A royal city on a peasant's budget

  • Article by: DAVE HAGE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 20, 2013 - 12:55 PM

With its polished treasures, London is expensive – but also surprisingly full of bargains.

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Slipping onto a pair of slender white bar stools, my wife and I scanned the room and knew instantly we were going to like the Oxo Tower Cocktail Bar. Behind us, a friendly waiter was opening bottles of Champagne. Before us, a wall of windows looked out over the River Thames, the Victoria Embankment and the sparkling lights of England’s imperial city.

And, apart from the price of two drinks, one of the greatest views in London was ours for free.

We thanked the barman, reminded ourselves that tourists riding the famed London Eye pay nearly $50 apiece for the same view, and toasted the trip’s secret mission: a week in London on the cheap.

Well, in a manner of speaking. London stands among the world’s most expensive cities for tourists. Prices have only climbed higher as the newly minted oligarchs of the world have discovered it as a safe place to park their billions. As a result, it’s hard to save money on the big items. A Spartan flat near St. James’s Park cost us $1,400 for the week, and a splurge dinner at Nopi, a posh new restaurant in Soho, came to $350 for three.

All the more reason to pinch pence by day. We consulted fellow Anglophiles and queried old friends from our grad-school days in York, and discovered that London has an endless variety of free attractions — from legendary church choirs to peerless museums to venerable criminal courtrooms straight out of Agatha Christie.

London is also a great place for walking — a monumental city built on a human scale — which means that you open your door every morning to a festival of architecture, history and street life.

Many of our discoveries, of course, are no secret to the world. The open-to-all National Gallery, spreading wide behind the stately lions and fearless pigeons of Trafalgar Square, is one of the world’s great art museums, with staggering collections of Raphael, Da Vinci, Constable, Van Gogh, Monet and Cézanne. The Tate Gallery is also free — as is its brash new cousin, the Tate Modern. This hulking museum on the Thames’ South Bank has become a must-see destination, as famous for its cavernous interior (a former power plant) as for its daunting exhibits of contemporary art.

Close-up view of the Thames

Other items on our list require good weather, always a chancy bet in England.

The South Bank of the Thames, home to the National Theatre and the Royal Festival Hall, has exploded in the past decade as a center of culture, street food, outdoor concerts and talented buskers — much of it available gratis to anyone strolling along the riverside embankment.

A light snow was falling on the night we stepped down from Westminster Bridge and onto the broad riverside promenade known as the Queen’s Walk. To our right, couples sipped drinks in the illuminated windows of a string of cafes, while to our left, Big Ben and the stately windows of Whitehall looked down on the dark rippling water.

Visitors who want to see the Thames even more intimately should try London Transport’s River Bus; you can board at any of several piers in central London and travel to Greenwich, a lovely historic village that lies on the eastern edge of the metropolis. For a one-way fare of less than 5 pounds, you get a spectacular 30-minute introduction to the Thames as a working river — busy tugboats, freight barges and, farther east, the extraordinary aggregation of bank and condo towers that have turned Canary Wharf into a city-within-a-city where more than 100,000 people live and work.

Greenwich itself is worth a day trip. You’ll have to buy tickets to see the National Maritime Museum or tour the Cutty Sark, one of the last great clipper ships, now in dry dock and open to the public. But it doesn’t cost a shilling to walk the town and its outdoor market, or the site of the famous hilltop observatory, or the majestic grounds and hallways of the Old Royal Naval College, a stunning example of the work of the great English architect Christopher Wren.

You can return inexpensively to central London by Docklands Light Railway, a new elevated train that hums through the heart of Canary Wharf, giving a futuristic view of the gleaming towers that will make you feel as if you’re in a remake of “Blade Runner.”

Other bargains on our list can be tucked away for a day when you need a respite from the tourists and a refuge from the rain.

Evensong at Westminster

We had just arrived in London on a sleeting afternoon, still numb from an overnight flight and a long tube ride from Heathrow. But the moment we slipped through the great west entry of Westminster Abbey, the calming architecture of a Gothic cathedral took over: soaring marble columns that carry your eye toward the heavens, daylight filtered through red and cobalt windows; and then the ethereal strains of the 42-member abbey choir.

The abbey is a working, worshiping church with three daily services open to the public. Evensong, generally at 5 p.m., features choral music. You don’t get a tour guide’s patter on the Poets’ Corner or the Queen’s coronation. But to experience one of Europe’s great cathedrals as a worshiper, not a tourist, is — well, a religious experience. (You’ll be asked for a donation on the way out — and it seems wrong not to give generously — but that didn’t violate the spirit of our quest.)

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  • It’s free to climb the beloved lions of Trafalgar Square in London, or enter the National Gallery on the square and see some of the greatest art in the world, from Raphael to Monet.

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