How to Do London in 48 hours – on a Budget

Camden's canals and locks make it a pleasant place to hang out - for free
Camden's canals and locks make it a pleasant place to hang out - for free | © Massimo Borchi/Atlantide Phototravel / Getty Images
Photo of Kathryn Beeson
8 June 2020

For all London’s many positive points, it’s not the cheapest city in the world. But look beyond the usual tourist trail and you’ll find plenty of things to do for next to nothing, or even for nothing at all. Handy when you need to balance the cost of Tube travel with all those £5+ pints. Can you spend a couple of days in London having a nice time and seeing the sights without entirely bankrupting yourself? Absolutely – if you’re in the know. Here our local insiders share their favourite budget-friendly London activities.

Catch the sunrise at Richmond Park

Park
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Richmond Park_London_Courtesy 2
Courtesy of Richmond Park
Start your trip early, and take in Richmond Park’s atmospheric sunrise. You won’t be thankful for this suggestion when your alarm goes off, but it’s worth it. Pastel-pink skies, silhouetting the wild deer as they move gracefully across the park, the dawn chorus and – as the days draw shorter – moody misty scenes as the mist rises from the Pen Ponds all await early risers. Prepare for it to be chilly (take a Thermos for ultimate autumnal cosiness), and warm up in one of well-heeled Richmond’s many cafes afterwards. Recommended by local insider Shelley Doherty

While away the morning at the Lisson Gallery

Art Gallery
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Anish Kapoor exhibition
© Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo
One of the most influential contemporary art galleries in the world, all for free? It’s this kind of thing that makes London so special. Since its foundation in 1967, the Lisson has consistently hosted big-name exhibitions and works, including those of Julian Opie, Anish Kapoor, Richard Deacon and Carmen Herrera. Check out their exhibition schedule to see what’s on. The gallery is located in Marylebone, so you can combine a cultural morning visit with a relaxing stroll through Regent’s Park – a great way to start a summer weekend. Recommended by local insider Huda Awan

Stop off at the Whitechapel Gallery

Art Gallery
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Check out an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery
© Arcaid Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Sometimes, art galleries – particularly contemporary ones – can be intimidating. However, that’s not the case at the trailblazing Whitechapel Gallery, which bills itself as “the artists’ gallery for everyone”. There’s an extensive programme of exhibitions, film festivals, workshops, talks and masterclasses, plus a refreshing focus on work from up-and-coming artists alongside the big names – plenty to take in and interact with. The Whitechapel Gallery also remains the only British gallery to have exhibited Picasso’s Guernica, such is its international standing. Recommended by local insider Josh Lee

Look for bargains at the Southbank Book Market

Market
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The Southbank book market under Waterloo Bridge on Queen's Walk, on a warm summer's day in London, UK. Image shot 08/2012. Exact date unknown.
Bibliophiles will love bagging themselves a bargain at this low-key daily book market under Waterloo Bridge. Alongside the tattered John Grishams that you always see at second-hand book markets, you may well also find rare editions, or even get your hands on a centuries-old piece of literary history. The key is to dedicate a solid amount of time to rummaging around – it’s great fun, and besides, the finest treasures await those who look the hardest. Recommended by local insider Katrina Frazer

Take in the sights of the South Bank

Architectural Landmark
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St Paul's Cathedral
© Pixabay
The South Bank is one of London’s must-do meanders. Make a morning of it and head east, ending up at Borough Market for lunch, or spend the whole day strolling along the Thames, stopping off at the Book Market, Tower Bridge, Tate Modern, the Golden Hind, or exploring the atmospheric alleys around the old Clink prison. A 25-minute stroll from Waterloo Bridge and the Southbank Centre to Southwark Cathedral will take in all of the above, past Shakespeare’s Globe and classic views of St Paul’s Cathedral across the Millennium Bridge. Recommended by local insider Josh Lee

Stop for lunch at Borough Market

Market, American, Asian, European, South American, Caribbean, Street Food, Gluten-free, Vegan, Vegetarian
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An array of vendors sell their goods at Borough Market
© PjrTravel / Alamy Stock Photo
Street-food stalls are a great way to eat cheaply in London, and the markets in Camden, Spitalfields and Borough offer ample choice, making them a ideal spot to visit with a group. A short stroll from London Bridge Station, Borough Market is a mix of food carts, bars, cafes, restaurants and shops selling authentic British produce. From here, walk the short distance to the riverside for a view of the Shard and London Bridge.

