Step 1: Fly to London.
I’d love to tell you that this was an informative blog post full of tips on how to see and do London on a budget. Something along the lines of “have a practically-free-yet-utterly-fabulous time in London on less than $50 a day.”
But that would be a really short list because (1) London is ridiculously expensive and (2) not to sound bougie or whatever, but $50 a day is really not a lot of money.
Heck, I’m not even sure I exist on less than $50 a day here at home because (1) the greater D.C. area is ridiculously expensive and (2) if I do, for some reason, sally forth from my nice, comfortable home office, the cumulative expense of hours not worked (ah, self-employment) and money pissed away during an Old Town gallivant that probably includes stops at Anthropology, Bluemercury, Gap Outlet and a red velvet cupcake from Bittersweet certainly tallies up to way over $50.
It’s not that I don’t know how to do London on a budget. I lived in London for six months back in 1997. I was a poor college student/waitress and I rented a small, freezing one-room bedsit in Islington with a plug-in electric radiator that would put a scald on whichever side of your body happened to be closest to it, but did nothing to heat up the rest of the room. Also: No TV. No radio. No computer.
As you can imagine, I did not spend much time in my bedsit/prison-I-actually-paid-money-for. Instead, I spent a lot of time getting to know London, and since I didn’t have parents footing the bill and I was living on my meager waitressing salary, I spent a whole lot of time doing free/cheap stuff, ie: going to museums and churches, browsing in stores, seeing cheap West End shows during the day, nursing a single cider for hours on end and reading a book at a pub.
But thankfully, those poverty-ridden days are long behind me, and while I’m certainly not rich, our last trip to London confirmed two things for me: (1) I am, in fact, bougie, and (2) London is a lot more fun when you have a little bit of money.
So, here’s a roundup of some not-so-free things we did in London.
Black Cab Tour – This was my manpanion, XFE’s first time in London. Thankfully, all he really wanted to do was go to every possible soccer match (see below) so we didn’t have to do too much touristy stuff. Still, I felt it was my duty to give him at least a rudimentary amount of exposure to the glories of the British Empire. So, I arranged a private tour in a black cab. We did the Classic Grand Tour, a 3.5 hour whirlwind through about 1,000 years of history.
We got driver David Cannell and I’m pretty sure we were the easiest, most low-key clients he’s ever had. We hardly even stopped for photos (neither one of us are really big into selfies). I happily chatted with David about British history (I got especially excited hearing all about Tyburn Tree, because who doesn’t love a good public execution?) and XFE watched the scenery whizz by. (Cost: £175 GBP or around $250 US. I will say the cab could have held up to 5 people, which is quite affordable.)
Gin Tour—XFE’s other major interest is gin and—as one would expect in a place where the consumption of gin was causing so much strife and ruin it had to be banned—there were a lot of gin-based activities to choose from. But the Gin Journey’s Shake, Rattle and Stir tour worked best with our schedule. We started at a small, very dark underground, totally hipster bar called the Whistling Shop in Shoreditch where we were introduced to our very cool guide, Cocktail Kate.
After getting a brief history on the star of the evening—gin—and quaffing some Sipsmiths, we set off in a mini-bus for stops at five more gin parlors/distilleries/bars (dipping in and out of the City, Shoreditch and Hoxton, mostly) over the course of 4.5 hours, enjoying specially selected premium gins and fine gin cocktails made just for us. The tour was mostly made up of Londoners (with a couple of non-English speaking Italians in the mix) and was a really fun way to spend an evening. I can’t recommend it enough. (Cost: £60 GBP per person or around $85 US)
Tea at Sketch—I know I said I didn’t drag XFE to a bunch of touristy stuff, but that’s not entirely true. I did have one London bucket list item I insisted on crossing off the list.
Despite having lived in London for six months and downing copious amounts of the stuff, I’d never actually been to a proper English tea*. Like in a fancy tea room with mini-sandwiches and cakes. I decided to skip the traditional, stuffy hotel high teas (sorry, Dorchester) and go for something more modern and fun: Sketch.
This restaurant/tea room/coffee shop/lounge nestled in an 18th-century townhouse right on the border of Mayfair and Soho is kooky as hell. The vibe is very Alice in Wonderland with oversized doors, coat check closets hidden behind swing out bookshelves, toilets hidden in egg-pods and quirky staff uniforms (the waitresses in the tea rooms were wearing these sort of World War 1 nurse’s pinafores, for lack of a better description).
The tea room decor was a suffocating plush ballerina-pink cocoon that made me think: this is what it must be like to live inside a jewelry box. And it was packed to the gills with (mostly) female tourists, even on a weekday in March. XFE was pretty much the only guy in the place, unless you count the guy wearing a dramatic silk scarf, lip gloss and some heeled boots in the corner banquette (his tea companion was a gorgeous, exotic girl with a wrap shirt that kept gaping.)
The tea itself was pretty meh—we manned it up by splurging for the Champagne Afternoon Tea. Sandwiches included coronation chicken salad, egg salad, a posh grilled cheese, the usual suspects; sweets included assorted cakes, some lemony pudding thing and that most overhyped of all cookies, the macaron, of course. The people watching though: that’s worth the admission price. (Cost: £57 per person or $81 US)
*(I had, however, had a Devon cream tea with clotted cream and scones, and honestly, I liked that way better.)
Soccer matches—If I end up living in the poor house or becoming an indentured servant (or worse, working as a barista at Starbucks….again), it is because I gave all my money to the English Premier League in 2016. Specifically, the Tottenham Hotspurs.
We went to three games while we were there, one against Swansea at Tottenham’s grounds, White Hart Lane. The second against West Ham at their playing grounds, and the third against Arsenal back at White Hart Lane.
Buying tickets to overseas soccer games is usually a bit of a difficult enterprise involving months of research, repeatedly checking the team websites, Ticketmaster, StubHub and any other online resource you can think of. It usually requires the assistance of a hotel concierge, who can’t really provide any confirmations on successful acquisition of tickets until much, much closer to the match day, when the teams finally, reluctantly release tickets to the general public. It is not at all uncommon for us to get on an overseas flight without knowing for sure if we have tickets to a game or where our seats will be.
London and the EPL, however, are even more insular and stingy with their tickets, so the whole process requires the combined efforts of a hotel concierge, online ticket brokers, bicycle delivery personel, plus copious amounts of cash (in all three cases) and subterfuge (in at least one instance). It’s almost, ALMOST enough to make you think that splashing out $1,113 for (guaranteed) VIP tickets to a game is reasonable and sane. Almost.
These hoops and hurdles prove to be particularly true when you are dealing with major London rivalries like Tottenham and Arsenal, and most especially when it’s close to the end of the season and those two teams specifically are in a hot-and-heavy, three-way race for the top spot in the League. I’m not allowed to divulge any more information into how exactly we got our tickets, particularly to that last game, but I will say it probably would have been easier (and cheaper) to get “Hamilton” tickets (flights included). (Cost for three EPL games: I don’t want to talk about it)