England / London

Splurge or Save? A Guide to London Attractions

I recently read an article that laid out the price per day for a backpacker to travel in Europe.  It compares 40 cities and London came in at 19 on the list.  There is no doubt that London can be an expensive trip but it doesn’t have to be.  A traveller can keep down the costs by taking in free sites but what about the paid fare?  My blog is filled with free things to do so rather than post about those I’m going to critique paid attractions and whether I thought it was worth the money spent.

First a brief note about accommodation.   It can make a huge dent in your budget but as the article states there is a lot of competition so shop around.  My number one suggestion would be to stay outside of central London.  I live in zone 3 and it takes 20-25 minutes by tube to get to the city.  Unless you find an amazing deal you will probably pay less if you find a place in zone 2 or 3.  I wouldn’t stay much further out than that unless you are crashing with family or couchsurfing.

Alright, accommodation sorted now what are you going to do?  Well almost anything but I’ll go through some of what I’ve done and give you my opinion, since you asked.  You want value for money right?  So read this and you decide if there is enough value for your money.

1.  The London Eye

Although it is only 12 years old the London Eye is the most popular attraction in the city.  Interesting that London steeped in so much history attracts most people to one of its youngest structures.  When it first opened in 2000 it cost £5 to ride.  Currently standard tickets for ‘flights’ (yes that is what they are called) start at £17.01 for adults and £8.91 for kids if you book online and in advance.  One full rotation, or a flight, takes approximately 30 minutes.  That is of course unless you have my luck and you get stuck.  When I went in 2009 my friend and I got stuck at the very top.  We had no issues with this really since the view was great and technically we got more value for money.  The flights are so smooth that you never feel like you are moving.  But to make up for the time we travelled down a lot faster thus inducing feelings of nausea.  Not good.

Verdict:  Save, especially if your budget is tight.  I had a good time but I wouldn’t have gone if a friend hadn’t wanted to knock it off of his to do list before he moved back to Canada.  Alternatively try the Monument.  For £3 you can climb to the top and get a pretty good view.

2.  Greenwich Royal Observatory and Prime Meridian

Greenwich is definitely a cool place to hang out, and now royal, fancy that.  There is the market, the painted hall, the chapel, the naval college, the maritime museum, and the Queen’s House and now Cutty Sark which just reopened.  All are free except Cutty Sark.  Many people however flock to the observatory and the prime meridian to straddle the line.  You can straddle two hemispheres for the price of one!  Who doesn’t want to take a picture like that?  Me, especially if I have to pay £7.  I’ve straddled the line marking the old Berlin wall.  Now that is something I’d pay to do but no need for it is free.  Now I am a bit biased here since I have stood over this line.  That however was before they started charging for it.  The fee does include access to the courtyard, Flamsteed house and galleries.

Verdict:  Splurge.  I know a bit of a left turn but it is the prime meridian!  If you are that interested in astronomy then don’t pass it up, and £7 is hardly breaking the bank.  You are getting access to a few things here and while on their own they aren’t spectacular together they are worth it.  Also all the free stuff I mentioned is nearby so that balances everything out.

3.  The London Zoo

Located in lovely Regent’s Park London zoo boasts a gorilla kingdom, lions and tigers, giraffes, reindeer, and  a new penguin beach that I see advertised everywhere.  D and I visited summer 2010.  Why?  I don’t know, for some reason we or maybe I thought it would be a good idea.  When I was a kid in day care I’m pretty sure we went to Toronto Zoo once a week for a field trip.  Anyways we went on a very hot day and the animals packed it in for some shade and naps.  I surprisingly enjoyed the reptile exhibit the most, especially when a crocodile thought it was being stealthy and making a move to bite us through its tank.  After I had visitor’s remorse.  Some guilt rose up from somewhere.  I know zoos do important conservation work but I still feel like I never want to go to a zoo ever again.  Am I saying I will never ever visit another zoo?  No, never say never but most likely not.  The space allocated for the gorilla kingdom just seemed too small.  Putting those feelings aside the animals we managed to see were great.  Overall not the best day out but I do chalk that mostly up to the hot weather.  Also pelicans stink, a lot.

Verdict: Save.  At £22 this is fairly pricey.  I could see maybe going if you have kids, but if not then do not.  Visit Regent’s park though.  Alternatively, if you’d like to see wild creatures in their natural habitat go watch the hipsters in East London, fascinating.

4.  Alternative London Tour

While technically a free tour I’m sure you could manage to give a few quid to Gary, the guy who expertly runs this awesome tour of the east end.  If you want to see and hear about a different side of London then it doesn’t get much better than this.  D and I went last year March and I’ve been raving about it ever since.  I hope to go again soon.  Not only does Gary show you street art he also talks about the history of East London.  Think 3 waves of immigration, French, Jewish, then Bangladeshi.  Also think more grimly, this is where Jack the Ripper operated.  That however is a separate tour.  Gary discusses how those 3 waves of immigration shaped this part of London.  Moving through the history Gary then brings you up to present day detailing what is going on, some good some bad.  The passion he has for his community is infectious.

Verdict:  Splurge.  Like you had to guess, of course do it!  Here is the website: Alternative London Tours, I’d say a fiver is a good starting point price wise.  Book ahead, tours last two hours, nuff said.

