This Summer, I flew to London on a Skyscanner challenge to update and expand my Broke Student’s Guide series in London and the UK in general. Thus, forthcoming: topic specific guides on budgeting your way across the UK while still having a blast (I know I did) – and today, we look at Art and Culture.
Or more precisely, art and pop culture? Let me set the stage. London is bursting at the seams with tradition, art, and creativity, all served with a side of solid british humour, which in modern day terms means sarcasm. The great thing I love about London is that they’re generally very supportive in terms of the arts (ie. funding, money, real world concerns) and the upshot of this is that entrance to museums and the such are generally free. Free! But on the other hand, no one flies all the way to london to spend their entire time cooped up inside a series of museums. So what I’m gonna do is talk about things you can do for cheap/free in London that fall within the realms of art and/or (pop) culture. Because after four years of majoring in english and hearing people say Culture is people, y’all! nonstop, it’s about damned time I use it. Culture is people, y’all!
Lit geek like me? Great. You’re in for a treat.
A fantastic way to spend an afternoon is by lounging in Libreria bookstore down in East London, an area peppered with what the cool kids call hipster cafes these days. Libreria has the advantage of being both highly curated and absolutely gorgeous. Started by book lovers for book lovers, you can either spend an afternoon browsing and reading in their store or ask for recommendations – and from experience, I’m telling you, they know their stuff. I got really good recommendations from them based on what I said my favourite books were, and I’d definitely recommend any book lover popping in to Libreria at least once when in london – I was there three times myself!
Libreria is one of those bookstores that adopts a very European style – that is to say, instead of mass stocking copies of popular books, they have just a couple per book, but a range of many really good titles. If you’re in London long enough, you can even get them to order books for you. To me, they’re the UK equivalent of my favourite bookstore in the world: Three Lives and Company in New York. But they do hold their own: they’re also gaining quite the cult status in London, and it was an author who pointed me this way.
Just note though: Libreria is old school beautiful, which means they treat their books very seriously (a good thing, in my opinion) and disallow phones at all times. Even to take a photo! No phones, and no bringing coffee in. It distracts from the books and reading, which may seem harsh, but fair – it’s their prerogative after all. So go in with a camera if you’d like, but if you pull out your phone you’ll be asked to stow it away.
Libreria 65 Hanbury St, London E1 5JP Opening hours: Tuesday–Thursday: 11am–7pm; Friday–Saturday: 11am–11pm; Sunday: 11am-6pm; Monday: closed
Hardcore lit fan? London is also home to Kew Gardens, the setting for the famous Virginia Woolf story. Gorgeous place, but it comes at a price – more specifically, £15 for standard adult entry. If you’re keen to go, bring your student ID for £14 door tickets, or buy it discounted online for £13 (student) and £14 (adult). More here!
Into reading, but not novels per se? Another great place to hang out is Forbidden Planet, a mega comic book store just outside Soho. You can find Forbidden Planet stores all over the UK, so if you’re not hitting London on your trip and still wanna check it out, don’t fret! The one in London is huge, and stretches two stories. The basement is full of all types of comics – manga, graphic novels, classic comic books – and lots of them are open for you to browse and read too. I found the Attack on Titan (which is a fantastic anime) manga series there, as well as some of the more obscure Marvel spin-offs. They do stock variant covers and merchandising as well, so if you’re a comic book collector, this is the place to be. I spent three hours in the place!
Forbidden Planet 179 Shaftesbury Ave +44 20 7420 3666
Of course we have to touch on museums, albeit briefly. For London is full of them! And many of them are truly fantastic as well – the Natural History museum, the Serpentine Galleries in Hyde Park, and even more specialised ones like the Sherlock Holmes museum at the most famous address in the world: 221B Baker Street.
Admission to most of the museums are free – but you might have to pay for special exhibitions in the museums, or for the more specialised museums. The Sherlock Holmes museum, for example, is £15 for adult entry. The classic museums people think of when they think of London are the V&A, the National Gallery, the British Museum.. but I hear really good things about the National Museum of Aviation aka the Royal Air Force Museum (free entry) and the Cartoon Museum (minimal entry fee, like £3 for students and free if you’re under 18), so consider those if you’re planning a trip!
The one I decided to pop in to was the Tate Modern, which I’ve always wanted to see. There was a paid Georgia O’Keefe exhibition running (you know, the lady who paints those famous flowers that are supposed to look like female bits), as well as the Louise Bourgeois installation which was weird and wonderful.
Entry to the Tate is generally free, and you just pay for special travelling exhibitions. A nice secret – if you’re going to the Tate, go to the new wing and take the lift to the top floor. There, there’s a nice little cafe with a viewing deck that gives you fantastic views over London. You don’t have to buy a drink to hang around there (in fact, I don’t think that many people do), but it’s handy if you desperately need a coffee hit or want somewhere to sit.
Tate Modern Bankside, London, SE1 9TG
Pop culture: Harry Potter
If you’re a harry potter fan, maybe we can be friends. So much of London I associated with Harry Potter even before ever stepping foot on solid UK tarmac, because we all grew up with the movies and books! I don’t suppose the classic movie stars from the 80s will be pleased to hear this, but it is what it is. Sorry, Notting Hill and Julia Roberts.
For those of you on a mega budget, there are free Harry Potter walking tours offered across the city. Free Tours On Foot offers one that’s rather highly rated on TripAdvisor. Please note: Free tours generally mean that there’s no fixed cost, and you just tip whatever you want at the end. It’s suited for everyone’s budget in that sense, but try and be fair and give what you think it was worth based on how much you enjoyed the tour!
Don’t like following a tour group? You can also do a self-guided one, which is what I did in 2014 because I had no money for the Warner Brothers Studio Tour. Ha! Here’s a guide on the locations and how to get there yourself.
