Monday, 21 May 2012

10 Free Things to Do in London

One of the best things about London (and many other capital cities, in fact) is that there is always something going on - and more often than not, this includes free events! London may be a very expensive place to live, and probably seems even more expensive if you're just passing through as a tourist, but there are plenty of worthwhile activities which won't cost you a penny! Here's a few ideas to get you started:

1. Visit some of the world's top museums for free
This is a well-known fact, but always worth mentioning: London's national museums are almost all free (apart from special temporary exhibitions). Some of the best include the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square with its extensive collection of famous pieces from infamous artists such as Van Gogh, Reubens and Turner; the Natural History Museum for that nostalgic feeling of being on a school trip looking at dinosaur bones; the British Museum for incredible anthropological artefacts such as the Rosetta Stone, and the Tate Modern for sometimes-baffling modern art masterpieces which never fail to incite opinions.

2. Relax in acres of beautiful parkland
London may be one of the largest cities in the world, but it is also full of green spaces - from the vast expanse of Hampstead Heath to the rose gardens of Hyde Park. St. James' Park is full of wildlife, including pelicans and cheeky squirrels, and although just a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace, you'll feel like you're in the middle of the countryside as you stroll over one of the bridges, the city skyscrapers and double decker bus fumes another world away. Any visit to London should take you to one of the city's wonderful parks for a picnic or a short walk.

3. Go to a free street festival
Street festivals are part of London, especially in summer. This all comes to a head next month as Londoners take to the streets to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, 60 years on the throne, in a wide range of events across London's parks and city squares. Hyde Park is putting on a huge family-friendly festival, and events will be held across the capital, including a river pageant along the Thames. The crowds will be in full strength and the atmosphere is sure to be euphoric, with Union Flags galore. Join in with the spirit and discover how friendly Londoners can be.

4. Visit the Houses of Parliament or climb Big Ben for free
Yes, you can currently book a Clock tour of Big Ben for free, provided you are a UK resident and book well in advance. To organise the tour, you must contact your local MP or a member of the House of Lords. This is an amazing experience, as visitors will be led up to the tower to hear Big Ben chime the hour, enjoy breathtaking views of London and learn all about how the mechanism driving the clock works. You may also book a tour of the Houses of Parliament through your local MP - a must for anyone interested in politics, but again, make sure you book in plenty of time. A bit of forward planning is well worth it to go behind the scenes of the national parliament and a true London icon, though.

5. Get yourself an invite to watch a BBC Comedy Radio or TV show being filmed
Many BBC shows are recorded in front of a live studio audience, and as this is national broadcasting, tickets are often free. This is not only valid for London, but as the majority of BBC programmes are filmed or recorded here, you're more likely to find an interesting show to go and watch. Check out the BBC website for more information.

6. Don't miss London's street art
Banksy is one of the world's most famous street artists. Originally from Bristol, many of his works have cropped up in London over recent years, most recently an image of a child worker seemingly sewing a string of Jubilee bunting sprayed onto the side of Poundland in Mayfair. Maps of locations where Banksy has worked his magic can be found on the internet, such as this one. London is also full of statues, monuments and other outdoor sculptures, including moving exhibitions such as the famous 'Cow Parade' a few years ago. Details about current artwork to be seen can be found here.

7. Fill up on free samples at Borough Market
This popular artisan market is located in Southwark and takes place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. With international and UK produce, there's plenty to tempt your taste buds here, and many stalls offer free samples. Of course, your budget will probably stretch to a full-sized cup of steaming hot chocolate or a freshly-baked croissant if the samples are just too small!

8. Free live music at the Southbank Centre
On Friday evenings, the Southbank centre offers free concerts, as well as other free events throughout the year. For more information, visit

9. Silver screen magic at the Portobello Film Festival
This free event was founded in 1996 and promotes independent film makers. Film buffs can attend film screenings absolutely free at various locations in Portobello and Notting Hill. The 2012 event has not yet been announced but will take place in August. Keep checking the website for more information.

10. Be at the Olympic Games without getting mixed up in ticket stress
How could I write about London without mentioning the Olympics? Everyone has heard about the near impossibility of buying a ticket for the Games, but it seems some of the events may still be viewed for free. For example, you can watch the road cycling along the Mall for free (although beating the crowds might be a slightly bigger problem). Some viewing areas are ticketed, but most of the route is free. The Olympic Marathon takes place on 5th (Women) and 13th (Men) August and also passes along the Mall. Unlike the London Marathon, this race only includes a handful of athletes, the best of the world's amateurs, so there'll be no novelty costumes - but spectators are not required to pay.

The brand new Olympic Stadium

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Living the student life on a budget in Strasbourg

I spent a year studying in Strasbourg, France, which, thanks to its status as one of the two homes of the European Parliament, is unfortunately rather expensive in terms of general living costs. But with a few simple tips, you can save money and benefit from all of the wonderfully French socialist measures which exist to protect students and even encourage them (ah, so different to our dear ConDems) to study for longer. Most bachelor's and master's degrees are practically free, although some of the private, specialist schools may charge higher rates more similar to British post-grad courses.