Explore Spitalfields and the City

Market
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One of the stools at old Spitalfields Market in London.
Old Spitalfields Market in London | © Rik Hamilton / Alamy Stock Photo
Walking through London’s financial district at the weekend is an eerily quiet experience. The suits are all at home, allowing the skyscrapers to sparkle brilliantly for idle passers-by. It’s an unexpected oasis of calm in a city that elsewhere heaves with day trippers and tourists, and the perfect place to stretch your legs, grab a takeaway coffee and have some quality me time before facing the crowds. Continue onto Spitalfields Market or lively Shoreditch after your stroll, when you’re ready for more of a buzz. Recommended by local insider Josh Lee

Browse antiques, crafts and more at Camden Market

Market
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Camden-London-UK
Martina O'Shea / © Culture Trip | © Martina O'Shea / Culture Trip.
Wander around Camden Market’s winding back alleys, jumbles of market traders and food stalls and see what you discover. Our tip: get off the underground at Chalk Farm (not Camden Town) to avoid the bulk of the tourists, then take the North Yard entrance to Stables Yard and Horse Tunnel markets. Antiques aficionados should head to Islington to browse Camden Passage. Just off Upper Street, this characterful market comes alive at the weekend and local stallholders showcase stacks of antique clothing, crockery, jewellery, furniture and books that bring a sense of Old-English charm to the area. Recommended by local insider Shelley Doherty

Have a drink at one of the city's oldest pubs

Gastropub, Pub, British, $$$
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Lamb and Flag, London, England, UK
© Alex Segre / Alamy Stock Photo
Anyone looking for a historical drinking spot in the centre of the city should make a beeline for the Lamb and Flag in a small courtyard off Covent Garden; it’s a perfect (if rather cosy) al fresco drinking spot. Further east, by the river in Wapping, the Prospect of Whitby is said to have been frequented by sailors and smugglers in the 1500s; it’s still identifiable today by the hangman’s noosevoutside. Head north to the Spaniards Inn, which borders Hampstead Heath: the building dates back to 1585 and has many myths associated with it, so settle in and do some research on what makes it so special.

Stargaze on Parliament Hill

Building
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London, England, UK - August 20, 2013: People walk in the sunshine on Parliament Hill, part of Hampstead Heath park in north London, with the neighbou
Joe Dunckley / Alamy Stock Photo
As well as offering extensive views over north London, Hampstead Heath’s Parliament Hill is a top spot for a bit of stargazing if the night is clear enough. Come during meteor showers, blood moons or simply on a clear evening for atmospheric night-time panoramas (it’s usually pretty chilly, so a big Thermos of soup or coffee will be your friend if you’re planning on staying a while). Get here before the sun goes down and watch as the city lights flicker on at night-time. Recommended by local insider Shelley Doherty

Experience the British Library

Library, Museum
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interior lobby British Library, St Pancras, London, England
© B.O'Kane / Alamy Stock Photo
The British Library, in north London near King’s Cross station, holds more than 150m items across 14 floors, making it the largest national library in the world by number of items catalogued. Admission is free and the building is open until 8pm between Monday and Thursday every week.

Take in the views from the Sky Garden

Building, $$$
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Sky Garden at the top of 20 Fenchurch Street in London
© Nathaniel Noir / Alamy Stock Photo
Missed out on tickets to the Shard, or don’t fancy shelling out for them? Never fear. Sky Garden, located in the Walkie Talkie just across the river in the City, also offers stunning views across London. And what’s more, it’s free to experience this indoor jungle. Aim to get here just before sunset, and watch the sun go down over the city. Sky Garden is also home to an upmarket restaurant, if you’re looking to make a special night of it, as well as regular live music gigs, sunrise yoga and more.

Time your trip to Columbia Road Flower Market

Market
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© Chiara Dalla Rosa/Culture Trip
Every Sunday sees east London’s Columbia Road taken over by flower stalls selling seasonal stems and foliage. Early birds come at 8am to benefit from a quieter shopping experience, but prices drop around 2pm, when stallholders are starting to think about closing up for the day. So, if you can handle a crowd and aren’t in a hurry, this is the time to visit.

Admire the Scalpel

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The "Scalpel", Willis Building and Lloyds Building dominate the south side of Leadenhall St in the City of London
© Craig Jack Photographic / Alamy Stock Photo
If you’re wandering around the Square Mile with time to kill, pause to examine the architecturally interesting 52 Lime Street skyscraper – otherwise known as the Scalpel. Its distinctive shape (it leans back 10 degrees) makes this new addition to London’s skyline an eye-catching sight . You can’t go in – this is more something to note as you pass by than a destination in itself – but it’s still fun to look up and wonder. Recommended by local insider Josh Lee

Get creative at Peckham Levels

Bar, Market, Pop-up restaurant, Street Food
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Peckham Levels_London_Courtesy
Courtesy of Peckham Levels
Street-food vendors, artists, independent retailers and social enterprises, all clustered in a repurposed multistorey car park. It really is as cool as it sounds. Peckham’s status as a creative hub has been cemented by the Levels, which manages to be on-trend while keeping true to its roots as a community project. Take a break from the central London tourist trail and explore the city’s more eccentric side, stopping for a pint on a makeshift crate table and a snack or two as you do. Recommended by local insider Huda Awan

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