Wanna splurge a little bit? Head slightly out of London city for the Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour.
I did this twice (after I started working) with two different groups of potterhead friends. This is the kind of thing you dedicate half / full day to, depending on how hardcore you are. I spent three to four hours in the studios each time – but I had a friend who stayed for six! The tour is held in the actual studio where they filmed the movies, and so the original and refurbished sets and costumes are there for your perusal and wonder. I don’t want to talk too much about it because the magic truly lies in going and experiencing it for yourself, and there are a couple of surprises that I don’t want to spoil. But here are a couple of tips if you’re looking to go..
1. You must pre-book your tickets.
It sells out VERY fast, so if you don’t book it at least a week before you can perish the thought of going. The tickets are £35 pounds each and you can get them here.
2. Getting to Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour:
It took me awhile to figure this out because for some reason directions to the tour on the internet are awfully long winded and hard for a non-Londoner to comprehend. But basically there are three steps.
Take a tube to Euston
Euston is a giant terminal. Buy a ticket to Watford junction. Same price for express (20 mins) and non express (1 hr) so ask where the express trains are. They’re called Midland Railway trains, not the London Overground. The prices are as follows: Anytime Return train ticket: £16.70 Off Peak Day Return train ticket: £10.90 So if you figure out the timings and book the right entrance time for the HP studios, you might be able to get the off peak ticket pricing which is the cheapest way to do it. Just a note. I’ve never been checked for my ticket on the train, which was mildly frustrating given that it was about thirty bucks return for me both times. BUT! If you get caught without a ticket the penalty is ridiculous. So make what you will of that.
Take either the £2.50 return shuttle bus to the studios (runs every 20 mins) or take an uber. I’ve done both. They’re both good, I think the only time you’d take an uber is if you missed your shuttle and the next one is in 20 minutes and you’re already running late. Which obviously happened to me the first time. KEEP THE TICKET if you take the return shuttle bus because you’ll need it to take the bus back to the train station.
3. Pack your own food.
Especially if you know you’ll spend awhile in there. You can buy butterbeer, and like, you know, great, plus points for the experience and all that. But the food they sell in the studios is across the board awful. I couldn’t finish my sandwich because it tasted like hardened perfume. They do allow you to bring in food, so do that, and you can only eat it in the cafeteria, not near any exhibits. Which is fine too, because we’re not barbarians, you know?
4. Finally! Talk to the staff.
The Harry Potter Studio Tour has guides stationed all over the studio, and these guys have to go through a two week crash course before working here (I asked). So they’re full of really fun facts and interesting tidbits, and if you go up to them and ask them to explain a certain costume to you, for example, they’ll have all kinds of hilarious and weird things to say. For example! Did you know that Dolores Umbridge’s dress had tiny skulls on them to make the pink look subconsciously sinister? This is brand new information! Talking to the guides really enhances your studio tour experience, so I would 100% recommend it.
For those of you who like to wander around for hours on end… Markets are an integral part of the London experience. And street food is so much part of a place’s culture, isn’t it?
The popular ones are Borough and Camden, but there are a ton of markets everywhere. Maltby Street Market, for example, is a really small and local one that I love because it’s so highly curated. Camden is full of knickknacks and weird vintage items – I once stayed in a gorgeous Shoreditch Airbnb and the hosts swore they furnished the entire place with cheap finds from Camden. And Shoreditch’s Brick Lane is full of underground art markets you can duck into to browse – though I’ve never personally taken to any of them.
The ones to look out for are the pop up markets. If you go during high season, like summer or winter, there are really great event markets that pop up – the winter wonderland, I hear, is legendary. I was there in summer, so just walking down the Thames on a weekend saw random colourful popup markets.
If you’re there in the summer, the newly hipster London Fields also has a running event called Night Tales, which pops up during summer weekends in London Fields or Hackney Wick. You know. Basically, places that are post hipster pre-gentrified. The Shoreditch of 2010. Entry is for the small fee of £3, and they have nightly bands playing while people dance, drink, and eat. It’s basically a festival. More here.
Live Music and film
And lastly! Live music. Very few things trump unwinding with friends over a drink at the end of the day while listening to really good live music. What is it, really? Appreciation of music? Gratefulness that talent still exists? That it is available to us for the cheap, cheap price of a cold beer? Ah, life. Regardless, it is what it is.
We just mentioned Night Tales, so that’s one to note if you’re here in the summer – live beats of the DJ variety. If you prefer something a little more cosy, I was personally very impressed with this place called Proud Wonderland in Camden Market, an Alice in Wonderland themed outdoor bar. We stumbled upon it one afternoon when wandering around Camden at the best possible time – such a great place to rest awhile from the bustle of the market – and there was a really great musician playing and singing with a guitar. We stayed for an hour, only leaving because we had to make our Harry Potter tour ticket timing. But it was so great. Would definitely head back.
Proud Wonderland Camden Market Opening hours: Sunday–Wednesday: 12pm–12am; Thursday–Saturday: 12pm–2.30am
PS. Another open air rooftop bar in Shoreditch called Queen of Hoxton may not have live music per se, but it’s still a great place to chill. It screens movies in conjunction with the Rooftop Film Club, which makes it a really fab option if you’re looking for a chill night out with your friends. Especially since actually watching a movie in London cinemas itself can set you back £16!
Queen of Hoxton 1 Curtain Road, London, EC2A 3JX Open from noon
Ok, I think that’s it for now. On and on I could go.. but isn’t part of the delight in discovering things yourself? I hope I got you started. If you’re headed to London, check these out, but also feel your own way around the city – that’s the only way you will truly make London your own.
Thanks to Skyscanner for zipping me there and back xx PSA: Go scan the skies for the best flight dates and prices – I use Skyscanner every single time I travel and so should you! x