London on the cheap

By Alex Robertson

Alex Robertson sniffs out some bargains in what can be an expensive city to visit.

Cycling through Hyde Park.
Cycling through Hyde Park.

With over 15 million visitors in 2012, London is the top tourist destination in Europe. It's easy to see why, with its mixture of historic and cultural centres as well as being a major focus for fashion, music and contemporary style.

But when competing for space with over eight million permanent residents, commuters and tourists, market forces come into play, making for an expensive holiday.

Some costs are difficult to cut - accommodation will take up most of your budget, unless you have friends with a spare room - but there are ways of enjoying London without spending a fortune. Here are a few ideas to make your money go a little further.

EATING OUT

London boasts some of the world's coolest restaurants (think The Ivy and Le Gavroche) and celebrity chefs like Marco Pierre-White and New Zealand's Peter Gordon. And though you may not fancy eating an arm and a leg, you might end up paying one just to get the standard three squares.

Here's how you can fill-up without cleaning-out:

Pod is the uber-trendy wholefood and conscientious cafe chain, where you can breakfast on scrambled eggs with spinach, tomatoes, chilli and feta on wholegrain toast for £3.75 or organic porridge with a choice of toppings - muscovado being my favourite - for £2.25. The nutty, full-bodied fair-trade coffee has good acidity and a great price at £1.35 per cup, 30p for an extra shot, and they'll add a little more water if you prefer a long black. Healthy, wholefood and organic snacks and lunches are also available for not a lot of dosh.

Chinatown in London's Soho district has always been a favourite for cheap and tasty eats. Take your pick from the many restaurants crammed along Gerrard St and adjoining roads. My recent visit to the Four Seasons cost £20 for a quarter crispy duck, a prawn dumpling soup noodle and a pot of Chinese tea, including a 15 per cent gratuity. The dining rooms were busy, bustling and steamy.

You can tell a good Chinese restaurant by the Chinese diners: many customers will be speaking Mandarin.

Itsu is a Californian import that serves Japanese-inspired raw fish, nori rolls and healthy salads in pre-prepared, ready to roll packages. The seafood is fresh and well-presented as are the salad ingredients; the dressings are tasty and low-fat and healthy teas and other beverages are available. Better value and healthier than rival chain Pret-a-Manger.

GETTING AROUND

Car hire is expensive, as are taxis. You're on holiday, so take your time:

An Oyster Card will cost you a refundable £5 (hand it back in at the end of your stay) plus travel costs, the most cost-effective being the travel card option. If you're staying within zones 1 and 2 it'll cost you £30 for unlimited travel on buses, tubes and overground trains: trains and tubes for getting somewhere fast; buses for the slower, more scenic option and short hops. Get on the top deck, grab your copy of the Rough Guide to London and you've saved £30 on a guided bus tour.

London boasts a cycle sharing scheme nicknamed "Boris Bikes" after mayor Boris Johnson under whose tenure they were introduced. The initial hiring process is a little complicated, but take the time to follow through the instructions and you'll soon be freewheeling through the streets. If you make half-hour hops and wait five minutes before retrieving your bike, you can get a whole day for a pound. That's cheap transport.

If you're nervous in heavy traffic, stick to the many cycle paths that have sprung up over recent years. Best of all, stick to the great parks.

COMMUNICATIONS

As soon as possible, get to a supermarket and buy a prepay SIM card. For £10 T-mobile offers 1 gig of data, 100 minutes calling and unlimited texts so you can surf the web and keep in touch for the price of a round of drinks.

ABLUTIONS

Spending a penny in the capital will cost you anywhere between 30p and a pound to use public loos. If you're caught short and don't fancy a pint (pubs are great in so many ways) pop in to the nearest department store and avail yourself of their facilities. The standard varies according to the store: Marks & Spencer are functional and clean; Selfridges have nice smelling soaps; and the lighting in John Lewis will make you look like a model.

SIGHTSEEING

If churches and historic monuments are your thing, then London is right up your alley. However, many now charge for entry: Westminster Abbey wants £18 and you queue for half an hour for the privilege.

There are still many places you can go without filling-up the collection plate:

Westminster Cathedral may not be as historic or architecturally significant as its Anglican cousin, but is worth a visit nonetheless and it's free. Designed by John Francis Bentley in the early Christian Byzantine style, the foundation stone was laid in 1895 and it opened for worship in 1903. The interior is a vast dome-covered space that focuses the eye on to the sanctuary and high altar with walls and pillars covered in mosaics depicting scenes from the Bible and dedications to God. The ceilings will eventually be covered in mosaics, an illustration of which can be seen near the entrance. The cathedral also boasts a tower, accessed by a lift, from which London can be seen for just a fiver, making this a great alternative not just to the Abbey, but also to the London Eye.

Other churches worth a look in Central London are Sir Christopher Wren's St Clement Danes at The Strand and St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square.

GALLERIES AND MUSEUMS

Many of the major public galleries and museums are free, though they do ask for donations. The downside is that they're overcrowded and exhibition spaces are often reduced in favour of limited-run shows that are expensive to visit and usually sell-out in advance: The National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum, British Museum and the Tate Modern Gallery are all cases in point. Get off the beaten track and expand your mind at these less-visited and less expensive options:

The Tate Gallery on Millbank contains the most comprehensive collection of British art from the Renaissance to modern day anywhere on the planet. The purpose-built, high-ceiling galleries naturally lit from above offer perfect light and plenty of room to move around. You will definitely find something to blow your mind here, not least the JWM Turner collection in the Clore Gallery, boasting the world's largest collection of his work.

Somerset House, a beautiful neo-classical palace designed by Sir William Chambers in 1776, used to be the repository for births, deaths and marriages. These days the riverside site is a centre for culture and the arts. There's always a free exhibition or two and guided tours of the building.

Fountains at Somerset House.
Fountains at Somerset House.

One of the gems of what makes Britain British can be found at the Sir John Soane's Museum in Holborn. Soane was an architect, artist, collector and man of letters who designed the original Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery - a major influence on art gallery design. He amassed an enormous collection of sculptures, architectural details and artefacts all of which are crammed into his eccentric and beautifully decorated Georgian terrace house on Lincoln's Inn Fields.

OUTDOORS

Britain isn't known for its great weather. However, when the sun comes out, so does every person and their pooch. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em:

Portobello Market is world famous; hundreds of thousands of people visit every year just to see what its all about. Originally an antique and collectors' market, stalls now run all the way from Notting Hill to the Goldborne Rd and beyond offering great food, new and secondhand fashions, hard-to-find and collectors records and CDs and curios and souvenirs to take back home. You could spend a week here and not see it all. The full market runs Fridays and Saturdays and is a great place to pick up a picnic if the weather's good enough for the next venture.

Hyde Park and the adjacent Kensington Gardens, slap bang in the middle of London, have a combined 2.5 sq km of formal gardens, lakes, playing fields, wild areas and places to ride your horse. Great sculptures are dotted around - some permanent, some temporary - and cycle paths criss-cross the whole.

It's also the best place in town for your daily run - where you may even be jogging shoulders with a celebrity or two.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand operates a daily service from Auckland to London via Los Angeles.

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