5. Highgate cemetery

Have you heard about this relatively new term dark tourism?  Apparently it is where people visit places where mass murders happened and other human atrocities, lovely.  So if you aren’t up to speed on it, which of course I was, *ahem* not, then get with the program.  I wouldn’t really class cemeteries in with this trend but what does motivate a person to visit them?  I posted about it here so without reiterating everything in that post I guess what motivated me was Karl Marx.  Also one of my guide books recommended it so that was good enough.  Highgate is close to Hampstead Heath which is a great area to roam around so win win.  Take in the cemetery and then lighten up with a jaunt through the heath.  I personally want to be cremated but I like seeing how disgustingly materialistic us humans can be even in death.  I mean check out those grave markers.  There were also tombs there, tombs!   I may not be able to take my wealth with me but never forget that in life I was rich bitches!

Verdict: Neutral.  It costs £3 to get into East cemetery, £7 into west and that must be on a guided tour.  I probably would skip this as a tourist.  As a resident I’d say go.

6.  Canal boat trip

Last year D and I discovered little Venice.  It actually took my friend Jen (who visited from Canada in 2010) visiting it first and telling me about it being a nice area to get this on my radar.  After visiting little Venice in May 2011 for the canalway cavalcade D and I noticed that they did boat trips.  When my mum visited in June I decided that we should try it out.  There are a few operators but we went with the London Waterbus Company.  It picked us up in Camden and dropped us off in little Venice.  We passed the zoo on the way.  Don’t sit at the very front of the boat if it is particularly hot out, sun + no breeze = uncomfortable.  Besides that I really enjoyed this.  It was quiet, except for the American tourists and their nonstop talking.

Verdict: Splurge. Go on then, do it.  The whole trip takes approximately 50 mins.  It costs £7.20 for a one way adult ticket.  I feel like it was cheaper last year but I honestly can’t remember.  Alternatively you could do the Thames Cruise that D and I went on not long ago.  That may be better for you if you want to incorporate Greenwich or the Tower of London.

7. Kensington Palace

Future home to a little known couple, the Duchess and Duke of Cambridge.  Or Wills and Kate.  Last year a bunch of blogging expats and D (I drag him everywhere) went to an exhibit called the Enchanted Palace.  It was about the life of all of the princesses who had inhabited the palace throughout history.  We learned some interesting facts, most of which I’ve long forgotten.  There was the bit about princess Charlotte.  She died young, but had she lived there would have been a completely different family ruling us commoners now*.  That’s all I’ve got for you.  It was a well presented exhibit.  I especially liked the war room and the blue room with past dresses worn by some of the princesses.  Side note I jest about the royal family but they are neither here nor there for me.  As a Canadian the Queen is technically ours as well but we don’t really think about it.  Until she or one of her family members visit then some make a big deal.  As a Londoner (official declaration!) I am just making snide remarks about the monarchy because it’s what we do.

* I think I am remembering that right, don’t quote me.

Verdict:  I’m leaning towards giving it a save.  I enjoyed the exhibit, £12.50 per person and we were able to get 2 for 1 on a deal, but it wasn’t spectacular.  Seeing the grounds would be good enough for me.  If you want to do/see royal things I’d recommend heading out to Windsor to see the castle.  Or looking at Buckingham Palace and wondering why it resembles a library.

8. Tower of London

Splurge, ok I jumped the gun a bit.  First let me give it up to Jen again as she was the one who wanted to see this on her trip to London.  I didn’t feel strongly about it either way.  That is until going and seeing what a great day out it was.  If you must veer from a budget then do it here.  At £18 I think it is actually a pretty decent price.  At the time of my visit I was a student so I was able to get a discount for us both.  So much to see here so give yourself time to view everything, half a day maybe?  I recommend doing one of the free guided tours with a Yeoman Warder first to orient yourself to the grounds.  After that explore to your heart’s content.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the Crown Jewels (not a euphemism) and the torture chamber.  Surprisingly not that much torture happened here but it is mainly what people associate the tower with.  Again, most of what was learnt there is long gone but this warrants another visit from me soon.

Verdict:  Splurge.  The free guided tours are great especially if you get our tour guide.  Check him out here .  He was brilliant and made my visit.  Pass on him if you like to talk while people are giving you a tour.

Now there you have it.  A variety of London attractions that you might want to spend your travel dollars on…or not.  I’ve cover things in North, South, East and West London respectively.  Enjoy.

10 thoughts on “Splurge or Save? A Guide to London Attractions

  1. Great post. I am so with you on these. The London Zoo is my all-time least favorite attraction here. Such a sad home for animals.

    The Tower cannot be missed. We have a Historial Royal Palaces membership (so worth it for us since we love re-visiting the palaces) so we’ve been there quite a few times and we always find something new to look at, surprisingly.

    • Ok so it’s not just me who had that bad vibe after visiting the zoo. Yeah the whole thing seems too small for them. Thanks for the remind on the membership..I’m going to look it up as there are many I haven’t been to and would like to see.

  2. Great idea for a post. I love the walking tours. I did one last year, as part of a photography meetup, and it was brilliant. Some people have mentioned the Golden Circle in relation to walking tours. I love the Sesame St pic!

  3. I think that this has been one of the most useful posts around lately, London-wise, at least. I should add that people should save their train tickets into London as a lot of major attractions have 2for1 entry with train tickets – check at the major train stations for the coupons or search for ‘London Days Out’

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  5. Pingback: The Tower of London | She Went Away

  6. Pingback: Royalty, Prisoners and Beasts at the Tower of London | Wanderlust

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