Museums, galleries, fancy restaurants, theatres…the United Kingdom has a huge variety of attractions to offer any visitors, and there’s no need to break the bank to do so, as many of the country’s best attractions are free, or nearly so! With a little planning, and keeping eyes open when you arrive, you can make your hard-earned money stretch a surprising amount – and here’s 10 tips to make it stretch even more!
1. Visiting World Class Museums and Galleries
Despite London’s (well-deserved) reputations as one of the most expensive cities in the world to live it, it also offers a huge number of free attractions. London is home to some of the world’s best museums and galleries, and most offer priceless artworks, jewellery, and archeological artifacts and other wonderful displays. Best of all, the majority are free to enter (barring special charges for temporary exhibitions), including the world-famous British Museum, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Maritime Museum, as well as dozens of smaller but equally fascinating museums.
In case you’re wondering, London isn’t the only city to offer such enticements, as most of the bigger cities in the UK have similar arrangements. In Glasgow for example, visitors can visit its famous Burrell Collection of over 8,000 art pieces, or the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, which just went under a after a GBP28 million revamp, or any of its other 13 musuems and galleries – all for free. If you’re really keen on historic attractions, you can also get the Great British Heritage Pass, which provides unlimited entry to almost 600 castles, stately homes and gardens all over the country. There are four, seven, 15 and 30-day options, all offering considerable savings if you plan to visit several properties.
Also, every year, Britain celebrates its culture and heritage with an Open House day, similar to the Night of the Museums tradition of many European countries, where on one day of the year (usually September 16 -17), hundreds of museums, galleries, historic house and castles, schools, government buildings etc, all open their doors for free to the public. Many will also include special tours, activities and exhibitions during the Open House, making a visit even more unique.
2. Watching Theatre Performances On the Cheap
Head for the modern incarnation of Shakespeare’s famous Globe Theatre on the banks of the Thames, and ask for a groundling ticket; you’ll have to stand throughout the performance, but you’ll be close to the stage, and there’s really nothing quite like watching the Bard’s works being performed in its (almost) original setting. The season runs from May 5 – October 8.
Theatre-lovers can also get great deals on tickets by heading to the Tkts ticket booth in Leicester Square or Canary Wharf, where you can usually get tickets for West End productions for half the box office price – if you’re willing to wait for the day of the performance.
3. Touring London Easily and Cheaply
If you’re in London, it’s a good idea to get a Travelcard, a one-day travel card from the Underground stations. Apart from allowing you to travel all day on the Underground and bus networks with a single ticket, it also allows free passage on the Docklands Light Railway, as well as discounts at other attractions.
If you prefer to ride above ground, take the bus: the red double-decker bus is not only one of London’s most enduring icon, but is also a great way to see the city, as they are now used as Routemaster tour buses along Heritage Routes 9 and 15 (Royal Albert Hall to Aldwych via Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square to Tower Hill via Fleet Street, respectively). The Travelcard is accepted on the Routemaster buses, making the trip even cheaper.
You can also take a cruise on the Riverline network on the Thames, as there are two new boat services run by Thames Clippers. These boats are the water equivalent of the Underground and the Routemaster bus networks on land, and even have a new ‘hop-on, hop-off’ ticket called the River Roamer, so that you can travel around without any hassle. If you have the Travelcard, you can also get a discount
4. Free Entertainments Outside
There’s plenty of free entertainment on offer throughout the UK. For those who like the colour and pomp of pageantry, there are numerous traditional events like the Changing of the Guards, and watching is completely free. If you prefer something more casual, take a walk in the park. In every city during summer, the major parks will often have a programme of free events you can join. In London’s Hyde Park, you can also have the additional year-round attraction of Speaker’s Corner, where you’ll be treated to a (sometimes though-provoking, sometimes incoherent, but always interesting) diatribe from whoever happens to be pontificating on the day of your visit.
If you’re taking advantage of Tip 1 above, be sure to look out for the free musical and dance performances sometimes held in the foyers of major arts venues or tourism centres, such as London’s Covent Garden and Edinburgh’s Princes Street. A free open-air showcase of theatre performances, West End Live, takes place in and around London’s Leicester Square on June 17-18.
Britain is also famous for its many festivals, with almost every art form from music to theatre, and literature to comedy putting on a big show (think the Gloucester Festival, or Notting Hill Carnival). Most of these festivals will have some free or low-cost events to attract the crowds and build up the whole party atmosphere of the festival. To find out more about the festivals and free entertainments, you can check out the links below or get free Metro morning newspaper, which does a good job covering what’s happening every day in the major cities in the UK, and is available in 15 major cities from the blue racks at rail stations and other key points.
