London for Less: Take a Free Walk Along the Thames

With the British pound currently beaten down due to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, now is the time for penny pinchers to head to the UK capital. If you’re looking for an afternoon of cheap thrills in London, it’s as easy as a walk in the park…or, rather, beside the river. As I’ve discovered while entertaining visitors in the city I’ve called home for more than a decade, one of the best (and most affordable) ways to acquaint yourself with the its iconic sites is by pounding the pavement along the Thames.

London Eye viewed across the ThamesWith this four mile, self-guided walking tour, you can experience 1,000 years of history, without the aid of Dr. Who’s TARDIS. You might opt to spring for admission to some of the sterling attractions along the way, but you aren’t obliged to burn a lot of cash…just calories. Read on to view the map and key stops along the way.

map of London landmarks along the Thames

Start the day with a gander at Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and Big Ben, all clustered a few minutes from the river bank.

Westminster Abbey side viewOf course, Big Ben is really just the name of the clock’s bell. The tower itself (which, along with Parliament, is currently obscured by a cocoon of scaffolding), was officially christened Elizabeth Tower for the Queen’s Jubilee in 2012. But nobody calls it Big Bess, which might not be construed as the most flattering term. Granted, the royals haven’t beheaded anyone in rather a long time, but why tempt fate—or the Queen?

Big Ben, officially known as Elizabeth Tower, punctuates a clear blue sky in London

London’s most famous clock tower, pictured here before it was enshrouded in scaffolding, should be restored to its full glory by 2021. Big Ben will remain mostly silent, except for special occasions, until the renovations are complete.

After synchronizing your watch to Big Ben, cross Westminster Bridge to the South Bank. Here, you may be tempted to shell out for a spin on the London Eye.

As one of the tallest Ferris wheels in the world, it offers spectacular views on a clear day. You’ll be encased in a large capsule, so even if you’re afraid of heights you might be able to stomach the ride without tossing your cookies—or scones, as the case may be.

London Eye capsules silhouetted by blue skyThrill seekers might also consider a round-trip, high-speed tour of the Thames with London Rib Voyages, which departs near the London Eye. Just be sure to book ahead—and bring a sturdy comb. You’ll feel like a Bond babe whizzing up the river in the wake of some imaginary villain, but barring the emergency intercession of a skilled hairstylist, you’ll look like Medusa by the time you disembark. Don’t let that dissuade you. Just pretend you’re Lady Gaga’s latest incarnation.

Courtesy London RIB Voyage

Courtesy London RIB Voyage

From the Eye, begin heading east, sticking close to the river as you make your way toward your ultimate goal, the Tower of London, with plenty to see along the way.

On the riverside path, you’ll often find street performers kitted out as anyone and everyone, from Captain Jack Sparrow to Elvis. So consider this a cheap and cheerful substitute for Madame Tussauds.

Keep your eyes peeled for the Tate Modern on your right. It recently overtook the British Museum to become the most popular visitor attraction in the UK, and there is no charge to visit. If you consider displays like Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde-encased shark, which was on show here in 2012, to be 21st century masterpieces, it’s a must-see. Even if contemporary art isn’t your cup of tea, you can ogle 360-degree city skyline views from the top floor of its striking addition, the Blavatnik Building.

The viewing platform atop the Tate Modern's new Switch House wing overlooks the Thames River, taking in monuments like the Millenium Bridge and St. Paul's Cathedral beyond the gallery's iconic brick column. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

The viewing platform atop the Tate Modern’s Blatvatnik Building  overlooks the Thames River, taking in monuments like the Millenium Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral beyond the gallery’s iconic brick column.

From here, it’s just a stone’s throw to Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s not the original theater, which was destroyed in the 17th century, but a thatched-roof reconstruction that opened in 1997. You’ll have to loosen your purse strings to take a tour or watch a play, but hey, selfies outside are free.

Globe Theatre. Credit Linda Nylind

Globe Theatre. Credit Linda Nylind

Cast your eyes across the river for a view of St. Paul’s Cathedral before carrying on toward a full-sized replica of The Golden Hinde, the 16th century English galleon in which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe.