But there are ways to 'get your money back' - the French government awards grants to (EU) students who are financially not so well off; apply through the CNOUS website and you may be eligible for a 'bourse' (grant):
300 - 400 € per month including charges is probably about average for a student in Strasbourg (of course you can get cheaper and more expensive depending on your preferences regarding location, room size, etc.). Food shopping can get expensive in Strasbourg, so try and limit yourself to the cheaper stores such as Aldis and Norma for the basics, and only go to Simply or Carrefour when you really must. All of the delicious products on offer may be tempting, but remember that groceries really do all add up! 

Secondly, the French government ALSO provides housing benefit to all students regardless of income, known as the CAF: which you can apply for once in Strasbourg by visiting the CAF offices. This, for me, amounted to 90 € per month - almost 1/3 of my monthly rent, which really did help a lot!

In terms of living costs, Strasbourg can be quite expensive. Rooms in student residences are available but not particularly cheap; fellow students paid up to 600€ for a city centre room. Your best bet is probably a private student flatshare, available on websites like this:
To save money on rail travel, the Carte 12-25 is available from the national SNCF rail company for anyone aged under 25; this allows you to get from 25 - 60% off rail travel for just 50 € per year. Public transport in Strasbourg is actually really good too, more 'German style' than French - there is a good tram network and regular buses. Monthly tickets are very cheap compared to other cities I have lived in - I paid 22€/month for a student 'abonnement' (monthly travel pass), and if you ask for an income assessment you can get a reduction based on your financial situation and your parents' income. My flatmate managed to pay only 2,20€ per month for transport! 

Another excellent opportunity to save money whilst making the most of life in the culturally rich city of Strasbourg is the 'Carte Culture' - all students of the University of Strasbourg receive this for free in their first year, and afterwards for about 6€ per year. This gives you free entry to most museums and galleries in the city, plus reduced tickets for gigs and concerts (often 5,50€ per ticket, some of the more famous names excepted of course!) For cheap sport activities, students can opt for the 'Sport' add-on when paying for their student card, which is just 15 € for the entire year and affords you access to the university's sports facilities. By signing up for a fitness class or sporting activity for the semester, you could attend professionally-run, fully supervised classes with the sports coaches of the university, from weekly aerobics to fencing, football and swimming. I consider this an absolute bargain, although you would sometimes find some classes booked up quickly. I attended an aerobics course every week and found it fun, the teacher motivating and the whole experience was excellent value for money. No need to pay for a fitness class. 

What's more, many people and students in particular travel by bike in Strasbourg as the bike path network is very good, and you can buy cheap second-hand bikes at flea markets or Emmaus, a concept which is very much worth a mention. This is a shop/workshop to which members of the public donate their old furniture and bicycles and so on, and the items are fixed up and repaired by homeless, unemployed or otherwise vulnerable members of society who are also given a place to stay here and helped to find their place in society again. The repaired items are then resold in the shop, with the money going back into the charity to help others in need. I bought my bike and several pieces of furniture for my flat from Emmaus. The bike cost around 30€ and was definitely worth the purchase, as public transport in Strasbourg doesn't run that late (until about midnight) so I found it useful to have a bike if I was returning home later than that. 

So, there you have it - my tips for a budget, yet fully enjoyable student experience in Strasbourg, one of the most culturally-rich, interesting and unique cities I have ever lived in. You're bound to have the time of your life here!

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

What to do in Dresden?

Dresden is a tourist's dream - the Altstadt is packed with more Baroque wonders than you can shake a stick at, souvenir sellers a-plenty and, for backpackers 'doing Europe' in a summer, it's a two-hour train ride from Prague. This is certainly no 'best-kept secret' worthy of the New York Times' up-and-coming list like its lesser-known neighbour Leipzig, and it's also not as hipster-cool as nearby Berlin (is this such a bad thing?) but Dresden does have many different sides to it. The longer you take to explore the city connected by a river (the Elbe) to Hamburg, the more it will surprise you. There's more to Dresden than meets the eye.

Dresden Frauenkirche

The Altstadt may look ancient, but it was actually almost fully demolished during the Second World War (check out this series on the Guardian website for photos and more information on the devastation caused by Allied bombings). The beautiful Old Town was then painstakingly rebuilt (for the most part) by the new Soviet authorities. The Neustadt on the opposite side of the river is home to Dresden's trendier bars, pubs and clubs, and hosts an incredible street festival in summer. The BRN (Bunte Republik Neustadt) is a mish-mash of colourful craft stalls, food stands selling anything and everything, from exotic curries to good old German Bratwurst and, of course, beer, and live music fills the streets - anyone is allowed to perform, from little kids learning the trombone to cutting-edge unsigned bands and funky drumming troupes. The atmosphere is friendly, loud and welcoming - students living in the area join the party from their balconies, becoming self-styled DJs for the night, handing out (or selling - they are poor students after all) beers and having a good time. This year, the BRN takes place from 15th to 17th June 2012 (more information on the official website) and is really worth a visit.

