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The main hall in the British Museum, a fantastic free attraction in London. photos by FJ Napoleone.
The main hall in the British Museum, a fantastic free attraction in London. photos by FJ Napoleone.

London on the Very Cheap

Museums and other free attractions make an affordable holiday

Finding myself stuck in London for six unexpected days due to the inconvenient activity of an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano my first thought was ‘what a great place to get stuck.’ My second thought, however, was ‘this is going be expensive.’ Surprisingly, that was not the case.

As our flight approached Heathrow last spring, the pilot announced that the airport would be closing due to volcanic ash over Western Europe. Ours was one of the last planes to land at the now empty terminal - a strange feeling since Heathrow is normally one of the busiest in the world. I checked the departure monitors. Across each screen a message scrolled; “All flights cancelled. No connecting flights until further notice.”

I collected my luggage and hopped onto the Tube – which would become my main mode of transport for the next week. In the city center, at an internet cafe, I was able to book myself into a budget hotel not far from High Park.

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When travelling alone, I am out for most of the day so typically I avoid any fancy extras like maid service, bath towels, and soaps in favour of a shared bath, and a common room complete with foosball and a bunch of backpackers from all over the world.

These quasi-hostels have their advantages; they are inexpensive, clean, and with no frills, you can almost always find someone to hang out with. Even in the middle of the night there are folks – some strange yes - but most are just hanging out looking for a foosball partner. It was easy to make friends in this environment. And who better to know about free and cheap stuff to occupy yourself with than travelling college kids?

Museums

Among the British Library's huge collection is the four-storey glass tower containing the King's Library with 65,000 printed volumes, manuscripts and maps collected by King George III between 1763 and 1820. photo by FJ Napoleone.
Among the British Library's huge collection is the four-storey glass tower containing the King's Library with 65,000 printed volumes, manuscripts and maps collected by King George III between 1763 and 1820. photo by FJ Napoleone.

I had no idea many of London’s museums have free admission. Well almost free: since I’m somewhat gainfully employed, it was hard to walk by the “pay-what-can” box without donating a couple pounds. I even dropped a Canadian toonie into one.

And it’s not just small and out of the way museums either. Some of the world’s greatest collections are housed in London. The British Museum for example, holds the Rosetta Stone, a piece of inscribed rock discovered by one of Napoleon’s soldiers in the Egyptian desert. This rock was a valuable key to the decipherment of hieroglyphs from ancient times.

The museum also houses the Elgin Marbles a collection of magnificent Greek sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features from the Acropolis in Athens.

Across town in the South Kensington area is The Natural History Museum. As soon as I entered I was captivated by the huge Diplodocus dinosaur skeleton that dominates the main hall. It was only one of a dozen of such pre-historic casts throughout the grand rooms. Also in the ‘Giant’s Section’ is a two-foot thick slice from a sequoia tree with rings that date back to 557 AD. On its edge, it stands as high as three men. If smaller things are more to your liking you will want to check out Darwin’s lab jars of snakes, starfish and other organisms preserved in alcohol. It’s no wonder why this place is often referred to as the cathedral of nature.

Just down the road a wee bit is another world-class museum, the
Victoria & Albert,
with a collection that spans some 5,000 years of art in virtually every medium. The courtyard lawn and wading pool was such a simple, clean and quiet place that I even took a nap in the afternoon sun.

Courtyard at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Courtyard at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. photo by FJ Napoleone.

Some of London’s other free museums include The National Gallery with works by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh. Across the Thames you will find The Tate Modern which houses works by Picasso, Rothko and Matisse. The British Library, albeit mostly concerned with books also houses a permanent museum which holds priceless treasures like the Gutenberg Bible, the Magna Carta and hand-written lyrics by Lennon & McCartney.

Live Music

If music is your thing there is a lot to discover. In Trafalgar Square during my visit there was a huge celebration hosted the Dutch. A mass of orange-draped, beer-chugging youth boogied in front of a stage that showcased music for almost 8 hours. In the rock-concert setting it wasn’t quite clear what exactly they were celebrating, but as you may know, the Dutch don’t need much of an excuse to have a party.

A Dutch band rocks it hard during the Holland Festival, Trafalgar Square, London.
A Dutch band rocks it hard during the Holland Festival, Trafalgar Square, London.

For music tastes that are a little more low-key, just across the square you can step into a church, St Martin-in-the-Fields. Daytime concerts are open to the public and the acoustics are perfect. During a previous visit I discovered a 12-piece string orchestra practicing Mozart for an upcoming concert.

An usher greeted me as I entered, “You’re free to sit and enjoy as long as you keep quiet. No flash photography, please.” It was a good place to sit and relax for a while.

If you’re into the late-night party scene then you will want to head to the Camden Town district. The main drag is lined with pubs and clubs. I chose Koko’s because of the live musical acts. I was impressed by a young trio called Bleech. The female-led band played a spirited punk-grunge rock style. They didn’t play for very long, maybe 30 minutes or so, but they made up for it in energy level. The rest of the night had a DJ spinning dance mixes for the crowd which was made up of mostly 20 and 30 year olds. Entrance fee was 7 pounds (about $10 Canadian).

Aimless Wandering

Of course London is a great walking city as well. One can pass countess hours wandering through the cobbled streets of Covent Gardens in search of used-book shops and buskers. Nearby is Chinatown, always bustling with late-night restaurants. The White Chapel District has Brick Row; with great Indian restaurants, loads of artisan shops and free public art.

Regent's Canal, London, a great place for a walk
Regent's Canal, London, a great place for a walk.

An easy, carefree stroll along the Regent Park canal is another great way to spend an afternoon or morning. Colorful riverboats with their eclectic live-aboard residents line the waterways. It’s easy to be transported back in time here.

London is a relatively safe city, but it’s also prudent to use common sense. At night, try to explore with a friend or two and know where you’re headed. Public gardens like High Park and Hampstead Heath are open only during daylight hours. There are plenty of late-night buses and some tube stations are under construction and closed - so plan accordingly.

Upon my return home, I learned about the European Air Travellers Bill of Rights. I made an enquiry and found out that the airline was responsible for any costs I endured caused by my delay. Imagine that. A volcano spews ash in Iceland, and I get free hotel accommodations in London. Had I known beforehand, I may have stayed at the Four Seasons. But, I’m glad I didn’t. I rather enjoyed the colourful characters that hang out with back-packers - that way I have someone to play foosball with in the middle of the night.

Fab Napoleone.
 







FJ Napoleone
is an award-winning writer and university instructor residing in Vancouver, Canada.












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