London under a fiver: my favourite things to do in London for next to nothing

I’ve recently returned home to Australia having lived in London for a little while. London’s an awesome place and there’s so much to do.

I often get asked for recommendations of things to do by friends or family who are visiting. London is a hugely diverse place and you can truly make it what you want it, but having lived over there for little while I found some things that aren’t always on the tourist trail but absolutely worthwhile. Here are some of my favourites that are either completely free or really cheap that I recommend when people ask:

The British Museum

One of my absolute favourite places in London. The UK is great because many galleries and museums are free, and the British Museum in Holborn is the very best of them. The collection is massive and jaw-droppingly amazing – there’s no way you’ll get around it in one visit. The must-sees though are the Egyptian collection (Rosetta Stone), Assyrian Collection (bad guys from the movie 300), Ancient Greece collection (including Acropolis statues) and the Saxon exhibit.

Just as interesting as the artefacts themselves are the stories behind them – it’s worth finding out about the how the collection was protected during the blitz, the ongoing tension with Greece over the Acropolis statues and the extent of the collection that is stored and rotated in and out of display.

The Walkie Talkie Skygarden

Yeah the London Eye is great and all, but it’s also the domain of tour groups, long queues and high prices (especially given the Big Ben/Elizabeth Tower is under scaffolding at the moment). Instead head over to the other side of town and go up to the top of the ‘Walkie Talkie’ building at 20 Fenchurch Street. It’s free but you do have to book yourself a time slot so they can manage the foot traffic.

While you might not get the same view of Westminster, I’d argue that you’re in just as interesting a part of town in the original City of London – you get a great view of the Tower, Southbank, Tower Bridge, St Paul’s. The other thing the Skygarden has over the Eye is that you can sit down at the bar and enjoy a drink overlooking it all. Provided you can plan ahead a little, a visit is absolutely worthwhile.

Fun fact: apparently they had to replace the original windows on the concave exterior of the building as the reflective glass was focusing the sunlight onto the street below and melting the road and parked cars.

Hire a ‘Boris Bike’ and go for a ride in Hyde Park.

London has some great parks and Hyde Park is my pick of the bunch. Home to Kensington Palace, the Serpentine, Speaker’s Corner and loads of monuments there’s quite a bit to do and plenty of people around. Hyde Park is absolutely worth exploring, and we found the best way to see it all was by hiring one of London’s ubiquitous TfL Santander cycles, or ‘Boris Bikes’ as they’re known.

There are bike stations all around the park, especially near the gates. It’ll cost you £2 to get a code to access a bike and ride for 30mins, then £2 for every 30 minutes you ride after that. In the park itself there’s a few pedestrian-only paths, but you can access most spots and it’s a cruisey way to cover the ground and spend an afternoon.

St. Dunstan-in-the-East

Not far from the Walkie Talkie in the City of London is St. Dunstan-in-the-East, a classic church that has been converted into a public garden space. The church itself is hundreds of years old, and the current building was designed by Christopher Wren who has his fingerprints all over many iconic buildings in London, including St Paul’s, Kensington Palace and Hampton Court Palace. The church itself was badly damaged in the bombing blitz of WWII and, instead of rebuilding the church, the ruins were turned into a public garden.

The result is a uniquely atmospheric pocket of the city, with vines and greenery overtaking the church walls and ornate glassless windows. You can sit on park benches or on the lawn that are within the former nave, or walk around the old church yard and take in the unique gardens.

A pint of Pride at The Lamb & Flag

The pub culture in London is absolutely brilliant, and you absolutely should drop in for a pint of ale while in the city. Loads of pubs across the town claim to be the oldest etc., and The Lamb & Flag in Covent Garden is a genuine classic. Apparently the pub was a regular of Charles Dickens and was the home of bareknuckle boxing back in the day, but for me its central Covent Garden location, unique laneway setting and original style interior made it my favourite watering hole while out and about with visitors. During peak time you’ll likely have to hang about outside, but it’s absolutely worth looking around the whole inside, too.

People sometimes say to avoid ‘chain pubs’, which are owned by large organisations and seen to be run as cookie-cutter enterprises (Wetherspoon’s, Nicholson’s, Greene King etc). Independent pubs or smaller boutique chains often are more unique and intimate, but The Lamb & Flag is an example of a traditional classic pub that certainly retains its own character despite being a Fuller’s owned venue.

Another thing to mention is the style of beer. Traditional ales vary from region to region much more than the beers tend to do in Australia, where national distribution is more of a thing. ‘London Pride’ is the ubiquitous local ale in London and worth a try. If you’re not sure and don’t want to ask, the way to spot the different types of beer is the location of the taps at the bar. The big tap handles that stand up at bar level are for the uncarbonated traditional English ales, where the bartender will need to ‘pull a pint’ by pumping the handle back and forward to pour the beer. By contrast, carbonated ‘normal’ beers (at least to me in Australia) come out of the higher taps at eye level, where the carbonation of the beer pushes the liquid to run up from the keg, through the lines and out of the tap. The feeling of refreshment is very different between the styles of beer but equally great once you get used to it.