A couple hundred years ago, the sun never set on Great Britain. It’s safe to say that the United Kingdom is a more insular place these days, but that has had no effect on the country’s worldwide cultural influence. Although London’s offerings usually come with a lofty price tag, there are plenty of other places throughout the country where visitors can immerse themselves in British culture — for less.
Whether it’s music, history, or the mountains that you hear calling your name, the United Kingdom has a little something for everyone.
The largest city in Wales is a hidden gem for a host of reasons. As Europe’s newest capital, it occupies a unique niche. It has made great strides toward coming into its own as a modern (and trendy) urban area, while still possessing an enviably rich culture and history.
Cardiff is accessible from elsewhere in the U.K. (and from further afield) by train, plane, and bus. Megabus runs several services there from London every day, and Cardiff Airport or nearby Bristol are both great alternative points of entry to both the city and the country as a whole.
Once you’re there, you’ll find enough free and low-cost activities to take up a day or two. The city’s most popular attraction is Cardiff Castle, a medieval structure with fortifications that date back to the 11th century. While you’ll have to pay about $20 (USD) for a full tour of its interior, the grounds are free to enter.
From there, take a short walk to Llandaff Cathedral, a site that has withstood the damage of over 600 years of wars — from the legendary 14th-century rebellion of Owain Glyndwr to the German bombing of World War II. Or, if you’re up for a challenge, walk the 11-mile Taff River trail in its entirety to Caerphilly Castle, the largest in Wales.
Back in the city center, head to the National Museum of Wales — it’s free to enter, like any public museum in the country — and take in the impressive and diverse collection, the likes of which include everything from Welsh photography to Rodin sculptures and Chinese ceramics.
Of course, a trip here wouldn’t be complete without sampling the local food and drink. There’s something for everyone in Cardiff Market, so feast your eyes and your appetite on traditional burger counters and delicious (and vegan!) Milgi stalls with £4 ($6 USD) hot-pots. For dessert, indulge in award-winning Welsh cheeses for cheap at Madame Fromage in Castle Arcade, and be sure to visit Fabulous Welshcakes just down the corridor to try a new flavor of the traditional cake every day.
You won’t spend much on a night out in Cardiff, with the average price of a pint around $4.50 (USD), but there are a few places around to really get the best bang for your buck. If you’re in the mood for live music, pop over to Gwdihw Café Bar — during shows and open mic nights, drinks are only £2 (less than $3 USD) after entry. Theatre aficionados will love the Other Room, an award-winning and intimate 44-seat venue in the backroom of Porter’s pub. The Cardiff University Students Union is also one of the more popular venues in town, and on weeknights, pints can cost as little as £2 ($3 USD).
Finally, when it comes time to rest your head, there is no shortage of affordable hostels in Cardiff, many of which double as event spaces and casual bars. The YHA has fantastic hostels throughout Wales, and their Cardiff Central location is perhaps their finest. Other great options include the River House, the Safehouse, and Nos Da — all of which are located in the city center.
Liverpool is famous for being the home of the Beatles and one of the most popular soccer clubs in the world, but there is much more to this working-class city than the expensive experiences associated with these cultural touchstones. The city can be reached by ground, rail, air, and ferry — if you fly in to Ireland or Northern Ireland, an eight-hour water crossing from Belfast can cost as little as £20 ($27 USD).
Once you’re there, head straight to the waterfront for the city’s most iconic views and the quintessential “Liverpudlian experience.” For your first foray into local history and heritage, visit the free-to-enter Museum of Liverpool. From there, experience the city’s international appeal firsthand by walking through the Albert Dock complex, which is home to the Tate Museum Liverpool. Most exhibits are free, but those that require a ticket (and cost about £15) are typically well worth it.
The trend of street food has caught on in Liverpool like almost nowhere else in Europe, meaning that the city center is full of cheap eats for all palates. Baltic Market, a newcomer on the scene, is a collection of stalls that has quickly garnered critical acclaim amongst U.K. foodies. There is artisanal pizza, vegan fast food, and a traditional chippy. Bold Street and its surrounding area offer an even wider range of street eats, coffees, and drinks as well — for a cheap and delicious meal or just a pick-me-up, head to the Brink or the Egg.
If you’re interested in a night out, you might spend even less in Liverpool than in Cardiff — in fact, the price of a pint falls even farther down to £3 ($4 USD). No trip to Liverpool is complete without experiencing some local live music either, and there’s nowhere better for that than the legendary Cavern Club. Although there is a cover charge, during the day, it drops as low as £4 (less than $6 USD), and you’ll get a much closer impression of the city’s sounds, past and present, than on any overpriced tour.
Away from the bustling streets, you’ll find both relaxation and adventure in the greater Liverpool area. The beach at Formby is a National Trust property, meaning that it is free to the public and meticulously maintained. Its sweeping sand dunes and miles of tarmacked trails make this a versatile day trip, for relaxing or getting active. Trains leave every 15 minutes from Liverpool Central, and buses are also available. Wilder terrain awaits in nearby Snowdonia National Park, where hostels such as YHA Pen-y-Pass provide comfortable lodging and direct access to one of Britain’s tallest mountains for less than £30 ($40 USD) a night.
The Peak District
The United Kingdom’s first national park receives millions of visitors every year on account of its central location and ease of accessibility. It’s close to the major cities of Manchester and Sheffield, the latter of which is home to an international airport, and travelers can also board a Hope Valley Line train from either to reach any one of several picturesque villages in the district. Large bus services also run to the park from all over the U.K., and a one-way ticket from London Victoria station to the market town of Bakewell can cost as little as £15 ($20 USD). Smaller buses run throughout the park as well, from Manchester and the quaint city of Derby, and drop passengers off near the park’s southeast corner. A list of routes can be found here.
