Alternative, artistic London – on the cheap

Iona Bain

Living in London – it’s a dear do, right? But it’s also non-optional for many gen Yers. Job opportunities tend to drag us down to the capital, which means we can become a tad too reliant on Netflix and 3 for 2 offers on booze from Tesco in order to get through the weekend. Either that or we turn a blind eye to the mounting bills at our local gastropub and Whole Foods smoothie counter.

Sadly, what tends to fall off the end is a good dose of culture, which ironically would make the whole business of living in the Big Smelly Smoke that bit more bearable. The chance to experience something outside our own narrow world, get some perspective and marvel at man’s artistic feats is a soothing balm for the soul, but one that often seems well outside our price range.

Yes, we’re fortunate to have some of the world’s finest museums on our doorstep that are free. But boy are they rammed! Having a cultural experience in London on the weekend can feel like hacking through the thickets of tourist hell or navigating vast arty crèches.

But you can catch a break if you know where (and when) to look. If you manage to get down the V&A tomorrow night, you’ll enjoy a *slightly* quieter trip around London Design Festival, where the striking Reflection Room, ingenious Bionic Chandelier and celebration of Plywood (yes, really!) are all worth a look. I took a trip down yesterday on the first day of LDF and while I didn’t love everything I saw, it certainly took the usual trip down to the South Kensington triptych of museums to another cerebral, intriguing level.


And while LDF is free, you can afford to take a chance on it, right?

Sadly, it reminds me that genuinely alternative artistic experiences in London beyond the blockbuster exhibitions and West End industry are rare, let alone ones that are accessible and affordable. When revisiting my previous blogs, I stumbled across a recommendation for Alternative London Walking tours, which used to operate a “pay-as-you-like” system. This meant walkers could pay as much as they could afford in order to get informed commentary on some of the most exciting street art in East London.

But I was disappointed to see that Alternative London Walking Tours now charges a standard £8 for its walking tours with no concessions (although this is still more reasonable than the double figure cost of attending most exhibitions these days). Today, I would be more minded to pay £12 instead for an Unseen Tour, where homeless and vulnerably housed people show walkers around the best bits of Brick Lane, Camden, Shoreditch and London Bridge. This social enterprise ensures 60% of the ticket prices goes to the tour guide, giving them invaluable paid work as they get back on their feet.

Another good shout is to get your hands on some books showing you “secret” and “quiet” sides to London. The recommendations very often prove to be surprising, delightful and cheap (if not free). I have two such guides – Secret London: An Unusual Guide by Rachel Howard and Bill Nash and Quiet London by Siobhan Wall.  I’m working through both guides slowly but surely. Already I have visited gardens, churches, museums, book shops and pubs that would never have normally crossed my radar but are well worth a look.

Maybe it’s my advancing years, but I am slowly associating “a big night out” with “being overcharged, groped and getting a good bout of tinnitus to last a week”. Too often, going out becomes the default weekend option for young consumers restless in their jobs and hopeless about their futures. “What’s the point of saving? I may as well enjoy myself.” And London’s leisure industry does have a vested interest in persuading you that the only way you can savour today is to go out, get blind drunk, eat vast quantities of overpriced food and spend the rest of the weekend nursing an apocalyptic hangover. And that’s just when you go out for bottomless brunch at 11am on Sat.

Letting off steam is still essential every so often but if you have a sneaking suspicion that pubs, bars and restaurants are slowly sucking away your prosperity (and youth)…there is another way.

It involves a change of mind-set and priorities. And it’s not easy or totally free. Indeed, seeking out hidden treasures requires an investment of your time, effort and organisational abilities. You have to take a chance, go a little bit out of your way and comfort zone, and be prepared to keep an open mind.


But coming across a fabulously old-fashioned library, a set of stunning murals, a slice of real London history…I can’t really think of a better way to spend your weekend.


  1. Kings Place Galleries (90 York Way, N1 9AG)

Surprisingly quiet for a London gallery, but that’s partly because it’s not at street level or on the main tourist drag. Part of a much bigger arts complex, so you can enjoy a drink afterwards on the Café Terrace, one of the few bars in London where you can overlook not one but two waterways.

  1. St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace (78 Bishopsgate, EC2)

Work in the city? Get down to St Ethelburga’s on a Friday lunchtime and have a look around this 700 year old church, devastated by an IRA bomb in 1993 but rebuilt as a spiritual hub for peace and reconciliation. Check out the Middle Eastern Bedouin tent made of woven goats’ hair (and the resident rat who I saw running around the last time I was there!)

  1. Camley Street Natural Park (Kings Cross, N1C 4PW)

The next time you’re wondering around the new Kings Cross quarter, take a detour around this unexpected patch of green heaven in the city. This is two acres of peaceful woodland right next to Regents Canal, home to many unexpected birds, flowers and beautiful picnic spots.

  1. Bishopsgate Library (230 Bishopsgate, EC2M 4QH)

Come here to peruse an impressive, 45,000-strong collection of books on London’s history or check out the regular programme of concerts, debates, yoga classes or literary evenings for a truly different day/night out.

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