London on the super-cheap
July 18, 2013 1:51 AM   Subscribe

Even though I'm totally broke, I'm going to London for nine days at the end of August. Yes, the most expensive time to go. Plane tickets were bought with miles, and I'm staying with friends-of-friends. This is why I'm able to go at all. But I'd like some tips on how to have a good time while spending as little money as possible in a place I am totally unfamiliar with (and I want to bug my hosts as little as possible, too).

I figure I'll find a grocery store and by sandwich fixing's for my meals, but what are the best grocery stores for that? I imagine it's like in the states; some places are Food-4-Less and some are Whole Paycheck.
For when I am out and about, and have already eaten my sandwich, what are the places I can get a real cheap lunch? I don't need anything fancy (at all) or uniquely London; I'm thinking the British version of Subway's five-dollar menu.
Also, what are the cheapest ways to get around? I'll walk mostly, but are buses better than the tube?
What are some good, fun, free/cheap things to do? I know I won't be able to visit the Tower or Madame Tussade's, but I'd still like to experience the city as much as possible.
Is there free wifi around? I'm turning off my phone's data plan, but won't get charged for wifi if I can find it.
I'm really excited and certain I'm going to have a wonderful trip no matter what; but I'd love suggestions on how to have the best time I can have.
posted by smoakes to Travel & Transportation around London, England (45 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite


Marks and Spencers and Waitrose
Sainsburys and Tescos
ASDA and Morrisons


Cheap Food:
This depends on where you are.
Central London will always be expensive. Greasy Spoon Type Cafes will feed you a good breakfast or anything else for comparatively cheap. There will be one near you.
Fish and chip shops also will be quite cheap.
Subways and McDonalds exist here and are cheap but are probably not as cheap as you'd expect.

Busses are much cheaper.
Get an Oyster card (£5 deposit) and then use it on busses.
it will cost you 80p per trip. Without an oyster it is £2 I think.
You can also use it on the tube. It is the cheapest way to travel but it will still cost you.
I don't know how aware you are of how it works, basically, there are zones. 1 in the middle, 6 (or higher?) at the edge. It sort of stops being London after 6 anyway. The more zones you go through the more it will cost. Your Oyster card has an upper limit, once you spend a certain amount it will cap for the day. So after 2 or 3 trips all the rest are free. If you are travelling a lot it is a good deal. I think bus fares will be included in the cap.
Zone 1 is maybe a few hours walk from edge to edge, for scale.
If you don't have data on your phone you can buy an A-Z street map. You't look overly touristy, many londoners (those without smartphones) still carry one around.

Free wifi.
Yes, it exists. Coffee shops and pubs will often have it.
Oh, depending on your phone you may be able to get a one month unlimited data plan for £12 from giffgaff, but you can probably make do with wifi.

Things to do:
There are lots of interesting things happening. There will always be something.
Here is a list of events which are free or cheap, but poke around the website. They always list interesting stuff.
Londonist Free and Cheap

Here are more permanent things.
Free London

The museums are free, I would strongly recommend the natural history museum and science museum at South Kensington. Bring snacks, all the food near there will be expensive.
The royal parks are very nice in the summer. Particularly Richmond park. It is huge and full of herds of deer.
There is of course Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster (Parliament), which are very fancy, and you can just look at from the outside.

There are also lots of mefites here who will take you to the pub if you are so inclined.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:15 AM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

Tour of London using London buses!

Time Out is the de-facto guide to stuff in London and they have a free section, covering museums and tours among other things.

Subway is a thing, you can get a 6" and a drink for £3. If you want crisps/potato chips, pop next door to Boots or a Tesco Metro to buy them, they are much cheaper there.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:15 AM on July 18, 2013

what are the best grocery stores for that?

Of the large chains, Aldi, Lidl and Morrisons are the cheaper supermarkets - they usually have a smaller selection of different brands but what they do have is cheaper than the other stores. The other large stores being - in rough order of descending priceiness: M&S, Waitrose, Sainsburys, The Co-operative, Tesco, Asda.

what are the places I can get a real cheap lunch?

