London's often overpriced eateries and attractions can flatten your vacation wallet faster than a speeding double-decker bus. But for every $25 breakfast, there's an array of alternatives that can stretch any recession-diminished travel budget. The trick is in knowing where to look.
With time to spare on a recent visit, I set myself a rash challenge: Equipped only with a crisp £10 note - about $21 - plus a large water bottle, I hunted down a full day of food, attractions and evening entertainment. My one cheat: a day-long transit Travelcard costing an extra £5.60.
Stop 1: Maria's Market Café
8 Southwark St. Cost: £2.80 Serving traders from the nearby gourmet food stalls - I almost blew my tenner at a cheese stand en route - Borough Market's favourite breakfast nook has been a southeast London legend for decades. After ordering from a smiling Maria, I tucked into a heaping plate of crispy "bubble and squeak" (a hash-style dish of seasoned fried potatoes and cabbage) plus a steaming mug of tea. Stomach fully lagged, I set out for a day of spendthrift adventuring.
Stop 2: Southwark Cathedral Montague Close, Cost: free Five minutes' walk away, I ducked into London's best off-the-beaten-path ecclesiastical attraction. While Westminster Abbey (admission £15) and St. Paul's Cathedral (admission £11) attract the crowds, Southwark is stuffed with intriguing history at no cost. I perused a medieval altar screen and some elaborate tombs, discovering that Shakespeare's brother, Edmund, is interred here near a stained glass window depicting his plays. A chatty guide also pointed out Chaucer and Samuel Johnson windows.
Stop 3: Whitechapel Bell Foundry 32 Whitechapel Rd., Cost: free Hopping on the tube to Aldgate East, I was soon strolling traffic-choked Whitechapel Road toward one of London's oldest and most surprising businesses. This 439-year-old storefront is where both the Liberty Bell and Big Ben were made. Entering the quiet, creaky-floored shop was like stepping back in time; there's a little museum area inside to illuminate the traditional foundry still toiling away out back.
Stop 4: Brick Lane Beigel Bake 159 Brick Lane Cost: £1.30 Tempted by the £3.49 bagged lunch (sandwich, chips and drink) offered by London's Boots drugstore outlets - perfect for picnicking - I instead headed to Brick Lane, stopping at a famed 24-hour budget takeout that has been attracting hipsters and passing cabbies since the 1950s. Considering a £1.30 smoked salmon bagelwich, I settled for a 90p cream-cheese version plus a decadent 40p cup of tea. I ate at the steel shelf lining one wall - as close to a table as this place gets.
Stop 5: Geffrye Museum Kingsland Road, Cost: free Back on the Underground at Liverpool Street Station, it was a short trundle to my first afternoon stop at one of London's best little-known museums. A 15-minute stroll from Old Street Station, this handsome 1714 almshouse complex contains a string of period rooms from the 1600s to the present day. While the sumptuous Victorian room is a favourite, I preferred the cozy arts and crafts Edwardian room. There's also a verdant garden recreating private plots from historic eras.
Stop 6: National Gallery
Trafalgar Square, Cost: free Back on the tube by 3 p.m., I was soon strolling toward Trafalgar Square, weaving between camera-wielding tourists. Musing over the free-entry National Portrait Gallery, I instead disappeared into London's favourite art space next door. Like the British Museum, Science Museum and Natural History Museum, the cavernous National Gallery has been fee-free since 2001. The freebies don't stop at admission: After drinking in the Van Goghs and Caravaggios, I joined a complimentary mini-lecture on Massys's An Old Woman (The Ugly Duchess).
Stop 7: The Cambridge 93 Charing Cross Rd., Cost: £5.10 With my rumbling stomach echoing through the gallery, it was time to trawl nearby Soho for dinner. Pub fans on a budget can hit the Wetherspoon chain - burger and fries or lasagna and salad run to £3.99 each there - but I prefer Nicholson's, a string of atmospheric pubs that recently introduced its own value menu. I dropped into the smashing Cambridge near the Palace Theatre for a hearty £3.95 Cumberland sausage sandwich, including fries and salad. There was also enough for a half-pint of hoppy Greene King IPA - the barman assured me it was his cheapest draft.
Stop 8: BBC Broadcasting House Portland Place, Cost: free Fortified for a night out, I wandered Shaftesbury Avenue - theatre tickets top $150 here - then hit the tube to Oxford Circus. Ducking into the Apple Store to check my e-mail for free, I walked along Regent Street to the art deco BBC Broadcasting House. The national broadcaster offers free tickets for its shows (you book online at bbc.co.uk/tickets and print them at home) and I joined the 7 p.m. queue for a satirical radio comedy. I was ushered into a cozy theatre, and the producer warmed us up with some lame jokes before introducing the performers. The show was topical and entertaining - MPs' expense scandals dominated - and I was back on the streets by 8:45.
Stop 9: Victoria and Albert Museum Cromwell Road, Cost: free With a few coins still jingling in my pocket, I had one last freebie in mind. I joined the throng entering South Kensington's celebrated Victoria and Albert Museum. Always free, on the last Friday of every month it stages evening events that have a nightclub feel and attract an adult crowd. Wandering the mood-lit galleries, I checked out art talks, listened to a DJ and rubbed shoulders with the regulars at a temporary bar in the main lobby. With only 80p left, I couldn't afford to toast my bargain London day out, but perhaps I could persuade someone to stand me a beer…