Trip to London: How to Travel in the British Capital
The story of London is written in the carefully preserved archives of the British Museum, spray-painted on the walls of Brick Lane, and shouted across the teeming bars of Chelsea. Steeped in history yet buzzing with modernity, sprawling London is as large and complex a city as they come. Don’t come expecting to “do” London in a day, or even a week: even most residents of this metropolis barely manage to scrape the surface of all the city has to offer.
Whether you're stopping in for a quick city trip, taking a wider tour of England, or exploring London at a leisurely pace on a more extended vacation, we've got all the best tips and tricks for making the most of your trip.
Check out our best cheap travel deals to London:
Things to do for free in London
With one-way flights from the East Coast going for as little as $99, London is without a doubt one of the cheapest European cities for Americans to travel to. And if you don’t mind cozying up to your neighbor in a hostel and chowing down on £5 fish & chips, you can get through notoriously pricey London without ending up strapped for cash.
What makes it even easier is that many London attractions are surprisingly friendly to the thrifty traveler. In fact, a huge number of top sites are absolutely free! Here are our best tips for touring London without ever having to bust out your wallet.
The Dark Ages, Dali, and Dinosaurs: Best Free Museums
This always seems to happen: you find a cool museum online, you line up to visit, and right at the entrance you find out it costs a fortune to get in! Many frugal travelers will skip museum-viewing altogether just because of the steep prices. This is one of the best things about London: so many of its most famous museums are free! So, whether you want to contemplate a Cezanne, revel in a Renoir, or tip-toe around a T-Rex, all you need to do is show up, no cash required.
Museums with free entry:
Such Great Heights: Best Free Views
Looking for that perfect panorama of the London skyline? There are many places known for their dizzying heights and incredible views, from the tippy-top of the London Eye to the lookout platform on The Shard, an imposing skyscraper that towers over the River Thames. As one might expect, such reputable vantage points come with a hefty price tag. Never fear: with our 100% free views, you can enjoy the sights of the city and even have a picnic lunch to boot.
No need to scramble up a garden wall for a peek at the horizon. Just head to Hampstead Heath in the northwest of the city. Here, ensconced in the greenery of the park, Parliament Hill offers a perfect view of the city skyline. Insider tip: New Year’s Eve is a particularly good time to come here, as it is an excellent place to see the theatrical fireworks displays.
In the north of Camden’s Regent's Park is the verdant Primrose Hill, one of the most beautiful lookouts in the whole city. From here you have a breathtaking 360° view of the surrounding area and London's skyline. There are also many Victorian-era buildings to admire nearby. The hill is a well-frequented area for a relaxing afternoon or evening in the city. You will see many students and families picnicking and enjoying the fantastic view. Take the Northern Line on the Underground to see for yourself!
Housed in an impressive skyscraper, directly across the river from the equally magnificent Shard, lies Sky Garden. Step into the expansive room, with floor to ceiling windows and wall-to-wall plant life, and you’ll feel as if you’ve entered a sort of cosmopolitan greenhouse. Sidle up to the bar to order a strong cocktail fit to accompany the killer view. Admission is free, but you should register in advance here.
No Tent, No Problem: Best Free Festivals
Festivals don’t always mean body glitter, thumping music, and mosh pits. London offers a variety of free festivals for those who don’t want to break the bank on a ticket (or their ankle in a muddy field!)
Notting Hill Carnival
TheNotting Hill Carnival (August 26 – 27th, 2018), which takes place in the district of the same name, is a street festival put on every year by the British Afro-Caribbean population of the UK. This event combines live music and dance performances, dazzling costumes, and traditional Afro-Caribbean cuisine into one two-day festival. Thousands of visitors flock to this high-energy celebration every year to join the locals in dancing in the streets.
Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year(February 5, 2019) is an annual celebration in February whose main attraction is a parade featuring traditional music, a kaleidoscope of colors, and, of course, dragons. If you plan to dine at a Chinese restaurant for the New Year, we highly recommend a reservation, as it is one of the most popular days of the year. Incidentally, 2019 will be the year of the pig in China. Oink!
Pride in London (June 9 – July 7, 2018) is a spectacular month-long celebration where the LGBT community and its allies come together for theater performances, dancing, parades, and a wide variety of other activities. Not to be missed is the Pride in London Parade on July 7th, which starts on Regent’s Street and passes all the way through Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square.
