The Top 9 Destinations to Visit as a Student
One of the best times to travel can be when you’re a student.
True, you probably don’t have that much money, so five-star hotels are out. But you have everything else that you need for an amazing time as a traveller: time (those long summer holidays), energy, enthusiasm, tolerance for new cultures and new experiences, and – hopefully – a desire for adventure to make the most of it all. The student years have always been the classic time for travelling, whether that’s 70s students hitchhiking around Europe, 90s students trekking through India or 00s students backpacking across Australia.
While any travelling that you do as a student is likely to be rewarding, there are some destinations that are particularly suited to having a keen desire to explore coupled with a limited budget. Here are our top recommendations for amazing student travel experiences.
1. Havana, Cuba
The capital city of Cuba isn’t quite like anywhere else. One reason for this that makes the island especially fascinating for tourists is the US embargo; from the 1960s to the present day, the US has banned almost all trade between the two countries, and though this has been eased in recent years, its effects are still very much felt. It’s had a huge detrimental effect on the Cuban economy, but at the same time, has created a culture that’s international, tourist-friendly and not Americanised all at the same time – a rare combination. A particular feature is the vintage American cars on the streets, which predate the embargo, and that make for an exciting and glamorous sight around Havana.
But it’s not just this that makes Havana unique and fascinating to visit. It has a lively street culture, from street food, to buskers, to incredible graffiti and other street art. That makes it great to visit on a student budget, because while you might well want to visit museums and art galleries and other things that cost money, you can also have a great time just strolling around and soaking up the atmosphere. And if you want to explore outside of Havana, there’s both a cheap public transport system and a legally enforced hitchhiking system to make getting around easy.
2. Cluj-Napoca, Romania
While Bucharest is beginning to get travellers’ attention, Cluj remains decidedly off the beaten track. It’s a great long weekend getaway for students if you want to be sure you won’t bump into anyone else from your course. But you will meet lots of people the same age as you; Cluj is a youthful city that’s home to Romania’s largest university. That contributes to Cluj’s vibrant nightlife and cafe scene – it also hosts several music festivals throughout the summer. The fact that it’s still something of a hidden gem means that you can enjoy going out in the evening without falling over stag parties on every corner, unlike more popular Eastern European destinations such as Prague and Budapest.
But visiting Cluj isn’t just about student culture. There’s also a lot of beautiful Renaissance and baroque architecture to enjoy, museums to visit and history to enjoy. And if you’re happy to go a little further afield, you also have the stunning landscape of Transylvania to explore. 20 miles from Cluj, you can even find a former salt mine that’s been transformed into an incredible underground amusement park with a Ferris wheel, sports facilities and mini golf.
3. Quito, Ecuador
There were several different South and Central American options that could have been included here, such as Honduras, Bolivia and Colombia. Ecuador wins, mostly because it’s a safer option for travellers than some of the alternatives. Quito sits on the equator, so gets good weather year-round – and is one of the few places in the world where you can stand with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and one foot in the Southern Hemisphere, too. It’s usually described as a melting pot of different peoples and cultures, which has a great effect on the range of food available, where Andean and Iberian cultures meet. You can get a hearty lunch for $3, too (handily for travellers, Ecuador’s currency is the US dollar).
Once you’ve had your fill of Quito’s historic and beautiful Old Town, its art galleries and museums, and its exciting nightlife, it’s also a great base from which to explore. There are volcanoes, cloud forest and jungle within easy reach. Best of all, you’re not far from the natural wonders of the Galapagos Islands; they can only be accessed by boat, but plenty of trips are available from Quito.
4. Paris, France
Paris is not much like most of the other destinations on this list. It’s not got a thriving culture of hitchhiking, nor are its hotels notably cheap, nor can you dine on street food for little money. It’s a famously expensive city, and not one that’s particularly welcoming to scruffy students. But then, it wouldn’t be Paris if it was.
And that’s exactly why it’s worth visiting as a student. There are very few destinations that have such strong cultural associations around them, and it’s worth visiting those destinations at a time before you’ve done a lot of travelling; Paris is at its best when you believe wholeheartedly in its romance, rather than visiting and thinking, “well, it’s quite nice, but it’s a lot like these other cities that I’ve visited.”
While it’s expensive, there are ways to keep the costs down if you’re on a student budget – many of the sights have student discounts; you can walk up the Eiffel Tower instead of taking the lift (this means you get to take your time and the queues are shorter, too); and if you can’t afford to eat in the restaurants, there’s a boulangerie on every corner where you should be able to find something to fill you up.