Depends what you're willing to eat. McDonalds and KFC have 99p menus. Often supermarkets like Tesco/Sainsbury's/Co-op/Boots (a chemist/drug store but also sells snacks) have "meal deals" where you can get say a sandwich, packet of crisps (chips), and a bottle of drink for ~£3 which is pretty good value. I can't offer any more London-specific recommendations I'm afraid.

Free things to do: Museums museums museums! (also art galleries)

Free wifi: off the top of my head - McDonalds, Starbucks(?), other coffee places often have it too.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:17 AM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for all the lovely answers already!
Just realized another thing to add: I'm a history nut; love anything to do with the history of London
posted by smoakes at 2:18 AM on July 18, 2013

Get an Oyster card (£5 deposit) and then use it on busses.

Pro-tip: at the end of your stay you can hand back your Oyster card and get the £5 and any remaining credit back (I think they still do this right?).
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:20 AM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

EndsofInvention: Yes they still do this. Very good point.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:20 AM on July 18, 2013

First up: buy an Oyster Card. It will cost you £5 to do so. Once you have done that you can opt for pay as you go (more expensive if you use the transport network extensively) or pay weekly or monthly for your travel. If you plan to use the tube, you buy your weekly pass by zones. It will also include access to all London buses and some inner city train travel. However, it is cheaper to buy a bus pass only.

Prices for a one week tube and bus travelcard; the zones relate to tube, not bus travel (which is not zoned):

Adult Zones 1-2 - £30.40
Adult Zones 1-3 - £35.60
Adult Zones 1-4 - £43.60

You will need to look on a tube map to see where your friends live.

For reference, a 7 day bus pass is £19.60. Buses are ok for central London. A journey from zone 2 north-south will take an hour on the bus and 25 minutes on the tube. East-west journeys will take longer. So it depends on what you plan to do.

Grocery shopping: you have two options: go to a mainstream supermarket like Tesco, Sainsbury's or Asda and just buy their "basics/value" private label products, which are always priced competitively. Convenience formats of these stores tend to price their products higher. There are discount supermarkets in London. The biggest chain is Lidl.

Cheap to do: lots of the big museums/galleries like the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, V&A, Tate Modern are free to get into.

Yes, you can find free wifi. Note, unless your phone is unlocked and you buy a pay as you go (PAYG) SIM from any of the main phone stores (Carphone Warehouse, Orange, O2, Vodafone, 3) then you'll pay a lot for making calls and a hell of a lot for data on your mobile phone. I'd suggest buying a PAYG SIM as soon as possible if you need your phone. Just go into any of the main phone shops and ask for one. They are free, and then you need to buy airtime on top.

London has lots of parks etc. A good cheap option for sightseeing is to buy Time Out's London Walks book. It is a fantastic way to see the city and learn about it. Ask your friends to order it online - it is less than £5.

Don't bother with Madame Tussauds - the queue is horrific anyway. The Tower of London is £21 to get into or £18 if you are a full time student. I know you're broke, but relative to the cost of getting here if you really want to see it, I'd suck up the cost.

The real cost you'll encounter is eating out and drinking out. There are no truly cheap places to eat sitting down with quality. The cheapest places are typically greasy spoon cafes and fish and chip shops, or the fast food chains like McD's and Subway.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:20 AM on July 18, 2013

London can absolutely be done on the cheap as long as you steer clear of lots of the tourist crap in the centre. Use the buses (you must invest in and Oyster card) to get to free parks and museums, walk along the Thames from Vauxhall up to London Bridge to see the sights, bulk buy sandwich stuff from somewhere like Tesco's and be sure to carry your own water bottle.

If you're looking for fun stuff to do in the evening lots of pubs have free music, quizzes or cheap comedy. There's usually a good vibe down at the Southbank with lots of people just milling and enjoying the river. Cheap restaurants are also abundant outside the centre. Where will you be based?
posted by Dorothia at 2:22 AM on July 18, 2013

I agree that parks and museums/galleries are a good bet; if you like the history of London you would want to include the Museum of London.

The South Bank is nice just to stroll along, but it also has free events and free wifi.

If you've got the legs and the time I really recommend walking in London, especially by devious routes. It's a city that rewards walking with unexpected little discoveries.
posted by Segundus at 2:27 AM on July 18, 2013

I guess it depends on budget, there is cheap and there is wayyyy cheap.

