A student’s guide to living in London
London – it’s one of the world’s largest, most happening cities. That can be a little overwhelming, but for the most part, incredibly exciting.
London is huge, and with that expanse comes variety. There really is nothing you can’t do – if you can imagine it, then it probably exists in London. Want an adult sized ball pit? London has it. What about a museum with things in jars? London has that too!
The best thing about London is that you can be whoever you want to be – as much as it’s a big city, it’s also one of the most accepting places in the world.
The city is full of experiences waiting for you to get involved – whether it’s a new group of friends, a new hobby, or discovering a new food, the possibilities are just about endless.
Safety in London
Know who can help
Being a big city can be scary, and the first thing you should do is memorise the emergency call number. Just like you see in the movies it’s a little different from your one back home. So if you find yourself in need of police, fire or ambulance CALL 999 and the operator will ask which emergency service you need.
If you find that you’re not in an emergency situation, but still need to contact the police, you can call 101 and the operator will help you with your problem.
Like any large city you should always be able to react quickly. It’s particularly unwise to walk through large parks or next to the canal after dark as these places are known to be fairly unsafe and not exactly full of friendly people ready to help you on your way.
That said, London isn’t full of people out to get you, all in all everyone is fairly friendly (just not chatty on the Tube). Talking to strangers on public transport is actually considered to be a bit antisocial and not very common.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on your belongings. Unfortunately in recent years, people stealing phones has become all too common. A good rule of thumb is to keep your valuables out of sight, that way you’re not advertising your phone to potential thieves.
With your physical safety taken care of, let’s talk about your mental safety: if you feel like your studies are becoming overwhelming then there are a few things you can do to combat any feelings of anxiety or misery (or even if you’re just suffering with a bit of homesickness).
Your university will have a student union dedicated to helping you with any troubles. Within the union you will find a counselling service who will be able to help you with advice and support. Most universities will offer a minimum number of counselling hours for each of the students that request help (in order of those who need it most).
Some universities have started to use dogs to help ease students’ worries around exam time. If this is something that you feel like you would benefit from, it may be worth talking to your university administration to ask if it’s a service they’re thinking of offering while you’re on campus.
De-stress a little
If you feel like you don’t need counselling but are just looking for a stress buster, take advantage of London’s outdoor activities.
Park Run sees people gather all across London in varying groups of levels of fitness and age brackets to run 5km together every Saturday morning – whilst it doesn’t sound mega appealing on paper it can be great fun and is an excellent way to meet new people (plus the sense of community really helps you feel more at home).
If running isn’t your thing, then you can always give swimming a go. London has loads of outdoor pools called ‘lidos’ (pronounced lie-doe) – some are heated, some are not. If you want to really test your mental strength, trying joining up for a winter membership where some of them get down to 3 degrees (and sometimes freeze over). Cold water swimming has become something of a craze in the past few years and the health benefits are too numerous to list, but at the top of them is enhanced mental health and wellbeing.
Exploring London through food
A great way to start exploring what London has on offer is with your taste buds.
London is a melting pot of cultures and foods, and searching for the best the city has to offer can take you on some unique adventures, and to corners of the city you maybe wouldn’t have ventured to otherwise.
Where to find a great curry
Most people know that if you’re craving curry then you head to Brick Lane. What they don’t know is that actually the best curry is found hidden in all corners of London.
Whether you’ve had a big weekend and need something that will tantalise your taste buds, or you’re just craving a piece of home, head to Dishoom. They have four locations around the city and the flavour you get for your hard earned student dollar is second to none. They do a variety of authentic dishes (with perfectly balanced spices) and their chefs are always pushing the boundaries with new inventions too.
For the carb lovers
If you like pasta then you can’t go past Padella near Borough Market. As long as you don’t mind a wait that is, because this place is absolutely packed from the moment they open till close. Once you’re in there though you’ll realise why.
All the pasta is made in house, the wine is authentic and can be bought by the carafe, and the small side plates are especially flown in from the mother country, Italy. If you’ve never truly had homemade pasta before, this is where you should give it a go.
Breakfast like a local
Need a big breakfast? The classic ‘full English’ breakfast (eggs, tomato, mushroom, toast, bacon, sausages, beans) is served almost everywhere in London in many variations, but don’t be fooled, there are some that are just cheap knock offs.
If you want a breakfast which really packs a punch flavour-wise and puts a modern twist on the old school, then head to The Breakfast Club. There are three different locations but one of the most popular is the original, in Shoreditch.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous you can ask for ‘The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town’ or simply say ‘I’m here to see the Mayor’– they won’t be sending you to the council towers though, hidden inside a large fridge is a secret bar.
Places to go that aren’t on the tourist trail
Sure, everyone can see Tower Bridge, or a telephone box, or a double-decker bus. But to feel like a local, and show off your new home to your friends and family, there are a few really special sights to go to for the London experience.