5. Get A City Discount Pass
Most major cities will offer a discount card or pass that gives its holders free or discounted entry to numerous attractions, as well as discounts at restaurants and sometimes free use of public transport. The best part of being a card carrier is that you usually get to skip admission queues as well. of the major cities sell a pass that gives entry to attractions, discounts at restaurants, theatres and tours and sometimes free use of public transport for one payment. It helps you jump the admission queues, too. Some examples are the London Pass, the Edinburgh Pass, the Cardiff Welcome Card and the York Pass, but check out the tourism website for the cities you plan to visit – you never know what deals they may be offering for visitors.
6. Moving Between Cities Easily and Cheaply
Getting around in a city, or between cities, is often one of the most troublesome and expensive items on a vacationer’s budget, but fortunately, there are plenty of cost-effective alternatives in the UK.
To get from one city to another, there are a number of both public and and private services you can take advantage of. For public services, try British Rail – the network is extensive, and the trains are on time, and fast. If you plan to visit more than one city, or need to make a few quick hops between cities, consider getting the BritRail Pass before you leave for the UK, as it’s not available in the country. If you like cycling, take advantage of the National Cycle Network, which is generally traffic-free, well sign-posted, offers some great views and routes to see the country, and is constantly adding new stretches to its current 10,000 miles of routes – and all managed by the Sustrans charity.
As for private services, try out the National Express, the UK’s biggest express bus company. There are routes covering every corner of the country, and the prices are usually between a third and a half of rail travel. You can get the BritXplorer Pass, which has varying time periods to suit individual schedules, and is a great way to hop around the country without much hassle. You can also try Megabus, a low-cost bus service which is rapidly growing and offers online booking of tickets that can go as low as GBP1!
7. Shopping For Bargains
Most cities in the UK will have weekly open-air markets, which can range from the usual flea market offerings to some surprisingly high-class goods. One of the the latest and most interesting markets to explore is the Sunday Market in the Old Truman Brewery, off Hanbury Street, E1 in London, where the local designers test out their designs bey selling direct to the customers. Other London markets include Old Spitalfields, E1; Camden Lock, NW1; Greenwich, SE10 and Portobello Road, W10, while in Edinburgh and
If you’re partial to Prada or Louis Vuitton, but faint at the price tags attached, try stopping by chain stores like T.K., Maxx and Matalan, for discounted items a little more affordable. You can also head out of town to the designer retail centres such as McArthurGlen, where you can get branded goods, for up to half the price you’d pay on high street.
If you’re happy to go without brand names, then there’s a huge variety of shops offering the latest fashions at reasonable prices. The UK has one of the most competitive retail environments in the world, so you’ll find the merchandise good quality and affordable, and the service admirable. You can try the big chains like Marks and Spencers or Primark, but for really fantastic deals, go in December, January or July, when sales are traditionally held.
Last but not least, if you live outside the European Union, don’t forget to claim back the Value Added Tax (VAT) on any purchases made, which is charged at 17.5% on most goods bought in shops.
8. Eating Well and Cheaply
Contrary to snide comments about British cuisine, the UK offers a huge variety of eateries to suit all diets and tastes, so in the major cities, you won’t have any trouble finding something to eat! For a fast, cheap, and delicious snack, grab some fish and chips from the nearest ‘chippie’. For those looking for something a little different, try the kebab shops and Indian curry houses – brought over by immigrants during the last two centuries, both the kebab and the curry have become staples of the British diet, and are fast, affordable and tasty.
For something a little less informal (but still won’t break the bank), try stopping at the local pub. You’ll never find a town without a pub, and they offer the chance to soak in some local colour as well as some great drinks and good food. The usual ‘pub grub’, as its sometimes called, is along the lines of Ploughman’s Lunch, Shepherds Pie and other such hearty dishes, but you can also look out for a ‘gastropub’ – the latest innovation in pub dining, where diners can get high quality meals in an informal pub setting, at reasonable prices
And for those who really love their foods, you can go on a food trail – visiting the various distilleries, cheese-makers, sausage-makers, vineyards or what-have-you’s around the country to see where the delicay is made, and of course, for some sampling of the finished product. Scotland is famous for its Malt Whiskey Trail, but England isn’t far behind with its South East England Wine Trail, Lake District Tea Trail, Heart of England’s Cheese Trail and so on.
9. Great Free Night-life
Most of the larger cities in the UK offer some sort of free entertainment at night, but one of the best places to go for free or low-cost night clubs are the larger seaside resorts around the country, where intense competition between clubs means that many offer free entry cities. One of the most popular place to go is Brighton on the south coast, as it offers beach fun in the day and great nightlife after dark!
10. Learn More at VisitBritain.com
Last but not least, see VisitBritain’s impartial website which is a good starting point for anyone planning a trip and includes searchable databases of accommodation, attractions and events. Great Britain doesn’t have to mean great expense!