I found it was cheap to buy prepacked food out then rather then buy a loaf of bread and prepare food for the day, bread would off quick etc

A sandwitch is a lot cheaper in london then in Australia.

I used Foursquare to find places to eat, like sandwitch stores near Universities. There was a hella cheap one near the London School of Economics from memory.

There was chain, I think it's called slug and lettuce that had cheap breakfasts. In the burbs I'd see signs for 4 pound English breakfasts.

Tall boy cans of beer were 1 pound if you looked around.
posted by Burgatron at 2:38 AM on July 18, 2013

You should go to Greenwich.
You could see the prime meridian, Greenwich observatory (where time was invented), The huge naval museum and revolutionary paris (From Les miserables).
Then you can walk through a foot tunnel under the Thames built by IK Brunel, through a farm and some nice harbours then into Canary Wharf, to the docklands museum.

I was there last month and overheard two tourists having the conversation "I don't understand... was Thatcher good or bad?" It was brilliant.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:40 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Slug and Lettuce are a sort of higher end chain pubs. If you want a cheap pub (with cheap pub food) the chain of choice would be Wetherspoons.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:41 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, seconding Just this guy's comment that many London mefites are always down for buying you a drink. If you're up for it, I'm sure suggesting a pub meetup when you arrive would be enthusiastically greeted on IRL, and we can all give you even more recommendations for cheap events.
posted by catch as catch can at 2:46 AM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

London is much more walkable than tourists who rely on the Tube realise. Or if you can borrow a bike from a friend then its even easier and cheaper to cycle. Get a good Map or A-Z and you can walk most places. And you have the time it seems.

Transport: The buses are cheaper than the tube - its a flat fare and has now gone up to £1.25 (not £0.80 as mentioned above). The tube quickly adds up. I

Free activities that are worth it:

- Walk along Regents Canal ending or starting at Primrose Hill (the view from Primrose Hill is almost as good as the London Eye and free)
- Art Galleries. Tate Modern is a must see - and the Saatchi Gallery can be good - both are free for the general collection.
- Wander around Brick Lane, Whitechapel, Tower Hamlets - get a Salt Beef Beigel with Mustard and Pickle - super cheap and sort of a local tradition.
- Wander through the City of London the banking / financial center - the Loyds TSB building and Ledenhall Market are worth the trip.
- It could be worthwhile to get a local SIM with Data plan just to use Googlemaps and TFL while you are here. It will make walking around / buses much easier. and so could easily save the costs by reducing need to take the Tube. you coudl get a SIM with about a 1Gb Data for about £10 easily.
posted by mary8nne at 2:59 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding mary8nne's comment about walkability. Sometimes it's quicker to walk from one tube station to the next than go all the way down and get the train, but tourists often don't realise this. Put your location into and you can find the route. Public libraries also have wi-fi now, and some tube stations.
posted by matthew.alexander at 3:08 AM on July 18, 2013

If you're walking and you like history (and you have a smartphone) you might like the Museum of London streetmuseum app. It's free to download and as you walk around you can use the camera on your phone to see old photographs superimposed on your current view. It's a fun little idea that won't cost you anything. Have a great time!
posted by billiebee at 3:26 AM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

As everyone says, this is seriously not going to be a problem. The museums aren't all free, but a lot of them are; there's also tons of tiny art galleries, random events, loads of stuff really.

Shops that will have a sandwich+drink+crisps or similar meal deal, if you can't find anywhere else: Boots, little versions of supermarkets like Sainsbury and Tesco (though as has been mentioned above, don't do your main grocery shopping in a small version of a chain supermarket if you can help it - it'll be much more expensive).

I'd say that a sensible thing to do would be to get a bus pass, and then because the bus is quite slow, structure your days around going to a particular place, walking around and doing all the things that general area has to offer, and then going back in the evening - a series of expeditions to different places. You could use the lists of free things to find events you're interested in and that can help you decide when to go to which places. If you like talks, sometimes has a decent selection.

