‘Britain, Britain, Britain. Opened by the Queen in 1937 and responsible for re-inventing the cat’.
So perhaps David Walliams and Matt Lucas aren’t the most reliable spokespeople for British tourism, but our little isle certainly has a lot to shout about. The current popularity of Inca trail treks and Full Moon madness often means that homegrown adventure opportunities can be over-looked. Yet, a glimpse at the UK’s capital cities is proof enough that excitement and cultural diversity don’t have to be exclusive to the daring globetrotter and, perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t have to break the bank. With Kate and Wills wedding fever still lingering and the Olympic summer countdown, the patriotic party is in full swing, so ditch the passport, maybe grab a brolly, and embrace the best of British.
Our capital is a densely packed cultural playground that can take you from Big Ben to Beefeaters in the blink of a tube ride. The London first-timer will inevitably want to ogle the gherkin and Houses of Parliament from their London Eye capsule, and maybe seek out that royal family photo opportunity, even if it is courtesy of Madame Tussauds. But if you’ve been there, done that, or a red bus sightseeing tour isn’t quite your cup of tea, there’s plenty more to sample in this vibrantly diverse melting pot, which, if you’re careful, can be surprisingly student-budget friendly. Entry to the main exhibitions at the V&A, Natural History Museum and the brilliant British Museum amongst others won’t cost you a penny, and how dangerous could a 7-floor window shop at the shopping institution of Harrods be? Hunt out a few bargains amongst the eclectic displays of clothes and bric-a-brac in the bustling and artistic hub Brick Lane and be sure to brave a Vindaloo in one of its famed curry houses before leaving the rejuvenated East End, although you may want to linger and revel in the electric atmosphere of the notorious club venue, ’93 Feet East’. A scenic walk along the South Bank or a helping of British indulgence at Manze’s, London’s oldest pie and mash shop will provide the perfect hangover cure, and why not follow the smell of cupcake heaven to Portobello Road’s Hummingbird Bakery for a buttercream-filled desert.
Edinburgh: Much more than shortbread and tartan
Beautiful Edinburgh’s Old Town is a cobbled maze of gothic beauty and lends itself perfectly for sniffing out ‘olde worlde’ pubs and quirky boutiques. A walk up the lively Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle is a must for an experience of true historic Edinburgh. The Old Town Grassmarket area is a great haunt (literally perhaps, as it’s the original site of the gallows!) where you can hunt down traditional pub grub and ales in old taverns formerly owned by Wordsworth and the notorious Burke and Hare. Under the Stairs is a student-popular joint as its hearty yet modern food won’t stretch the purse strings too much. And yes, the clue to the cosy setting is all in the title. For those fancying a more active afternoon, attempt the two-hour hike to the top of Arthur’s seat for brilliant views of the entire capital, or alternatively head down to watch a spot of rugby at Murrayfield and let the pros do the running. The delectable Chocolate Soup cafe on Hunter Square provides the ultimate guilty pleasure with casual chocolate shots and delicious, ahem, bowls brimming with hot chocolate; still the classier alternative to a fried Mars Bar. The Stand Comedy Club keeps the students in stitches outside of Fringe season whilst the hum of house music lures them underground to Cowgate’s thriving Cabaret Voltaire club for a night of dancing and live music.
Cardiff: What’s occurin’?
Although perhaps not quite the cultural hotspot of nearby Barry Island (Nessa’s arcade and Gwen’s omelettes attract tourists in their droves), the Welsh capital won’t leave you wanting for entertainment. As the famous backdrop for the BBC’s legendary Doctor Who, history boffins may spot the odd time lord scouring the ancient environs of Cardiff castle; you can also do a bit of time travel yourself at St Fagan’s open air museum as you weave your way through mini villages of a bygone age and live recreation scenes – although you might have to dodge the odd horde school trip party. Head over to the convivial Cardiff Bay development where merry-makers spill out of thriving restaurants, shops and bars towards the beautiful waterfront, and be sure to catch a glimpse of the lushly iconic Millennium Centre, the mother of all performing arts centres. Hail a water taxi Venetian-style back towards the city’s heart and take a stop at the beautifully elegant civic centre to spot a few Monets amongst the National Museum’s rich array of Impressionist art, one of the best in Europe in fact, and all for free. Pack a picnic for an afternoon in Bute Park, a real beauty, and you may even spot the tardis if you’re lucky. Tidy.
What’s the craic in Belfast?
The Emerald Isle’s intimate capital is a tale of four quarters. Step aboard a guided tour in the industrial Titanic quarter and revel in the legend of the tragic liner at its very birthplace, and then wander south to the student central at the heart of the dynamic and artily vibrant Queen’s Quarter. Teeming with galleries and cozy theatres, you can also take refuge from the cosmopolitan buzz in the tranquil greenery of the beautiful Botanical Gardens, whilst Molly’s Yard eatery provides the perfect haven for a bit of Belfast blonde on tap and a helping of local Irish mussels. To the west the urban and gritty Gaeltacht quarter can be found, which embodies the Irish cultural revival. Take a walk along the Falls Road, lined with political murals, for a visual lesson in the equal parts colourful and violent history of Northern Ireland. There are trendy warehouse restaurants and watering holes aplenty in the charming Cathedral Quarter, so hold hands with tradition and indulge in a pint of Guinness and a bowl of Irish stew at the old Crown Liquor Saloon, a Belfast landmark.