On the surface, London feels expensive. A glimpse at the pound’s value against the Australian dollar turns me paler than a blob of syllabub, that watery milk dessert inexplicably cherished by generations of Britons. And it looks pricey; all those castles and artworks and extravagant cathedrals. But when you dig into it, the English capital is remarkably generous to visitors on a budget.
Last year, a study found that London had more free attractions than any city in the world – 1389 to be precise – and good ones at that: The National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate, for starters. Which should, in theory, leave plenty left over for eating, drinking and getting around. With this in mind, I set myself a challenge: excluding accommodation, could I have a great day out in London with only £100 to spend?
I’m staying at the delightfully friendly Laslett Hotel in Notting Hill, where my package includes breakfast. So fuelled with coffee along with broad bean guacamole and chipotle-roasted tomato on toast, I bounce out into the spring sunshine.
The surrounding terraces are bursting with cherry blossoms and camellias, and double-decker buses and black cabs wind their way through narrow streets. But I’ve never believed you get a true sense of a place simply by admiring its prettiest bits so I switch on my pre-downloaded Notting Hill and Black British Culture Self-guided Tour. The commentary talks about the complex cultural and racial history of the area, from the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire to the joys of the Notting Hill Carnival. The hosts are engaging and entertaining and I finish, about two hours later, with a satisfying sense that I’ve discovered much more about Notting Hill than I could pick up from a Hugh Grant film.
At Notting Hill Gate Tube station, I jump on the Central Line to London Bridge on the south side of the Thames, changing to the Jubilee Line on the way. I could fiddle around with buying a Visitor Oyster card but these require topping up and simply tapping my ordinary Australian bank card using my phone is the easiest, most economical way to get around. Pay-as-you-go Tube fares in zones one and two (which covers the majority of central London) are capped at £8.10 per day during peak times, which means I can zip all over the network without thinking about it.
I head to the Tate Modern in Bankside to meet up with an old friend, David, and we spend an hour wandering through the galleries, turning up at just the right time to hear a free talk by a tour guide about the Tate Thames Dig exhibit, a cabinet of curios including coconuts, food containers and bones foraged on the muddy banks of the river. David runs into two mates, a couple of dads pushing prams, and I explain my mission. “I have a free family friendly suggestion,” says one.
“The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill. The overstuffed walrus is hilarious.” This uniquely British collection of oddities is a kid wonderland, he tells me, especially the walrus, stuffed by clueless Victorian-era taxidermists into a comic tautness that would make a Real Housewife proud. My schedule won’t allow a visit today but I quickly scribble “weird walrus” in my notebook for another time.
The Tube £8.10
Tate Modern Free
Breakfast has worn off and we follow the cries of “Strawberries, strawberries! Get your fresh strawberries!” to Borough Market, near the southern end of London Bridge. The snacking choices are endless. I consider a doughnut from Bread Ahead or raw milk gelato from Hook & Son but instead join the queue for one of the legendary cheddar, comté and raclette toasties from Kappacasein Dairy. Hot, gooey and spiked with leek and onion, it’s the ultimate indulgence for under a tenner.
I’ve pre-booked a £5 standing-room ticket for a performance of The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe, the spectacular replica of the 16thcentury Globe Theatre, located next to the Tate Modern. A seat could cost up to £65 but crowding onto the floor of the open-air playhouse, surrounded by its curved timber balconies and raised stage, gives you a sense of what it must have felt like to see a Bard show when the Bard was still with us. The audience is encouraged to laugh, whistle, stamp or shout – and we do. The production by the Globe Ensemble is hilarious, not least because Ariel appears to be based on Bubble, the zany assistant from Absolutely Fabulous. It's the first time I’ve laughed while watching something that bored me senseless in school.
Booking fee £2.50
There’s just enough time to leap back onto the Jubilee Line to Bond Street Station for one of the best-value afternoon teas in the city at The Wallace Collection. This impressive museum of art has pieces that date as far back as the 14th century, as well as armour and furnishings. Traditional afternoon tea at The Savoy will set you back 75 quid but here you can get all the cucumber sandwiches, scones and fancy cakes you can eat for under 30 (I’m glad I booked ahead as it’s packed). Full of tiny bites, I spend an hour wandering the museum’s over-the-top homage to noble excess: busts of Louis XIV; paintings of feasts of lobsters and pomegranates; gilded vases; and wildly excessive flocked wallpaper. There’s also a special exhibition dedicated to the late Queen Elizabeth II’s corgis. (Fun fact: one of them boasted the unwieldy name of Windsor Loyal Subject.)
Afternoon tea £29.50
Museum entry Free
After The Wallace, I return to the hotel to freshen up then it’s another Tube ride over to Liverpool Street Station to visit Mæne in Spitalfields. When selecting eateries for this challenge, I thought about a set menu option (two Michelin Bib Gourmand Indian restaurants are offering two-course prix fixes for £25 or less: Pahli Hill for dinner and Gunpowder as a lunch sitting) but as I’m already heaving with toasties and tea cakes, I decide to do snacks and drinks at a couple of different venues rather than a major meal.
Mæne sits at the top of a Victorian warehouse ith views over the twinkling London skyline and is filled with Yves Klein-blue banquettes. Sustainability is big here, with cocktails named according to the kitchen by-products they repurpose. I consider the Potato and the Flat Sparkling Wine but go for the bright blue, mezcal-based Spirulina, accompanied by a mushroom escabeche tart made with Marmite and “old bread”. The cocktail feels energetically modern, while the Marmite notes in the tart take me back to my years at a British boarding school. You don’t get much more London than that.
I finish the night in Soho, which is wild with late-night revellers. I take a seat at the bar at Paradise, a dimly lit Sri Lankan restaurant. Owner Dom Fernando brings me the late-night Paradise After Dark menu – the snacks are all priced between £5 and £8 and cocktails sneak in under £14. The purple yam and coconut roti, flamed up with nuggets of naga chilli and accompanied by whipped cultured Jersey butter and a spicy sambol, is a firestorm in my mouth.
The rambutan and curry leaf Daiquiri is the perfect fire hose. “Can I get you another drink?” asks Fernando. I’d love to say yes but a quick calculation says the budget’s done: £99.69 on the dot. I smile as I sip the last of my cocktail. London’s the best cheap date I’ve ever had.
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Image credit: Lauren Kallen