In the months leading up to my summer in London, I was eager to immerse myself in the city life and explore my surroundings in a way that I can’t in Kentucky, where I’m from. I pictured myself walking to cafés on the weekends, shopping at markets, and watching performances at the West End. I did all of this while studying abroad, and I’ll forever miss places like Peggy Porschen and Camden Market. Yet, when I returned home after six weeks, cute coffee shops and markets weren’t the only things I missed. Although I still had two years of college to complete after my study abroad program, I immediately missed the feeling of learning just to learn.
I was surprised how much I was able to learn outside of the classroom while studying abroad—and how much I enjoyed that learning. Without the stressful attachments of grades and homework, I perused through London and learned so much about history, culture, art, and literature. It was the most fun I had appreciating the art of learning since I was a kid.
Of course, I loved learning in my classes (British Fantasy Literature and Shakespeare), and attending field trips for those classes was a unique experience to tie classroom learning to the city; however, there’s something special about learning for yourself only.
No matter your study abroad location, there are several ways to enrich your learning experience outside the classroom:
1. Museums and Galleries
London is known for being expensive, so I was surprised to learn that most museums in London are free, and the private museums that do have an entry fee aren’t too expensive.
While not all locations may have a multitude of free museums, perusing through the different exhibits of museums is one of the best ways to explore your curiosity and learn. I visited the British Museum, the British Library, the National Portrait Gallery, the Imperial War Museum, the Charles Dickens Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Science Museum—and I don’t even like natural history or science! It didn’t matter if the subject of the museum was a topic that I was interested in. Exploring different exhibits and learning everything from history to literature to biology was fascinating. Because I didn’t have to memorize information for a test or write a paper on the contents, I was free to spend as little or as much time as I wanted reading about each exhibit. I even enjoyed learning about biology and astronomy, two subjects I normally couldn’t care less about.
If your study abroad location offers museums or galleries, especially if they’re free, spending an afternoon walking through their halls is a great way to feed your curiosity.
2. Historical Locations
While museums or galleries are a great way to learn about your location’s history, many cities have designated landmarks or other historical locations that go more in-depth than a museum.
I purchased a Historical London Pass, which gave me entry to five locations: the Tower of London, Kew Palace, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, and the Banqueting Hall. I made it a goal to attend all of them, and the pass ended up being one of my wisest purchases. The locations had stunning artwork that I still can’t believe I got to see in-person, and their detailed signs offered an in-depth look into Britain’s history that I hadn’t learned about since I took World Civilization as a freshman in high school (and believe me—listening to lengthy lectures wasn’t nearly as entertaining or educational as touring the actual palaces).
Visiting other locations, like the Monument, St. Paul’s Cathedral, or Westminster Abbey, offered a unique look into history and culture that I simply couldn’t get from reading a textbook or watching a film. I highly encourage researching important historical sites in your study abroad location and checking them out. Visiting these locations is much more immersive than reading about them in an American classroom.
3. Watching Performances
As a theatre lover, I was ecstatic to finally live in a city where musicals and plays were right at my fingertips; what I wasn’t expecting, though, was how much I would learn from seeing performances. I learned about Shakespeare in class, but I attended several performances at the Globe that weren’t required for class—and those performances were some of my favorites. Watching Shakespeare’s plays is a different experience than reading them, and seeing them at the Globe while acting like a groundling and watching the actors creatively perform Shakespeare was a learning experience that cannot be mirrored in the classroom.
Other performances, such as Six and Les Misérables, taught me about England’s and France’s history, some of which I knew but many of which I had forgotten or never learned about—and it’s always more entertaining to learn through musical numbers than textbooks.
While not all study abroad locations have the equivalence of the West End, most cities have some type of performance venue that’s specific to their culture. Watching these performances, whether they are dance concerts, operas, musicals, or more, provides a unique insight into your city’s culture.
4. Taking Time to Explore
Many of the museums, historical locations, or performances I saw were planned events; however, some of my favorite learning moments were spontaneous.
Taking the time to explore the city was one of my favorite ways to learn more about London’s culture and history. Walking in parks or gardens became a pastime of mine, and I stumbled across signs with fun facts or important monuments while doing such, such as the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens.
Additionally, whether I was walking with a purpose or aimlessly exploring, I let my curiosity guide me. If I saw a sign or one of London’s famous blue plaques indicating historical importance to a location, I stopped and read it. If I noticed a building that piqued my interest, I went to it or looked up information afterward. The number of times I stumbled across a famous writer or historical figure’s old home was surprising, but each time, it put a smile on my face.
I knew that studying abroad would enrich my academic experience when I signed up to study British Fantasy Literature and Shakespeare in London—after all, there’s a major difference between learning about British literature in Kentucky than in London. I didn’t realize how much my academic experience would continue outside the classroom, and it’s my love of learning that made London such a special city to me.