About a month and a half ago now, I returned from a four-and-a-half-month study abroad experience in London. While I certainly cherished my time in the city while I was there, I’ve been reflecting more and more on my past experiences and, quite honestly, trying to figure out all the ways I can go back again. In honor of my English university grades recently getting released, I’ve dedicated some serious thought to some informal “journaling” about my time in London, complete with some of my personal favorite destinations in the city.
When I first arrived in January, I had just gotten over COVID, so my initial expectations were few and far between—simple stuff like the streets, the cars, the buildings. I also tried to recall anything I’d discovered about the city during my first visit last summer. My feelings at that time were overwhelmingly dominated by the fear associated with moving somewhere new, and all I could think about was ensuring I was properly settled into my university flat first and foremost.
The area I lived in, with the nearest tube station being Borough, was quiet but quintessentially “London” in its own ways. Anyone who has been to the south bank of the Thames knows it’s not Westminster, but this fact was incredibly comforting and remained that way throughout my entire trip abroad. Being able to go home to a place that wasn’t swarmed by tourists but still had that convenient tube access in Zone 1, the double decker red buses passing by, and a clear view of the Shard, sharp and unwavering, was a gift that I definitely took for granted.
The accessibility of public transportation and the ability to truly go anywhere you wanted almost anytime you wanted was perhaps the most striking thing about living in London. I knew the tube was easy to figure out, but it was liberating going on trips by myself or with my flatmates based on quite spontaneous, roughly detailed plans. And the architecture, particularly the older style of buildings but the modern structures as well, came together with the walkable nature of the city to make any outing both refreshing and familiar (even when all the travel by foot hurt my feet!).
F***offee. Yes, my all-time favorite coffee shop (which I probably went to upwards of 50 times over the course of the semester) has an expletive built into its name. But it also has the BEST decaf iced vanilla latte I have ever had. Hands down. Cheeky (in a good way, of course), charismatic staff; loud music featuring any artist from Nicki Minaj to The Beatles; and decor riddled with rainbows and LGBTQ+ icons assemble to form a warm and welcoming space. It’s a fun enough spot to meet someone for a coffee, but also a cozy and consistent enough spot to camp out on the sprawling leather couches for five hours and write a paper. Fortunately, it was only about a 10-minute walk from my flat, maybe 15 depending on the day, and I had first discovered this spot with the help of my classmates on my 2022 summer trip.
Brick Lane. I cannot say enough about how much I love the Brick Lane Vintage underground market and all the curated vintage shops along the actual street of Brick Lane. Maybe this will clarify my feelings: one oversized, brown, vintage leather jacket; five large sweaters; and a printed, corduroy button-up later, I had to buy an extra suitcase to check for my flight home. Great coffee, great bagels, and great books are located all along this stretch of road, and it’s near impossible to walk through Brick Lane and not come out having bought at least one thing (probably a cute sweater, an iced latte, and books you don’t need, if you’re anything like me).
The Courtauld Gallery. Here, you can find some incredible Van Gogh and Monet pieces, among other iconic artwork, for free if you’re a student. Something remarkable about London, that I only realized thanks to my flatmates, is how much free and accessible art you can find—and while the National Gallery, the Wallace Collection, and the Victoria & Albert Museum all make my shortlist, I think the Courtauld is great for a short art fix, and the location lends itself to a ton of other fun activities by the Strand and Covent Garden.
Daunt Books. With multiple locations across London, my favorite one was the Marylebone shop. Almost everyone I know who stayed in London with me owns a Daunt Books tote bag now, including myself (I opted for the burgundy shade). It’s just a cozy, reliable bookshop essential.
Battersea Park. I only managed to make it over to this park once, but something about it stuck with me. It was a bank holiday when my two flatmates and I went, so there was something particularly spring-y and freeing about the atmosphere. A lovely spot for people-watching and going for a stroll, Battersea Park in the springtime is particularly ideal for cherry blossom lovers. This is a wonderful place for literally anyone in the family: tons of playground areas and fields for kids; tennis courts, cricket batting cages, and a track for anyone athletic; a plethora of scenic spots to take pictures and film TikToks; benches, walking paths, and grassy knolls for anyone just wanting to take it slow; and plenty of ice cream trucks and food spots for, well, anyone.
Seven Dials. Covent Garden is one of the first “touristy” places I brought anyone who was visiting me, and it ranks up there with Big Ben, the London Eye, and Tower Bridge as one of those sites that just about everyone who’s visiting tends to cover. However, take a walk a few blocks up the street from this area, and you’ll find Seven Dials. Complete with fun clothing stores, cafes, an artsy little street called Neal’s Yard, and a delicious food market, this cool arrangement of streets has a lot to see and can be combined with your stop to Covent Garden!
Who I was with
I could not have lucked out more with my flatmates. Funnily enough, and NOT for lack of trying, I didn’t really make any British mates during my time abroad, aside from classmates at my uni. For instance, frequenting my favorite cafe didn’t seem to earn me much favor with the staff (who I desperately wanted to befriend…half because of potential discounts…).
My flatmates, though, are now some of my closest friends! All of us American, and two of us from the same school, we really shared common ground. But beyond this, our personalities all meshed so well, and though I went into the experience knowing only one of them, and vaguely at that, I emerged from the experience with truly close bonds with all five of my immediate flatmates in addition to the American students in my abroad program who I wasn’t living with.
What I learned
Being overseas and living in London allowed me to bolster my independence in crucial ways. Naturally, being in a city across the ocean for four and a half months will do this to a person, but I think London in particular was the perfect place for me to go—it was in many ways out of my comfort zone, but I quickly became comfortable when I did take risks, if that makes sense. The slang of the language and many common English cultural elements were soon familiar to me. However, moving there was still an adjustment that required me to do things alone in the city often, which was especially daunting at first when I had only ever resided in upstate New York.
Before I went to London, I was told to really go out and enjoy as much as possible. I think I definitely did that, but of course, looking back, I realize I could have done so much more to take advantage of the prime location I was in and how much there is to discover there. I can’t say enough about London—I’m sure my friends and family can attest to this—and I know there’s so much more I’m probably leaving out in this piece.
But now, I can only count down the days until a future trip and do my research for when I ultimately return. So, if you take anything from this article, let it be this: go to London!