You have booked the flight via Doha, forked out for a visa, and secured a cousin’s sofa bed. Pack an umbrella, and you are ready for London.
Now take a deep breath as you exchange almost R20 for each pound coin. London is expensive, even for locals. For South Africans, a visit to the capital city is a sobering affair. Yet it can be done on a shoestring.
Imagine spending a day out, including lunch, on just £5. How to do it?
Fortunately, many of London’s top museums offer free entry. As for food, one can find a sandwich anywhere in the city for less than a fiver. Better still, skip the soulless chains and head for some ethnic offerings.
The British Museum is the number one activity on the TripAdvisor website; you can spend all day and keep your £5 safe in your pocket. See the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, the mummies, the Easter Island statue and the Samurai armour — free tours are available.
At lunchtime, take a five-minute walk to Wellbeing Kitchen (232 Shaftesbury Ave), where the chef will prepare a tender and crispy Chicken Katsu as you wait. Served on a bed of rice with a side of curry and a bowl of miso soup, even the small portion (£4.50) provides a filling meal. Grab one of the few tables in this tiny eatery and watch the world go by outside the large windows.
Other popular museums offering free entry include the South Kensington trio — the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Victoria & Albert.
On a pedestrianised section of Exhibition Road you will find a selection of eateries. You can have a delicious potato or chorizo tortilla (£4.50 and £4.75) at Casa Brindisa (7 Exhibition Road). Alternatively, Fernandez & Wells sells hearty sandwiches. A couple are priced below £5 (8a Exhibition Road).
London’s Tate Modern opens an enormous extension in June, so art lovers will be flocking to see the new displays. Entry is free and the building itself is worth a visit. The Millennium Bridge is right alongside.
To eat well near the Tate Modern, visit Borough Market at London Bridge. You can taste samples at stalls offering everything from breads to dried sausage, cheese, chutneys, pickles and brownies.
If you are still hungry there is a vast array of food on offer. Possibly the most famous sandwich in town is the chorizo roll you can buy at Brindisa, a treasure trove of top-quality Spanish foods. While you wait your turn, the aroma of sizzling chorizo will have you salivating. A single sausage on a griddled roll with piquillo peppers and rocket will set you back £4.25. It is addictive. You may need to return.
For the best cheese toastie you may ever eat, join the queue at Kappacasein stall at the market for a knockout three-cheese melt on Poilâne sourdough (£5).
A riverside walk will take you past the Globe Theatre, The Tower of London and the HMS Belfast museum ship in one direction and the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye Ferris wheel in the other. Visiting these attractions is very expensive, but it costs nothing to look.
While meandering along the Thames, pop into the Southbank Centre, which has a programme of free events throughout the year. Behind the centre a weekend global food market offers enticing stalls. Particularly good are Hog Roast’s pulled pork with apple sauce ciabatta (£5) and Bruschetta’s toasts with chopped tomatoes and a variety of toppings — parmigiana, pesto or prosciutto (£5 for two large slices). Vegetarians will enjoy the Indian street food stall called Horn OK Please. Try Moong Dal Dosa — a lentil crêpe filled with masala potatoes, served with chickpeas, red onion, chutney, sev, coriander and pomegranate. At £5 it is a filling and tasty meal. A camper van called Donostia Social Club sells tapas and stews, and £5 will buy a bowl of fabada — a Spanish black pudding, chorizo and white bean stew or a plate of king prawns a la plancha with shallot salsa and alioli.
All roads lead to Trafalgar Square, where you can relax with the pigeons or take in the free exhibits at the National Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery. You can also attend free lunchtime concerts at St Martin-in-the-Fields church across the street.
Avoid eating gruesome pizza slices on nearby Leicester Square. Rather cross the road for Koshari Street (56 St Martin’s Lane). Koshari is a popular Egyptian street food consisting of lentils, rice and macaroni topped with a tomato sauce (mild, hot or mad), chickpeas, dukkha and crispy caramelised onions. Perch on a barstool and tuck into mouthfuls of lip-zinging spiciness. It is not only a healthy meal but a substantial one too. The regular size costs £4.50, while a small bowl for the same price is accompanied by meatballs.
If you are in Covent Garden, enjoying the free street theatre and browsing the stalls, you are a few steps away from Balthazar, a French brasserie where diners need deep pockets to eat. Fortunately, Balthazar has a more affordable café next door (8 Russell Street). Here you can choose from a range of French tarts and the most delectable patisseries. No, one should not eat dessert instead of a main course, but with only £5 in your pocket, sometimes it is worthwhile moving straight on to the sweet stuff. Especially here.
Free entertainment is on offer in Shoreditch, where you can sport with the hipsters while viewing the street art that abounds in the area. Brick Lane is a lively street with many boutiques and quirky shops to dip into. At the very top of the road you will find a queue at all hours of the day at Beigel Bake (159 Brick Lane), which serves the best hot salt beef on rye (or bagel) in the city. For £3.90 (bagel) or £4.10 (rye) you will feast on freshly sliced salt beef with just the right proportion of fat, piled high, with eye-watering mustard (optional).
Don’t forget to ask for a pickle. It’s free.