London on the cheap

Take the Millennium Bridge across the river Thames Take the Millennium Bridge across the river Thames right to the Tate Modern. (July 17, 2007) Photo Credit: AP

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London's charms as a travel destination have never been in doubt. As the American writer Anna Quindlen has put it, "London has the trick of making its past, its long indelible past, always a part of its present." There's a palpable excitement to walking past elegantly turned out 18th century buildings as you partake of cutting-edge contemporary cultural activities and the much- improved food scene.

So everyone wants to go to London, especially this time of year, when it has shaken off its winter blues. But who can afford it? The same city that beguiles with its buttoned-up brio pushes us away with high prices at every turn.

The trick is to think like a Londoner and bring a skeptical British eye to every decision; thinking like a tourist will keep you happy, but poor. Here are a few great ways to see the city without breaking the bank.

MUSEUMS, OFF THE WALLS

Almost all the museums in London are free -- the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the British Museum, the Tate Modern -- because of Britain's commitment to cultural funding, despite enormous budget cutbacks of late. (Most charge for special exhibitions, though it's generally nominal, around $15.) Evenings at many museums bring "free jazz and a cheap bar," says Damien Whitmore, director of programming at the venerable V&A and a dedicated Londoner. "And don't forget the free talks, tours and lectures, which are plentiful -- great speakers from around the world for nothing." For instance, his museum gives a free tour of its storied medieval and Renaissance galleries every day from May 27 to Dec. 31 (vam.ac.uk/whatson/event/696/medieval-renaissance-tour-1130-1419).

TO MARKET, TO MARKET

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Spring and summer are the times to enjoy outdoor markets of all kinds, and this is one area where London easily bests New York. Browsing is free, of course, and generally there are bargains to be found. "On Sundays, you have to come to Shoreditch," says Whitmore, referring to the famous East End neighborhood. The legendary Spitalfields market (spitalfields.co.uk), on of London's oldest and formerly only open on Sunday, is now up and running seven days a week, offering food, crafts and snazzy decor items.

Get a taste of Eliza Doolittle's milieu at the Sundays-only Columbia Flower Market (columbiaroad.info). You might not be cooking on your London stay, but Borough Market (boroughmarket.org.uk), near London Bridge, is a classic destination for produce and foodstuffs of all kinds every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and there are plenty of lunch options amid the stalls. You'll be amazed by the variety on display.

Then there is Brick Lane (visitbricklane.org), where shops are open every day, but on Sunday the street becomes a multiethnic celebration that Whitmore calls "edgy, groovy and the biggest street bazaar on the planet."

BY HOOK OR BY CROOK -- OR BUS OR BOAT

London's Underground, otherwise known as the Tube, is justly famous and efficient. But you don't see the city that way. "You never get to see London from the air," says Whitmore, "so you see it from the top of a double-decker bus. The No. 26 is one of the great urban journeys." That bus goes just south of St. Paul's Cathedral and along historic Fleet Street and the Strand, crossing the Thames on legendary Waterloo Bridge -- all for less than $4 if you're paying cash, or as part of a handy London Pass (londonpass.com).

Experiencing the city from its great river also makes sense, given that "the city grew up along the Thames," as Whitmore puts it; try a commuter boat ride (tfl.gov.uk) or a $20 tourist cruise from the entrepreneurs behind the iconic London Eye (london eye.com), since their boat is substantially cheaper than a ride on their modern Ferris wheel.

ALL THE CITY'S A STAGE

One of the premier joys of London is the vibrant theater scene, which offers, on any given day, Dame Helen Mirren playing a queen; the next big musical sure to hit Broadway six months later; favorite old standards, especially Shakespeare; and experimental plays by the score. The National Theatre (nationaltheatre.org.uk) is perhaps the world's most consistent venue, show for show, and the West End is the city's Broadway equivalent, teeming with options.

Time Out London offers some special deals (timeout.com/london/tickets-offers), and, just as in New York, there's TKTS (tkts.co.uk) for same-day tickets, centrally located in Leicester Square, which is almost always the cheapest option. But a risk-taking approach can pay off: showing up at a theater the day of a performance often yields discounted tickets, sometimes ones that don't make it to the TKTS booth.

TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE TO DREAM

Other than airfare, hotels are the most expensive element in any trip. One school of thought is that you should look for lodging outside the city center, where it's reliably cheaper -- and it's true that in a city as compact as London, travel time is less of an issue than in, say, sprawling Berlin.

But there's no reason to go too far afield when historical and central areas have so many good options. Bloomsbury, Virginia Woolf's old stamping ground and the tree-lined home of the British Museum, has quite a few nice properties (bloomsburyhotels.net/cheap-hotels.html), including the old-fashioned Jesmond Hotel (jesmondhotel.org.uk, doubles from $170) and the space-age-looking My Hotel Bloomsbury (myhotels.com, from $185).

The formerly dodgy East End, now infused with Brookylnesque energy, is another hotbed for deals, and it happens to be the most exciting area for dining in town as well. Try the cleanly designed Hoxton (hoxtonhotels.com, from $140) or the glamorous Shoreditch House, with a rooftop pool (shoreditchhouse.com, from $160), from the people behind the members-only SoHo House in London and New York.

The Earls Court area of London, south and west of Hyde Park, has long been a spot to find a cozy, affordable room. The Lord Kensington Hotel (lordkensington.co.uk, from $125) is a clean, if slightly bare-bones, option. Twenty Nevern Square (20nevernsquare.com, from $110), located in a Victorian town house, has a bit more panache, and each of the 20 rooms are decorated in a different style.

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