The English capital is a world cultural leader and key financial centre, attracting students in all areas of study to some of the top universities in the world.

This article is the second in a series featuring the top five cities for students around the globe in 2012, determined by QS. A number of factors were considered in the organization’s ranking process, including educational institutions, quality of living, affordability and employer activity. London came in at number two.

London drew visitors from all over the world for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, but parts of the British capital may seem just as crowded as the academic year begins. Located within London’s city limits are some of the top universities in the world, including Imperial College London, the London School of Economics (LSE) and University College London.

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The city also is a cultural leader and key financial centre on the world stage and succeeds in attracting students in all areas of study. Business and economics students are drawn to London for the courses and prestige of LSE, while history buffs and literature lovers studying at many of the city’s universities spend time digging through the British Library’s wide collection of books and manuscripts, one of the best in the world. Taking into consideration high living expenses and the elevated tuition rates at these world-class institutions, attending university in London can be a pricey endeavour, but is one many consider a worthy investment. About 400,000 individuals study in the city across more than 40 universities,  and 33% of that population is made up of international students, contributing to the city’s already rich diversity.

Best spots
Students predictably group around the areas near their university campuses, which are spread throughout the city, filling the pubs any day of the week beginning as early as 5 pm. But there are plenty of cultural offerings across London that draw students to every corner for some top nightclub, bargain ethnic restaurant or museum exhibition.

The East End of the city is especially popular among students who explore the markets, galleries and museums in the area’s creative neighbourhoods, like boutique-filled Old Truman Brewery  and the Geffrye Museum dedicated to English interior decorating. Brick Lane is popular among students for its many inexpensive Indian restaurants like Muhib and Tayyabs, which serve heaped bowls of curry, and a popular option for a night out is to start with dinner in the area -- where many of the restaurants allow diners to bring their own alcoholic beverage -- then move on to the numerous nightlife locales nearby. Favourites include music-oriented Big Chill Bar in the Truman Brewery Complex and the unpretentious boozer Pride of Spitalfields, often also branching into the nearby 20-somethings’ hot spots of Spitalfields and Bethnal Green areas.

The bars in Shoreditch, a neighbourhood that attracts a hipster crowd, stay open later than most and often have dance floors, a feature that leans more club than pub, such as the sceney Book Club and the finely decorated Callooh Callay. Top spots Piccadilly Circus (which students adore for its musty, dated bookshops) and Leicester Square draw students with their booming clubs, and promoters are usually littered around Leicester Square on weekends, handing out flyers for discounted entry.

While the majority of students stick to pubs for a night out, few miss a chance to party in some of the top nightclubs in the world, like Ministry of Sound in the Waterloo/South Bank area that can pack in thousands of clubbers and the longstanding club Fabric in Clerkenwell.

The upscale Kensington neighbourhood in west London might price out many students to live, but they still can be found shopping in the many high-end stores along Kensington High Street and meandering in and out of the area’s museums, such as the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Soho and Covent Garden in the centre of the capital, undeniably trendy, are top spots for shopping and dining as well. 

London’s colourful markets are popular among all city dwellers, and students can be found wandering around Borough Market in Southwark for local produce, artisanal foods and gourmet goods like duck sandwiches, all at affordable prices. Sunday UpMarket off Brick Lane sells apparel, accessories and home goods from small-scale designers, and Broadway Market, located in the uber cool Hackney area, is known for celebrity spottings and delicious Ghanaian food.

Student activities
A major bonus for those studying in London is the extra programming that top universities regularly offer students. King’s College London, for example, screens films on campus multiple nights of the week. Many of the nightlife locales that surround the city’s campuses also cater to the nearby student population, hosting concerts and throwing costumed or theme parties that are well advertised and require a student ID to purchase tickets. Student unions also serve as a go-to source for getting involved with activities on and off campus and finding out about events. One example is the University of London Union, which includes student sports teams and faith organisations under its umbrella and even runs a pub for students.

Other iconic establishments like the National Theatre by Waterloo Bridge in the South Bank offers students discounted tickets to see classic dramas and contemporary plays. Catching a show last-minute at Shakespeare’s famed Globe Theatre can be done on the cheap by choosing one of the standing-room-only spots available for every show. Students who are more discerning about their seats should head to the TKTS ticket booth in Leicester Square for half-price tickets for hot West End shows on the day of the performance, though a select number of discounted advance tickets also are available.  

Ever bargain-savvy, many students slip into the free, open-to-the-public  previews of high-end contemporary art sales to take in works like the Phillips de Pury collection even if they are likely not yet in a position to purchase. Other events that attract masses of students are the numerous gratis festivals that take place throughout the year in public parks, such as the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland festival.

Student discounts
With seemingly every type of establishment offering some deal for students, including the Tower of London, all learn quickly to take their student ID with them everywhere. Museum access across the city is free for all, and many students also take advantage of the free film screenings and monthly parties they offer. Even fast food restaurants recognise the business opportunity -- McDonald’s offers those bearing a student ID an extra perk like an additional burger or ice cream with the purchase of a meal.

The Oyster Card, a reloadable card that works for Tube, bus and tram tickets, is what many consider the ultimate student discount -- 30% discount. Most study abroad programs help students arrange the card ahead of time, but information also is available on the London transportation site.

Furthermore, student unions in the UK are very active and membership offers advantages. All are grouped under the umbrella organization the National Union of Students (NUS), which offers a student discount card called NUS extra for £12 for a year. Discounts include retail, food, entertainment and travel, and many students consider the card a valuable investment.  

Day trips
London is well situated for jaunts outside the city. The impressive prehistoric monument of Stonehenge in Wiltshire is a popular destination, as is the city of Bath, where ancient Roman baths sit right in the middle of the city. Many students also take the opportunity to visit other standout student destinations, such as Cambridge and Oxford. Many bus tour companies like National Express, Arriva and Megabus offer budget-friendly tours that stop at popular destinations like Windsor, York, Stonehenge and Bath. For those blessed with sunny, summery weather, the coastal town of Brighton also beckons beach-seeking daytrippers.

Travelling on a budget
Transit can get pricey in London, but a discounted Oyster Card certainly helps. The city is also fairly easy to traverse on foot, and for longer distances and a bit of exercise, many rent bikes through Barclays Cycle Hire at docking stations scattered across London starting at just £1. Some universities like University East London provide rental bikes to students independent of the city programme.

For hopping around Europe, budget airlines like Ryanair and easyJet are popular. Some students also opt to purchase a student rail card, which can be used throughout Great Britain.