London Sightseeing on a Shoestring

Chim chim che-ree!

After a Christmas spent pleasantly in Ontario, TC and I are in London for a few days, ringing in the new year and toasting my big sister and her soon-to-be husband.

While I must admit that my first day of 2015 was spent napping and watching Mary Poppins on BBC One, we have been able to fit quite a lot into those days in which we have been out and about. One of the nice things about London is that you can actually do and see a lot of nice things for free (plus the cost of public transit of course). This can help offset the generally high prices of everything when travelling in Britain, and especially its capital. I’ve started to prefer NOT having too many specific goals when I travel, and if you can keep yourself relaxed (even amidst the press of the Christmas-holiday crowds), London has a lot of experiences in store.

The British Museum (admission free, donation encouraged):

My only real complaint about this museum is that its major attractions are set front and centre, meaning in order to get to anything you first need to push through dense packs of tourists craning to see (and photograph) whatever it is that is considered a big feature. When I first walked into the halls that housed the Egyptian sculpture collection, I thought, oh no, there’s going to be huge crowds around every damn rock. And then my dad told me I was looking at the Rosetta Stone. Fair enough. The crowds thin as you move farther into the side corridors and there is a lot to see–more than you can do justice to in a day, and certainly enough to keep you interested for a couple of hours. The placards beside each exhibit are pretty informative and you actually learn things on your visit.


British Museum. Photo: Brayden McCluskey


I quite liked the large collections of Egyptian, Assyrian, and Greek sculpture, the Victorian jewellery, and the general splendor of the museum with its covered courtyard and high-ceilinged halls. I was not as into the mummies (I don’t know how I feel about looking at actual dead people) or the artifacts from very early civilizations (or, as my mother calls those exhibits, “pots and pots and pots”).

Covent Gardens (totally free to browse!):

Full of buskers (silver men, the Mad Hatter with a tea party and a mouse, unicyclists, etc.), food stalls (roasted nuts and mulled wine at this time of year), and curiosities for sale, Covent Garden’s atmosphere makes it worth a visit even if you don’t end up buying anything. I went back to the discovery I made on my last London visit, Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop. It’s full of toy theatres and shadow puppet sets, paper dolls and puzzles, and although it’s a bit pricey (and the toys, many of them little works of art, would be hard to transport back to Canada), I still love this shop, because toys SHOULD be little pieces of magic and wonder, not just rectangular screens that do all the thinking and imagining for us.

Trafalgar Square (free):

Like a lot of famous places in London (Picadilly Circus, for example), Trafalgar Square’s not really a place where you can DO anything, but it’s got nice big sculptures of lions, more of the aforementioned buskers, and nice views of the London landscape (including Big Ben) from the steps of the National Gallery.

From the steps of the National Gallery. Photo: Brayden McCluskey

From the steps of the National Gallery. Photo: Brayden McCluskey

The National Gallery (admission free, donation encouraged):

We didn’t have a lot of time in this particular gallery (really just a quick run through some of the halls on the main floor), but I like art galleries better if I DON’T make a beeline for whatever is famous and it’s interesting to catch sight of a familiar-looking Renoir or Monet on the walls as I saunter around. Particularly arresting was Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey because although I’d seen a poster of it before in the history wing at SFU (as well as other places, I’m sure, when I studied Early Modern literature), I had no idea how incredibly massive it was. I also loved the equally large Bathers at Asnières by Georges Seurat.

The Tate Modern (admission free, donation encouraged):

I’ve been to the Tate Modern before but it was really nice to go again. After three years it’s interesting to see some of the same works I saw before, and take note of the ways in which how I see them, and art in general, has changed. The last time I was in London, Salvador Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus was on loan to another gallery. When I finally clapped eyes on the original for the first time, I must confess I was a little disappointed. It’s kind of small! And the frame overwhelms it. But it’s still an incredible achievement so, you know, I guess it’s alright.

I liked Max Ernst’s Moon in a Bottle and the painting Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton. I don’t understand sculpture at all.

Walking (free):

Quite simply, London doesn’t look like any city in Canada. It looks like London. Which makes it a great place to walk around. Parks are cherished by the British and many of London’s parks are huge and very well-maintained (Holland Park is a nice one and my parents really like Hyde Park). Walking across one of the Thames’ foot bridges gives you lovely views of Parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, depending on where you look. A walk across the bridge and along the bank just before sunset it quite romantic, if I do say so myself.

Double decker bus (under 2 quid if you’re not going far):

There are, of course, double decker bus tours in London which often include a guide and go by all the famous sights but if you don’t want to pay for that and you’re not too fussy about what you see it can be nice to take a break from hoofing around and just take a little ride on the top level of a public transit bus. There are sometimes better views up there than you’d have walking on the street and sometimes I just like watching the pretty things go by.

Though I’m beginning to get a bit sleepy and worn out by all the hustle and bustle, on this trip I’m liking London more than I ever have before, and I think it has a lot to do with relaxing and just enjoying having family around and my TC by my side.