20 Secret Bargains of London

Insider tips on how to save cold cash in Cool Britannia's red-hot capital

By Kate Spicer, Friday, Jun 10, 2005, 12:00 PM

There's just nothing in the world like my hometown - the architecture, the colorful street life, the even more colorful nightlife, the rainbow of eccentric and fairly friendly inhabitants, and better dining than at any time in its history (no cracks, please). Sadly, Cool Britannia has earned another nickname courtesy of our local tabloids: "Rip-off Britain." But the truth is that especially away from the touristy downtown areas, London doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. If you aren't afraid to take the bus, the train, the tube, or to arm yourself with a street map and walk, you can dig up some brilliant bargains in exciting places. (To call London from the United States, first dial 011-44-20. From within the U.K., first dial 020 for London; for other cities, dial 0 before the city code.)

Notes from the Underground

No question, the best way to get around is the weekly Travelcard (you'll need a passport photo to get one), which covers the Underground (the world's most extensive subway system), those red double-decker buses, and British Rail trains - especially good for navigating the further reaches of town. If you plan to explore only central London, buy a Zone One unlimited travel pass for £15.30 ($22.25); other passes cover up to six zones (£35.40/$51.50), but four will get you pretty much anywhere you'd want to go except Heathrow. The cards are available at all train and tube stations and tourist offices. There's also a transport advice line (7222-1234) to help you get exactly where you want to go.

Tips on the Thames

Get started even before you leave the States, by visiting the vast londontown.com (which also has special offers on lodging and events) or calling the British Tourist Authority at 877/899-8931 for a free info pack; ask for the brochures Where to Stay on a Budget 2001 and the London Planner. Once over here, there's lots of useful help at the London Tourist Board's main information center at Victoria train station (whose tube station has the same name) and the Britain Visitor Centre at 1 Regent Street: mostly leaflets, booking services for tours and bus trips, and accommodation services. The weekly Time Out (£1.95/$2.85) still runs the top listings guide, but several newspapers now publish their own; the best is "Hot Tickets," free with the Evening Standard (35p/50cents) on Thursdays. The free morning newspaper Metro (available at tube stations) also has listings for that day.

Cafe society

Remember the scruffy local eatery that features prominently on the Brit soap EastEnders? (You can frequently find the series stateside on public TV.) Colloquially known as "caffs," these cafes are the English version of diners - a real blue-collar experience, with simple food and sometimes gruff service. Here, they close at 6 p.m. and are beloved by construction workers and celebs alike. An all-day breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, and toast hovers around the £3 ($4.35) mark; make sure you try some "bubble and squeak" (fried mashed potatoes and cabbage, very tasty local delicacy) with your brekkie. I recommend Mike's Cafe (12 Blenheim Cres., Notting Hill, W11; tube: Notting Hill or Ladbroke Grove), Borough Cafe (11 Park St., around the corner from Borough Market, SE1; tube/train: London Bridge), Dishes Cafe (23 Cromwell Rd., near the Natural History Museum, SW7; tube/train: South Kensington), and Mario's Cafe (6 Kelly St., near Camden Market, NW1; tube: Kentish Town/Camden).

Dorm-a-rama

Even cheaper lodging options? Try university residence halls, which offer a bed and a full English breakfast in clean, simple twins with a washbasin in the room, and shared bath, kitchen, and TV facilities during vacation periods (generally mid-April and mid-June through September) in very central locations. Best picks: the beautiful Wellington Hall (71 Vincent Sq., SW1; 7834-4740, tube: Victoria) with twin rooms at £42 ($61), breakfast included; Great Dover Apartments (165 Great Dover St., SE1; 7407-0068, tube: Borough) has twin rooms with private bath (or, as the English refer to it, "en suite") at £47 ($68). Both of the above are available through King's Conference and Vacation Bureau (7848-1700), vac.bureau@kcl.ac.uk. Wigram House (84-99 Ashley Gardens, SW1, 7911-5796, comserv@westminster.ac.uk; tube/train: Victoria), with twins from £48 ($70.50), about 20 percent more for ages 27 and over. Year-round, the London Hostels Association (7828-3263) has a roster of ten centrally located, pleasantly sedate - i.e. not full of boozy Aussies - hostels with weekly double rates from o88 ($128) per person (usually breakfast and dinner included). The rock-bottom option is Tent City Acton (Old Oak Common Ln., W3, 8376-3432, tentcity@btinternet.com, home.fastnet.co.uk/iandavey; tube: East Acton), open June to September, with beds in big dorm-style tents from o6 per person ($8.75).

