The ultimate international student’s guide to London
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Living in London as a student is magical. The culture, food, people and nightlife make it a truly unique city, and as an American studying and working there for the first time, every day was a different adventure.
I arrived in London in January 2019 ready to live it up. I had planned on studying abroad in London for years, even though I had never stepped foot in the city. I had spent some time in Europe (especially in Germany where I sharpened my German language skills), but I knew I was missing out by not visiting London.
I quickly learned that although grabbing a pint after work was amazing, often the price tag was not — especially with the conversion rate. Saving money and creating a budget was a huge part of my preparation before I left Missouri, and I’d strongly recommend you do the same — you really don’t want to unexpectedly have to cut your trip short because you’ve run out of funds.
To a newcomer, London can also be quite overwhelming, and again, if you don’t know any hacks, very expensive. But fear not. After spending four months there, I picked up some wallet-friendly tricks and really made the most of the incredible student experiences on offer.
So here’s a list of cheap places to stay, eat, drink and more to help you along the way.
Things to do
I recommend visiting Sky Garden, simply to take in the beautiful views of London at night. It’s a romantic, greenery-filled retreat from the city below with great cocktails and relaxing vibes, located on the top floor of the “Walkie Talkie” building (20 Fenchurch Street) in the City. I visited a few times simply because it was such a spectacular place to enjoy at night. And the best thing about it? It’s completely free. The drinks aren’t, though — but they never are!
Junkyard Golf Club
The Junkyard Golf Club in Hackney, east London, is a great night out — it’s a miniature golf course made from reclaimed junk. And even better — it’s 50% off the £13.00 ticket price for students every Monday and Tuesday. A group of us did this one night and it was a blast — you can booze while you play.
It also has insanely fun drinks, like the Hotline Ting (Wyborowa Vodka, bubblegum, cranberry, lemon and Ting) and Drank U, Next (Beefeater gin, Elderflower, strawberry puree, strawberry Ribena, lemon and lemonade). All of the drinks are adorned with themed sweets and decorations — a real statement tipple.
Royal Botanical Gardens
For Easter, I went to the Royal Botanical Gardens, in Kew, west London. I highly recommend visiting this floral extravaganza, especially in the spring when the weather gets warmer. It was highly relaxing strolling through the 18th-century gardens. It’s very easy to get to on the Tube, too, which makes it that much more student-friendly.
Also, there is a student discount on tickets. At only £9 for a student ticket, you’ll save £10, which can go toward your next food shop. Make sure to bring an NUS or university card for proof of academic standing.
A popular place among American students, Ballie Ballerson is a place where adults can become kids again. This bar is the perfect place to live it up in massive, colourful ball pits where you can dive, pose and drink to your heart’s desire. There are two locations: The original one is in Shoreditch, east London, one of my favourite areas, and the other is in central London in Soho.
For “student ballers”, tickets are as low as £1.50. You can upgrade to VIP for only £4. You can also get two-for-one pizza.
Hyde Park is not only beautiful but centrally located, which is great in a city as big as London. The park is also full of different activities and hosts loads of events, such as the annual British Summertime music festival. You can go jogging, boating, cycling, horse riding and more. One of the most cost-efficient ways to tour the park is by renting a Santander bike, London’s version of a public bike share.
There are more than 750 docking stations and 11,500 bikes in the city and are available through the official app or at the docking stations. The bikes are £2 for 24-hour access and free for the first half-hour.
Most people know the name from the iconic movie featuring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, but it’s a real place and so charming. The cute pastel-coloured houses are just waiting to be photographed in this upmarket area of west London. I visited Notting Hill during a day trip to Portobello Road market, which is also a must-do in London. It has all kinds of antique booths and second-hand kiosks. I bought a ring there that I wear every day to remind me of my travels.
Related reading: Ride on: The ultimate guide to London’s best cycle routes
London is full of some of the best museums in the world, but one of my favourites is the Tate Modern on the South Bank. I love modern art, so I adored getting lost in the beautiful galleries. A lot of the museums in London are free, which makes all them even more student-friendly.
Related reading: How to spend a Sunday in London
Brick Lane graffiti
I took a food tour in Brick Lane, east London, with my class and it was such a cool experience. Brick Lane boasts not only some of the best street food in London, but it also has some neat graffiti. Look up, down and all around to catch glimpses of some brilliant street art. Look closely and you might even see a Banksy original.
Culinary highlights included a divine samosa and a bagel that I still think about to this day.
Where to drink
Tonight Josephine, in Waterloo, south east London, is the pink paradise of your dreams… ok, maybe my dreams. It’s one of my favourite bars in London purely because the surroundings are so empowering and feminist. I love this bar because it has a two-for-one happy hour that saves a heck of a lot of money. Its drinks menu is extensive, so there’s no shame in going back more than one night in the week — especially since the drink deals are every day except Saturday.
This is a gem of a rooftop bar. Bar Elba is a tropical oasis in the heart of London. It’s full of young, hip adults and has a really great atmosphere perfect for a date night or a casual kickback with friends. The drinks are amazing and the vibes are on point. Sign up for its mailing list, and you’ll get a free cocktail. This works, I’ve done it.
