London for Less
Published: May 2009
By Richard Alleman
Despite its reputation as one of the world's costliest cities, London can still deliver a lot of punch for your pound. Here, essential tips on how to stretch those pence
I've always been shocked by the cost of living in London: $70 to taxi into town from Heathrow, $50 for a memorable dinner, $600 for a much-needed raincoat (I'd left mine at home). So over the past months, I grilled my most stylish Londoner friends about everything from the reasonably priced hotels they recommend, to restaurants where a meal doesn't eat up your entire day's budget, to shops that have real sales. Here are a few of their favorites.
Suite Deals for Less Than $300
Over in Maida Vale, near the canals of London's romantic Little Venice neighborhood, the Colonnade (2 Warrington Crescent; 44-207/286-1052; www.etontownhouse.com; doubles from $264, including the value-added tax—a whopping 17.5 percent in the U.K.) is like a mini-Connaught: posh public salons; 43 bedrooms done in traditional but not stuffy British style, with rich fabrics and large-scale paintings. Its Enigma restaurant is the place to see and be seen. • Across town, in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum and the shops of Oxford Street, the Colonnade's sister hotel, the Academy (21 Gower St.; 44-207/631- 4115; www.etontownhouse.com; weekend doubles from $190, including breakfast and VAT), has 49 rooms in five interconnected town houses. In addition to its clubby lounges, the hotel has two small gardens. • Better known for her upscale properties, like the Covent Garden and the Charlotte Street, Kit Kemp has pioneered the chic B&B concept with her new Knightsbridge Hotel (10 Beaufort Gardens; 44-207/584-6300; www.knightsbridgehotel.co.uk; doubles from $295, including breakfast and VAT). All 44 rooms epitomize Kemp's signature great taste: designer fabrics and wallpapers, collages and prints by top British artists, sleek granite and oak baths—but at decidedly lower rates. • In nearby South Kensington, Kemp has used the same formula in her total redo of the venerable Number Sixteen B&B (16 Sumner Place; 800/553-6674 or 44-207/589-5232; www.numbersixteenhotel.co.uk; doubles from $268, including breakfast and VAT). • In Notting Hill, steps from the trendy boutiques of Westbourne Grove and the antiques shops of Portobello Road, Main House (6 Colville Rd.;44-207/221-9691; www.themainhouse.co.uk; doubles from $183, including VAT) is a new small inn, with three spacious floor-through suites. • London's often overlooked town-house hotels can also offer surprising comfort without breaking the bank. For example, the recently refurbished Cranley (10-12 Bina Gardens; 44-207/373-0123; www.thecranley.com; weekend doubles from $226, including breakfast and VAT, two-night minimum), a Victorian in South Kensington, has 38 rooms with poster beds and handpicked antiques. • In Marylebone, 10 Manchester (10 Manchester St.; 44-207/486-6669; www.10manchesterstreet.com; doubles from $229, including breakfast and VAT) is an unpretentious hotel with 46 compact rooms, near both Oxford and Bond Street shopping. • For more familial accommodations, At Home in London (44-208/748-1943; www.athomeinlondon.co.uk) lists private houses with rooms for rent in prime areas like Knightsbridge, Mayfair, Kensington, Chelsea, and Notting Hill. Rates—from $80 to $130 for a double—include breakfast and VAT. A two-night minimum stay is required.
Lean (Haute) Cuisine
Lunchtime deals abound at the city's high-end restaurants, allowing pence-pinchers to indulge in fine dining. At Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's (Brook St.; 44-207/499-0099; three-course lunch for two $76), you can sample rillettes of salmon, breast of quail, and Baileys brioche pudding from London's most acclaimed chef. • Start with three different preparations of foie gras, continue on to roast brill in bouillabaisse sauce, and finish with raspberry soufflé at the Michelin-starred Foliage (66 Knightsbridge; 44-207/201-3723; lunch for two $60), in the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. The views rival the food. For $10 more per person, add two glasses of wine to your meal. • London's hottest new restaurant, Racine (239 Brompton Rd.; 44-207/584-4477), is dazzling diners in Knightsbridge not only with its straightforward bistro food— roast cod, steak béarnaise, grilled rabbit—but also with its down-to-earth prices: a two-course set lunch is $19 per person; three courses are $22.50. • If you can score a lunch reservation at the legendary Nobu (Old Park Lane; 44-207/447-4747), order the bento box ($38) filled with chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa's most popular creations, including black cod, seared tuna salad, and five types of sushi.
Think Balthazar or the Brasserie Lipp without the totalitarian regime, and you've got Café Rouge—the city's finest eat-and-run chain restaurant, with dozens of well-designed faux-French bistros in choice spots all over town. It was at a Café Rouge that Helen Fielding penned Bridget Jones's Diary, and whenever Bridget and her gang held a romantic postmortem, they usually wound up here, commiserating perhaps over a $14 bowl of moules or a $12 salade niçoise with grilled salmon. If you don't stumble upon a Café Rouge in your wanderings, ask at your hotel or check the Web site for locations (www.caferouge.co.uk). • Even more ubiquitous are Pizza Express restaurants, with their modern interiors and 10-inch designer pizzas to match—from basic cheese-and-tomato to pine nuts, onions, and raisins—priced from $7.50 to $9. A bottle of eminently drinkable house wine goes for $16.50. Again, they're hard to miss—but just in case, check www.pizzaexpress.co.uk. • For fast Asian cuisine, Wagamama is a name to remember. This chain serves healthful, traditionally presented Japanese noodle dishes—as well as fresh salads, dumplings, and curries—in sleek dining halls. Most meals are under $10, but if you're famished, try the Absolute Wagamama special ($15): dumplings, chicken ramen, and a beer or juice. (For addresses and more locations, go to www.wagamama.com.) • For a quick cappuccino, salad, or sandwich, don't overlook Pret A Manger (www.pret.com), London's high-tech snack bars, which have also begun cropping up on this side of the pond.