Totally Thames Festival
Totally Thames Festival is dedicated to the River Thames and takes place every year through the month of September, giving you the perfect excuse for a fall trip to London (generally a cheaper time to fly). The events list for this festival is incredibly diverse, including craft fairs, regattas, river races, art installations and tons of live music.
Don’t Just Hop On, Hop Off: Best Free Tours
Car exhaust, traffic jams, and blurry pictures clogging up your camera—a standard hop-on, hop-off bus tour isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Why spend hours plodding through the streets on the bus when you can be checking out the coolest areas of the city with an expert guide? The best part is that many of the most interesting walking tours are free.
Free Walking Tours: Street Art and Ghosts
In London, many guides operating alone will offer free tours, which are an excellent way to see the city from the perspective of seasoned locals. You can choose to visit a specific neighborhood, discover the best of the street art scene, explore locations from the Harry Potter films, walk in the footsteps of Jack The Ripper, or get spooked on a ghost tour.
It should be noted that although these tours are free, you are strongly encouraged to generously tip your guide. If guides are working independently of a tour service, your tips are often the only payment they will receive for their valuable services. You can sign up to save your place in advance online, although many tours can be joined the day of. Find more information here.
Step Outside The Cinema: Free Film Locations
Anyone can go to the movies, but why spend money watching a film on a screen when you can be part of it in real life? London has plenty of opportunities for a Muggle to feel like a wizard, but it often requires that you fork out more cash than you are comfortable spending.
Forget those high-priced entrance tickets! London has been the backdrop for countless famous films such as Notting Hill, James Bond and Bridget Jones’ Diary. Shrewd fans have tracked down some of the most notable locations from your favorite movies. Now you can channel your inner Julia Roberts as you stroll through the streets and knock on the famous blue door—we just can’t guarantee that Hugh Grant will be waiting for you.
Magical London: Harry Potter Sets
Ever wanted to stand in front of Number 12 Grimmauld Place or sneak a peek at Gringotts Wizarding Bank from the outside? Well in London, you can! To reach the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix, simply wander down Claremont Square and examine the row of houses there. If you’re itching to window-shop through Diagon Alley, find your way to Leadenhall Market (more precisely to Bull's Head Passage). What wizard’s outing would be complete without a trip to Gringotts bank? The marble halls of the Australia House will make you feel as if you’re there. And of course everything starts and ends at King's Cross Station, where Harry takes his first trip to Hogwarts as a boy of 11 and, at the end of the series, sees his own children off on the train. Since time immemorial, Harry Potter pilgrims come in droves to Platform 9 ¾, where a runaway luggage cart has been placed for a memorable snapshot.
From London, With Love: James Bond Sets
Step into the shoes of Her Majesty’s most notorious secret agent. To visit 007’s old stomping grounds at M16 you’ll want to make your way to the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service, most easily viewed from the Vauxhall Bridge. Various underground stations as well as Room 34 of the National Gallery were also used for filming Bond movies. Film props, including slick sports cars, can be found in the London Film Museum in Covent Garden. If you want to immerse yourself further in 007’s world, sign up to take a Bond tour through the city.
Elementary, My Dear Tourist: Sherlock Holmes Sets
Pack your detective cap and your pipe and off you go in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes and Doc Watson, two of the most famous fictional characters in London. The original Baker Street 221b is home to the Sherlock Holmes Museum, whereas the filming location of Baker Street for the BBC series Sherlock is on North Gower Street. Other filming locations include St. Bart's Hospital and the Birdcage Walk at St. James Park.
Love Is In The Air: Notting Hill & Love Actually Sets
London is home to some of the most iconic love films, including Notting Hill and Love Actually. In Notting Hill, on Westbourne Park Road, you'll find the iconic blue door of Hugh Grant’s house in the movie of the same name. For another famous location from that film, head around the corner to The Travel Book Shop. If you’re a Love Actually fan, you can check out Grosvenor Chapel, where Keira Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s characters get married in the movie, or visit Selfridges Department Store, where Alan Rickman’s character buys his secretary jewelry.
Wonder As You Wander: Free Attractions & Sightseeing
These famous attractions are part of many a London itinerary, and best of all: they’re totally free! While overcrowded sights like the London Eye or the Tower of London cost top dollar, these alternative destinations are open to the public.
