London on a budget

by Sarah.Todd

London doesn’t have to be expensive - you just need to know where to look to find entertainment, shopping bargains and even spa treatments that are easy on your pocket


First up: cheap sleep. Courtesy of the YHA, it is possible to get a bed in the heart of London for under £25 a night. Near Oxford Circus, the YHA London Central on Bolsover Street opened last year following a multi-million pound upgrade. It also offers free maps and walking tours.

There’s also the Palmers Lodge Boutique Backpackers in Swiss Cottage, with adult-only beds from £22 per night, or the easyHotel chain, with prices from £30 for a basic room in central London (locations include Victoria, Paddington and South Kensington). 


Away from the more obvious tourist traps, there is a plethora of unique restaurants to try. For its famously rude waiters, the 500-seat Chinese restaurant Wong Kei’s in Chinatown is worth a trip – it even has its own Wikipedia fanpage. A regular haunt for much of east London’s nocturnal community, the Brick Lane Beigel Bakery serves the best salt beef bagels for miles – they should be eaten with lashings of mustard. Small & Beautiful on Kilburn High Road offers a wide range of Italian cuisine, while the veggie-friendly Indian Veg Bhelpoori House in Chapel Market, Islington, has all you can eat menus for under £4. South of the river, The Banana Leaf in Clapham can get very busy, but is worth persevering for some of the finest budget Thai food on offer. Finally, fish and chips are a British institution. At The Fish Club restaurant in Battersea, a beer-battered coley fillet is just over a fiver.


If it’s comedy you’re after, the Chuckle Club at LSE’s Student Union Bar has amazing heritage. It's more than 23 years old, and past club guests include Robin Williams and Ricky Gervais. The entry is £12, but includes a nightclub until late. It’s also worth registering with website Applause Store or the BBC, for free tickets to many TV shows and radio recordings.


There is a wealth of options for free music. One of the best is the lunchtime concerts at the Trafalgar Square church, St Martin in the Fields. HMV on Oxford Street often showcases new and established bands, while Rough Trade is worth checking out for stellar undeground talent. The infamous 100 Club, just around the corner, has quality gigs at bargain prices. It’s also possible to catch some of the biggest names in music doing warm-up gigs on the QT. 


For cutting-edge cool, head to The Old Queen’s Head pub in Islington. Run by one of the key players behind London superclub Fabric, this pub hosts regular DJ nights at the weekend with some great turntablists.


For those who prefer their beats in a larger space, try Cargo. or the 333/ Mother Bar - both in east London's Old Street area. Most nights have an entry fee of around £10, with music programming spanning the best from around the world. This is clubbing in the capital at its very finest.


For cheap cinema, there are two good options: the Roxy Bar & Screen on Borough High Street shows many films for free and recent releases for around £3; or there’s the Prince Charles Cinema, just off Leicester Square, a fab independent venue with two screens, offering films from £1.50. Cinema-lovers should also check out Film London’s website for free movie location map downloads.


Of the many free-entry attractions in the capital, four are particularly outstanding. The first, the Natural History Museum, boasts spectacular dinosaur skeletons. Weather permitting, the eight Royal Parks in London provide more than 5,000 acres of outdoor attractions. The British Museum houses the Rosetta Stone and ground-breaking contemporary art as well as a fascinating Egyptian mummies exhibition, and the Tate Modern’s collection is awesome. They are all free to enter, but a couple of pounds' donation goes a long way towards ensuring they remain free for future generations to enjoy.


Speaking of future generations, the Royal College of Art’s annual Secret Postcards fundraising event in November is worth catching. The concept is simple: more than 2,000 anonymous postcards are displayed, some by famous artists, others by cash-strapped students. Postcards are sold for a flat rate of £40 each in November, on a first-come, first-served basis.


Also worth a visit is Proud Camden, situated in Stables Market. This private photographic gallery has two huge exhibition spaces, plus a Gig Room for live music. While you're there, take a boat cruise up the Regents Canal, beginning in Camden and going to Little Venice, near Paddington, and back. Tickets cost £8.50 for the one-and-a-half-hour trip, and sights en route include London Zoo. For a free 90-minute audio tour, taking in many of the capital’s best-loved attractions around London Bridge, visit the Discover London Bridge website.

Fashion and beauty

Save hundreds of pounds on a top haircut and colour by calling Vidal Sassoon’s Advanced Academy to become a hair model for students at their central London school. Choose from either classic or creative options, and be safe in the knowledge that all students are supervised by an instructor.


To pick up designer labels at a snip of their original price take a trip to South Kensington and visit Sign of The Times second-hand shop, a veritable Aladdin’s cave for the label-conscious, with prices beginning at £10. Another well-kept fashionista secret is the Red Cross charity shop on Old Church Street in Chelsea – nearest tube stop would be South Kensington. Here, you'll find vintage and high-end bargains from a plethora of designers including some classic 1970s YSL. TK Maxx on High Street Kensington is best in this brand for jaw-dropping label steals. If you have the patience to rail-hang and half an hour to kill, here is a great way to spend it.


Elsewhere on the high street, many mainstream shops' collabs with top designers continues apace, including the capsule range for New Look by Giles Deacon under his ultra-wearable Gold label and Lanvin for H&M, which will hit stores on 23 November - just in time for a bit of pre-Christmas shopping as there will be both a womenswear and menswear collection on offer. Conveniently, there's a New Look just across the road from the next, and final, bargain shopping location: Primark Oxford Street. Many a fash pack queen has been spotted here; their turnaround from catwalk to shop rail remains unparalleled and this cavernous Mecca for the budget-conscious never disappoints.


Cucumba spa is a great for the budget-conscious in need of some pocket-friendly pampering. Recently celebrating its fourth birthday, it is located in Soho and open seven days a week, from 10am-8pm. Only Sunday is completely by appointment-only – the rest of the time, you can simply visit unannounced and choose your treatment and the amount of time you wish to spend. Starting at 10 minutes with the TopUp treatments, these include a mini facial or pedicure (polish only) and cost £9.50 (E10.60, US$15.70).


Finally, for high-end pampering without the precious price tag, visit an Elemis SpaPod, situated in many of the capital's department stores. The 30-minute Elemis Power Booster Facial is a top spa experience at a fraction of the price you’d pay elsewhere.