If you're mad for European antiques, vintage clothes, and mid-century bits and bobs, London's plentiful street markets deliver the goods—often at very fair prices. Just keep in mind that you're in Great Britain, and aggressive haggling will get you nowhere, but a polite "Is that your best price?" can work wonders. • Written off a few years ago as too touristy, too crowded, and too expensive, the Notting Hill institution Portobello Market (Saturdays 7 a.m.-6 p.m.) is making a comeback. Treasure hunters scour the five-block stretch north of Chepstow Villas for 19th-century antiques, Art Deco jewelry, and leather-bound books. They get there from the convenient Ladbroke Grove tube station, less crowded than the Notting Hill Gate stop. • Serious buyers arrive at the crack of dawn at Bermondsey Market (Fridays 4 a.m.-2 p.m.), London's most celebrated antiques emporium, to preview the day's possibilities as they're unpacked. Take a flashlight to check for maker's marks and to fit in with the many professional dealers and decorators who hit these open-air stalls every week. • At Camden Markets (Saturdays and Sundays 9 a.m.-6 p.m.), a vast swap meet in northwest London's funky Camden Town, dedicated shoppers rummage through hippie junk and often unearth riches—from fifties light fixtures to well-preserved British military uniforms—in the Stables Market section. To reach it (and to avoid the mob scene at the Camden Town station), use the Chalk Farm tube stop. For better prices on bigger items, shop late in the afternoon, when tired hawkers would rather make a deal than repack what has been passed over. • Not to be confused with the grungy, Goth-youth-filled Camden Town market, Camden Passage is a popular North London quarter of antiques shops in fashionable Islington. Twice a week (Wednesdays 7 a.m.- 4 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m.-4 p.m.), the area is flooded with street sellers, offering even more in the way of furniture, paintings, antique maps, decorative arts, and Victorian jewelry. For the best prices, check out the trinkets displayed on blankets on the sidewalk.
Dress For Less
For classic British couture at bargain prices, don't leave London without hitting Joseph (53 Kings Rd.; 44-207/730-7562) in Chelsea. Here, acclaimed local designer and retailer Joseph Ettedgui showcases his own women's wear as well as that of Prada, Gucci, and Dolce & Gabbana—all at slashed prices. • In an alleyway off Brook Street, around the corner from Claridge's, fashionable lads (and dudes) can pick up amazing buys from the town's top men's-wear maven at the Paul Smith Sale Shop (23 Avery Row; 44-207/493-1287). Choices include beautifully detailed T-shirts for $15, jeans and shoes from $67, even suits from $455. • If you're addicted to a certain brown plaid status symbol, it may be worth the trek to the Burberry Factory Shop (29-53 Chatham Place, Hackney; 44-208/985-3344). In this huge outlet in northeast London you'll find scarves for $25, umbrellas for $40, and the world's most famous raincoats starting at $210.
Dedicated to "no-label, quality goods," the Japanese retail operation MUJI (44-207/323-2208; www.mujionline.com) has taken London by storm: it has eight locations here. Fashionistas covet the chain's $7.50 black, gray, and white T-shirts; real writers insist on a supply of MUJI's ergonomic gel pens ($1.20). The sleek, minimal home furnishings may inspire you to rent a London flat of your own to decorate. Few travelers can resist the cool gray flannel eye masks ($5) or that perfect-for-London plastic raincoat ($15) that you can cut down yourself for just the right fit.
The Great Museum Giveaway
Some of the best things in London really are free. Many of the city's 300-plus museums have recently adopted a no-charge admission policy (except for special exhibitions). That means you can ogle the Warhols and Hockneys at the Tate Modern; the Turners and Gainsboroughs at the reborn Tate Britain; and 400 years of British design in the recently unveiled British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert—all without spending a quid.
Travelcard: Don't Leave Your Hotel Without it
Passes available from Transport for London give visitors unlimited trips on the city's extensive public transportation system (underground, light rail, and buses). Travelcards are sold at most underground stations—$6.25 for a day, $9.30 for a weekend, and $29 for seven days of commuting within Zones 1 and 2 (where most of London's main attractions are located). For even less money, pick up an all-zone bus pass at any newsagent or bus station ($3 for one day, $13 for one week). The views from London's fleet of bright-red, spanking-new double-deckers are some of the best this side of the London Eye.
Cheap Seats at the Theater
In a city renowned for its theater, one expects to pay premium prices to see a show. Not so: A top-tier ticket to a West End musical is $60 (a third less than in New York). Non-musical plays are also reasonable—around $55 for the stalls (orchestra), $30 for a decent seat in the mezzanine. London even has its own version of Manhattan's half-price TKTS booth, on the edge of Leicester Square.
For more-experimental performances, the Fringe, London's take on off-off-Broadway, has innovative productions and ticket prices as low as $10. At the New End Set (27 New End; 44-207/794-0022), in Hampstead, Jerry Hall is starring in the new play Benchmark (through October 20). In West London's Chiswick neighborhood, the 49-seat Tabard (2 Bath Rd.; 44-208/995-6035) is staging seven short pieces by American playwright Arlene Hutton (through October 12). Just off Fleet Street, the Fringe's main stage for musicals, the Bridewell (Bride Ln.; 44-207/936-3456; www.bridewelltheatre.co.uk), continues its popular series of original Stephen Sondheim revues. Called The Road You Didn't Take, the latest show focuses on how the composer deals with men in his work. If you'd rather feed your mind than your body, skip lunch and catch actors and comedians performing their sketches during the Bridewell's midday shows.