The Best Markets in London
Visiting markets are generally free of charge (unless you spy something you just have to buy, which can certainly happen in the London markets) and the English capital has a wide range to choose from.
The Camden Market is the mother of all markets in London, making it hard to miss. Camden is largely considered a mecca for vintage and designer fashion and still exudes the punky London charm of the 70s and 80s. If you’re not looking to drop cash on some bell-bottom jeans or hot pants, it’s still worth taking a peek through the vendors’ wares. The market is divided into different areas that each offer something different, such as Camden Lock Market or Inverness Street, where you can find cool pubs and bars.
Columbia Road Flower Market
Flower and plant fans will feel right at home here! This street market is a unique, colorful paradise in East London for everything that flourishes. In addition to seasonal cut flowers, there are pottedplants, shrubs, seeds, gardenaccessories and a number of cafés.
Borough Market is considered a foodie paradise and is one of London's oldest food markets. It is centrally located near London Bridge and is surrounded by numerous cafes and bars. It’s a perfect place to buy the freshest produce, herbs, spices, oils and all things that make a culinary heart beat faster. In addition, there are many snacks and treats to sample as you wander through the stalls.
Brick Lane Market
The Brick Lane Market can be found in the middle of many other small markets north of the Thames, near the Whitechapel Tube station. Eagle-eyed thrifters rejoice: this is the best place to find second-hand clothes. In addition to the flea market, there are also galleries, bars, restaurants, and plenty of interesting street art.
Greenwich is located in the southeast of London, on the banks of the Thames. Greenwich Market is a historicmarket that has just about everything: designer goods, posters, home decor, jewelry and other accessories. This is the ideal place to search for a unique gift. Alternating themed markets, food festivals for example, occasionally take place in this area.
In northeast London, just off Victoria Park, is Broadway Market. This "indie" market is the number one point of contact for fans of all things organic, as it sells products from local farmers. If that isn’t enough to persuade you, it is also home to some of the tastiest street food in London.
Alfie's Antique Market
Alfie’s Antique Market is London's largest covered market, making it perfect for a rainy day, which is a frequent occurrence on this little island. You can buy vintage fashion items as well as antique furniture—although you’ll need a high budget. There is also occasionally a flea market for the true bargain hunters.
Portobello Road Market
The Portobello Road Market is a classic flea market. There are small stalls selling a wide variety of items such as vintage clothes, dishware, and posters. The market is also famous for its antiques. It is easily accessible from the Notting Hill Gate Tube station.
Covent Garden Market
If you’re talking about London, Covent Garden is always part of the conversation, appearing at the top of every must-see list. In addition to the halls of Covent Garden Market, which invite you to take a leisurely stroll, there are museums, an opera house, shopping facilities and, of course, the famous street musicians. Don’t forget to look up: these hallowed halls are considered masterpieces of architecture!
And All The Rest
The Changing of the Guard
The most iconic event in London - and you can see it every day free of charge! The changing of the guard in front of Buckingham Palace is a traditional royal ceremony and a popular spectacle for tourists. In this ceremony, the on-duty Guards ("Old Guards") are replaced by the incoming guards ("New Guards"). The number of guards depends on whether Queen Elizabeth II is currently staying at Buckingham Palace. The ceremony lasts about 30 minutes and starts at 11 o'clock every day. In order to get a good place, you should try to get there an hour before. In winter, the exchange only takes place every other day.
The Tower of London Ceremony of the Keys
The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London is similarly ostentatious, unashamedly British, and completely free. It takes place every day at 10pm at the Tower of London as it closes its doors to visitors. The ceremony dates back to the times of the Tudors, when the tower was still mainly used as a prison. The Chief Warder and his soldiers walk along the sentry posts to lock the doors and gates of the tower. Experience British history up close!
Don’t Knock it Till You’ve Tried It: A Look at British Cuisine
Long-misunderstood British cuisine is finally having its moment, perhaps due to the influence of well-known TV chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. In fact, the average American may be shocked to find they have been eating British food for years. What New Englander hasn’t indulged in some crispy cod with a side of french fries (known simply as Fish & Chips across the pond)? Who hasn’t dug into a steaming chicken pot pie, cousin to the savory British pasty?