Once you arrive, you’ll have a range of accommodation options. There are four more fantastic YHA facilities scattered throughout the park, including Losehill Hall, a restored Victorian mansion. If you’ve arrived in Bakewell via coach, a more convenient option is the hostel at Ravenstor. There are also paid campsites for backpackers, including one that is run by the Duke of York pub in Buxton. If you’ve arrived from the southeast, however, you’ll find an extremely cheap campsite with well-maintained facilities located at Middlehills Farm, where pitching can cost as little as £16 (around $20 USD).
The diversity of the national park ensures affordable activities for every kind of traveler, from ramblers and explorers to artists and history buffs. If you pitch your tent at the Duke of York, you won’t be far from the cultural center of the national park, Buxton. The opera house is an ornate edifice that would slot easily into the cityscape of London or Vienna, but it’s right at home here in a quaint spa town. It stages live productions of dramas, musicals, comedies, and concerts, and features a 360-seat cinema that shows independent productions and the latest blockbusters for just £5 ($7 USD). If you don’t want to pay to catch a show inside, enjoy the scenery of the adjoining Pavilion Gardens and stroll into the free-to-enter Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, which commemorates the area’s history through exhibitions of local art, geography, and archaeology. For cheap breakfast or lunch offerings, head to the Tradesman’s Entrance, which serves everything from a full English fry-up to homemade cakes and vegetarian risotto.
If you stay at Losehill Hall in Castleton, you’ll find some of the best outdoors activities in the entire park right outside your door. Mam Tor is one of the most famous peaks in the district, and the circular walk up to its peak offers a sweeping view of the surrounding landscape. Alternatively, take the Secret Valley trail from Pindale Road for a serving of castle ruins and caves. But before you set off on your trek, grab a cheap takeaway sandwich from Three Roofs Café and have a picnic in the shadow of the 12th-century Peveril Castle.
Another of the park’s best trails is the Monsal, which runs between the towns of Buxton and Bakewell. If you start from the latter, you’ll find everything you need at an affordable price at Hassop Station. Just cross the Bakewell bridge from the marketplace (which is also a must-see when in operation on Mondays) and turn left, heading north out of town. You can rent a bike for £12 ($16 USD) for two hours, or £19 ($25 USD) all day. The station also has a bookstore and a gift shop for quirky and local memorabilia, so be sure to stop by for a quick look-around. If you start from Buxton on the other end of the trail, though, you can hire a bike at Blackwell for £15 ($20 USD) for the day.
Brighton is one of the hippest places in Britain right now, but it hasn’t let the trendiness go to its head — and that’s reflected in what it costs to have a good time here. Located 50 miles (80 kilometers) from London on England’s southern coast, Brighton is easily (and cheaply) accessible by bus and train from the capital. London Victoria Station is your go-to hub for transit to Brighton, with multiple services leaving every hour. One-way bus tickets cost as little as £5 ($7 USD) for a two-hour journey, and an off-peak train that takes half the time will run you about £28 ($37 USD).
Reasonably priced accommodation is abundant in Brighton — so plan on shelling out about $25 USD per night for a reputable hostel or $40 USD for an Airbnb. YHA Brighton is located in one of the city’s most vibrant areas (the Lanes), but Seadragon Backpackers Hostel is another affordable option in the area. Free breakfast, tea, and coffee are supplied in the kitchen every morning, and the hostel even provides a laundry service for travelers whose clothes are a little road-worn at a small fee.
Though it’s a seaside town, you don’t need to visit Brighton in any particular season to enjoy its full range of activities. If you’re there on a pleasant spring or summer day, soak up the sun at the city’s famous beach or in any of its 98 parks and public green spaces, or head just outside of town to Devil’s Dyke in South Downs National Park. In the city, Brighton Pier and the Royal Pavilion are the must-sees, the latter of which has sprawling gardens and is home to the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. Though admission is £5 ($7 USD), you can get discounts if you’re a student or are buying online. The diverse collection justifies the price, as the museum hosts everything from Dutch masters to Ancient Egyptian artifacts and an exhibition chronicling the history of the local transgender population. Though you must navigate the touristy area of the Lanes between the beach and Pavilion, there are plenty of hidden gems around: Pompoko offers tantalizing Japanese curry, noodle, and fried rice dishes to take away, all of which cost under £6 ($8 USD).
The food scene in Brighton gives the city an international appeal, and has been a large factor behind its increasing popularity. Food options of all sorts thrive in the nearby area of North Laine, where budget Brighton is also at its best in the form of businesses and low prices reflect sustainable and responsible entrepreneurship. Iydea is a vegetarian canteen with a lunch menu that changes daily, and it offers all of its buffet dishes to take away at cut-rate prices. The namesake dishes at Burger Brothers have also received national attention, and their classic burger costs only £5 ($7 USD), though they also offer vegetarian and vegan options. If you’re feeling more exotic, go for a falafel wrap at Fil-Fil, which will cost you only about $5.50 USD. Whatever dish you decide on, take it with you on a wander around the North Laine Bazaar, a quirky collection of independent arts-and-crafts stalls that opened last year and is already the buzz of the neighborhood.
Given the opulence and draw of London, the rest of the United Kingdom is too often overlooked by international visitors. Cheaper spots stay affordable because of the number of British nationals who travel abroad, but they should make the list of any traveler who wants to experience the country’s culture and landscape.
Header image by Wesley Henshaw