For centuries, people from all walks of life have flocked to London. Henry VIII even believed it to be the literal center of the universe! The city is notoriously pricey in terms of accommodations, but if you can afford to get here, free museums and cheap eats in Chinatown can balance your budget. More importantly, the long history of supporting arts and culture and the wealth of working cafes make it an ideal base for traveling creative professionals. Read on for a digital nomad-friendly guide to London.
When to Go
London is at its best in either of the shoulder seasons – spring, from March through May, or fall, from September through November. Summer’s peak season is hot and extremely crowded. Winter is preferable, but quite cold. At any time of year, England is well known for its rainy weather.
Festivals can be found throughout the year, from open-air music festivals like Kew Gardens’ Kew the Music in summer to a slew of Christmas fairs and markets in December. A vastly multi-cultural city, London celebrates holidays from the Chinese New Year to Diwali to St. Patrick’s Day. August street party Notting Hill Carnival is worth an honorable mention, as is April’s Feast of St. George in Trafalgar Square.
Bottom line – if you can go to London, just go! It is a true year-round destination and there’s no best time to visit.
How Much to Spend
Budget airline Norwegian Air Shuttle can’t offer many bells and whistles, but will get you a nonstop flight to London from Boston or New York at rock bottom prices – $200 to $300.
London is not especially well-known for having cheap accommodations. A dorm bed in a good hostel is likely to cost at least 20-30 pounds a night. On my last visit, I rented a private room through Airbnb for a month at less than 25 pounds per night. Staying in Zone 2 of the city, as I did, is considerably less expensive than the more central Zone 1, but bear in mind that this will mean making greater use of city transport.
An Oystercard will cover travel via the London Underground (or Tube) and National Rail within the city. Fares vary depending on the distance traveled, and cards can be loaded up for pay as you go rates. The most you’ll be charged in a single day on a Visitor Oystercard in Zones 1 and 2 is 6.50 pounds.
Self catering is a cornerstone of any budget meal plan. Visit Sainsbury’s for budget groceries and you can easily spend about 20 pounds per week. For dining out, with a little due diligence you can find cheap eats at 5 pounds per meal. Nicer dinners in traditional pubs might be 10 to 15 pounds.
The United Kingdom is quite famously on its way out of the European Union (thanks Brexit), but even during its time in the EU, was not part of the Schengen Area and maintained its own currency, so these aspects of travel in the UK will not change. Visitors will still have to use pounds, but as the economy struggles to recover from Brexit, the pound is much weaker than it used to be. Rather than prices doubling in dollars, the conversion is much closer to being 1:1.
There are three main airports in London: Heathrow, Gatwick, and Stansted.
Heathrow is the most likely to be your port of entry from the United States. The Heathrow Express runs direct from the airport to Paddington Station in about 15 minutes. Peak-time tickets are 25 pounds. Paddington Station connects to the Bakerloo, Circle, District, and Hammersmith & City lines of the Underground.
Gatwick and Stansted are both more likely destinations if you arrive from elsewhere in Europe, or on a budget airline. Stansted is the main hub for Ryanair. Gatwick is south of central London, with a National Rail line reaching Victoria and London Bridge stations. Stansted is north of the city with an express train to Liverpool Street Station, which connects in turn to the Central, Hammersmith & City, Circle, and Metropolitan Tube lines.
Your best bet for getting around the city is to get a pay-as-you-go Visitor Oystercard, which will cover you on the Underground, National Rail, and those infamous red double decker buses. Bus fare is 1.50 a ride, and subway and train fares vary based on distance, but won’t go over 6.50 in a single day.
The London Underground is a tangled web of roughly a dozen metro lines. Many major attractions are on the Circle and District lines, including Parliament and Westminster Abbey at Westminster, the Tower of London at Tower Hill, and the museum quarter at South Kensington.
On Tube and trains, you’ll touch your card at the yellow readers both entering and leaving the station. On buses, because there is a flat fare instead of a distance based one, you’ll only touch your card to the yellow reader once when you board.
What to Pack
Even at the height of summer, temperatures in London can drop down in to the 50s. If you’re traveling in peak season, bring something light to throw over your shoulders should an evening get chilly, like a lightweight cardigan or pashmina. Any other time of year, expect to make ample use of jeans, boots, chunky sweaters, and light layers.
Plan on packing nicer clothes as well. This is one destination where your backpackers wardrobe of zip-off shorts, ratty tank tops, and elephant Aladdin pants just won’t serve you.
London is notoriously rainy, so you may be tempted to pack an umbrella. It’s smarter however, to wear a good, hooded raincoat as your outer layer while you travel. You won’t have to devote space in your bag to rain gear, and the coat will likely even have large pockets you can stuff to aid an attempt at traveling carry-on-only. You may also want to throw a rain cover over your backpack, just in case.
The UK uses type G three-pin plugs, so you’ll need an adapter if coming from anywhere outside the country. Otherwise, you probably won’t need any special tech equipment – just whatever you typically pack.
