I got to spend two months in London last semester and I just went back for 10 days last week. London is definitely one of the greatest cities in the world, but it is also one of the most expensive. Especially when the Canadian dollar is only worth 60 pence. Fortunately there is still a lot of free things you can do.
1) Tour the West End
This part of the city has everything that London is known for: Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, 10 Downing Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square and of course all the dozens of theatres. This is definitely how you should spend your first day in London.
I would recommend taking the tube to Oxford Circus Station and spending an hour and half window shopping along Oxford and Regent Streets. Then walking to Piccadilly Circus at the end of Regent Street. Trafalgar square is only a few blocks further south and Leicester Square is just east of that.
From there, walk down Whitehall to 10 Downing Street, then continue to the The Palace of Westminster (the real name of the parliament buildings… Big Ben is technically just the bell in the tower) and Westminster Abbey. Buckingham Palace is only a 15-minute walk west of Westminster Abbey.
2) Visit a museum (or several)
Museums in the UK are free, (though they gladly accept donations). I would definitely recommend the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, though the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square (above) is another popular choice.
The British Museum is full of artifacts from places like ancient Egypt, Rome and China and several of the items are controversial. Some of the Brits I met joked that it was the museum of stuff Britain stole from their colonies. Probably the most famous item is the Rosetta Stone. The Victoria and Albert Museum is full of things like jewelled snuff boxes and ancient cutlery. Ever heard of a scrivener’s knife? (It was used to make quills from bird feathers.) My personal favourite was the jewelry room where you got to design your own dream ring.
3) See the British Library
Located a few blocks from St. Pancras and King’s Cross Stations, the British Library is often overlooked. The library contains an entire room dedicated to the Magna Carta and you can actually see the original document. There is also the Treasures Gallery, which includes original copies of Alice in Wonderland and Beowulf among many other classic British titles; religious texts and even handwritten copies of Beatles’ songs.
4) Go to the market
London has many markets, including Portobello Market (above), Borough Market, Brick Lane Market and Camden Market. Each of them is in a different part of the city and each of them is good for a different thing. Portobello has antiques, Borough is the oldest fruit and vegetable market in the world, dating back to 1276 (though it claims to go back to Roman times), and you can literally find anything at Brick Lane Market.
But my favourite is Camden, located north of downtown. It is full of cheap, unique clothes (especially goth items). I bought a grey t-shirt material dress with a bright pink orchid on the front for £10. The best part was haggling down the price from £15.
To get to the market, take the tube to Camden Town Station. I should warn you that the market gets so busy on the weekends the station restricts its entrances so you can only exit in the morning and only enter in the afternoon. I would recommend getting off the station before, Mornington Crescent, on the weekends and walking.
5) Discover a park
London has several amazing parks right in the middle of the city. Many of them are so big, it’s easy to forget that you’re in one of the biggest cities of the world. If you walk along the canal in Regent’s Park, you can see some of the zoo animals at the edge of the park without paying the admission fee. A stop in Hyde Park will let you see Kensington Gardens with the Diana memorial playground, Albert Memorial (above) and statue of Peter Pan, among others.
6) Window shop at Harrods or Selfridges
These department stores were created for the richest of the rich. As you walk through each floor you can look at the ridiculous things that people spend their money on, stuffed leopard anyone? Make sure to go to the basement to see the Diana and Dodi memorial in Harrods’ basement, and the Egyptian staircase.