Discovering London on your gap year

London by Flickr user JohnGoode (creative commons)
London by Flickr user JohnGoode (creative commons)

Plenty of cities in Europe could be described as an essential destination during a gap year, particularly the great capitals, such as Paris, Rome and Berlin, but no European tour is complete without a trip to Great Britain and the most iconic city of all – London. Whether a fan of traditional or alternative London sights, there is plenty to see and do and it’s possible to have a great time even when traveling on a budget.

Most popular places to visit

The Tower of London with its iconic Yeomen Guard (the beefeaters), a bodyguard force originally formed in 1485 by Henry VII, parade at the Tower in their traditional uniforms of scarlet and gold.  They are the guardians of the UKs Crown Jewels that are secured within the Tower.  The beefeaters present a great photo opportunity and are quite happy to pose with visitors.

The main London palaces, including the Queen’s residence of Buckingham Palace and the majestic Hampton Court, are certainly worth the entrance fee. The Palace of Westminster, with its famous clock tower known as Big Ben is a real landmark in London.  Big Ben is actually the name of the largest bell within the tower that chimes out the hours across the city. The Palace is the seat of the UK government and contains the House of Commons (open to visitors) and the House of Lords. Tower Bridge is also a popular stop on London’s tourist trail, and the panoramic views from the London Eye are fantastic on a clear day.

Among the stately places of worship to visit are St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. St. Paul’s has a fabulous interior and a dark, mysterious crypt where lie the remains of some of the great heroes of the United Kingdom, including the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Lord Nelson. Westminster Abbey dates from 1090 and is the venue for all great state occasions, including the coronation of the monarch. Daily services are held and the Abbey is also a popular venue for choral concerts.  Seek out Poets’ Corner in the South Transept where many of the UKs greatest writers are buried.

Purchasing a discounted London Pass in advance offers free entry to many of these superb attractions.

The London buzz

One of the most appealing features of the city is that open green spaces can be found in between the bustling, commercial areas, and this makes it possible to enjoy London’s atmosphere and charms without spending a fortune. Many of London’s museums are free and are great places to spend a morning. Works by Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci and Van Gogh are among those on display at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, for example, and free guided tours take place daily.

Eating out need not be costly either. London’s famous Carnaby Street area has lots of inexpensive chain restaurants, including affordable Chinese fare at Cha Cha Moon, and American cuisine at the Diner. Alternatively, take a picnic hamper for lunch to the enormous green oasis that is Hyde Park and enjoy the trees, meadows, formal flower gardens and the lake. If the budget won’t stretch to a three-course meal, there are a couple of lakeside restaurants for a quick bite or a coffee.  Lots of activities take place in the vast park including cycling, swimming and boating. From November to January, ice skating is available.

Getting a good night’s sleep

Being such a popular tourist destination, there are many London hotels from which to choose, including affordable budget accommodations in all parts of the city, so finding a clean and comfortable place near preferred attractions is easy. One-star premises tend to be basic hostels with shared rooms and mixed dorms, but almost all provide breakfast and have a games room, free Wi-Fi and sometimes a snack bar. Two and three star establishments normally provide both private and shared accommodations.