Finding luxury without paying full whack is a bit of an art in an expensive city like London. This list should help, whether it’s views, booze or loos you wish to luxuriate in. It helps to have a hardy constitution and be willing to blag a little (or at least to dress up and look the part). Those who get easily embarrassed may want to stop reading now. And while I believe the suggestions below are genuinely free, in some cases the “free” element is part of a package or offered as a sample. But I have avoided the sort of ‘package’ which costs £14,500 per night where they’ll kindly throw in a bit of complimentary personalised jewellery.
Here’s my list…
1. Free luxury views
Everyone is talking about the View from the Shard but this will set you back a pretty penny. And at the end of the day it’s a viewing tower so not the most comfy experience. I’d personally rather take in the London skyline while relaxing in a cosy chair with a drink. And while London has swanky panoramic bars aplenty like Vertigo 42 and Radio at ME London, there’s little chance of leaving them without a considerably lighter wallet.
The one slight “loophole” might be Galvin at Windows bar on the 28th floor of Hilton on Park Lane.
It is a 5 star hotel so drinks are very expensive; but the layout means you can sneak in virtually unnoticed and walk to the quiet side of the bar to where the viewing area also extends. The staff’s attention is mainly focused on the high rollers on the sofas, so you can technically get up there, enjoy the view, soak up the ambience and leave without spending a penny – though it would obviously be polite to invest in a drink.
2. Free luxury booze
This is harder to pull off and the trick is to think “free samples” where quality trumps quantity. The more upmarket you go, the more likely you are to be regaled with freebies. For example, hotel bars that specialise in a particular product are often so proud of their collection they’ll give you a generous taster to help you decide. It’s risky though as you’ll be sorely tempted to buy after a tasting.
The ultimate upmarket wine shop is Hedonism in Mayfair, supposedly a favourite haunt of hedge fund managers. It’s full-on bling from the moment you enter, but if you’re enthusiastic about wine it’s a great place to browse the world’s finest wines. Get on their mailing list and you might be invited to an exclusive free wine tasting as I experienced recently… it was a wonderful evening drinking some of the world’s best wines at zero cost (though I did end up buying a bottle of a good wine afterwards).
Some wine bars will also give you free samples as long as you are sensible (and perhaps order a bit of food, since even tight luxury seekers need to eat!). Vinoteca in Marylebone for example gave us several tasters when we felt particularly indecisive. But the ultimate venue for free booze and canapés is a private viewing in a gallery. Getting invited is not as hard as one might think. Check galleries.co.uk and try to work it out!
Finally, I recently spent the night at a small luxury Chelsea hotel - The Beaufort - with a free bar for guests. You have to mix your own drinks but they won’t charge you for them.
3. Free luxury loos
Talking of hotels, London has some pretty gorgeous 5 star loos. And of all those that my hotel blog colleagues have inspected, the ones at The Langham just off Oxford Street probably outshine most others. The Langham does a pretty mean afternoon tea too and you may also get sidetracked at the wonderful Artesian bar. So you’re unlikely to spend a penny without investing quite a lot of pounds.
4. Free luxury cheese
This is another example of the philosophy that 5 or 6 samples make a feast. One of the best places to enjoy the ultimate indulgence in the cheese department is Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden. Last time we were there, the friendly staff regaled us with a generous range of delicious little bites. It’s pretty unlikely that you’ll walk away without actually buying the cheese and you certainly won’t regret doing so. But if you’re sauntering through Covent Garden and fancy a little cheese interlude there’s nowhere better to go.
5. Free luxury ice cream
Scoop or Gelato Mio are in my view two of the best London gelaterie. And both are generous in offering free samples, in the best Italian tradition. Their ice cream is truly luxurious and they constantly rotate flavours to stay in season – try the cioccalata extra fondente at Scoop for the ultimate multi-sensory experience. It helps to be somewhat indecisive while mastering the art of politely requesting “just one more” taste! One time my companion and I were so satiated by our samples that we only managed to buy one ice cream to share between us.
But we have made it up to them with our repeat business every time we are in the Holland Park (Gelato Mio) or Covent Garden (Scoop) vicinity.
6. Free luxury home stays
Want to live in luxury without paying a steep London rent?
Try house-sitting – a growing trend which with a bit of luck can save you thousands of pounds. There are catches and conditions of course, and you may also have to take care of pets or a garden in exchange. But if you qualify then you may end up living in luxury for extended periods without paying for it.
7. Free luxury office
What better venue to work from than a good London hotel? This may be especially useful for someone on an extended London visit e.g. over a summer or during Wimbledon. It must have free WiFi of course which is why our blog team love Guoman Hotels and Radisson Blu Edwardian among others. Other noteworthy options include the beautiful lobby lounge at the Renaissance St Pancras (the hotel charges for WiFi but there was still coverage on the free WiFi network at St Pancras station when I last visited).
8. Free luxury cinema tickets
OK they’re “normal” cinemas with free tickets so you can spend the money saved on a decent bottle of wine or a trip to one of London’s best bars with your date or friend afterwards. I’m talking here about websites that specialise in giveaways, helpfully listed on Money Saving Expert. For cinema in style, try the One Aldwych or Firmdale Film Club luxury hotel cinema offers… dinner is included “free” with the screening.
9. Free luxury culture
Enjoy classical music? Love opera? Sounds expensive doesn’t it? Not so, as London has abundant free options for the culture vulture. Here are a few of them:
- Free Monday lunchtime recitals at Royal Opera House
- Commuter concerts all over London including for example free lunchtime concerts at St Martin in the Fields near Charing Cross
- Great amateur opera singers in Covent Garden performing free of charge
- The South Bank Centre lobby (also a good place to lounge around for free)
- Live piano music over the lobby at Sofitel St James (just sit on the sofa opposite reception and look like you’re waiting for someone!)… they also have interesting art on display
- Museum “Lates” – evening openings once a month with special events and performances, often free of charge.
10. Free luxury afternoon tea
Usually afternoon tea at London hotels is an expensive business as I found when researching the afternoon tea prices of pretty much all the UK Tea Guild’s best afternoon tea venues.
But there is one exception (The Beaufort) of a complimentary afternoon tea experience within luxury surroundings. It’s not an afternoon tea strictly speaking but a luxury cream tea (scones rather than cakes) and is served every day free of charge to hotel guests.
I hope that this list shows that luxury is all around us without necessarily having to bust the bank!
Rajul Chande is Owner of London Hotels Insight.