Imagine looking out the window as your flight dips toward London’s sprawling suburbs on a descent into Heathrow, which handles more international passengers than any other airport in the world. Stepping out into this global city, the immense and beautiful diversity of nationalities, languages, races, religions, and economic backgrounds will likely be your first impression. More than 300 languages are spoken here, and you’ll hear them regularly on the Tube, in the shops, and on the streets when you study abroad in London.
Food & Culture
While the city has its share of American food (you’ll never have to go too far for your Lucky Charms), there is an abundance of new tastes to try. Walk through the Sunday UpMarket off the East End’s infamous Brick Lane, and you can pick up colorful Ethiopian salads, Turkish Gözleme, Japanese Okonomiyaki, Spanish paella, Tibetan momos, Peruvian quinoa stew and French crepes — not to mention some of London’s best salt beef bagels just down the road.
The British Melting Pot is fascinating for its eclectic mix of cultures — its long Jewish history has faded to allow for a modern Bangladeshi community mingling with urban hipsters. You’ll find plenty of street artists at work around the corner from a new mosque. There are curry houses and vintage clothing stores, Pakistani sweet shops and posh contemporary art galleries, all meshed into a network of ancient streets with Georgian homes and snippets of Jack the Ripper stories floating up from walking tours. Just around the corner is the Columbia Road Flower Market where you’ll hear Cockney accents shouting about roses and daffodils from stalls passed through family lineage.
Londoners have a creative approach to style and appreciate a bit of eccentricity. This comes through in the catwalks during London Fashion Week, the couture designer shops on Bond Street or the retro collections in Soho, and the innovative projects from London College of Fashion students. This makes people-watching a very entertaining activity, but it’s also fun to join in. Much of London may have succumbed to gentrification, but there are certainly cool, unique and edgy independent and pop-up shops kicking around London.
Things to Do
There are bookshops galore, ranging from giants like Waterstones to smaller independent shops like Daunt, in the Marylebone neighborhood, which organizes its books by the country in which they are set. You’ll find secondhand shops everywhere, and on the vibrant South Bank lining the river Thames, there’s an open-air book market.
History and literature lessons are brought to life at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the architecturally impressive Natural History Museum, and the Horniman Museum, which focuses more on anthropology. There is free entrance to many art venues dotted across the city, like the contemporary Tate Modern or the smaller Halcyon gallery. You’ll walk the same streets as Virginia Woolf, Charlie Chaplin, and Princess Diana.
The icons that represent London in movies will be at your fingertips. You can hear the chime of Big Ben and see the gothic sprawl of Westminster Palace, climb to the top of the Saint Paul’s Cathedral dome, or watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Take a ride on the London Eye, or be whisked to the top of The Shard, the latest (fabulous) addition to London’s skyline. You can always catch a fantastic performance of the latest stage shows to hit England in the West End theatre district.
When you’ve had enough of the tourist attractions, the real fun begins. Join London’s South Asian community to celebrate Dwali, the Festival of Light, with fireworks in Southall. Dance to Caribbean music at Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s largest street festival. Visit Chinatown during Chinese New Year, the biggest celebration outside of Asia. Head up to Camden to catch some live music from London’s best emerging indie artists. Explore the outer reaches of the city and take a bus to Eel Pie Island, a small artist community with a big rock-and-roll history.
Studying in London
The best study abroad programs in London will encourage you to explore and interact with local communities. For example, CAPA International Education takes students out of the classroom and employs the city itself as the textbook from which to learn. It also offers internships, which allow for opportunities to network and engage firsthand with the U.K.’s work culture.
Some 58,000 international students study abroad in London every year, and with good reason. They are in great intellectual company in a city that’s home to some of the world’s top universities and research centers. There are opportunities to enroll directly or mingle with those who attend Imperial College London, London School of Economics, University College London, SOAS, and King’s College London. There are also options to enroll on a shorter program for a semester or a couple of weeks on a summer course. The advisor at your home university will be able to help make sure the credits you earn in London will transfer back, and can answer any questions.
The grading style in London is slightly different from the States. You’ll probably write more papers and take fewer tests. This may take some adaptation, but many students prefer it. You’ll find a welcome atmosphere for writing and studying in London with the vastness of green spaces in Hyde Park, Hampstead Heath, Richmond Park, and others spots ideal for stretching out on the grass on a warm day. If it’s raining, you can duck into a café. Most have free wi-fi you can tap into while you sip on a cup of English tea (or Colombian coffee, or thick French hot chocolate …).
As you study abroad in London, you’ll often look up to the sky at the constant stream of planes dipping down or soaring up from Heathrow. Those long white contrails painting the sky are another reminder than London is a true global city of the world. There are few better places to study abroad than in the place that prompted Samuel Johnson to say, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”