To B&B or not to B&B

Pricewise, London's a tough hotel town, especially if you're looking for anything central. You could stay in the local branch of the Travel Inn chain (London County Hall, Belvedere Rd., SE1, in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament, 7902-1600; tube: Waterloo), where two adults and two kids will pay £69.95 ($103) a night. But bed-and-breakfasts offer charm as well as savings. A top central choice is 78 Albert Street in hip, young Camden, NW1 (7387-6813, fax 7387-1704, peterbelldesign@pobox.com; tube: Camden), with doubles from £80 ($118). But the Underground makes it easy to hang your derby just outside overpriced central London. An award-winning, typically English B&B (run by a Frenchman!) is Highfield Guest House (12 Dowanhill Rd., SE6, 8698-8038, highfieldbb.co.uk), whose doubles start at £47 ($68) a night; take the BritRail train from Charing Cross station to Hither Green. In the North: Kandara Guesthouse (68 Ockendon Rd., N1, 7226-5721, kandara.co.uk), also with doubles from £49 ($70) and reachable via tube (Angel or Highbury & Islington) or the 73 or 38 bus into the West End. In the West, Kensington Guest House (72 Holland Park Ave., W11, 7460-7080, hotelondon.co.uk; tube: Holland Park) has doubles from £60 ($85), in-room cooking facilities, and a lovely setting near Notting Hill; bus 94 goes straight to the West End.

Frugal fashion

In London's markets, rummage and people-watch where well-known designers get their inspiration (and find cafes and stalls where you can chow down for a couple of pounds). Best for fashion, jewelry, and antiques are Camden on weekends (tube: Camden) and Portobello Road on Saturdays (tube: Notting Hill Gate or Ladbroke Grove). At the Sunday-morning madness of Brick Lane in E1 (tube: Liverpool St., then bus 8 towards Shoreditch), anything and everything's sold on a street lined with cheap Indian restaurants and the legendary Beigel Bake (159 Brick Lane, E1, 7729-0616), where a smoked-salmon-and-cream-cheese bagel is yours for 95 pence ($1.40). A short walk away is the Columbia Road flower market; grab a coffee and people-watch. For a reggae-flavored scene, cheap Afro-Caribbean eats, and fabrics, check out Brixton Market daily except Sunday on Electric Avenue (tube: Brixton).

Picnic picks

You're never far from a green space in London, so pick up a picnic from a supermarket like Tesco (18 Warwick Way, Victoria, SW1; 224 Portobello Rd., Notting Hill, W11; 22 Bedford St., Covent Garden, WC2); Sainsbury's (17 Camden Rd., Camden, NW1; 15 Tottenham Court Rd., West End, W1; 31 Liverpool Rd., Islington, N1; 158 Cromwell Rd., South Kensington, SW7); or Safeway (35 Kings Rd., Chelsea, SW3; 159 Edgeware Rd., W2; 150 Kensington High St., Kensington, W8). Expect to pay about 40p for a small baguette; at the deli counter it'll cost £2 for a tasty piece of cheese, o1 for a small tub of olives, £1.50 for five slices of good ham, and 40p per piece for spicy finger food. Buy a decent bottle of wine for £3.99 ($6) from Oddbins, the ubiquitous vintners' chain, and head off. My alfresco favorites: classic Regent's Park (tube: Regent's Park); wild and rugged Richmond Park (tube: Richmond); and St. James Park, an oasis in the shadow of Buckingham Palace, with free concerts in the summer (tube: St James's Park).

Double-decker dandies

For a fare of £1 ($1.45) or included on the Travelcard, public bus 11 does a grand tour from the Kings Road past Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, and Big Ben on to St. Paul's Cathedral and the City (London's Wall Street). Number 8 goes down Piccadilly and through the splendor of Mayfair to the City and on to the very different East End; hop off for a curry in one of the always cheap Indian eateries on Brick Lane.

