The sun is high in the sky over London’s King’s Cross station, but inside the morning rush hour is still in full swing. An orderly queue of teenagers and 20-somethings – many clutching colourful rucksacks and suitcases – stand behind a mobile barrier, joking, gossiping and snapping selfies. Above them a giant digital screen provides updates on the latest arrivals and departures in orange neon.
Yet nobody in this youthful, cosmopolitan crowd is here to board a train. They may be clutching tickets, but their final destination is a brick wall at the head of the line. ‘Muggles’ all, each of these die-hard Harry Potter fans is waiting for a moment of photographic wizardry at Platform 9¾.
From J.K. Rowling and Ian Fleming to Arthur Conan Doyle and William Wordsworth, a long succession authors has endowed London, Britain’s historic capital, with a certain romanticism. Those arriving for the first time today may or may not find a city that lives up to expectations.
“It took a few months, but now I love my life in London,” says Vivian Wang, an English literature student and Potter fan from Shanghai. “I think people, especially students, need to understand the reality though. This is an amazing city, but you’re not going to be living in a timewarp or fairy story.”
Counting the cost
In a recent Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) survey of the world’s best cities for students, London came in fifth, behind Paris, Melbourne, Tokyo and Sydney. Headed up by renowned institutions such as Imperial College, the London School of Economics and University College London, the city has long been home to some of the planet's finest centres of learning. Of the top 75 cities in the survey, however, it was also the least affordable.
Yet those dissuaded from studying in London because of the potential cost should think again. Many of those prepared to economise will discover that the city's vibrant way of life, rich history and cultural diversity more than compensate for having to scale back on shopping, dining out and trips to the local nail bar.
“My years living as a student here were some of the best I have ever had,” says Libby Key, a 27-year-old London-based singer and musician. “Of course, everyone has a different budget. But, if you're savvy, proactive and have some self-discipline, London can be an eye-opening, inspirational place.”
Bazaars on a budget
Student life in London inevitably involves streetwise shopping. With their colourful traders, cornucopia of products and ancient heritage, London's markets are a must for those on a bargain hunt. Many of these world-famous bazaars, such as Petticoat Lane and Portobello Road, date back hundreds of years. In the East End of London, Brick Lane market complements its vintage fashion with some of the best curry outside the Indian subcontinent.
Despite the inevitable evolution that has taken place over the last few decades, Camden remains the cool punk granddad of London. With its eclectic collection of market stalls, boutiques and cafes, this popular student hangout is the cultured grandfather of more recent hipster hotspots such as Shoreditch and Brixton, pulling in over 100,000 people every weekend.
A world away from the high-end boutiques of Covent Garden, Chinatown is another great place to engage in a spot of thrifty shopping and dining. Shoe-horned into a rough triangle between Leicester Square, Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road, this commercial rabbit warren is packed with restaurants, hair salons, medicine shops and cut-price supermarkets.
Home to a myriad dim sum parlours, noodle bars and other Asian-themed eateries, Chinatown is one of the best places in London to find meals that are heavy on the taste buds but light on the wallet. Hiding away down one alleyway, C & R Cafe Restaurant offers its legion of dedicated punters some of the finest (and cheapest) Malaysian food in town.
“After relocating to London, we couldn’t find anywhere to eat authentic Malaysian dishes,” says C & R owner Rosa, who started the restaurant with husband Choong nearly 20 years ago. “We’ve always had a no-frills policy and let our food do the talking.”
“The laksa (fragrant rice noodle soup cooked in coconut milk) is the best in London,” says Indonesian student Elanto Wijoyono, as a Malaysian waitress sets a huge steaming bowl down on his table. “For less than £10 ($12), my homesick stomach gets a culinary treat here every Friday.”
The best things in life
When you’re on a tight budget, there’s nothing better than getting something for nothing. London delights in offering days of fun, education and entertainment that can often be had without a single penny of expenditure.
From architecture and the arts to museums and libraries, the British capital actually offers up an astonishing range of freebies. “When I first came to London, I couldn’t believe how many things you could see and do here for free,” says Iranian expat Javad Aghababazadeh, founder of the popular tour company London Student Tours. “From Tower Bridge and Millennium Bridge to the Houses of Parliament and Greenwich Park, the free attractions are virtually endless.”
And free and cheap doesn’t simply mean admiring greenery and exterior architecture. Many of London’s most famous institutions, including the British Museum, Tate Modern and Whitechapel Gallery, are also free to enter. Even tickets for headline experiences such as HMS Belfast and the London Eye are offered with big student discounts.
“I was actually better off as a student in London than I am now,” jokes Libby Key. “Take advantage of your youth!”
If student life in London is great, then sometimes it can be a little too great. When it comes to getting down to some serious study, it can often be hard to find a quiet place away from the distractions. Luckily the capital’s fantastic array of libraries are on hand to provide the requisite tranquility, not to mention access to some of the world’s most extensive book collections.
A stone’s throw from King’s Cross station, the British Library’s shelves are stocked with over 13 million volumes. Along with high-speed Wi-Fi and an excellent cafe, its scholarly attractions include the Magna Carta, Shakespeare’s First Folio and drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. All completely free.
One of the best things about studying in the United Kingdom is its diminutive size. Jump on a high-speed train in London and you can be in Edinburgh four hours later.
Their appetite whetted by Platform 9¾ and Leadenhall Market, London-based Potterheads may soon find themselves journeying up to Oxford and Cambridge.
Home to the United Kingdom's two oldest universities, these cerebral cities come with striding, gown-clad professors, great dining halls and Hogwarts-style architecture.
“Yes, I’ve been to Oxford,” says Vivian Wang. “It was beautiful. But, after London, it seemed a little small.”
5 Senses – Taste
You can tell from the huge queues outside Tayyab’s restaurant that this place offers something above average-and this is in East London, home to more than its fair share of superb Indian restaurants. Londoners love Indian food, and they love queuing. At this award-winning and hugely popular eatery in Whitechapel, students can experience both. And when it comes to the final bill, you won't find many cheaper.
5 Senses – Scent
The smell of Peking duck, boiled cabbage and durian fruit hangs heavy in the air around Chinatown. Those close by, in Soho or Leicester Square, can let their nose be their guide, as exotic aromas from London's oriental enclave guide diners to their favourite restaurant. With shelves boasting a smorgasbord of imported goods, the legendary Loon Fung supermarket can always be relied on to ratchet, up the olfactory titillation a few notches.
5 Senses - Sight
All kinds of exciting green spaces are now starting to appear on London's buildings. The highest profile roof garden to open recently is the Sky Garden, sitting atop the skyscraper known as the ‘Walkie Talkie’ (20 Fenchurch Street).Book in advance to enjoy free, awe-inspiring views over the City of London and River Thames.
5 Senses - Sound
Theatre and expense go hand in hand, yet London’s Globe Theatre bucks the trend. A faithful reconstruction of the open-air, playhouse where many of Shakespeare's plays were performed, the Globe has long offered standing tickets for a mere £5 (US$6). You’ll be out in the open air, but this still represents an unmissable bargain. www.shakespearesglobe.com