Where to Stay
If you have the budget to stay in the very center of London, consider staying in the Shoreditch neighborhood. Packed with street art, the area has a decidedly alternative, creative vibe, and there is a high concentration of work-friendly spaces, as you’ll see below. I stayed in East Dulwich, a smaller neighborhood south of the Thames near Peckham and Brixton. Quiet and residential, I had the train station and a large supermarket within a five-minute walk. A neighborhood like this is your best bet when budget rules all.
If staying for a shorter period of time and looking for a hostel, search around major train stations like Paddington and Kings Cross. The neighborhoods themselves don’t have many attractions, but transportation is close at hand, making them ideal for budget travelers. YHA has several London locations, including one near the British Museum and Kings Cross. The Equity Point Hostel also has dorms starting at 20 pounds per night and is located right next to Paddington Station, making it perfect for those arriving via Heathrow.
Where to Eat
If you know where to look, you can find cheap eats in London. A good rule of thumb is to look for ethnic cuisines. Chinatown is a bastion of quality budget dining. Cafe TPT in particular gets rave reviews for its large menu of authentic Chinese dishes. Pop into one of the locations for Herman ze German to fill up on currywurst. Stroll down Brick Lane and find an Indian or Bangladeshi joint that speaks to you. Or explore one of London’s excellent markets, like Borough Market or Maltby Street Market, for a tasty sandwich or pie. (When you’re at Maltby Street, be sure to save room for a Bad Brownie!)
A traditional pub dinner is worth splurging on at least once. Consider a hearty plate of fish and chips at the Golden Hind in Marylebone or a steak and ale pie at the Queen’s Arms in South Kensington.
Afternoon tea is a must-do in London, but can be an expensive undertaking. The most budget-friendly afternoon tea I’ve found is at The Wallace Collection, a free museum in Marylebone. 18 pounds scores you a pot of your choice of tea and a generous serving of snacks, including a scone with clotted cream and jam, a selection of finger sandwiches, and a few sweet treats. I’ve also had my eye on a 22 pound Moroccan afternoon tea at the restaurant Momo, but as I couldn’t make a reservation for just one person, decided to skip it this time. The Wallace Collection was more accessible for this solo diner.
Where to Work
As mentioned above, the Shoreditch neighborhood in east London has several work-friendly cafes. The Book Cafe is the quintessential Shoreditch hotspot, with a spacious dining room and a well-stocked bar for its nighttime transition from cafe to club. The laid-back Long White Cloud is a more intimate space favored by locals. For a healthy lunch alongside your latte, try Cream. There are really dozens of options throughout the city – Telegraph, Locappy, and Londonist are just a few outlets with well-researched lists of working cafes in London.
If you’re staying outside the city center, you may find it more worthwhile to make sure your hostel or apartment has strong WiFi and work from home. From my Airbnb in East Dulwich, the train ride just to get to London Bridge was at least 20 minutes assuming I didn’t have to wait for a train to arrive. And if I needed to take the Tube to get somewhere else in the city center? I could easily eat up an hour getting to a particular cafe. With good WiFi at my fingertips, I often stayed in to work.
Towards the end of my trip, however, I discovered the Blackbird Cafe in East Dulwich. A charming little bakery with free WiFi and an inexpensive morning coffee and muffin special, I wish I had found it sooner. It would have been a great base for days when I needed to get out, but didn’t want to stray too far.
What to Do
Samuel Johnson once rightly said he who is tired of London is tired of life. It’s true – the British capital is so chock full of things to do, you could spend years here and never run out of fun new discoveries.
For first-time visitors, I actually recommend spending a day on the hop-on hop-off sightseeing bus. You’ll see these double decker tour buses all over Europe and in most places, I think they’re a waste of money. But London is so large and many of its most famous attractions are so spread out, that this can be a great way to see the city for the first time. Stay on the bus for a full loop to get your bearings and snap those obligatory photos of Big Ben and Trafalgar Square. Once you know your options, you can spend the rest of the day hitting up bucket list sites like the British Museum and Westminster Abbey.
To get the most out of a sightseeing itinerary, schedule this part of your trip for a Saturday, when tours of Parliament are offered to the public. Photographers, bear in mind that cameras are not allowed inside Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. You can snap away at the architecture outside, though. Plan to explore the abbey first thing in the morning as its weekend hours are limited. You’ll have better light for photographing Parliament in the afternoon anyway.
One of the greatest things about travel in London is the wealth of free museums. Not even the iconic British Museum charges admission. Art lovers can check out the National Gallery or National Portrait Gallery by Trafalgar Square, or the Tate Modern on Bankside. When in the mood for a full day of museum visits, hightail it to South Kensington. The famed museum street hosts the Natural History Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Science Museum – all free. The Natural History Museum in particular is filled with creative exhibits. Within walking distance are the Kynance Mews, one of the most Instagrammed places in the world.
For theatre lovers, London’s West End is renowned worldwide and surprisingly it’s not off-limits to budget travelers. If you’re flying solo and willing to wait until the last minute to book tickets, you can score a great deal. I saw Wicked at the Apollo Victoria for less than 20 pounds, including a glass of prosecco. Don’t wait until the last minute to buy tickets at Shakespeare’s Globe, however. Tickets for standing room in the Yard are just 5 pounds, but performances naturally sell out well in advance.
Looking for new ways to see the city? Try one of these unique day tours of London, from murders to gin to street art.