A Cheap Day Out in London

By rick Steves Modified: May 14, 2013 at 9:29 am •  Published: May 14, 2013
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It was the final day of a two-month trip to Europe. I was in London, and with all of my work behind me, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. So I decided to test my five free London audio tours in a citywide blitz spanning two neighborhoods, one church, and two museums. It ended up being a very entertaining and cheap day, proving that you don't have to spend a lot of money to have a fulfilling experience in this pricey city.

In the morning, I bought a one-day off-peak subway and bus pass (a great deal at about $10) and caught the Tube from my hotel in South Kensington to Westminster. Time management was key: My last stop, the British Library, closed at 6 p.m., but my off-peak transit pass wouldn’t let me start until 9:30 a.m.

My walk commenced on Westminster Bridge, featuring fantastic views of the London Eye ferris wheel and Big Ben. As I strolled with earbuds in, the constant churn of London--tourists, professionals, big tour buses, taxis, and so on--was strangely more apparent. I noticed what a great percentage of people on the streets were also lost in their 'buds.

Whitehall--London’s Pennsylvania Avenue--was as grand as ever. Stretching from Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square, Whitehall is lined with illustrious buildings and evocative monuments. Security was almost military, as guards with machine guns at the ready paced in front of the gate at #10 Downing Street, home of Britain's prime minister. Wandering past war memorials like the Cenotaph, honoring those who died in World Wars I and II, I noticed that the monuments of London have never looked so good, having been spiffed up for the Olympics.

I ended my walk at Trafalgar Square, London's central meeting point, highlighted by the world's tallest Corinthian column, topped with a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson. From here, I strolled along the Strand. Once a high-class riverside promenade, back before the Thames River was tamed with retaining walls, this busy boulevard is now home to theaters and shops.

About 15 minutes later, I reached St. Clement Danes Church, the starting point for my City of London walk. The one-square-mile area known as The City once comprised the original walled town. These days, it's consumed by the financial district and Christopher Wren churches.

After the Great Fire of 1666 devastated this area, King Charles II turned to Wren to rebuild 51 churches in The City (not all survive). Of these, Wren's greatest creation was St. Paul's Cathedral. Even today, you can see the view that Wren intended--the majestic 365-foot-high dome of St. Paul's hovering above the hazy rooftops, surrounded by the thin spires of his lesser churches.

After touring St. Paul’s, I ate lunch at the Counting House, an elegant bank building converted into a fancy pub and popular with neighborhood professionals. Though not the most penny-pinching place for a midday meal ($20 with beer), I confirmed my feeling that, while there are plenty of cheap-and-cheery modern eateries in London, this is a great spot for a memorable lunch.

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