Highbrow freebies

The events section of Time Out (see above) doles out info on free readings in pubs and bookshops, along with lunchtime concerts in churches. Most major museums and art galleries are also free; central London's finest are the National Gallery (Trafalgar Sq., WC2, 7747-2885; tube: Leicester Square, Charing Cross); the National Portrait Gallery (St. Martin's Pl., WC2, 7306-0055, tube: Leicester Square, Charing Cross); the British Museum (Great Russell St., WC1, 7323-8000; tube: Tottenham Court Rd.); the Tate Britain (Millbank, SW1, 7887-8000; tube: Pimlico); the exciting new Tate Modern (Bankside, SE1, 7887-8008; tube: Southwark, Blackfriars); and the Natural History Museum (Cromwell Rd., SW7, 7942-5000, tube: South Kensington), free after 4:30 p.m. (and possibly offering free admission this spring). Buy a London Pass for free entrance to over 60 attractions: art galleries, museums, river cruises, cycle tours, palaces, zoos, and historic buildings (even go-karting!), as well as unlimited travel. Cost: £22 ($32) daily, £79 ($112) weekly-never buy a Travelcard if you plan on getting a weekly London Pass! (info: 870/242-9988, londonpass.com). The GoSee card (no longer sold after March 31) gives unlimited access to 17 major museums and galleries for o16 ($23) for three days, o26 ($38) for a week (7923-0807 or 800/869-8184 from the U.S., londongo see.com).

Mansions for misers

A visit to Buckingham Palace (tel. 7839-1377) is a stiff o11 ($16) and Hampton Court (tel. 8781-9500) is £10.50 ($15.50), but smaller, just-as-magnificent palaces and stately homes are much more reasonable. The medieval and art deco Eltham Palace (Courtyard, SE9, 8294-2548, tube: Eltham) is £6 ($8.75); the eighteenth-century Osterley Park House (Jersey Rd., Isleworth, 8232-5050; tube: Osterley) costs £4.30 ($6.50), £1 off with a Travelcard; another eighteenth-century villa, Kenwood House (Hampstead Ln., NW3, 8348-1286, tube: Hampstead, or bus 210 from Golders Green or Archway) is free. Romantic poet John Keats' home (Wentworth Place, Keats Grove, NW3, 7435-2062, tube: Hampstead) costs £3 ($4.50) and offers special readings on Wednesday evenings (closed for renovation until May 1, 2001); Leighton House, the opulent nineteenth-century home of the Victorian artist Lord Leighton (12 Holland Park Rd., W14, 7602-3316, tube: High St. Kensington or buses 9 or 10).

Won't you take me to funky town

Out-of-towners tend to be wary of what's outside central London (much as New York visitors quail at the thought of venturing outside Manhattan). But what they find, very often, are lovely neighborhoods, a more stately pace, and low prices. One example of a still-untouristed region: Islington (tube: Angel), with its copious and elegant Georgian and Victorian architecture, as well as an antiques market at Camden Passage that hums on Wednesdays and Saturdays. My local restaurant pick: the vibrant Afghan Kitchen (35 Islington Green, 7359-8019), where a full dinner will set you back around £7 ($10.25). For a semi-rural excursion, riverside Richmond in Surrey (the tube or train station: Richmond) has Richmond Park, the hunting ground of Henry VIII (still teeming with deer) and the magnificent Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (Kew Rd., Kew, Surrey, 8940-1171, admission: £5 ($7.50); tube: Kew Gardens). Prime spot for a lunchtime snack is the riverside pub the White Cross (Water Ln., 8940-6844), where the chef is terrific-and the sausage and mash (as we call mashed potatoes) costs £5.50 ($8), a Sunday roast beef plate £6.50 ($9.50). A few other areas worthy of an excursion: Hampstead, Camden, Battersea, Clapham, Hoxton, and Shoreditch.

Pub-a-dub-dub

London's old Victorian pubs may be regal watering holes, but these days they're often notoriously overpriced. For value (bitter for as little as £1.64/$2.40, for example), the name to look for on signs is Samuel Smiths Brewery; their Princess Louise (208 High Holborn, WC1, 7405-8816, tube: Holborn) in the West End, near the British Museum, is all engraved mirrors and gilt ceilings. "Gastropubs" (those serving full meals) also tend to be pricey, but there are a few exceptions, such as the Dartmouth Arms (35 York Rise, NW5, 7485-3267; tube: Tufnell Park), whose daytime menu serves up robust main courses around the o6 to o8 ($8.75-$11.50) mark.

