The United Kingdom, or the UK, is a Constitutional Monarchy made up of four countries (Wales, England, Northern Ireland, and Scotland). Consequently, the UK has four capital cities: Cardiff in Wales, London in England, Belfast in Northern Ireland and Edinburgh in Scotland. Of these four countries, England is by far the largest geographically. The official language is English and the currency is the British Pound (GBP). A number of online currency conversion sites can give you up-to-date information on current exchange rates. Visas are required for US citizens who plan to stay more than 3 months.
The climate of the UK is known for its abundant rains, an effect of the Gulf Stream, and proximity to the Atlantic. Accordingly, the western side experiences more rain than the east. So, if you are seeking drier ground for study abroad, look to the east. However, don’t let a little rain ruin your enthusiasm for studying in the UK. In Swansea, Wales the wet weather never dampens the lively spirit of the locals, who lovingly call it “Magical Mist.” The Gulf Stream also helps temper the climate, keeping winters relatively warm and summers cool.
Getting into the UK from abroad is easy, as numerous international airlines fly into London. If you’re looking for cheap fares…
- Get a head start and book early
- Compare airlines and travel dates on various websites
- Search for flights on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when many airlines release new flights and prices
Public transportation systems in the UK are highly developed. In the big cities, public buses and/or underground systems (known in London as the “Tube”) make it easy and affordable to get around without a car. For longer journeys…bus and train companies provide various deals and discount cards for students, young people and travelers in the UK. To ensure you make the most of your money, it is best to know how much travel you plan to do before purchasing one of these special tickets or cards. National Rail offers its customers the option of purchasing a set number of “travel days” over destination tickets. National Express Coach sells a “Young Persons Card” for those between 16 and 26 years of age, which reduces the price on future ticket purchases. These deals will only help you financially if you make educated choices about them.
If you want to visit many different countries in Europe during your semester, London is the ideal study abroad location. London is the hub of travel through Europe, and discount airlines, like Ryan Air and Easy Jet, make travel affordable. Living in a city with access to London also serves the same purpose.
English is the official language of the UK, but Americans should take note of differences between British and American English. For a British University student, a “course” is what an American student would call a “major.” A “class” is referred to as a “module.” Americans wear “pants” as an outer layer of clothing, for the Brits, “pants” are worn underneath (what Americans call “underpants”) and “trousers” are worn over them. Mistaking American “pants” for British ones will lead to some humorous misunderstandings. Discovering the differences between two languages, both called English, is an exciting part of studying in the UK.
When I went to Wales, I had little idea of what to expect. I had barely heard of the country before getting there. What I found, was incredible. The countryside stretches over rolling hills into rocky coast, down roads dotted with small English country homes. For a look at the Welsh Coast, take a bus ride to the Gower Peninsula. The beauty of the Gower is belittled in photographs, compared to the 360 degree in-person view, and can only be experienced first hand.
The people of Wales are friendly, outgoing and full of smiles. Wales is known for its abundance of coal mines, which are worth a day’s trip to visit, and also its talented citizenry. The Welsh are believed to be some of the world’s best singers, particularly in folk music, and are also quite talented actors. Famous among Welsh actors are Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Richard Burton.
Swansea is the second largest city in Wales, after Cardiff, the capital. Swansea (in Welsh called Abertawe) is located on the coast of South Wales, with a beautiful stretch of beach running alongside it. On the western end of that beach, you will find Mumbles Pier, a great vantage point of the coast. Mumbles is also an excellent location to experience local pub culture. With more than 10 pubs on its main mile-long stretch, you’re sure to find one that suits you. For some great pub fare at a decent cost, the Pilot and the White Rose are highly recommended. The seaside port of Swansea is also known as the hometown of the poet Dylan Thomas.
Cardiff is also found on the southern coast of Wales, and is a great place to catch a rugby match at its Millennium Stadium. Both cities are home to Swansea University and Cardiff University which welcome international students, and both allow easy access to London via bus or train.
London is without doubt the most famous city in Britain. The Big Ben Clock Tower, Parliament, the London Tower Bridge and, most recently, the London Eye, are among its famous icons and draw tourists from around the world. The London Tower, home to the crown jewels and the world’s largest diamond, is a must-see. Visitors should arrive early to get tickets and allow themselves the day to explore. The Beefeater Tours of the Tower are also highly recommended.
Popular among the college crowd in London, is the Ice Bar, a bar made entirely of ice, from the furniture to the glasses. Large coats are provided upon entry. For a drink without a cover charge, pubs can be found all over Britain. In London, take a visit to Chandos for a real British pint. For a reasonable charge, the pub serves a variety of Sam Smith’s ales.
Another of England’s famous sites is Stonehenge, near the town of Amesbury (about 90 miles from London). Amesbury is a beautiful and quaint English town, and worth spending time in during a trip to visit Stonehenge. The site itself is a wonder to behold, and a mystery even to historians, who date the beginnings of Stonehenge around 2950-2900 BC. Considering that Stonehenge was ancient to the ancient Romans, can make your head spin.
For a look at Roman history, visit the Roman Baths in Bath, UK. Here, you literally walk down into history, to the layers below that were once the surface for the Romans. As you walk down the steps into the site, you walk deeper into the past and the artifacts below. Bath also has much to be explored in town with small shops and pubs.
The political unrest in Northern Ireland from the 1960′s to 1998, called “The Troubles” dampened the tourism industry in Belfast for a time. Since the signing of the “Good Friday Peace Agreement” in 1998, however, Belfast has reclaimed it’s status as a safe and attractive destination, winning various awards from numerous tourist guides. Among them, in 2009, Frommer’s picked Belfast in their Top 12 Destinations to Visit, and Belfast was the only UK city to be chosen.
A walk up the Royal Avenue for some shopping leads up to the beautiful St. Anne’s Cathedral. Another unique and intriguing tourist attraction worth noting is the Harland and Wolff shipyards, where the Titanic was built. A trip to the suburbs of Belfast reveals the historic and famous murals painted on terrace walls during “the Troubles.”
Edinburgh is a beautiful city and wonderful study abroad location. A walk down the Royal Mile leads to Edinburgh Castle, which provides a beautiful overlook of the city. Go late in the afternoon and enjoy the sunset over the city. If you visit in late December, you’ll see the lights of the Christmas shops line the streets from this high vantage point. For another great bird’s eye view of the city, climb King Arthur’s Seat, an easy and popular hike just a mile east from the Castle. For fans of Harry Potter, take a trip to the Elephant House, a local coffee shop known for hosting J.K. Rowling as she penned her notes for the series.
Edinburgh is also the place to be for a number of annual celebrations. On December 31st, the famous Hogmanay street party welcomes in the New Year. The Edinburgh Festival is celebrated annually, starting in early August and lasting approximately four weeks. These festivals and other attractions of Edinburgh make it the second most popular tourist destination in the UK.
The United Kingdom is a wonderful and welcoming country. Nonetheless, as is true everywhere, precautions should be taken when exploring an unfamiliar city.
A few “Keeps” to Keep in Mind…
- Keep valuables close, and hidden when possible.
- Keep your passport in a safe place, and always have a copy stored separately from it.
- Keep your wits about you.
- Keep a good barring of your location, and how to get back to where you are staying.
- Keep a map with you for good measure.
- Keep a lookout when using an ATM.
That being said, have fun and soak up every minute. Each unique and wonderful country of the UK has much to be explored and discovered.
Posted by Stephanie Murdock, a graduate of SUNY Geneseo. She studied at Swansea University in Wales on exchange in 2007. She currently lives in Vermont and is planning the next voyage across the pond!