In short, British fare is worthy of the savvy traveler’s time, consideration, and budget (if there is one thing London is not, its cheap). Take a look at our top recommendations for chowing down in the English capital.
The Best Fish & Chips in London
An urban legend claims that nowhere in the UK is more than 70 miles from the sea. True or false, it at least explains the ubiquitousness of fish & chips, featuring cod or haddock presumably plucked straight from the nearest coast. Probably the most famous of British meals, fish & chips is one of those staple dishes that is precise in its simplicity. You want fish that’s white and flaky, an even coating of batter, and chips that are just the right amount of crispy. In London you can have your fish & chips anyway and anywhere you want: baked or fried, with salt & vinegar or tartar sauce, served on fine china in a posh restaurant or eaten straight from the packet while sitting on the curb.
For a good-old-fashioned classic: Poppies (Brick Lane & Camden)
Poppies knows that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Their fish is fresh, their portions hearty, and their chips impeccably salted. Couple that with the retro interior and you can hardly tell what’s changed since proprietor Pat “Pop”Newman first got in the fish & chips game in the early 1950s.
For an upscale twist: Kerbisher and Malt (Brook Green & Clapham)
Come for the one-of-a-kind matzo-meal fried fish, stay for the homemade tartar sauce and pickled onion rings. With chips so nice they cook them twice, this daring diner should not be missed.
For a sweet tooth: Toff’s (Muswell Hill)
With a name that’s both a tongue-in-cheek joke (toff is a British-ism for a snob) and a nod to it’s signature sticky toffee pudding, unassuming Toff’s blends a warm, family-business energy with fresh fish cooked to perfection.
Full English Breakfast
What better way to recover from a night out than a gloriously gut-busting full english breakfast? Often referred to as a “fry up”, a full english typically consists of buttery toast, bacon, sausage, tomatoes and mushrooms (fried), and eggs, with the occasional addition of black pudding (blood sausage), hash browns, and baked beans. A note to the uninitiated: British baked beans are made with tomato sauce and are an entirely different flavor to their American counterparts.
For an authentic institution: E Pellici (Bethnal Green
Churning out steaming full english breakfasts since 1900, this landmark is always bustling around breakfast time. Mix and match to create your ideal plate, or just go with the classic Pellici’s Full English, setting you back a mere £5.50. Veggies shouldn’t miss the bubble & squeak (potatoes and cabbage, fried).
For breakfast with a view: The Pavilion Cafe (Victoria Park)
Location, location, location. While the Pavilion Cafe does make an excellent fry-up with all the right trimmings, it’s lakeside seating in lush Victoria Park are what makes it a go-to spot for Londoners and tourists alike.
For the high life on a budget: Quo Vadis (Soho)
The morning light coming through the stained glass windows of this chic eatery more than makes up for the slight price jump for a full english. Enjoy a classic combination from locally-sourced ingredients, beautifully presented.
An English Tradition: Afternoon Tea
A meal in and of itself, afternoon tea is one English tradition that you shouldn’t skip. The typical tea includes a selection of savory and sweet snacks: finger sandwiches with salmon or cucumber, dainty slices of cake and freshly baked scones with clotted cream and strawberries. Especially elegant (and accordingly expensive) are the afternoon teas in the luxury hotels, such as the Palm Court in The Ritz. Many cafés and chains like Patisserie Valerie will also offer afternoon tea at reduced prices.
For the quintessential tea experience: Palm Court, Ritz (Picadilly)
As the archetypal afternoon tea, the sophisticated Palm Court’s service makes its way onto every must-do list for London. Diners must dress for tea, which is served in an opulent, high-ceilinged room with plush seating and a flock of synchronized waiters. With an impressive selection of teas, finger sandwiches, and pastries, at the Palm Court you can have your cake and eat it too
For the tea connoisseur: Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon, Fortnum and Mason (Picadilly)
The Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon’s cheerful name is mirrored in its aesthetic, the pastel blue teacups seemingly pulled straight from Alice in Wonderland. Spring for the tea tasting, where a variety of brews will be fetched for your consideration and explained by the knowledgeable waitstaff.
For something a bit stronger: Dandelyan Bar, Mondrian London (Southwark)
If a stiff drink is more your speed than an afternoon cuppa, the Wyld Tea at Dandelyan Bar is your happy medium. Enjoy above-average bites (think refined twists on the classics, like an elderflower compressed cucumber sandwich) paired with an unexpected mix of signature cocktails.
