With Labour Day come and gone and the dreary days of fall hurtling towards us, thoughts of travel and escape come creeping in. But times are tough, and we ask ourselves, "Which country has the best exchange rate?" "What can I do quickly enough that I'm not missing a bunch of work?" In short, "What is my cheapest travel option?" Even if you're on a budget, don't leave London out.
Whether you're looking to take in historic sites or soak up more modern culture, London is a spectacular city to see on a shoestring. As a big and modern city, it has a veritable bounty of affordable or free options for the budget-conscious traveller.
From incredible deals on sightseeing like the London Pass (see below) to an abundance of free parks, museums and so much more, you could fill an "extended long weekend" trip in no time without breaking the bank. And with travel deals cropping up all the time for tickets to get across the pond, London is well within your reach. Here are London's best budget options.
The single best money-saving option for a trip to London is the London Pass. Available in 1, 2, 3 or 6-day options, the pass grants you entry to over 55 sites (including many must-sees such as Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre) as well as front of-the-line advantage at many of the most popular spots. Buy the pass "with travel" and get unlimited public transit while you're at it.
And while it would be easy to fill your days with just the options available with the pass, there are still plenty of not-to-be-missed sites that you can access for free. The British Museum is an excellent option with a world-class collection of artifacts from all over.
The Tate museum and the Tate Modern are both free and both stunning. The Tate Museum holds the largest collection of British art from 1500 to the present day, and the Modern is home to a thrilling collection that includes artists such as Picasso, Rothko, Dali and Matisse. Its Turbine Hall is also home to some of the world's most innovative and provocative modern art installations.
For museums slightly off the beaten path, the Goldsmiths Centre holds regular exhibitions showcasing and promoting local silversmiths and jewelers, and the Bank of England Museum gives the history of one of the most important currencies of all time. You can even hold a gold bar! Other excellent options are the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Geffrye Museum (the latter grants a peek into the home lives of Brits over the ages).
For those looking to take in the beauty of British gardens — some of the most acclaimed in the world — there are loads of options. Kensington Gardens, at Kensington Palace, is home to the Princess Diana memorial playground and fountain, the Serpentine Gallery where you can view work by Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman and more.
Access to the Regent's Park is free. Among the many features vying for your attention, it is home to the London Zoo. Crystal Palace Park is another great option for families, as it has an outdoor concert stage, full-size dinosaurs, a children's farm and a playground.
Greenwich Park is 74 hectares of enclosed and beautifully maintained gardens and, if you're lucky, you might even spot deer. It also a venue for Equesrian and Pentathlon events during the 2012 London Olympics. And last but most certainly not least on our list is Hyde Park, one of the most celebrated and gorgeous city parks in the world. It, too, was the site of Olympic events (triathlon and swim marathon).
Some classic taste-of-Britain stops are safe on the wallet. Watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace won't cost you anything, and visiting Trafalgar Square is another free option, though food for the birds will likely cost you a bit more than tuppence a bag these days.
If you want to feel like a true Londoner, none of these classic sites will do it for you completely. The best way to feel you truly belong is to visit one of the many public markets. Camden Markets, Portobello Market and others are a great way to spend a relaxing afternoon among the best that London has to offer — and they'll make you feel like an authentic Briton.
Last but not least, London Walks offers free downloadable podcasts for guided walking tours of London, allowing you to get all the history of the sites without the expense of a tour guide. Walk London has put together free self-guided walking tours to encourage pedestrian exploration.
So the next time you see a last-minute price drop in airfare to Britain, jump on the deal. You really can afford a trip to London.
By Leigh Bryant