BRN Festival 2011

What to do in Dresden when:

  •'re only there for a day

Start off in the Neustadt with a German-style breakfast in one of the pubs, cafes or bakeries (Planwirtschaft or Café Neustadt come highly recommended), then walk from the Neustadt train station along Antonstrasse to the River Elbe. Staying on the same side of the river, walk along the bank to the Albertbrücke bridge, where you'll cross the river into the Altstadt. This walk offers stunning views of the Old Town, and the grassy banks are a wonderful place for a picnic on sunny days. Once you've crossed the bridge, wander around the Altstadt, drinking in the wonderful buildings, from the Frauenkirche to the Zwinger and the Semperoper. If the weather's nice, stop for a drink on the Brühlsche Terrace overlooking the Elbe river. If there's no time for a sit-down lunch, grab a Bratwurst from one of the stalls in the Old Town for a typical German on-the-go snack. The afternoon can be spent in one of the many fine museums Dresden has to offer - those in the Old Town include the Albertinum, an excellent museum of contemporary artwork, the Old Masters Gallery in the Zwinger, in which you will find the famous Raphael painting, Sistine Madonna (the one with the two bored-looking angels at the bottom) or the stunning Grünes Gewölbe (the Green Vault) of Augustus the Strong, a rich and powerful ruler of Saxony in the 18th century who ordered the construction of many of the enchanting, decadent buildings of the Old Town and some of the surrounding palaces and castles. The Green Vault Museum boasts the largest collection of treasures in Europe, which all belonged to Augustus the Strong. Pieces including unimaginably intricately carved ivory eggs and priceless jewels from around the world. This museum is very popular and you should reserve tickets in advance; also not cheap at 10 € for adults, but if you're into Baroque interiors and impressive amounts of gold, silver and precious gems, this may be the place for you. Check the official website for opening times of the Dresden city museums; note that many are closed on Mondays.

If you have time for an evening meal, the Neustadt is probably your best bet; the Altstadt also has a square full of variously-themed pubs and restaurants known as the Weisse Gasse (White Street).

  •'re looking for a great night out
Again, the Neustadt really is the place to be for Dresden nightlife; all along Alaunstraße and the surrounding area, you'll find great bars such as Wohnzimmer and Lebowski - a tiny little place serving White Russians and many other cocktails, and playing the film 'The Big Lebowski' on loop on a big screen. Hebedas serves cheap drinks and offers DJ sets on certain nights, and Katy's Garage has a large beer garden with a grungy student club inside. Ostpol is an East German themed bar on Königsbrückestrasse with DDR (German Democratic Republic) style furniture which often has bands playing, and Rosie's is a dimly-lit pool and table football bar also popular with students. Stillbruch is a surreal bar where nothing is as it seems - Dali-style murals grace the walls, fake doors and barbed wire toilet seats (yes really) will confuse the more tipsy clientele, and there's even a 'gollard' table (a mixture of golf and billiards)! It really is best to wander around discovering places for yourself as more likely than not, you'll stumble upon a real gem here.

  • want to get out of the city and explore the surrounding countryside

You don't even have to leave Dresden to feel closer to nature - just head to the extensive 'Großer Garten,' a large park to the south east of the city centre. Dresden locals picnic and barbecue on the lawns in front of the palace, stroll by the lake, cycle through the woods and even take the park's very own train - this miniature railway has smaller versions of a traditional steam train and a German high-speed 'ICE' train and kids love it! The Zoo and Botanical Garden are also within the grounds.

The grassy meadows separating the River Elbe from the residential area of Johannstadt to the east of Dresden are also a wonderful place to spend a hot summer's day. These areas are protected and cannot be built upon, so you can relax and feel far removed from the city hustle and bustle. In summer, films are screened outdoors in an area on the north bank, overlooking the Brühlsche Terrace. The Elberadweg (Elbe Cycle Route) follows the entire length of the River Elbe all the way from Bad Schandau on the German-Czech border to Hamburg (actually ending in the lesser-known town of Cuxhaven), an impressive 860 kilometres of well-cared for cycle paths. If you're not quite up for such a Herculean feat, the stretch between Dresden and the Czech border is a shorter yet lovely option. Even the twelve or so kilometres from Dresden to Pillnitz make an ideal day out - you can take the ferry across to visit the palace and its spectacular gardens once arrived in Pillnitz. Many inviting beer gardens line the route, offering refreshment and a jolly atmosphere to weary cyclists. One of the best is at Schillerplatz by the Blue Wonder - a blue-painted bridge just to the east of Dresden. Here you can sample a local Feldschlösschen beer (try saying that once you've had a few!) as well as German beer garden classics which mainly involve a lot of meat, potatoes and salt (clearly a recipe for success!)

Hikers should not miss Saxon Switzerland, a stunning area of natural beauty extremely popular with walkers near the Czech border. The impressive rock formations are known as the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, and include incredible towers of rock which are very popular with local climbers. Tours can also be taken by bus but beware the narrow, winding lanes which may turn even the strongest stomach! Particularly noteworthy are the Bastei Bridge (see photo below) and Königstein Castle, an impressively well-situated fortress atop a steep cliff, which will be popular with history fans. Countless walks take you past some of the best views Germany has to offer, and tour operators even offer guided walks if you're not sure about setting out on your own with a map and a compass.