Staged cheapies

See all those reduced and half-price theater tickets advertised downtown? Stay away! Very rarely are they bona-fide bargains. You'll only get genuine reductions by visiting the booth on the south side of Leicester Square (Mon. to Sat. noon-6:30 p.m., Sunday noon-3 p.m.; tube: Leicester Square) and checking out the same-day bargains. The Royal Opera House (Covent Garden, Bow St., WC2, 7304-4000, fax: 7212-9460; tube: Covent Garden), where seats are often in excess of £100, has free lunchtime concerts in the Vilar Floral Hall. A limited number of seats are available for the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet (both based at the Opera House) on the day of performance for £4 ($5) and £3 ($4.50) respectively; arrive at least one hour before the box office opens at 10 a.m. to buy tickets.

Hey, make me over

Go home with a hot British look by asking for a makeover at the cosmetic counters of one of the city's larger department stores like Debenhams, Selfridges, or House of Fraser on Oxford Street (tube: Bond St., Oxford Circus), Barkers on High Street Kensington (tube of same name), and Dickens and Jones on Regent Street (tube: Oxford Circus). It won't cost you a penny and you are under no obligation to buy afterwards (if you get a hard sell, just say you want to "live" with the look for a couple of hours!). For younger looks, try the new cosmetics concessions in glamorous Harvey Nichols (Knightsbridge, SW1; tube: Knightsbridge); names to look for are Stila, M.A.C., Chantecaille, Trish McEvoy, and Shu Uemura. Get a haircut for £16.50 ($24) or color for £17.50 ($25.75) from students at Vidal Sassoon's salons (a fifth of the normal price for coloring, less than half the regular price of a cut) by calling 7318-5205. (Metro and other papers also run vouchers for even greater discounts.)

Walk this way

At the tourist office, pick up the map to the "London Silver Jubilee Walkway," a 12-mile circular walk marked by 400 silver discs set in the sidewalk and taking in great local views and landmarks. Alternatively, consult the "Around Town" section of Time Out for info on the many guided walks available, and choose your theme, be it spooky, regal, or downright titillating. The best guides work for Original London Walks (7624-3978, walks.com, charging £5 ($7.25) for two hours.

Fishin' & chippin', mate

At its best, Britain's national dish can be a revelation (though the English lament that their "chip shops" aren't what they used to be). Top-notch chippies charging £4 to £6 ($5.75 to $9) include: Brady's (513 Old York Rd., SW18; train: Wandsworth Town or buses 28 and 44); Golden Hind (73 Marylebone Ln., W1; tube: Baker St. or Bond St.); Fryer's Delight (19 Theobald's Rd., WC1; tube: Chancery Lane, Holborn); Fish Central (149-151 Central St., EC1; tube: Angel, Barbican); and Costas Fish Restaurant (18 Hillgate St., W8; tube: Notting Hill).

Tubing it into town

If you land at Heathrow Airport, buy a Travelcard (see above) at the airport's tube (Underground) station and get on the dark blue Piccadilly Line, which cuts through town from west to east; a single ride from airport to city center costs £3.50 ($5). Or pick up the A2 bus for £7 ($10.25) each way, £10 ($14.75) round-trip from bus stops outside all four Heathrow terminals (they are well-signposted); it will take you west through town to Kings Cross with regular stops at downtown points such as Kensington, Marble Arch, and Baker St. The costher but more elegant Heathrow Express train (heathrowexpress.co.uk) zips fast and direct from Terminals 2 and 4; follow Heathrow Express signs in all terminals, to Paddington Station in 15 minutes for £12 ($17.50) each way - which is still cheaper than a o40/$59 taxi, as well as gratifyingly short after an all-night flight in from the colonies; at Paddington, taxi dispatchers can often match you up with passengers going in the same direction, saving money on cab fare. Relatively few U.S. flights land at London's other airports; the cheapest way into town from the next-most popular, Gatwick, is the hourly Flightline bus service to Victoria Station for £11 ($16) round-trip.

