London. I dreamed of Harry Potter, Kate Middleton, British accents and Big Ben. Call me biased, but I think London is the greatest city in the world. Where else does the juxtaposition of historical and contemporary strike a perfect balance? Where else can you be, at one moment, in one of the biggest business hubs of the world and the next, a serene park where historical figures like Churchill or Shakespeare may once have wandered and been inspired?
But, with that being said, all that comes at a cost. London is darn expensive. Remember that you’re in a different country—you’re allowed to splurge every now and then; just make sure you don’t stay in vacation mode. And to help with that, here’s a list of many things you can do on a tight budget.
London has an abundance of beautiful green spaces; start with all of the Royal Parks. Make sure you take the time to take it all in. I would set out to just explore the parks (there’s maps all over them if you get lost)- and find all sorts of other cool things in the process. Also, stop by Kenwood House (Notting Hill anyone?) and Parliament Hill along the way through Hampstead Heath.
I’m personally not a big fan of museums, but, in London, so many of them are free. Pop in for a half hour and see some Turner at the National Gallery or Rodin at the V&A Museum. Another cool thing about museums are the once a month late-nights with food, activities, dancing, etc. Don’t forget the British Museum- one of the best in the world and consistently rated the top attraction in the city.
Being from Texas, markets are a phenomenon. People go to farmers markets on occasion if they’re hipster, but markets in London are everywhere! They became one of my go-to activities if I was feeling bored. They range from produce, prepared food, clothes, art, music, vintage—if you’re not getting my point, there’s one for everything!
During my time abroad, I saw Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables among other plays and shows. I also didn’t spend very much money on my tickets by checking the TKTS booth in Leicester Square on the day of and getting discounted tickets. There are also cheap fantastic options at the National Opera, The Globe and the National Theatre.
London may be known for its rainy, dreary weather, but for me, it just made the sunny days even more beautiful. I’m not a runner by any means, but as it started to warm up, I’d run in Kensington Gardens/Hyde Park basically every day! Rent a deck chair, swim in a lido (pool); go out, wander, get lost in the city. I guarantee it’ll be worth it (just make sure you have Citymapper to help you find your way back)
There are truly countless things to do in London and the surrounding area. Take a day trip (buses and trains are cheap if you buy in advance) or spend a weekend in continental Europe (check out Skyscanner and Hostelworld).
Honestly, and I fully acknowledge how cliché this sounds, studying abroad is a life-changing experience. There is no way to fully explain specifically how all the experiences have changed me, but here are three primary lessons I discovered: independence, exploration and happiness.
- Independence: I’ve always considered myself a fairly independent person, but I’ve also always had friends and family to rely on. Living in another country with only one person that I knew was difficult…but also extremely liberating and easier than I anticipated. A lot of people study abroad with friends or make lifelong friends from their time abroad. Though this wasn’t the case for me, I strongly believe that I found something extremely valuable – peace with myself and who I am. No, I don’t have my life figured out, far from it, but I explored countries on my own and that helps put some things into perspective.
- Exploration: Going off of that – I got to visit so many places—Scotland, Portugal, Athens, Budapest just to name a few. But more than just visiting cool places, I developed a greater spirit for exploring the world around me. I’ve become an advocate for being a tourist in your own city; we all think that where we live is boring, but we really just get in a rut and take things for granted. I was taking a train through the Swiss Alps, and while I was sitting in complete awe, I saw that most people were just looking down at their phones. I started to feel a little judgmental, but really, we all do this to some extent. Since returning, I’ve spent weekends visiting museums in Houston (where I’ve called home for three years) that I didn’t know existed or walking around the park right across the street from Rice University that I’d maybe been in three times before.
- Happiness: Studying abroad is absolutely fantastic—a period that I will look back on as one of the happiest times of my life. However, there were times where I felt like because I was doing all of these incredible things, it wasn’t fair to be sad or miss home. I felt pressure to always be out trying something new, whether that be a tourist attraction, a new restaurant, etc. and in turn I found myself missing home more. But, I found balance and in turn, happiness.
Sarah Chou is a student at Rice University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at University College London.