Key places:


As people say, there are a ton of free events here - not just at the Southbank Centre (a big arts venue with a poetry library, free performances, installations, free wifi, plenty of places to sit, etc) but also there's the Mediatheque at the BFI (where you can go and sit for free and browse/watch really peculiar old British films) next door, there's usually an exhibition or two at the National Theatre next to that. Don't miss the roof gardens on top of Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Food is very expensive around here, and there isn't much in the way of supermarkets. If you can only be bothered taking a packed lunch once, this is probably the time.


The Shoreditch/Brick Lane/Bethnal Green sort of area has a ton of little art galleries. And there's the V&A Museum of Childhood, which is a great big museum full of strange old toys and things. And some little parks. And Brick Lane has 24-hour bagel shops that do you a cheese bagel for 80p (frequently my saviour on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when my "get the week's money out on Friday and then don't worry about it till you run out" budgetting system backfires).


The City of London is the central square mile that is now mostly offices and finance. It's got the Museum of London and a ton of tiny little museums (eg the Clockmakers' Museum, my perpetual recommendation). There's also the Barbican, another big arts venue with free wifi and a variable programme (though usually not free).

If you go to the City on the weekend it will be deserted and almost all shops will be shut, which is a bit eerie and lovely - but a weekday is better for museums being open etc. Have a look for St Dunstan's-in-the-East, a tiny park built in the ruins of a church that was destroyed during World War II.


South Kensington has the V&A, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum all in a cluster. Just up the road there's Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, which are massive and lovely; and then along to the west a bit there's Kensington High Street, which is mostly just shops but worth popping over to if you phone up in advance and find out that the Kensington Roof Gardens are open.

This whole area is another place where the food is generally very expensive, and you should plan ahead to make sure you don't end up accidentally buying a disappointing £8.50 parma-ham-and-asparagus crepe in a hunger-fuelled daze.

And there are obviously loads of possibilities, eg Chelsea (Saatchi Gallery, National Army Museum, nice walk over the river to Battersea Park with a good view of Battersea Power Station); London Bridge kind of area (Tate Modern, occasional free theatre, a nice view of the Tower over the river, Potters Fields Park, etc - this is just a ten minute walk along the river from the Southbank Centre); Greenwich (National Maritime Museum, an art gallery, a Painted Chapel, a river, a massive park).
posted by severalbees at 3:36 AM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

I know people have recommended museums already, just want to add that I could spend an entire day in the V&A Museum, and it's free.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 3:41 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

London is actually one of the best cities in the world to do on the cheap, at any time of year. It's exceptionally walkable, and almost all of the tourist attractions that are worthwhile are free:
Tate Modern
Tate Britain
The National Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery
The Science Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum
The Natural History Museum
The British Museum
The Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood

... I mean, the list goes on and on and on. Forget about Madame Tussaud's - it's completely shit. The Tower of London is best viewed from the outside anyway, although if your friends live in Tower Hamlets they can get you in for £1.

Absolutely make the Southbank Centre your base for wifi and general sitting around (no need to pay or buy drinks) and check their schedule for free concerts.

I agree that what you should be doing for food is going to a big Tesco or Sainsbury's (avoid Tesco Metro whatever you do) and looking for the basics range (Tesco Value, Tesco Market Value, Sainsbury's basics). Get bread and sandwich fillings, and then a few apples (our apples are by and large very good, look for Cox's. There should be a few coming in by August) to fill you up. Oh, and get some cheapo biscuits and cakes - swiss roll or those weird marshmallow sandwich things. If you you want the real 100% British experience, buy a £5 thermos and make yourself tea for the day.

A lot of supermarkets do lunchtime drink+sandwich+snack deals for about £3.50. Boots do a particularly good one - yes, they're a chemist's/drugstore, but they also do lunch food. Pret a Manger do £1 filter coffee which is quite good.

I agree you should have at least one day when you go to Whitechapel and Brick lane, but I'd advise having two meals there - one bagel from the bagel shop at the top of brick lane, and one biryani on Whitechapel Road from one of the hole-in-the-wall places. Also, get tea and sweets from a sweet shop - a quid and a bit, and your teeth will fall out, but very tasty.

