scheduled to depart at 6am. Following the guidelines of international flights, we decided to be there about 90 minutes early: 4:30. We were staying at Masslink Guesthouse so across the street from the airport. The alarm is set for 4am.

It doesn’t go off. Something wakes me up around 4am, but it’s not the alarm. I go back to sleep.

I wake up about an hour later, suspicious of how rested I feel. Light is peeking through the curtains. I know it’s not 4am. My eyes glaze over to the clock and in big red letters it proudly displays… Continue reading

Don’t Rush into the London Pass

We almost bought them. It seemed like a great deal, which is reason to be all the more suspicious of it. In short, it gives you access to 60 attractions for one, two, three or six days, including things like Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, a Tower Bridge Experience, Windsor Castle, Globe Theatre, and a Thames River Cruise. The price for the pass goes up naturally with the number of days you plan on using it. It all sounds perfect, right?

Here’s why I didn’t get it. You have to see a whole lot of attractions in order for the pass to save you money. For example, I wanted to see:

Tower of London: 22
Westminster Abbey: 20
Beefeater Gin Distillery Tour: 12
Chislehurst Caves: 6
Jewish Museum: 8

Equalling 68 pounds. In order for the pass to save me any money, I would have to do these things in one day with the one-day London Pass, which costs 52 for an adult, which is frankly insane for the following reasons:

  1. We were at the Tower of London (where the Crown Jewels are) for over three hours and made it through the history of currency and mint exhibition, the White Tower, the Crown Jewels, and the Bloody Tower. There’s no way to see the entire Tower in less than half of a day.
  2. The Beefeater Gin Distillery is across town and takes another two hours in itself.

We took pictures of Westminster Abbey (not all that interested in the lineage of the royal families) and haven’t made it to the other attractions but the point of this is:

You would have to be hustling through major points of interest to save any money with the pass.

What would you prefer – spend a little more money for a lot more leisure, or save a little money for a lot more stress (and possibly pain?)

BUT, If you insist on purchasing the London Pass, please pick it up from a vendor in London. Buying it online will cost you an additional 10 pounds or more. (We saw rates much cheaper in London in person).

Leave comments with questions. We’re happy to elaborate.

Cheers.

xx

What We’ve Learned After 3 Days in London

Our first stop on our 111 day journey around the world takes us to London. What a city. We had a lot of expectations, both of ourselves and of the city. Here’s what we’ve learned with a little bit of tough love from one of the world’s most cosmopolitan places, and see this link for how to do London on a Budget.

1) This is not a bargain town. With the USD-GBP exchange rate, we’re getting about 64 pounds for every $100 USD. Here’s a point of reference, all prices in pounds:

Cheap beer: 4
Nice beer: 6
175 ml glass of wine: 6-8
Appetizers (half the size of American apps so a bad substitute for dinner): 9-12
Cheap dinner: 13
Filling Dinner: 20-30

So you can see, a nice (non-budget) dinner for two could easily eat up your 64 pounds.
In other words, you’ve just spent $100 on one meal.
No tipping here. Please don’t do it. And no added-on tax. The price you see on the receipt is what you pay.

Picking up foodstuffs from supermarkets or grocery stores is key to saving money.

Cold/ Flu Medicine: 4 [please see note here about pharmacies in the UK]
Small bottle of water: 1
Large water: 2
Takeaway pasta from grocery store: 4 (or you can get lucky with a 3 for 3 deal at Sainsbury’s)
Box of tea: 2

NOTE: There are Panera Bread type places where you can purchase coffees, smoothies and bread items, but you will see two prices: a takeaway (to-go) and eat-in price. The eat-in prices are higher because of a VAT (value added tax) charge. Our suggestion? Get your items for takeaway and eat at one of the numerous parks and green spaces.

2) Please be extremely mindful of the amount of walking/ stair-climbing you do. It is very easy to wear out your body and thus make yourself sick. London is very walkable, but please please plan your visits to attractions in clusters and plan for no more than three attractions a day. It is not necessary to visit the Imperial War Museum and the National Gallery in the same day. They are on opposite sides of town and there is plenty in each “zone” to keep you busy for an entire day.

3) Buy an OysterCard the day you arrive (and think twice about the London Pass). They’re available at the airport, convenience stores, kiosks, and supermarkets. It gives you access to the tube (underground subway), the overground (above-ground subway), and the buses for very low prices. We took a bus during the tube strike: they’re great. Note: As of July 2015, the tube does not run 24 hours; in September 2015, 24 hour tube operations are scheduled to begin.

4) If you have an unlocked phone that can take a different SIM, we strongly suggest you seek out a LycaMobile SIM for 1 pound. The plan we purchased was 17 pounds and came with 2000 minutes, 5GB of data and unlimited text messages. This means we can load maps on Google with the route/ directions, put the phone on airplane mode to save battery/ data, and use the pre-loaded map. Genius. It works. It saves battery. We haven’t gotten lost.

Cheers.

xx