Things to do when you study abroad in London

As someone who spent a year studying abroad in London, and has subsequently returned several times, I like to think myself a bit of an expert on the city (at least, a little). With the possibility of study abroad opening back up, I thought I would use some of my experiences to collate a list of fun things you should try and do if you’re studying (or even just visiting) London! This is by no means a comprehensive list, and it’s based on my personal likes/dislikes, but I know how overwhelming it can be to get used to a new city, so I hope this can help a little!

Before I dive into my list, I wanted to start with a useful tip for studying abroad in London. The first thing is to download CityMapper. It’s a transport app and is oh so helpful when you’re still figuring out the tube (and even after you’ve memorized it, I still rely on it). It will tell you what lines to take, when the next tube is arriving, compare the tube to the bus, and tell you when certain lines aren’t running. It works in several big cities so you can use it if you travel around Europe while you’re studying, and even has some cities in Asia and the Americas! If you get a British phone plan while studying abroad, you’ll be able to access WiFi in the stations, so you can update the app while you wait (but it’s best to preload it just in case the WiFi doesn’t work).

Without further ado, here’s my list of things to do (in no particular order) when you’re studying abroad in London!

Visit the Museums

General entrance to almost every museum in London is free. That means that you can pop into them for five minutes, or decide to spend a whole day there. Special exhibits will cost money, but otherwise, you’re free to enter them as you choose. My personal favorites are the V&A museum (especially for their scones), and the National Gallery. They’re both museums in which you could get lost, but also ones that are so never-ending, you’ll discover new things at every turn. The National Gallery is more focused on traditional paintings, but the V&A has more of a mix of art ranging from different eras and different mediums. Other museum highlights include the Science Museum, Tate Modern, and the British Museum.

How to get there:

  • V&A Museum: Nearest tube station is South Kensington on the Piccadilly or Circle/District lines. This is also the stop for the Science Museum and Natural History museum, as well
  • National Gallery: Located in Trafalgar Square. Nearest tube stations are Charing Cross (Northern and Bakerloo lines) or Embankment (Circle/District lines)
  • Tate Modern: Nearest tube stations are Southwark (Jubilee line), Blackfriars (Circle/District line – located on the opposite bank of the Thames), and Borough (Northern line)
  • British Museum: Nearest tube station is Holborn (Central line)

See the Parks

Although London is a cosmopolitan city, it is full of greenery and parks. They’re scattered all over the city, but are perfect for an afternoon stroll, picnic, or a run to get some daily exercise. Head to Kensington Gardens to find the Peter Pan Statue, or have an afternoon in St. James’ Park, located conveniently between Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. If you’re in London during the holidays, make sure you head to Hyde Park for their annual Winter Wonderland. Other notable parks include Regent’s Park, and Greenwich Park (if you’re in Greenwich, you can visit the Royal Observatory and stand on the Prime Meridian).

See a Show

While I’m absolutely a theatre person (so this was top of my list when I studied abroad), seeing theatre while in the UK is a must. There’s the West End with impressive headline shows like Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis, but there are also smaller theatres all over the city. There’s the Old Vic, the National Theatre, the Globe, and the Royal Court to name some well known non West End theatres, although there are countless others. No matter if your preference is to see a play or a musical, be sure to indulge in some theatre while in London, you won’t regret it! You might even be able to see some famous actors trod the boards. When I was in London, I managed to see Daniel Radcliffe, David Tennant, John Boyega, Andrew Garfield, and Nathan Lane onstage!

Selfie with Daniel Radcliffe
My most prized selfie

Ticket tips: If you’re a theatre person like me, be sure to sign up for reduced rate tickets for 16-25 year olds at the National Theatre, and £10 PwC preview tickets at the Old Vic. You can also download the TodayTix app to try for daily rush tickets (typically at 9/10am in the app), or to see what’s playing. Some shows also do day seating, which involves queuing outside the theatre in the early hours of the morning (I would typically arrive around 5am) to then be able to purchase tickets when the box office opens for that day’s performance. You usually get great seats at a phenomenal price (£20/£25 typically). You can also get £5 groundling (standing) tickets for performances at the Globe!

I also highly recommend seeing a panto if you’re in the UK during the holidays. It’s a lovely British tradition, and a joy to behold (oh yes it is)!

Walk along the Thames

While the tube is an excellent way to get around London, don’t underestimate how walkable it is. One of my favorite walks in London is along the Thames. It’s a great way to orient yourself in the city, but also to see some of the best sights on foot. If you start on the banks of the Thames opposite Big Ben, you’ll walk past The Eye, The National Theatre, The Globe, Tate Modern, and more. If you get far enough, you’ll even get to the Tower of London. You can cross over the Millennium Bridge (yes, the one famous for being destroyed by the Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince) to access Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Walking along the Thames is a fun way to not only see London, but to get some steps in, too!