Dinner for a tenner (or less)

Some of the cheapest food in town is ethnic. Centrale (16 Moor St., W1, tube: Leicester Square or Tottenham Court Rd.) and Pollo (20 Old Compton St., W1, tube: Leicester Square) in downtown Soho have Italian main courses for around £5 ($7.50) a head, as do the ubiquitous chains, Bella Pasta, and Spaghetti House. Topkapi (25 Marylebone High St., W1; tube: Baker St., Bond St.) and Sofra (1 St. Christopher St., W1; tube: Bond St.) do tasty Turkish fare starting at £7. Moroccan Tagine (95 Golbourne Rd., W10, tube: Ladbroke Grove) features Moroccan entrees for under £7 ($10). Bhelpoori House (93 Chapel Market, N1, 7833-1167; tube: Angel) is London's cheapest all-you-can-eat Indian spot at £3.50 ($5) per person. Sushi-Hiro (1 Station Parade, Uxbridge Rd., W5, tube: Ealing Common) has some of the best sushi in town, with set lunches that start at £5 ($7.50). For more restaurant details and recommendations, call Restaurant Services (8888-8080), which will also book for you. You might also check out the London dining article in BT's September/October 2000 issue.

A jolly good clubbing

Nightclubs can be madly expensive, but early in the week prices drop; for example, the jazzy beats and funky hip-hop of Bar Rumba's "This!" on Monday nights costs £4 ($5.80; 36 Shaftesbury Ave., W1, 7287-2715; tube: Piccadilly Circus). For a trendy crowd jumping to barroom favorites (from rock and roll to current chart-toppers Morcheeba) go for "8 Ball" at The Elbow Room on Tuesday nights, free before 10 p.m., o1 after (89-91 Chapel Market, NW1, 7278-3244; tube: Angel). The Dogstar buzzes every night of the week and is always free (389 Coldharbour Ln., SW9, 7733 7515; tube: Brixton), as is the funky Herbal (12/14 Kingsland Rd., Shoreditch, E2, 7613-4462; tube: Old St. (Take the Hoxton Square exit and walk to the end of Old St.) Lots of smaller pub venues have up to four good bands in a night, the beer is cheap, and entrance is between £3 and £5 ($4.35-$7.25). Who knows-you may catch the next Morcheeba! The best venues for rock are: Archway Tavern (often free entrance before 10 p.m., Archway Roundabout, N19, 7272-2840; tube: Archway); Water Rats (328 Gray's Inn Rd., WC1, 7436-7211; tube: Kings Cross); Lil' Backyard Club at Fitz & Firkin (240 Great Portland St., W1, 7387-0221; tube: Great Portland St.); The Monarch (49 Chalk Farm Rd., NW1, 7916-1049; tube: Chalk Farm); and Dublin Castle (94 Parkway, NW1, 8806-2668; tube: Camden).

By the beautiful sea

Possibly the world's first seaside resort, Brighton's pebbly beaches have been popular since 1750 and have recently once again become the favored weekend haunt of tout London. It's the perfect day trip: small, welcoming, with funky street life and gorgeous architecture. The Royal Pavilion (4-5 Pavilion Buildings, Brighton, tel. 1273/290-900), George V's impossibly lavish Oriental-style former palace, is legitimately one of Britain's most impressive attractions; entrance costs £4.90 ($7.25), but it is worth paying an extra £1.25 ($1.80) for the guided tours at 11.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. The rest of your day trip need cost nothing; amble around the town's pretty, narrow streets, on the beach, and along Brighton Pier. You can also hire a deck chair (£1 or so) and park easy with a cone of chips from a beachside stall. Numerous restaurants and cafes extend great lunchtime deals; you're guaranteed a blowout with the all-you-can-eat buffet, £4.95 ($7.25) at Bombay Aloo (39 Ship St., Brighton, 1273/776-038). Buses are the cheapest way to make the trip, leaving hourly from Victoria Coach Station (a short walk from the train station). Call National Express Coaches (tel. 8705/808-080 or gobycoach.com) or book from home at 540/298-1395 or online at britbus.com (for a 10 percent discount off the usual £12.50, or $18.50). Trains leave Victoria rail station twice hourly and cost £13.70 ($20.25); call 345/484-950. Visit visit brighton.com or call the tourist office at 906/711-2255 from the U.K. only.