Home to Russian oligarchs, Saudi princes and, of course, British royals, it's no surprise London ranks as the world's most expensive city, according to a report by UBS.
But in this city of deep pockets, it's still possible, with some savvy planning, to stay, eat and experience the best of London on even the smallest of budgets.
"London is marketed as a city of tourist attractions, but really, it's the vibe that people come for: the markets, just walking round (if you know where to go), the free museums, the red buses," says Simon Crutchley, who started LondonTourist.org, a nonprofit site with advice for planning trips to London on the cheap.
Many of the city's cultural highlights, from outdoor concerts in palace gardens to some of Europe's most important art galleries, can come free.
Regardless of what kind of traveler you are, take this advice to save some dough. You're sure to find something along the way you'll want to spend it on. And with the British pound now hovering at a five-year low against the U.S. dollar, this may be the perfect time to go.
Classic London: the Blockbuster Sites
Rather than splurge on admission to Westminster Abbey, stop by Evensong worship services for free access to the choir and choral music. Afterward be sure to explore the nave, where you'll find tombs of kings, queens, poets and national heroes who've been buried here for the past 800 years. And stroll through the adjacent cloisters and college garden, both free of charge.
Get your royal kicks for free by catching the Changing of the Guard. Every other day at 11:30 a.m. in front of Buckingham Palace, the queen's personal guards, dressed in iconic red coats and black bearskin caps, perform the changing of the guard ceremony. The stoic soldiers stand watch outside her majesty's homes 24 hours a day. So stop by anytime to take a photo and do your best to make them crack a smile.
Discover the inner workings of the British government by watching a Parliamentary debate or judicial hearing in the 1,000-year-old halls. Entry is free to visitors from fall to spring. During the summer, visitors can climb the Big Ben clock next door.
Marathon sightseers should consider investing in a London Pass, which buys free entry to the Tower of London, St. Paul's Cathedral, Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and about 50 other attractions, as well as free guided tours and river cruises. The pass also includes free public transport, free Internet, discounts to theaters and restaurants, as well as priority queues to cut the wait at some sites. Prices start at a whopping 40 pounds, but are well worth it if you're staying for more than a few days.
One of the best ways to pack in all of the sites is on a red double decker bus. Instead of the pricey preprogrammed tours, grab a map and get on one of the public lines. Buses No. 9 and No. 15 are the two famous heritage Routemaster buses that still operate with the open, hop-on platform system. The 11, 12, 19 and 88 buses pass by many of the best sites as well.
Art Lovers' London
Fortunately, all art institutions in London more than 50 years old grant free admission. The city's museums are a treasure trove of ancient wonders, imperial booty and contemporary works.
Start at the British Museum, which boasts more than 7 million objects, including the Rosetta stone, the first-known image of Christ and mummies galore. Next, head over to Trafalgar Square to see European masters, including stunning Italian Renaissance works from Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael. Next get acquainted with Britain's famous faces in the haunting National Portrait Gallery. Don't miss the Victoria and Albert Museum over by Hyde Park, which showcases the material splendor of the empire at its height.
The Tate Britain celebrates British art from the Tudors to today. Its holdings include large collections of works from Joseph Mallord William Turner, John Constable and William Blake. Its sister museum, just down the Thames River, is the Tate Modern, the world's largest modern art museum. The former power station now houses works from artists like Picasso, Matisse, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, and even an impressive collection of contemporary art since the 1980s. Entry is always free, except for tickets to special exhibitions.
Theater lovers can take advantage of same-day discounts, often half the normal price by lining up at the official TKTS booths at Leicester Square and Brent Cross booths. These stall and dress circle seats can be the best tickets in the house to some of London's hottest plays, musicals, operas and dance performances.
During the summer take advantage of free outdoor events as well. Crutchley recommends hanging out on the South Bank of the Thames River by the National Theatre and Royal Festival Hall to get dates and tickets, as well as at the Scoop in More London, near Tower Bridge. For music concerts, check local listings in the Independent or Guardian.
"Come during the Proms to hear the top orchestras in the Albert Hall for 5 pounds a ticket. It's truly an experience," Crutchley says.
Add to your list: rotating exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, tours and workshops at the Royal Opera House and the new Saatchi Gallery.
Family Travel: Children in Tow
London can be a surprisingly kid-friendly town. The bigger exhibits will cost you, but its many beautiful public parks have playgrounds and sports facilities free of charge.
To capture the kids' imaginations, start at the Tower of London. One look at the old castle and crown jewels, and their royal fairy-tales will start to come to life. Be sure to stop at nearby London Bridge, as well as Kensington and Buckingham Palaces en route.
For some medieval gore head to the London Dungeons, which displays the gruesome methods of torture used in this former prison. It now also includes spooky rides with special effects.
Instead of the pricey Regent's Park Zoo head to the south side of the river to the Vauxhall City Farm. Entry is free Wednesday to Sunday, and kids will love getting to pet the animals, get lessons in pony grooming and picnicking on the lawn.
If you can drag them to a museum, the Science Museum offers interactive exhibits designed for kids. The Imperial War Museum will also grab their attention with life-size old planes and military machinery hanging throughout.
For a cheaper alternative to the classic British afternoon tea, skip Harrods' and head to the Original Maids of Honour in the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. Enjoy its secret-recipe cakes outdoors or by a log fire in the colder months.
Add to the list: the London Eye Ferris wheel, outdoor Shakespeare in Regent's Park, the Natural History Museum and Pollock's Toy Museum.
Eating at restaurants in central London will cost you. Check out LondonEats.com for the latest deals and special offers from some of the city's most popular spots. For more inspiration, also check out TimeOut London's list of Cheap Eats winners.
London is full of fast food and sandwich shops that offer inexpensive and fresh food. Both Pret a Manger and EAT operate dozens of cafes around the city, with mostly natural and organic foods for take away or eat in.
Perhaps the best way to eat well on the cheap is to rummage through London's many food markets. Borough Market, the city's oldest, is a noisy and unforgettable experience, where you'll find a seemingly unending variety of everything from oysters and olives to sausages, cheeses, vegetables, breads and wines. Every Thursday to Saturday traders from all over the country come here to sell their produce and prepared foods at low prices. Best of all, they encourage taste tests, and proceeds go to charity.
Getting There/Getting Around
London offers many affordable options for getting to and from the city's airports, each from about 4 pounds. The Piccadilly tube line runs from Heathrow to Paddington Station in the city center. Gatwick, Luton and City airports all have train service as well.
Most major bus lines arrive at the Victoria Coach Station, which is connected to city train lines via the Victoria tube station.
One of the nicest ways to see the city is on a riverboat cruise. Crutchley recommends the Thames Clipper, which runs fast catamaran services up and down the river, stopping at landmarks. A Roamer pass costs about 8 pounds and lets you hop on and off all day.
Save on subway train transportation with an Oyster Card, which will reduce the tariff by at least half. The longer you're in town the better the deal. Children under 18 get a discount, and those under 5 ride free.
Avoid black cabs at all cost.
For more resources and ideas check out: