College Tourist Student Guide to London, England
Learn to live like a local in London
London is more than red telephone booths set against an often-gray sky. It’s not just the capitol city of England, or the home of the 2012 Olympic games. London is the ideal place to study abroad, what with its locality to the rest of the U.K. and Europe, dense cultural diversity, and of course – wonderful British residents.
One of the most amazing things about studying in London is experiencing it’s history, which obviously dates back much further than any city in the U.S. It is one of the only places I’ve seen that combines the best of past and present society; you’ll see castles built in the 1100’s standing alongside modern skyscrapers, which is quite a site in comparison to U.S. cities like New York or Los Angeles. The British hold old traditions close, and welcome others to experience them as well.
Recent architectural discoveries prove that London was inhabited as far back as the Bronze Age, mostly near the famous Thames River. There’s no solid evidence as to how London acquired its name, which makes it all the more intriguing.
London was declared the largest ‘town’ in England by the 11th century, and housed one of the most elaborate churches in Europe – none other than Westminster Abbey (where we watched our beloved Prince William and Kate Middleton marry three years ago!). To see the church in real life is no comparison to seeing it on screen. After years of wars, rotating royal leaders, and widespread construction, London began to transform into the powerhouse city it is today.
Long before the subway, there was the London Underground (known as “the tube”), which opened in 1863. A wonder of its time, the tube was the first underground railroad system in the world, and was created when the London population skyrocketed and traffic was unbearably congested (seeing the barbaric traffic in London now, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like without the tube at all!).
Along with hidden train tracks, London has historically provided us with Shakespeare, Churchill, and the Beckhams. It has inspired iconic songs like “London Calling” by The Clash and “Good Life” by OneRepublic. It makes everyone wish they had royal blood, as well as the time to stop at 3pm to drink tea every single day. London is, and always has been, an iconic city that people dream of living in, long before they ever dreamt of New York or Los Angeles. With all of this history and saturation of culture, how could you not want to study here?
1. Tower of London: I visited the Tower of London on the coldest day of 2013, and I still had an amazing experience despite being frozen to the core. The tour guides are dressed just as the Tower of London guards have dressed since it’s construction in the 1080’s and have entertaining personalities to keep you hanging on to their every word. Not only do you get a deep history of the events that happened within the Tower, but you also can see the Royal Jewels here – a spectacular site for any accessory enthusiast.
2. Big Ben & Parliament: If you go to London and manage to not see Big Ben, you did it all wrong. Everyone has seen images of Big Ben – he appears in postcards, on Pinterest, and even in Peter Pan – but seeing what may be the world’s most famous clock tower in person doesn’t even compare. Be sure to visit Big Ben at least once during the day and once at night; they are two completely different experiences that you won’t want to miss.
3. Tower Bridge: Similar to Big Ben, you need to see the Tower Bridge at night. In fact, the lit up Tower Bridge at sunset is currently the picture on my desktop screen – I never get sick of looking at it! It’s a beautiful sight, often mistaken by tourists for London Bridge because of its aesthetic intricacy, and you can even go inside of the bridge itself! Don’t just drive past the Tower Bridge in a black cab; take the time to walk along it’s path and admire it.
4. The London Eye: While Londoners typically aren’t fans of The Eye, it’s a must for all tourists (yes, even if you’re residing there for a whole semester!). The half-hour ferris-wheel-esque ride provides amazing views of the city, with unreal visions of Big Ben and Saint Paul’s Church in the distance. Make sure to stop and have a ride on the London Eye when you’re waltzing along South Bank – and don’t put it off until the end of your trip! You’ll see your new city in a whole new way.
5. Harrod’s: Oh, Harrod’s. There is truly no place on earth like Harrod’s. It’s a retail heaven of sorts, providing only the best in clothes, accessories, cosmetics, jewelry, food, luggage…and anything else you can possibly imagine. Although a study abroad budget normally doesn’t allow for a Harrod’s shopping spree, you won’t regret window shopping throughout the massive department store.
Of the beaten path
Shoreditch: Known for being heavily populated with hipsters and young people, Shoreditch is always a fun time. It’s well known, but a bit out of the way for most Londoners – thankfully, living on the East End put me in close proximity to it. Here you’ll find outrageous nightlife and an abundance of fellow university students in search of a great night out.
Fun for Free:
1. Museums: The Tate Modern Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum are amazing places for students to indulge in free art. I went to the Tate Modern on a class trip and spent an afternoon in the Victoria & Albert cafè – both were wonderful experiences! The journey to these museums is equally enjoyable; Tate is just over the Millennium Bridge, and Victoria & Albert is in the affluent and aesthetic area of South Kensington.
2. Markets: You absolutely must go to the Brick Lane Market and Camden Market before your time in London is over. Living on the East End made it easy for me to get to Brick Lane (it was just a walk away!), but making the trip up north to Camden Town was totally worth it. You can get everything at these markets, from food to clothing to antiques, and more often than not you’ll find the best prices here! However, it’s free to stroll through and admire the kiosks, whether you’re willing to shell out pounds or not.
Food and Drink
1. Nando’s. Londoners would have my head for saying this, but I absolutely love Nando’s – most study abroad students do! This chain restaurant is found all over the U.K., and their locations are highly concentrated within London (there were three within walking distance of my flat – enough said!). If you like Mediterranean food like hummus, olives, and chicken (which they’re famous for), you’ll love Nando’s.
2. La Cave a Fromage: My friend and I stumbled upon this place randomly, and it was one of the best discoveries we’ve ever made. It’s a small place specializing in wine and cheese tastings, both of which (paired with amazing bread) are filling enough to take the place of a meal. Being that it’s located around the corner from the South Kensington station, you can stop here on the way to or from the Victoria & Albert Museum!
3. Butler’s Wharf Chophouse: Okay, so if any restaurant can make you forget all about the bad cooking reputation of the British, it’s this place. When my parents came to visit, we were apprehensive about indulging in British cuisine… but could not be happier with our dinner here! Located in Butler’s Wharf, near the Tower Bridge, this restaurant gave British fare a (really, really) good name. Just outside the front of the restaurant is a phenomenal view of the Tower Bridge, so be sure to come here at night and take tons of photos!
- Shepard’s Pie: British enough to feel exceedingly cultured with every bite, safe enough to not eyeball every forkful with apprehension.
- Fish & Chips: No explanation needed. However, be sure to do research on where you’re going to eat this before you head there. You wouldn’t want bad fish and chips to ruin your perception on the novelty meal!
- Piccadilly Institute: This was by far my favorite nightclub in London. On Thursdays, entry with a student ID is only eight pounds, which is well under what you’d pay on a normal night. There are several floors, each with a different theme, so you’ll never get bored! It’s central location in Piccadilly Circus makes it a nighttime tourist attraction, therefore you’re bound to meet other travelers while having the time of your life here.
- BeAtOne: This chain cocktail bar is extremely popular among university students; entry is free, and the bartenders are required to perform theatrics throughout the night. Needless to say, it’s hard to not be entertained here. You’re bound to find a BeAtOne in any given central area of London; although my favorites were in Shoreditch (one of the biggest locations) and Covent Garden (smaller, but just as lively). Not to mention, their drink menu is absolutely unreal.
- Fabric: A year after living in London, I’m still mad at myself for never making it to Fabric. This is a legendary nightclub, where the long wait on line is well worth the fun you’ll have inside. They feature live music and a lively crowd on any given Friday or Saturday night. You’ll need to splurge a bit to get in – when I was there, it was 20 pounds upon entry – but you won’t regret it. Don’t make the same mistake I did; go to Fabric!
- Tube: The underground is the fastest, easiest, and most efficient way to get around London, in my opinion. The map is easy to understand, the quality of the trains are much nicer than that of the subway, and it’s easy to “top up” (put money on) your travel card. The hardest part is keeping your balance while the high-speed trains are in motion! Unfortunately, the tube closes at midnight, so be sure to have an alternate means of getting home when on a night out.
- Buses: It’s hard to imagine that the iconic red double-decker buses are a standard means of transportation in London, but alas, they are! The bus system is not quite as simple as the tube system (I’m pretty sure I still don’t understand it), but if you thoroughly plan your trip beforehand, you’ll be good to go. The buses are cheaper than the tube, but the headache is oftentimes not worth losing money over unless you’re travelling after the tube closes.
- Cabs: It’s important to only get into black cabs when travelling around the city – especially if you’re alone or if it’s nighttime. Do not trust seemingly-regular looking cars that claim to be mini-cabs; oftentimes they are actually mini-cabs, but you don’t want to take the risk! Drivers of the famous black cabs are required to take a test called “The Knowledge” before getting the job; the test verifies that they know everything about London there is to know. Not only can you ask them for a ride, but don’t be afraid to ask them for directions if you’re lost.
Important: You’ll need an Oyster Card (think: Metro Card) to use the public transportation system; be sure to get a student card and acquire temporary cards if friends or family come to visit.
- Tube Etiquette: When travelling on escalators in the underground stations, always stand to the right, unless you’re in a hurry. In that case, you can run up along the left side with the late businessmen you’ll see rushing to work on a daily basis. Don’t stand side by side with your friends: one person per stair, hanging to the right. If you don’t follow this, you will get trampled – I promise!
- There is a language barrier: If you’re an American student studying in London, don’t think you’re avoiding having to learn a new language. When someone asks you if you’re “alright”, they’re really asking “how are you?”. When they ask if you’re standing in the “cue”, they’re really asking if you’re standing in the “line”. Be sure to brush up on your British-English (watching British TV helps!) before heading here.
- Drinks contain much more alcohol: Remember to pace yourself when drinking, even if it’s just a glass of wine with friends over dinner. The alcohol content is much higher in London, and they tend to fill up your drinks more (you have a choice of small, medium, or large glasses of wine, for example). So, don’t base your buzz off of your American drink count. Consume slowly and responsibly when partying in London (or anywhere for that matter!).