St. Paul's across the Thames

St. Paul’s Cathedral across the Thames River

For a few quid, you can take a guided tour of the ship to experience what life was like on board more than 400 years ago. (Spoiler alert: there were no casinos or midnight buffets).

Sadly, the “new,” although not necessarily improved, Golden Hinde has abandoned the old British naval tradition of dispensing grog. So if you want to whet your whistle or indulge in some nibbles, take a slight detour south to explore the culinary maze of Borough Market.

This foodie favorite is only a block west of The Shard, a neck craning inverted icicle of a skyscraper that offers a pay-per-view panorama of the city from 800 feet up. For a similar sky-high vista, skip that meal at Borough Market and instead book ahead for lunch or afternoon tea at TING at The Shangri-La, located on Level 35 of The Shard, or at Oblix restaurant, on Level 32.

View of the London skyline from TĪNG bar and restaurant at The Shangri-La at The Shard

View of the London skyline from TĪNG bar and restaurant at The Shangri-La at The Shard

Having satiated your cravings, head north back to the Thames, where you have the option of a tour aboard the World War II-era HMS Belfast ship museum. If that doesn’t float your boat, skip it and continue east towards Tower Bridge.

The HMS Belfast, now a museum, is docked in the center of London's River Thames. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse

HMS Belfast

Now, you could simply stroll across the bridge for free. However, you’ll have to prise open your purse if you want to visit the Tower Bridge Exhibition, which explains the history and construction of this impressive span, with a gulp-inducing galumph over a glass floor walkway 138 feet above the Thames.

Looking up at the high level walkways that connect Tower Bridge’s towers. The walkways, which opened in 2014, are located 42 meters (approximately 138 feet) high above the iconic London drawbridge. They have glass panels, which offer birds’ eye views of the river below. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

Looking up at the high level walkways that connect Tower Bridge’s towers. The walkways, which opened in 2014, have glass panels which eye views of the river below.

Once you’ve crossed to the north bank, you’re just steps from your final destination: the Tower of London, a huge walled complex with the turreted White Tower, built by William the Conqueror in 1078, at its center. If you stand outside the walls at the northeast corner and look southwest, you can glimpse a millennium of architectural evolution, with The Shard appearing to rise up out of the ancient fortress like a futuristic mother-in-law suite—evidence that city planners might have a sense of humor after all.

Tower of London with The ShardNot even condemned criminals are allowed “free entry” to the Tower of London anymore. But once inside, take advantage of the complimentary hour-long tours offered by the Beefeaters, who are typically as funny as they are informative. You could easily spend an entire day here, gawping at the Crown Jewels, walking the ramparts, and examining centuries-old weaponry, armor and (yikes) instruments of torture.

Be sure to explore Beauchamp Tower, too, which is located within the complex next to the chapel where Henry VIII’s beheaded wives are buried. From a tiny room on the second floor of Beauchamp, you can peer out a window at the green where many unfortunate “residents” of the tower met their gory fate.

Tower of London Beauchamp Tower view of Tower GreenThe prayers, poems, fears and sorrows of the condemned are etched into the walls all around you. These folks didn’t just scrawl a bit of graffiti. They chiseled their missives into the stone, ensuring their entreaties for mercy would never be forgotten.

Beauchamp Tower graffitiGranted, it could make for a sobering end to your day. My advice? Head to the nearest pub and drink a toast to the fallen. Of course, there are a lot of fallen to drink to, so be careful you don’t trip and fall yourself on the way out.


Note: Many attractions offer discounted tickets if you book ahead on-line.

Tourism info:,,


1 Comment

  1. Nick DeRocher says:

    As always lots of great ideas, drinking plays a big part in touring. Don’t know why that’s true but thank god it is. Looking forward to our visit in Oct. we are staying at the Marriott at Maida Vale due to 5 free nights on points. We saved so much we had to upgrade to the concierge level….more free drinking.
    Always enjoy your articles.

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