Have fun! If you let us know where your friends are we can give you even more concrete suggestions.
posted by Acheman at 3:41 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and some of the big department stores are actually a lot of fun to wander around - everyone always goes to Harrods, but the really charming ones are Liberty (seriously amazing Arts and Crafts building) and Fortnum and Mason (I think this has the atmosphere everyone who goes to look at Harrods thinks Harrods will have).

The V&A, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum are right next door to one another and make a tremendous day out, particularly if the inner child in you likes giant whales and things. However this would be another place to BRING SANDWICHES. You do not want to be trying to find a cheap lunch in Kensington (although if you are stuck there is a massive Tesco about half an hour up the road in Earls Court)
posted by Acheman at 3:46 AM on July 18, 2013

You should definitely organise a London meetup; I'll (mostly) be around!

Buses aren't 80p anymore -- I think it's now £1.40 flat fare. The Tube costs more if you go further but I actually prefer the buses if I'm not in a hurry; you get to see more of London. They run 24/7 to basically everywhere.

If you have access to a kitchen then probably the cheapest thing is to buy a big bag of pasta (a few years ago you could get 5kg for £3) and just cook as you need. You can get cheap tupperwares at any pound store.

The bagel shop at the top of Brick Lane sells excellent bagels for 25p each. I usually buy at least a dozen and then freeze them.
posted by katrielalex at 3:51 AM on July 18, 2013

if you like the history of London you would want to include the Museum of London.

I agree - the Museum of London is fantastic. It's huge and has heaps of fascinating stuff; it's well worth the visit.

I can also highly recommend the Geffrye Museum (free) and the Old Operating Theatre Museum. The Operating Theatre Museum is not free to get in but it doesn't cost much. It's really quirky and interesting, especially if you like slightly ghoulish/creepy exhibits.

My other favourite is the National Portrait Gallery (also free). It's open late on Thursdays and Fridays, along with a lot of the other major museums & galleries, and it's usually pretty quiet during those times. When I lived in London I used to go along after work on a Thursday and have a great time.
posted by RubyScarlet at 3:56 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you do want to go out for dinner, google 2-4-1 restaurant vouchers, loads of London restaurants offer these on main courses, Ask and Pizza Express are two off the top of my head.
posted by ellieBOA at 4:03 AM on July 18, 2013

Forget about Madame Tussaud's - it's completely shit.
This ^^^^^^^^^. Over-priced, over-rated, unpleasant. You're not missing anything.

When I have visitors to London without much time or money, I usually take them on a walking tour starting at Trafalgar Square with a trip to the National Portrait Gallery; then down The Mall to Buckingham Palace, across to Parliament / Big Ben, then over the river to South Bank (perhaps taking a quick whirl on the London Eye - 10% discount with an Oyster card), along South Bank to Tate Modern and then over the Millennium Bridge to St Paul's. It's a lot of walking, but if you bring food it won't cost a penny except bus fare and you've done most of the big sites including two awesome free galleries.
posted by matthew.alexander at 4:21 AM on July 18, 2013

Come to the Inns of court! So beautiful, and free to wander (refer to my previous post here, offer for a tour still stands!)

If you did fancy a MeFi meetup how about proposing a picnic? August can be hit and miss with weather but when there's sun there are many beautiful parks in the centre that can acommodate a bit of companiable lounging for way cheaper than the pub.

Despite being a hardcore bus fan I'd definately get a weekly bus and tube oyster pass if you're in zones 1-2, just because the tubes are a key part of London and will make for quicker journeys and potentially easier navigation, at least to start with.

Yay London!
posted by freya_lamb at 4:27 AM on July 18, 2013

Everyone has covered the important places. Its worth noting that any of those museums could easily be done over several days, I don't think I've ever been to one of the tate/natural history museum/science museum and done everything I'd planned to...

One place not mentioned is Hamleys, which is a huge toy shop and awesome fun to wonder round looking at the cool things, and the shop assistants doing demonstrations of magic tricks.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 4:33 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

One or two of the mobile companies do NOT provide free WiFi, but I don't remember which.
posted by brujita at 5:11 AM on July 18, 2013

The British Library. You will be knocked out by the collection and the presentation of works.
posted by effluvia at 5:54 AM on July 18, 2013

Okay, this are a few things that help with traveling on a shoe string:

The British Library is great: it is a nice building and has little fun permanent exhibitions for free. There are free lockers downstairs and free water coolers, so you can fill up a bottle for the day. There is a cafe inside and there is free WiFi (you can register on the website).