Get a bit fancy
London is well known for its high teas – and for good reason. Who doesn’t love to be waited on and eat tiny cake masterpieces and finger sandwiches while listening to someone play live piano! If you look on Groupon (a free voucher website) you might even find one at half the price.
There are a lot of different high teas to choose from, and these days you can even come across specialty teas like gluten free, vegan or sugar free (so there really is no excuse but to treat yourself). But if you want the most authentic then you need to head to one of the posh original hotels near The Strand (yes, just like in Monopoly) – think Claridges, The Ritz or The Savoy.
Explore London’s parks
There are two times of the year that you absolutely must visit London’s parks: in the summer (because, much to everyone’s surprise, it does actually get hot) and on bonfire night.
Bonfire night, otherwise known as Guy Fawkes Night is a rather strange English celebration of when a gentleman (named Guy Fawkes) tried to blow up Parliament House in the 1600s and kill the then king (King James I). He failed, but it’s not quite clear if the festivities today are a celebration that King James lived or a celebration of Guy’s stupidity. Whatever the historical aspect, it worked out great for current British society because fireworks are legal and free shows are put on all around the country, the largest of course being in London.
Pack a picnic and head to one of the highest points in London, Hampstead Heath, Parliament Hill or Primrose Hill to make the most of the celebrations.
Visit a museum with a creepy twist
The Hunterian Museum is fascinating and macabre at the same time. If you’re studying medicine or veterinary medicine then this is a must-see. If you’re not, it’s just as fascinating – as long as you can stomach the gruesome.
With a collection that spans the past 400 years, the Hunterian gallery is open to the public (sometimes for free). The original collection was by a gentleman by the name of John Hunter and whilst a wander around may seem like something from the days of witches, every specimen has played an important part in deciphering both human and animal anatomy (which has advanced medical science to where we are today).
You can expect to see fetuses of all sorts, bones and skeletons as well as research work done on transplant patients, both human and animal. It’s important to consider the age of the collection when viewing, these kinds of experiments wouldn’t go down so well in society today, but it has made us who we are.
Please note: The Hunterian Musuem is currently under redevelopment and will reopen its doors in 2021.
How to deal with the weather
London isn’t exactly known for its wonderful weather and if you’re coming from somewhere that’s usually hot and sunny, it can be a bit of a shock.
Your first winter may be the most difficult, but easing into it with a little knowledge and an idea of what to expect can make it more bearable.
Plan ahead for snow
Even though it does snow, London isn’t that well set up for it. In the past six or so years London has only experienced a handful of snow days, and although elusive, they can be great fun – but also, a bit of a headache.
First, all of the public transport shuts down (yup, that’s right, the trains just can’t handle it) then the roads get blocked up with buses and you know what that means? A day off work and school for everyone (unless you’re within walking distance or work in emergency services).
Everyone flocks to their local parks to make snowmen and throw snowballs, and all of a sudden you have a park full of grown up kids making new friends.
On the opposite end of the scale you will experience hot summers (where everyone also flocks to the parks for sunbathing and picnics). And you’ll want to get yourself a desk fan because there is no air conditioning in London.
Make the most of being on Europe’s doorstep
Cheap getaways to (slightly) sunnier European locations are just a few pounds away, sometimes a return can cost as little as £20.
The idea of having several different countries within only a few hours takes a bit of getting used to, but make the most of it whilst you can! There’s a whole world of exploring to do, and the world is your oyster for the same price as a cheap new pair of shoes.
If you’re eco-savvy and watching your carbon footprint or air miles you could even catch the Eurostar to France, Belgium or Amsterdam.
Make the most of the sunshine while you can
London does have some sunny days, so it’s best to make the most of them while they last.
Most boroughs will have a popular park for you to escape to (London Fields in Hackney, Clapham Common down south, Regents Park in the west) and there are a variety of lidos and rooftops for you to get your dose of vitamin D whilst the sun shines.
If you’re looking for something a little further afield then only one hour out of London is Brighton.
Brighton is one of three beaches close to London, and the most popular (for good reason). They have the largest pier (full of seaside amusements), a thriving and diverse community and some great laneways to explore.
Pack your floaties, some sandwiches and your bathing suit, but don’t forget some sandals, or beach shoes because it’s a pebble beach (not a sand beach) and nothing hurts more than pebbles underfoot after you’ve been softening your feet in the water.
Get outside in the wintertime
Don’t become a homebody just because the temperature has dropped, there’s plenty to do in London during the colder months.
As the leaves start to change you can take a day trip to one of the larger conservation areas (Richmond Park, Epping Forest or Victoria Park) to see the gorgeous array of colour changes in the leaves. You might even be able to see some wild deer too. This is also the best time of year to go squirrel spotting!
When you get close to Christmas the markets start to open, the big stores (Harrods & Selfridges) open their famous Christmas windows and the street lights are turned on by C-grade celebrities in most boroughs.
And don’t forget ice skating. Perhaps the most beautifully decorated of all is Somerset House rink, with twinkling lights and dedicated staff ready to help you if you’re feeling a bit like Bambi on ice.