With some of the best drink deals around, Belushi’s is a great stop for a fun night out. It’s perfectly geared toward students, with its “student pick” discount. It’s an actual guitar pick that you carry with you and by showing it at the bar, you can get insane discounts like £3 Coronas and 25% off food. It also has monthly student events and deals, like £2 Jager shots. We loved hanging out at the Camden branch in north London, but there are five other locations scattered around the city.
Related reading: 6 mistakes tourists make in London
O’Neill’s is an Irish pub chain, with one right in the centre of Chinatown. It’s extremely well known among American students, and there’s a reason why — other bars can’t compare to the live music and atmosphere at O’Neill’s. We had some of our best nights out there just dancing and enjoying our time in the city. It is massive, too, so there is plenty of room for big groups.
There is also a rewards programme through the app. You can also use the app to order and split the bill, which is especially helpful when you are with a large group of people.
Related reading: 10 famous London film locations and where to find them
Where to eat
The food markets in London have not only an endless amount of choices to fill your grumbling stomach but are also exciting and full of culture, shopping and more. They usually won’t break the bank, either. I lived in Camden and my apartment was about a three-minute walk from Camden Market
My friends and I spent hours rooting through the vintage shops and the food stalls, searching for unusual meals and one-of-a-kind clothing purchases. I had the best mac ‘n’ cheese of my life at The Mac Factory — the Mambo Italiano (smoked pancetta, wild mushroom and garlic). I don’t even want to know how many calories I consumed eating it.
Borough Market is also a great spot located in Southwark, south east London. I got the most insane cheese pastry there that I still think about to this day. It is London’s oldest food market and has been serving locals for over 1,000 years. I love diving into history while I explore, so for anyone interested in learning a little bit in between pints of beer, Borough Market is the perfect stop.
Related reading: 5 tips for getting the most out of your study abroad experience
Slug and Lettuce
I went to Slug and Lettuce while I was on a day-trip to Bath and I absolutely loved the vibes in this restaurant, which is part of a large chain. The food was just what I needed during my busy touring day, and there are tons of locations all over the U.K., so it’s an easy choice no matter where you are travelling.
Byron Burger is also a decent choice as it offers a student discount when you download the UNiDays app. There are loads of locations dotted around London, but I recommend checking out the Kensington, west London, branch because it is in such a beautiful area. I took classes in Kensington, so I got to appreciate the beautiful architecture of the area.
The Real Greek
I went to The Real Greek‘s Bankside location before a Shakespeare play at The Globe. It was perfect as it was just a short walk to the theatre. The Real Greek also offers a 25% off student discount Sundays to Thursdays with UNiDays. I wish I had known about this discount before I went.
The Breakfast Club
This is one of my all-time favourite restaurants in London. The first time I went to The Breakfast Club, I went by myself because I had time off of work. I sat there with my cup of tea and enjoyed my personal time. I loved the food and the cafe so much that I took my parents there one morning when they came to visit me. My mum is a tough restaurant critic, and she loved it. It has a really homey atmosphere that is perfect for when you are homesick and want a little bit of comfort food.
The prices aren’t too bad, but the best thing about The Breakfast Club is that there are speakeasies at the bottom of some of the restaurants. I went to The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town in Spitalfields, east London, with some friends where I was guided through a fake refrigerator to a bar downstairs. It was one of the highlights of my time in London.
Where to stay
Located in King’s Cross, north London, the Generator hostel is a great place to call home, temporarily. It’s in a great location: two kilometres from both Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery and a short walk to Covent Garden. It’s also located near two major transport hubs, King’s Cross and Euston.
With rooms that are bright and airy, and the option to choose between private and shared, it caters for all travellers. While private rooms are nice after a long day, some of my best memories from being abroad were from sharing in a dorm-style room and meeting students from all over the world.
Rates start at about £9 for a shared 13-person dorm room or £44 for a private twin room that sleeps two people.
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With 24-hour security and a seasonal rooftop bar, SoHostel is a fun and safe choice, two very important factors when choosing a hostel. The colourful interior and amazing location are also major perks. SoHostel would be a great choice if you are trying to pack a lot into a short trip, as it’s very central and near many great bucket-list spots.
It’s located just five minutes from Tottenham Court Road tube station and eight minutes from Oxford Circus station. Soho is also known for being a happening LGBTQ+ area.
Wombat’s is another strong hostel choice if you are looking for a place that is central. It’s very close to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge — both absolute must-sees. There are also two tube stations, Tower Hill and Aldgate, that are each an 11-minute walk. Wombat’s has a cool, rustic bar (a nice bonus after a long day of travel) and a great common area where you are sure to bump into other students and adventurers. Wombat’s also has hostels in Vienna, Munich, Budapest and Venice.
A bed in a mixed eight-person dorm will cost around £19, whereas a private twin room will cost about £95 a night. If you book through its site directly, you will receive a 15% discount.
London is the perfect city for students. Although it can get pricey, it’s doable, especially if you are smart about deals and discounts. There are plenty of available hostels, gourmet grub and Instagram-worthy activities that will make you feel like a born and bred Londoner.
Featured photo by We Are/Getty Images
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