Young woman leaning against a railing along the Thames in London, England, UK. The OXO tower and Blackfriars bridge can be seen in the background.
You can even find some “beaches” along the Thames (although I wouldn’t wade too far into the water, if at all)

Watch the sunset on Primrose Hill

Primrose Hill is a heavily touristy spot, especially for sunsets, but the view is worth it. The walk up the hill is on an incline, but it’s not a long hike up by any means. You can sit on the grass and watch day turn to night over the skyline of London. It’s especially enjoyable with friends and a tin of Pimm’s! The nearest tube station is Chalk Farm (Northern line – be sure to catch the Edgware branch), and Primrose Hill is around a ten minute walk from the station. You can even precede your evening with a trip to the London Zoo, which is just nearby.

Sunset viewed from Primrose Hill
The view from Primrose Hill at sunset

Visit the Warner Brothers Studio Tour

If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, this is an absolute must. You’ll head up to Leavesden Studios and there you can see Harry Potter film sets, costumes, props, and more! I’ve been twice and still feel like I could return to discover new things. You need to prebook tickets so it’s not a spontaneous trip, but if you’re studying abroad, you’ll have ample time to find a date that works. If you’re curious what visiting is like, check out my blog post about visiting it during the summer here!

In addition to the studio tour, be sure to also head to King’s Cross for a photo opportunity at platform 9 3/4! While you can’t actually stand between platforms nine and ten (unless you have a ticket for a train departing from those platforms), there’s a conveniently set up luggage trolley further into the station. There’s usually a queue for the photo, but if you time it right, you might not have to wait too long!

Young woman standing in Diagon Alley at the Harry Potter studio tour in London
Mischief Managed in Diagon Alley at The Warner Brothers Studio Tour

Have Tea

While this is kind of a touristy thing as well, it isn’t everyday that you find yourself in London! I’m a big tea drinker, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a proper afternoon tea. There are so many places where you can sit down for afternoon tea, at every price point so you don’t need to splurge if you don’t want to spend a lot. I opted to splurge a little and had tea at Fortnum & Mason’s, but there are plenty of cheaper alternatives. The key bit of having afternoon tea is getting to indulge in not only a luscious pot of tea, but also in finger sandwiches, and more importantly, scones. There is little better than a fresh scone with clotted cream and lemon curd in my opinion, and I would happily eat them every day.

If you’re just after the scones (and I wouldn’t blame you), Caffe Nero does a pretty good scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam. As I’ve already mentioned, my personal favorite scones come from the V&A, but I’ll admit, it’s not the most practical location when you’re craving a scone! You can find tea everywhere, and wade into the debate of which brand is the best (PG Tips, if you’re reading this, I love you and my allegiance is with you).

Young woman holding a tea cup at Fortnum & Mason's in London
Tea really does make everything feel better!

Go to a Television Show Taping

In addition to being home to stage shows, London is also home to the filming sets for many panel, and talk shows with live audiences. If you’re studying abroad in London, and will be there for a time, you can sign up to be considered to be an audience member for a multitude of shows. Typically, you’ll select a handful of dates for which you’re available, and they’ll reach out with your assigned date if you’re chosen! When I studied abroad, I attended two Graham Norton show tapings (with Ed Sheeran and Harry Styles as musical guests), a taping for Mock the Week, and a taping for The Nightly Show. The two companies responsible for getting audiences are SRO Audiences, and Applause Store. Be sure to check their websites frequently if this interests you!

Graham Norton show set after a live taping
Taking a sneaky photo of the Graham Norton show set

Go to the Top of the Sky Garden

For a free panoramic view of London, be sure to visit the Sky Garden! Entrance is free, although you need to book a timed entry ticket in advance. There’s a cafe/bar at the top, in addition to the 360° view you’ll get. While it’s not the same view you’d get from The Eye, it’s cheaper, and essentially comparable!

Closest tube stations: Monument (Circle/District line), and Bank (Central, and Northern line with connection to Monument station). These stations are connected underground, but Monument is the closest. Don’t be fooled by the word “connection” though, it’s a decent walk from Bank to Monument (and Bank is not a fun station to change lines).

View from the Sky Garden in London
One of the many views from the Sky Garden

Walk Around a Market

Markets are a great spot to visit in London both for food, but also for fun oddities you might not find anywhere else. If you’re feeling peckish, head to Borough Market! If you’re wanting to go shopping you can visit Portobello Road on the weekend in Notting Hill, or Box Park for some trendy shops. For more second hand and vintage shopping, head to Brick Lane or Camden Market. There’s also the Columbia Road Flower Market perfect for fresh blooms.

