London: A royal (but cheap) expedition
God save the queen, and maybe a few pounds - sterling, that is.
London may have a deserved reputation for being royally expensive, but by taking advantage of the free museums and sights in the historic capital, tourists won’t necessarily leave town feeling like paupers.
If you want to experience the workings of Parliament, you can sit in on debates for free. For a taste of true parliamentary banter, go to the prime minister’s Question Time, which takes place Wednesdays when Parliament is in session. Only U.K. residents can get advance tickets, so be prepared to wait in line (parliament.uk).
To get an up-close look at the Tower of London without paying the $30 admission, go to the Ceremony of the Keys. You won’t be able to go inside the tower, but you’ll be part of the 700-year-old tradition of locking up each night. You will need to submit a written request for tickets two to three months in advance (hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon).
Most of London’s major museums are free. The British Museum (britishmuseum.org), Science Museum (science museum.org.uk), Victoria & Albert (www.vam.ac.uk) and other state-supported museums have free admission every day. They get crowded as the day goes on, so try to go early. And keep those free museums in mind when you need a restroom.
When you need a break from all the sightseeing, try venturing north of the central city to Hampstead Heath. The 791-acre park has ponds, trails and ample space for a picnic on Parliament Hill, which offers great views of London’s skyline.
Or head to Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park, at Park Lane and Cumberland Gate, across from the Marble Arch tube stop. The corner is a gathering place for people to speak their minds on politics, religion and everything else. Go on Sunday (royalparks.org.uk/ hyde).
London is known for its drama, but tickets for West End shows are on par with Broadway and can cost more than $100. To go on the cheap, purchase tickets the day of the show at the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square (solt.co.uk).
Take in some Shakespeare at the Globe, where standing tickets will cost about $10. The 2009 season runs April 23 to Oct. 10. You’ll get to experience the play as a groundling - as they were called in Shakespeare’s day - and have the performance take place around you. But come prepared: You’ll be standing for the entire performance - usually around three hours - and you’ll be exposed to the weather (including rain) at this open-air theater (shakespeares-globe.org).
If Shakespeare’s not your scene, check out the Royal Court Theatre, a two-theater venue dedicated to producing new plays. All tickets on Mondays are about $20. For theatergoers younger than 27, $10 tickets are available every day for plays in the downstairs theater (www.royalcourttheatre.com).
Pop into a pub for a meal and a pint. You’ll get to enjoy some iconic British grub - fish and chips, meat pies and puddings - at a reasonable price.
London also has a wide selection of ethnic food. For inexpensive Indian food, try the Indian YMCA’s dining hall near Warren Street tube station (indianymca.org), where you can grab dinner for around $10.
And if there’s a pricey restaurant you have your heart set on, go for lunch, when prices are lower.
The cheapest way to travel is by foot, and the sights and museums are generally nearby. But if you need to travel farther, take the tube - London’s subway system - or hop on a bus for a more scenic journey.
The No. 11 bus goes to Westminster Abbey, Parliament, Trafalgar Square and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The No. 9 will take you to Hyde Park, Harrod’s and Piccadilly Circus.
To save money, buy an Oyster card - an electronic card that serves as your ticket. You get reduced fares for a single trip - down to about $3 from $8 for a tube trip within the central city and $1.80 instead of $4 for a bus ride.
Children under 11 ride free. Kids ages 11-15 can travel free on buses and trams and for a lower fare on the tube with an Oyster photocard. You must apply online for one at least three weeks before your trip (tfl.gov.uk).
WHERE TO STAY
Budget hotels are clustered near train stations, especially Paddington, Victoria, Euston and King’s Cross. The Earl’s Court neighborhood is another option. Book early.
If you’re traveling when the universities are on break - roughly mid-June through September - you can rent a room in one of the dorms. The University of Westminster has single rooms in the central city starting at about $70 a night, with reduced rates for travelers younger than 27. King’s College has single rooms with en-suite bathrooms for around the same price (wmin.ac.uk/page-5198)
Visit London (visitlondon.com) has trip-planning information that ranges from maps and major attractions to local events and special travel offers for lodging.
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