The Wellcome Library is nice, it requires (free) membership registration and offers free WiFi.

The dana centre offers free internet access and computers. There are comfy couches/seating areas upstairs and a nice cafe downstairs.

The South Bank Centre is laid back, can be busy as it offers many free events. One can hang out there a while and use their free WiFi.

Keep in mind with all the walking and exploring it's nice to just sit down for a while and relax. All of those places are good for that.

Check out couchsurfing for free events, meetups with some fellow travelers and locals (many people use it just for the social aspect, you don't have to sleep at their place).
posted by travelwithcats at 6:01 AM on July 18, 2013

Groupon , Lastminute etc? There's a "Free Beer App" ("free" as is "buy one drink, get one beer free").

Visit this pop-up mall in Shoreditch: "BOXPARK is constructed of stripped, and refitted shipping containers, creating unique, low cost, low risk pop-up stores. Filled with a mix of fashion and lifestyle brands, galleries, cafés and resaurants – BOXPARK places local and global brands side-by-side, creating a unique shopping and dining destination."

Some cafes and restaurants have a "bring your own bottle"-policy (random example), and usually you can buy something to drink at a supermarket or an off-licence next door.
posted by iviken at 6:09 AM on July 18, 2013

The two most helpful things we had on our vacation were apps. The Cloud Fast Connect will tell you where the closest free wifi is. Works great, most of the time you can just walk a few steps and stand outside the business to get in the wifi range. I think we had to sign up ahead of time, but it worked great. Next was the Citymapper app. You just enter your destination and you get times, distances, and all the transportation directions. Very simple to use and an absolute timesaver. The two together were pretty much idiot-proof.
posted by raisingsand at 6:20 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sandeman's London have good free and paid walking tours of London with young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides. The free tours work on a 'tip if you liked it' basis. I went on the free tour in London and a few other cities in Europe - definitely recommended
posted by tillwehavefaces at 6:33 AM on July 18, 2013

This was a slightly different question but there are some good answers in here about free/cheap things to do in London.

If you're interested in classical/orchestral music the BBC Proms will be on while you're in town and you can queue on the day for £5 standing tickets.
posted by lizabeth at 6:35 AM on July 18, 2013

Taking a break: note that the deck chairs in London parks are for hire. Park benches and sitting on the grass are free.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:52 AM on July 18, 2013

Seconding Sandeman's London. I've done three of their tours, including the London one, and all were top-notch. Definitely recommend those.
posted by Tamanna at 7:09 AM on July 18, 2013

Sir John Soane's Museum is another fascinating and free addition to the museum list. Already mentioned, but the Museum of London is my absolute favorite.

Look out for jacket potatoes if you want a hot meal-- it's a big baked potato with filling like beans and/or cheese on the inside, often served with a bit of lettuce. They're usually quite cheap and very filling.

(If you want to go really, really cheap and if you like peanut butter, I would just pack some along for sandwiches and more filling snacks on the go. British peanut butter is rubbish and it's much more expensive.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:17 AM on July 18, 2013

If you want to do the touristy things, but have a budget, look into the London Pass to see if things are worth it. Also, in some of these places, you'll be able to skip the line, which may be worth something.

Here are things that are included that I really enjoyed:

Westminster Abbey
Tower of London
Apsley House

Here are things on the pass that I'll be doing the next time I'm in London:

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre Tour
The Old Operating Theatre Museum
Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising

It's £102 ($155) for a 6-day pass, but that's a real bargain if you total up what it would cost to see these things separately.

There are a bazillion things you'll be able to get into, and some neat sounding tours.

One thing I will caution against, your brain will automatically register pounds as dollars. So you'll look at a menu and see £5 and you'll think, "Hey! Bargain!" In reality, that's $7.50 and perhaps, not so much.

I like Tesco's scones for breakfast. Tasty.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:12 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

As you like history, take the Samuel Pepys London Walk, directions/background available for free here.