Ride the Bus

As much as the tube is a fantastic way to get around London, it’s not very scenic. Riding the double decker buses gives you the opportunity to see the city from a different angle, and to familiarize yourself more with everything. I personally love taking the bus when I have the time, and sometimes the route is more convenient via bus (CityMapper is great for telling you what’s the quickest). Even if you don’t use it for regular transport, try the bus at least once if only for the experience!

See the Olympic Rings

London was host to the 2012 Olympics, and the rings, along with a massive park with facilities, are still there. Located in East London (you’ll take the Central or Jubilee line to Stratford), you can spend some quality time going for a walk around the park, see West Ham Stadium, and if you’re eagle eyed enough, find the Olympic Rings. When you’re done, you can head into the Westfield next door for some shopping.

Olympic Rings in Olympic Park in London
You don’t have to win a gold medal to pose with the rings, luckily!

Venture outside London

While there are a million things to see and do in London (I still haven’t crossed them all off my list), there’s more to the UK than just London. It’s worth exploring other cities for so many reasons, but it can make for slightly less stressful adventures when you only have to take the train rather than a plane. I certainly have more cities I want to explore in the UK, but here are some of my recommendations!

  • Oxford: Highlights include the Radcliffe Camera, Christchurch College, and the Bodleain Library. I’ve done Oxford both in a day trip, and over a couple of days.
  • Bath: Highlights include the Roman baths, Fashion Museum, and eating a Sally Lunn Bun! I went to Bath as part of a trip in tandem with Oxford.
  • Cambridge: Highlights include King’s College, punting, and the Mathematical Bridge. I’ve only visited as part of a day trip.
  • Brighton: If you’re keen to see the seaside, be sure to visit Brighton. Walk along the pier and enjoy a 99 flake, and visit the Royal Pavilion. It’s a perfect day trip from London, but you can spend more time there if you please. Brighton is also home to the UK’s biggest pride festival during the summer.
  • Edinburgh: It would be hard to day trip to Edinburgh from London, but spending a few days there is well worth it to explore Scotland’s capital. Highlights include: Edinburgh castle, climbing Arthur’s Seat, and the National Museum of Scotland.
  • The Lake District: Since this is a district, there’s more than one place to visit, but the scenic views of the Lake District are truly stunning. I visited Keswick as part of an adventure weekend through IFSA-Butler, but I’m very keen on returning up North to explore more.
  • Stratford-Upon-Avon: Home to the RSC and Shakespeare’s birthplace, this lovely city is a perfect getaway from London. You can see some theatre, indulge in fish and chips, and learn all about Shakespeare!

For heading outside the UK, you can catch the Eurostar to Paris from St. Pancras which will drop you off at Gare du Nord in central Paris. You can also catch flights to anywhere in Europe from the many London airports. Heathrow is easily accessible via the Piccadilly line, and London City airport can be reached on the DLR. The other airports will require a train or bus to get there.

Be a Tourist

As much as I like to blend into the scenery when I travel, there’s nothing wrong with indulging in the touristy things to do, especially in a city like London. I think it’s important to see as much as you can of a city, and sometimes that includes going to a specific location for an Instagram photo or to say you’ve done it, even if it’s beyond cheesy. Not all tourist attractions are created equal, though, so here’s my list of ones you should do at least once while studying abroad in London!

  • Take a photo with a red telephone booth
  • Watch the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace
  • Visit the Tower of London (absolutely worth the price of admission, but allow ample time to visit the whole thing)
  • Hit up Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, and Covent Garden (don’t try to walk up the stairs at Covent Garden station if you decide to disembark there, though).
  • Let yourself get lost in the city. Since there are tube stations almost everywhere, you’re never truly lost, and you can always connect back to where you started. Walking is a fantastic way to get to know London, and to see things you’d miss if you took the tube to get somewhere.
  • If you want to splurge on a view of London, ride the Eye. Book your tickets in advance to minimize the amount of time you need to wait before getting your view.
  • Stroll through Notting Hill to admire the pastel houses
Young woman stands in a red telephone box outside Westminster Station in London, England, UK
London’s calling!

London is a fabulous city in which to study abroad. There are endless things to do and see, and its location makes it easy to explore the UK and Europe. I’m now several years on from my study abroad experience, and I still think about it all the time. I’ve been lucky enough to return to London on a few occasions, and I hope to be able to go back many more times. Here’s to exciting study abroad adventures, and let me know if I missed any London highlights!

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