The Many Pies of London
When it’s raining in London (and it frequently is), there’s only one thing for it: a hearty pie with a side of mash. The British take their pies, both sweet and savory, very seriously, and one bite from a quality pie will tell you why. There are hundreds of variations to choose from, but you can’t go wrong with a classic shepherd’s, steak and kidney, or pork pie. If you are visiting London around Christmas, it’s also worth seeking out a sweet mince pie, a British holiday staple.
For the local flavor: Piebury Corner (King’s Cross, Holloway, Highbury)
With modest beginnings as a food stall slinging pies to Arsenal fans on their way to Emirates Stadium, this neighborhood icon has since expanded to three locations. Grab a seat in the King’s Cross storefront to try one of the classic offerings, or go for the jerk chicken marinated in porter for something different.
For the upper crust: Bob Bob Ricard (Soho)
Restraint has no place at ostentatious Bob Bob Ricard, where the wryly-named Humble Pie, prepared with champagne and truffles, is king. The price is pretty steep, but it’s worth it for the groovy, if discordant, atmosphere. A word to the wise: visiting in “Off-Peak” hours (listed on their website) yields a 15-20% discount from the regular menu prices.
For the catch of the day: J Sheekey (Covent Garden)
A favorite for the regular crowds in so-called “Theatreland”, J Sheekey may not specialize in pies, but that doesn’t stop them from plating up one of the best in the city. Stuffed with white fish and salmon and topped with expertly whipped mashed potatoes, this pie more than warrants its hefty price tag.
Around the World in 32 London Boroughs
As one of the most populous cities in Europe, it comes as no surprise that London is replete with immigrants from all parts of the world. The UK’s colonial history is an important factor in their immigrant makeup, and thus many former British colonies have made their mark on the nation’s cuisine. Consider chicken tikka masala, a Punjabi dish with dubious links to Scotland, which is widely regarded as a national dish. In London, you can go on a gastronomic world tour with a little local know-how and a willingness to brave the Tube. Stop by Brixton to sample from a slew of African and Caribbean restaurants, peek in the doorways of the mouth-watering Indian-Bengal eateries of Brick Lane, or pick and choose between a pork belly stuffed jianbang (fried pancake) and a swirl of matcha ice cream from the street food stalls of Chinatown.
For the cookbook devotee: Ottolenghi Restaurants & Delis (Spitalfields, Notting Hill, Islington)
In the world of cookbook aficionados, the glossy-paged texts of Jerusalem and Plenty by expert chef Yotam Ottolenghi reign supreme. Equally impressive are his trio of deli-cum-restaurants in London, where one can experience his signature Middle Eastern dishes. Ottolenghi also owns two other eateries: Nopi, a more formal affair, and the Belgravia deli, which functions mainly as a takeaway.
For a bang-up curry on a budget: Apollo Banana Leaf (Tooting)
When it comes to a decent curry, sometimes less is more. While London has it’s fair share of upscale Indian joints, the unpretentious vibe and substantial portions at Apollo Banana Leaf make it an excellent choice for a meal that’s quick, filling, and delicious.
For a midday snack: Beigel Bake (Shoreditch)
This Brick Lane institution churns out fresh bagels stuffed with smoked salmon or salt beef 24 hours a day. The line is almost always out the door, but don’t worry, the experienced employees keep things moving at a rapid clip. Side note: Don’t confuse Beigel Bake with neighboring Beigel Shop, a seperate store originally owned by the same family, but largely considered the less tasty of the two.
For a taste of the Caribbean: Fish, Wings, & Tings (Brixton)
With Trinidadian roots, this colorful little storefront lives up to its name. Owner Brian Danclair dishes out classic jerk chicken wings and kingfish curry alongside interesting extras like goat roti and split pea fritters. Grab a Dark & Stormy (ginger beer + rum) and enjoy the rhythm of the reggae while you peruse the menu, helpfully divided between “Small Tings” and “Big Tings”.
For something sweet from the far East: Golden Gate Cake Shop (Chinatown)
The golden custard buns from this Cantonese bakery may not be their main attraction, but they are a perfectly-sized treat to cap off an afternoon of street food tasting in Chinatown. Be sure to stop in and admire their real claim to fame: their eighty different varieties of cake.