With London's surprise tumble from number 2 to number 19 in the list of the world's most expensive cities and the dollar generally strong (compared to recent years, at least) against the pound, 2010 is a good year to consider revisiting the British capital, with falling prices and unprecedented deals across the board.
Many of London's larger museums and galleries are absolutely free to visitors -- the British Museum (www.britishmuseum.org), Victoria & Albert Museum (www.vam.ac.uk), Natural History Museum (www.nhm.ac.uk), Science Museum (www.sciencemuseum.org.uk), National Gallery (www.nationalgallery.org.uk), Tate Modern (www.tate.org.uk), Museum of London (www.museumoflondon.org.uk) and Museum of Childhood (www.vam.ac.uk/moc/) are just a few of the stellar attractions that will keep you occupied for entire days without parting with a penny (unless you visit one of their paying temporary exhibitions).
If you're going to a lot of paying attractions, which can be costly indeed, invest in a London Pass (www.londonpass.com), which saves you money on entrance fees and public transport as well as allowing you to jump the queue at certain sights. Before you buy, do tot up the children's entrance fees to the attractions you aim to visit to make sure a kid's pass will pay for itself (kids under 11 travel free on public transport in London, 11-15-year-olds can travel free with an Oyster photocard (www.tfl.gov.uk/tickets/oysteronline/2732.aspx).
Eschew expensive guided tours and make your own way along the South Bank Riverside Walk. This takes you from Westminster Bridge past a whole heap of attractions, including the London Eye, South Bank arts complex, Millennium Bridge with its view of St Paul's Cathedral, Tate Modern, Shakespeare's Globe, Golden Hinde and HMS Belfast, to Tower Bridge and the Design Museum. Stunning views accompany you all the way, as do refreshment stop-offs, while Gabriel's Wharf and the Oxo Tower halfway along the routes have crafts shops and galleries galore.
Forget sightseeing buses -- the no. 15 bus between Paddington and the East End takes you via Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, and Fleet Street, with attractions en route including the National Gallery, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Monument, and the Tower of London. On some parts of the route you can take "Heritage buses" (refurbished open-backed Routemasters). Bag a front seat on the top deck, sit back and enjoy prime views for just £2 (half that if you buy an Oyster card (www.tfl.gov.uk/tickets/oysteronline/2732.aspx), and free to kids)
Other good public-bus routes for sightseeing are the RV1 (from Covent Garden over the river to the London Eye, South Bank, Tate Modern, London Bridge, and Tower Bridge) and the number 9 (from High Street Kensington to Aldwych via Harrods, Piccadilly, Green Park, and Trafalgar Square, also with old-fashioned "Heritage buses" on some stretches).
Markets are a great way to pass a weekend morning for free -- and if you go to those in the hip former Truman Brewery in the East End you're unlikely to spend a fortune even if you do get tempted. The markets (the Sunday Upmarket and the Backyard Market) and their surrounding community of independent shops offer everything from offbeat baby wear and handmade toys, or retro gear for fashion-conscious teens, to bright saris and Indian jewelry, all at very decent prices. And you can fill up cheaply and well at the food stalls selling Caribbean fried plantain sandwiches, Indian street snacks, and other treats.
Going to the theatre is expensive in London (think about £20-60 per ticket for The Lion King) but you can snap up last-minute bargains (usually half-price tickets) for top West End shows on the day of the performance at the official discount TKTS ticket booth in the clock tower in Leicester Square (Mon-Sat 10am-7pm; Sun noon-3pm). Check the daily listings on (www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk/tkts) and note that queuing starts early for the most popular shows.
The biggest entertainment bargain of all comes in August (usually the last two weeks), when Kids' Week (www.kidsweek.co.uk) gives 5-16-year-olds a free ticket to top London shows for each adult paying full price, plus two further kids' tickets at half-price. There are also free activities such as backstage visits, dance workshops, set design, and stage-fighting (one activity per child), and during the Ã«week' many restaurants let kids eat for free, and travel and accommodation providers offer special promotions (see the website for details).
Lastly, not all its offering are family-oriented, but the Prince Charles Cinema (www.princecharlescinema.com) just off Leicester Square sells tickets to its downstairs screenings at a bargain £4-6.50 (£1.50-3.50 for members) -- about half the price of other West End movie theaters.
Where to Stay
Don't be afraid of waiting until the last minute for white-hot deals -- London has more than enough hotel rooms to go round, and unless your heart is set on a particular venue, you can be sure of getting a good choice of options, from self-catering apartments to hotels in all categories, whenever you book. Even with one day's notice, family rooms on a site such as Lastminute.com (www.lastminute.com) start at just £65, or for those prepared to be kept in the dark, there are huge discounts off "Top Secret" hotels (the name of which is revealed after booking).
A B&B can be a cosier, more welcoming and cheaper proposition than a hotel. An outstanding (indeed, awardwinning) modern example, B + B Belgravia (www.bb-belgravia.com) charges £160 for a room for four including a superb breakfast with many organic ingredients. Little Ã«extras' include free bike loan, free WiFi and use of a small garden. Hot off the press for 2010 is news of the addition of eight small apartments with kitchenettes and a garden suite.
Don't rule out youth hostels (www.yha.org.uk) -- these traditional backpacker staples have made great leaps forward in their provision for families in recent years. Several more or less central London youth hostels now offer family rooms (usually with bunks but occasionally with one double and one bunkbed, and sometimes with a private bathroom) starting at just over £50 a night according to location and date.
Lastly, it may not be the swankiest option, but the Travelodge chain (www.travelodge.co.uk) offers central London family rooms (one double bed and a sofabed) from as little as £19 per night -- sign up for its email updates for early notice of extra-special offers. Other useful chains are Premier Inn (www.premierinn.com), where kids get a free breakfast, and Holiday Inn (www.ichotelsgroup.com), where they eat free all day.
Where to Eat
Set lunch deals and pre-theatre menus all over the capital but particularly in Ã«Theatreland' (Covent Garden and The Strand) are good ways of keeping witin a family-sized budget. Masala Zone (www.masalazone.com), with branches in Covent Garden and elsewhere, offers lunch and pre-theater menus for just £8.70 for two courses of Indian food (a portion of vegetarian street food, followed by a vegetable or chicken curry, thali or noodle dish, then sorbet or ice cream). Kids' menus (an Indian or Western main course plus ice cream) are £4.30 all day.
Kids 12 and under eat free all day at Belgo (www.belgo-restaurants.co.uk), a small chain of Belgian restaurants -- the largest of which is in Covent Garden -- specialising in mussels and fries served up in a beer hall atmosphere with waitstaff dressed as Trappist monks. The 2-course meal, free with each adult main course from the main menu (£9.95-12.75), includes rotisserie chicken with apple sausage, pork and leek sausages with mash, deep-fried cod strips, or mussels with Provençal sauce, followed by ice cream. Each extra kids' menu is £4.95.
For a traditional afternoon that won't leave your wallet stinging (those in posh hotels will set up back around £30 a head), head for the atmospheric Café in the Crypt (www2.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/page/cafe/cafe.html) in the brick vaults of St Martin's in the Fields church on Trafalgar Square, complete with old gravestones set in to the floor. Here, a pot of tea or cup of coffee, a scone with jam and Cornish clotted cream, a slice of Madeira cake, and wedge of double chocolate fudge cake will set you back just £5.25.
Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers in our Great Britain forum today.