Hint: either print the pdf before you go or modify it somehow for mobile phone use. Reading the pdf on your phone is not fun.
posted by Skyanth at 8:12 AM on July 18, 2013

Rent a bike.
posted by iviken at 9:32 AM on July 18, 2013

When I lived in London (15 years ago, so I won't try to give specific recommendations), I was working, but could only earn a specific amount of money before I went home. I remember weeks at the end where I literally didn't have a pound. So I'd basically just walk. We had a flat, so I didn't have to eat out, but I'd go to the free museums, meet my friends, just wander really. It's such a walkable city, why not?

Have a great time! I'm insanely envious.
posted by pyjammy at 11:22 AM on July 18, 2013

I actually prefer the buses if I'm not in a hurry; you get to see more of London. They run 24/7 to basically everywhere.

Also, much cooler in summer weather, as London's population is very much aware right now. Though summer may not last into August.
posted by holgate at 12:43 PM on July 18, 2013

Skip the Tower of London which is only ok and is insane with tourists. The price is truly outrageous for what you get. You must, must, must go see the Museum of London - free admission, right on the old (excavated) city wall, buckets of history. It's fantastic. Also recommend the V&A and the Science Museum - lots on the history of science (also free).

The Globe is cool, but I really liked the open air theatre in the Rose Garden in Regent's Park. They have The Sound of Music on in August, which may not be your cup of tea.

You can download audio tour podcasts - I was there before I was a big podcast listener, but I like listening to them even without being in London. :)

One of the cool places I really enjoyed walking around was the canals of Little Venice (can you tell I was based around Regent's Park) - very picturesque area.
posted by clerestory at 3:35 PM on July 18, 2013

+1 to all the above.

Cheap pre-made sandwiches can be had at Boots (the chemist/drugstore). Pret a Manger (upmarket sandwich chain) has some nice food at lower price points, though most of it's expensive. In the big backpacker districts, there are lots of 'greasy spoons' offering cheap breakfasts, often large enough serves to preculde the need for lunch.

Walking around at night (keeping your wits about you, obviously) is also a great activity.

The Prince Charles Cinema at Leicester Square is the cheapest of the cinemas in central London.

The LSE has a fantastic program of guest speakers on a range of topics, all free.

If you like classical music, St Martin In the Fields church in Trafalgar Square has free lunch-time concerts and cheap evening ones. You'll also be in London when The Proms are on - that's a classical concert for a fiver.

If you think you might want to go to the theatre, look for ones that advertise a "rush" or "student rush" - these are cheap tickets sold on the day of the event. The Half-Price Ticket Booth also has cheaper tickets to the big theatres. Also try the theatres outside the West End - the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn or the Man In The Moon in Chelsea are both good.

Many of the big churches/cathedrals charge tourists to enter, but they don't charge for services - if you don't mind sitting through the service you can have a good look at the interior from your pew and wander around for half an hour of so afterwards without paying.
posted by girlgenius at 8:19 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I couldn't see this mentioned above but may have missed it: the all-day travel card fee, (which is the maximum you'll pay from your Oyster card for however many trips you take within zones 1-3 or whatever) drops significantly in price after 9:30am, iirc. That applies to tube but I'm not sure about buses. Just don't make your first trip of the day until after then.

Also, some unsolicited advice: try not to complain too much about how expensive everything is to the friends you're staying with. Unless they're well off, they'll already be well aware of it. When I was first settled in London and still reeling from the cost of living, i had several friends visit from overseas and take their free-accommodation holiday at my house while I was trudging off to work everyday to pay the crazy high rent. while it was great to see them, when they whinged endlessly about the cost of everything, I found it slightly galling.
posted by 8k at 3:00 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Lots of people have mentioned how walkable London is. One of the contributing factors, at least for geographically-challenged me, is that there are streetside maps all over the place to help you keep your bearings. Most of them are associated with stands of Boris Bikes, and they're oriented the way you're facing, i.e. "up" on the map is not north, but straight ahead. They show you where you can walk to in 5 minutes and in 15 minutes, and they're incredibly useful, especially if you don't have a smartphone or don't have data for it.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 12:48 PM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

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