5. Heraklion, Greece
There are so many different places we could have chosen in Greece, from ancient Athens to beautiful Santorini. But Heraklion, the capital of Crete, combines many of the things that make Greece such a wonderful place to visit. It has meandering streets filled with restaurants cooking fresh food, where a good dinner lasts for hours and make you feel like you’re being personally hosted in someone’s home. Stunning beaches with sparkling blue water are a short bus ride away. And it’s not a significantly longer bus ride to get to the ancient palace ruins of Knossos and Phaistos, which date back to the time of the Minoans, more than 3,000 years ago.
While restaurant food is only a little cheaper than the European norm, it’s possible to explore Heraklion on a shoestring budget by getting takeaway pastries from the abundant bakeries and souvlaki from takeaway stalls; you’ll still feel like you’re eating very well indeed. Almost everyone you’ll encounter as a tourist will speak good English, so don’t be put off by the language barrier. And if you have more time on your hands, you can always use the ferry service to travel between different islands to see even more of the country.
6. Marrakech, Morocco
If you’re not a seasoned traveller, but you’re looking for a destination that feels a little more adventurous, Marrakech is a wonderful place to start. Arriving in the old town feels like stepping into a storybook, with the narrow alleyways of the souks winding around you, the stalls piled high with beautiful pottery, wood carving and fabrics, and the bright colours of the buildings. It’s immediately captivating.
At the same time, Marrakech is very accessible to tourists. Yes, the shop owners will go for a much harder sell than Western tourists are used to, the old town is loud and crowded, and the heat can feel oppressive, but most people speak English, the locals are very tolerant of tourist culture, and you can always escape to the peace and calm of your riad (a traditional Moroccan hotel) if it gets too much. Eating out in Marrakech is a pleasure – don’t be shy about trying the street food in the main square, Jemaa el-Fna, and there’s fresh orange juice for sale at every corner. It’s also hard to leave Marrakech without pining for the hot, sweet mint tea that’s served at every possible occasion. If you like shopping, you can spend hours getting lost in the souks and honing your ability to haggle.
7. Siem Reap, Cambodia
Cambodia is a classic backpacker destination, and with good reason. While it’s by no means tourist-free, it isn’t aggressively touristy in the way that some parts of neighbouring Thailand have become (though it might be worth visiting now, before that changes). It’s a country of breathtaking temples, unspoiled beaches and incredible scenery. Siem Reap is the city that stands by the temple of Angkor Wat and the ruins of the city of Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was the capital of the Khmer empire from the 9th to the 15th century. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, and many people visit Cambodia for no reason other than to see it. It’s so huge that even at peak times of year when it’s packed with tourists, you can still find yourself exploring some part of alone.
But there’s more to see beyond Angkor Wat. In Siem Reap, you can enjoy local food and a lively night market. Right on your doorstep, there’s the jungle to be explored, which you can do on a motorbike or trekking on foot, where you might see wild animals or hidden waterfalls through the lush vegetation. And once you’ve saved up for the flights, exploring Cambodia is comfortably affordable even on a student budget.
8. New Orleans, USA
The culture of New Orleans isn’t quite like anywhere else in the USA, and that’s what makes it such a great student destination. A theme of the places featured on this list is a lively street culture, and that’s with good reason: places where the tourist sights and destinations are mostly indoors or museum-based are usually less accessible if you’re on a shoestring budget and you’ve only got as many changes of clothes as you could fit in your hand luggage. What you want as a student is a place where you can have a fantastic holiday while mostly being outside, mostly eating takeaway food, and where you can explore the best sights of the destination for free – and that’s what New Orleans, unlike many US cities, has to offer.
There’s wonderful food. There’s spectacular French-style architecture. There’s live music from buskers or spilling out of bars and cafes almost everywhere you go. Of the top things to see and do in New Orleans, a significant number are just going to a street or area of historical significance, wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere. And its subtropical climate means you’ll be warm year-round, too.
9. Oxford, UK
Where better to visit as a student than one of the world’s oldest university cities – so old, in fact, that we don’t have a definite record of when it was founded? The only older university in the world that’s still in operation is the University of Bologna, founded a scant six years before the earliest records of teaching at Oxford.
Oxford – like Paris – isn’t great for backpacking, or eating out cheaply. But it is a brilliant destination if you want to immerse yourself in student life from a different perspective; not the student life that’s all about parties and festivals (though there’s a bit of that too), but academic life. You can admire the architecture of Radcliffe Square; walk down cobbled streets and watch students in sub fusc cycling past; go into hushed medieval libraries where undergraduates fret ahead of their exams as they have done for centuries. And when you’re done with that, you can educate yourself by making your way to Oxford’s celebrated museums, such as the Ashmolean, the Pitt Rivers or the Natural History Museum; all of which are free to enter, which is handy if you’re on a tight budget.
Are you a student? Share your favourite travel destinations in the comments!
Images: havana; cluj; quito; paris; heraklion; marrakech; siem reap; new orleans; oxford; backpacker in city; camels in the desert