While studying abroad in London this past summer, I was surrounded by a seemingly infinite number of activities and experiences. In a big city, it is impossible to experience everything, especially over the course of one month. The upside to this is that there is so much to do – I was never bored! The downside is that there are so many options that it can be hard to decide what to do. If you are planning on traveling to London, I hope this list of my favorite experiences in the city, including some free ones, can help you plan your trip.
1. Taking the Tube
You’re not a Londoner until you’ve learned to take the tube. This underground public transportation system can get you just about anywhere in the city, and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Looking at a map of the tube system can be extremely overwhelming at first, but once that web of colorful lines starts to make sense to you, the victory you feel will be worth the frustration.
2. Museums – Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum
I’m a huge nerd. That’s why I was pumped when I found out there were several free museums within walking distance of my student housing. The Natural History Museum and Science Museum are right next to each other, and the Victoria & Albert Museum is right across the street. They have temporary exhibits and activities that cost money, but I found all the permanent exhibits fulfilling without paying for the extra stuff. My favorite by far was the V&A. They had such a variety of exhibits, including theater galleries that showcased artifacts from worldwide historical moments in theater. I went there with my theater class and loved it so much that I went again by myself. On my own, I was able to spend as much time as I wanted reading every little placard, listening to the informational videos, and dipping my feet in the fountain outside.
3. Sky Garden
When I visited the Sky Garden with my friends, all of us kept saying, “I can’t believe this is free!” In order to visit, all you have to do is sign up for a time slot and get your free ticket online. After going through security, visitors take an elevator up to the 35th floor and arrive at the beautiful indoor garden. On the balcony, there is a stunning view, and you can see some of London’s most famous landmarks, like the Tower of London, the Shard, and Tower Bridge. Inside there is a bar, a restaurant, and plenty of seating.
4. Hyde Park
In order to get from my housing to campus for class, I had to take a thirty minute walk straight through Hyde Park every day. As someone who has no sense of direction, finding my way to class was a little stressful at first, but these walks soon became the highlight of my day. Hyde Park is beautiful, and there are always interesting things going on and cute families with dogs. You can see Kensington Palace where William, Catherine, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge live. It also features lots of statues and memorials scattered throughout the park.
One day, I even got to walk right through a film set where Benedict Cumberbatch was filming! Of course, this was not your typical day at Hyde Park, but the park is always beautiful and interesting nonetheless.
5. Camden Market
Inside Camden Town, which is a hip, edgy residential district of London, lies Camden Market. As a vegan, this was heaven to me. There were so many different food vendors I could try, including a fully vegan pie shop, vegan soft serve, baked goods, and options in all sorts of different cuisines such as Thai, Mexican and Japanese. Of course, there were even more food options to explore for non-vegans, as well as stalls that sold homemade jewelry, artwork, clothing, and so much more. The market also features live music that we could listen to as we explored. I wish I had gotten the opportunity to go to Camden Market more than once, since it was impossible to try everything I wanted to in just one day. The place was like a giant maze – as soon as we thought we had walked around the whole market, we would find another little corridor to go down with even more stalls!
6. Covent Garden Market
Another option under the “outdoor market” umbrella was the Covent Garden market, which had a similar concept but a completely different vibe from Camden Market. Covent Market had an indoor area with tons of different merchants selling art, flowers, food, and more, as well as an outdoor farmers’ market with fresh produce and food coming straight from the people who make it. When I went, I had the tastiest veggie burger I’ve ever had at Big V London, and bought some delicious passion fruit for dessert.
7. Shakespeare’s Globe
As part of my theater class in London, we saw about two plays a week throughout the city. Out of all of the plays, the most unique experience was going to Shakespeare’s Globe. We saw Hamlet as a field trip, and I went to the Globe again to see Othello with a couple friends later in the summer. I was afraid that standing in front of the stage as a “groundling” for the entire performance would be exhausting, but the actors did such a good job that I was distracted from the discomfort. Since I am a theater kid through and through, I geeked out at the experience to see Shakespeare plays staged the same way they would have been back when they were first produced. However, even if you aren’t a theater geek like me, I would still recommend going to the Globe since it’s an experience you can’t get anywhere else.
8. Oxford Street shops
At home, I’m not much of a shopper. I tend to wear a uniform of t-shirts and jeans unless I have a reason to get dressed up. However, walking around the streets of London, I found myself inspired by all the fashionable people around me. Soon enough, I was hit with a case of shopping fever and decided to explore Oxford Street, one of the most popular shopping areas in London. Along Oxford Street, there are so many shops to choose from, and they’re all huge! Topshop, Bershka, and Primark are all shops that I don’t have at home, and I found so many cute, hip clothes that weren’t too expensive. I left the UK feeling sad that we don’t have Primark on the west coast; it was like a cheaper Forever 21 with higher quality clothes.
9. Being a cheesy tourist
When I first got to London, I was self conscious about seeming too much like a “tourist.” However, I soon came to realize that there was nothing to be ashamed of as long as you are being respectful to those around you (i.e. not blocking the sidewalk or being obnoxiously loud). If you’re traveling to London, go see the sites! Take pictures outside of Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye, Tower Bridge, and all the cool historical places around the city. Most importantly, don’t forget to get your cute Insta pic in front of one of those iconic red telephone booths!
Charis Nixon studied abroad in London, England, in Summer 2018. She served as a digital communications intern for USAC during her time abroad.