6 Underrated UK University Towns To Visit

Move over, Cambridge. Discover how history meets modernity in six other charming towns, which are home to some of the top universities in the UK.

The United Kingdom is home to some of the world’s most illustrious academic institutions, with a host of colleges in London, Oxford and Cambridge topping global rankings. But Britain is more than these; there are many other charming university cities and towns worth a visit. Here’s our guide to six such places.

Brighton

This small city has come a long way since 18th-century doctor Richard Russell’s writings on the medicinal benefits of sea-bathing sparked the transformation of a struggling fishing village into a stylish seaside getaway.

When a 2018 global survey crowned Brighton “the world’s most hipster city”, it outscored US hipster hotspots like Seattle and Portland on criteria of cool, including the number of vegan restaurants, coffee shops, vintage boutiques and vinyl record stores. If these are up your alley, look no further than Terre A Terre vegetarian restaurant, Marwood Bar & Coffeehouse, Hope & Harlequin and Rarekind Records respectively. If you’re visiting in May, you’ll want to catch The Brighton Festival, England’s biggest annual cultural extravaganza with over 1,000 performances.

Brighton is where you’ll find brightly coloured cottages on cosy lanes juxtaposed with elegant Georgian crescents and grand Victorian garden squares. Here, also, is a concentration of independent shops in The Lanes and North Lain, plus Britain’s highest number of pubs per head. Popular with the locals are the likes of Great Eastern and real ale beacon The Evening Star.

For many, though, Brighton’s deepest charm is a wonderful laissez-faire tolerance and love of quirkiness. It’s no surprise Prince Regent (later George IV) built his gloriously madcap Royal Pavilion seaside getaway here – a mash-up of Indian, Chinese and Georgian architecture that’s just as peculiar as the city’s bevy of flamboyant dressers.

Need a place to rest your head? Brighton offers the best of both worlds. Malmaison Brighton is pitched at modern sophisticates with its street-art-influenced décor complemented by views of bobbing yachts and iconic chalk cliffs. Meanwhile, Hotel du Vin Brighton brings elegant 1920s style to a 17th-century wine-merchant building close to two of Brighton’s most famous sights: the iconic Victorian pier with its old-fashioned fun rides, and the soaring 21st century i360 observation tower.

Dundee

V&A design museum in Dundee, Scotland, UK
V&A Dundee

Dundee has been a hub of industriousness and creativity since rising as a medieval port on the east coast north of Edinburgh. Today, Scotland’s fourth-largest city has found new energy: The creative drive emanating from two universities – Abertay and the Duncan of Jordanstone art college – has made it a global gaming powerhouse, giving birth to iconic games like Grand Theft Auto and Lemmings. Old 19th-century factories are also being repurposed into art studios and innovative industrial museums like Verdant Works.

But these aren’t the reasons why Dundee hit global “must visit” lists in 2018. For that, look to V&A Dundee, the world’s first offshoot of the renowned London design gallery. The brainchild of Japanese “starchitect” Kengo Kuma, its rough-hewn façade takes inspiration from Scottish sea cliffs, while highlights within include Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s magnificent Oak Room, unseen in public for five decades.

Don’t miss the venerable 19th century McManus Museum, plus quirky bronze statues around the city centre depicting characters like Desperate Dan and Oor Wullie from the cult British comic The Beano, published from Dundee. Another legendary character, Dennis the Menace, also adds a witty local touch to the decor of each room at the luxurious Malmaison Dundee hotel, a stone’s throw from the V&A.

When night falls, seek out Dundee’s secret vintage cocktail den. On the quirkily named Couttie’s Wynd road – just across the road from Malmaison – look for a tiny light above an unmarked door at the Nethergate end to discover the 1920s prohibition era at speakeasy Draffens.

Oxford

Streets of Oxford in UK

Many equate Oxford with its illustrious colleges – fair enough for the town that has hosted the English-speaking world’s oldest university since the late 11th century. But what most don’t know is that Oxford even became a significant industrial town in the 19th and early 20th century, with car manufacturing to the fore.

Though the industry has declined, it remains a vibrant small city with a charming history and nature along with its iconic spires. For a panoramic view of them, head to South Park, one of several standout green spaces along with University Parks and the Botanic Garden.

Punting on River Cherwell in Oxford, UK

While not exactly your classic Venetian gondola, punting on the River Cherwell comes close. Give the punter a break and head for the Cherwell Boathouse for lunch at its riverside restaurant. Later, head up north to have a drink at the Victoria Arms riverside pub – though not too many, as you need to punt your boat back!

In the summer, catch free plays by thespian students, who often practice their Shakespeare in the college gardens or by the river. If you’re looking for historic college grounds to wander, Christ Church and New College are famous for providing Hogwarts scenery in the Harry Potter films.

To experience a different side of Oxford, hit Cowley Road. A United Nations of eateries offers culinary buzz amid vintage fashion boutiques, with Nepalese and Polish places jostling Jamaican jerk spots like the unassuming Comie’s Caribbean Grill. Jericho is another striking neighbourhood where its mix of independent outlets and atmospheric location backing the Oxford Canal earned it a top 20 place in a 2017 poll of Britain’s hippest areas – proof that Oxford is more than its universities!

If students complain about being stuck in their rooms studying, empathise by spending time in your own ‘prison cell’ – distinctive luxury rooms in the cleverly converted former prison that is the city’s Malmaison Oxford. Retaining elements of the old prison architecture and adding witty touches like vintage prison movie posters, this is the place to do time in Oxford.

St Andrews

Ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, UK
Ruins of St Andrews Cathedral

The town takes its name from Scotland’s patron saint, whose bones were supposedly brought here in the 8th century by a Greek monk. By its coast is West Sands, a vast golden backdrop to running scenes in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. On the other end near the pier are the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, a 15th-century castle and a medieval abbey standing between the North Sea and a skein of old town lanes.

The compact core of the town is dotted with beautiful quadrangles belonging to colleges making up Scotland’s oldest university. One of them is the 16th century St Mary’s College, home to an ancient tree reputedly planted by Mary, Queen of Scots. With students and staff from over 70 countries, the university fuels St Andrews’ cosmopolitan vibe.

Royal links help too: while not quite as saturated with royal attractions as London, St Andrews is where Prince William first met Kate and royalists can tour the locations the couple visited, lived and loved. With such influential history, it is unsurprising that the annual student charity fashion show is a notorious affair, earning a spot on UK’s social calendar and drawing sponsorships from couture legends like Vivienne Westwood.

St Andrews also shines on the global sporting map as the birthplace of golf. The rules of the game were set here in this very town and its Old Course is a mecca for players from around the world. Even if you’re not a golfer, the British Golf Museum here is worth a visit.

There’s more to the town than colleges and golf, though. The Byre Theatre offers an eclectic programme that takes in modern theatre, dance and opera. Second-hand bookshops mingle with modern art dealers like Junor Gallery, while dining options range from the best fish and chips at Cromars to fresh seafood at Seafood Ristorante, a sleek glass box overlooking West Sands. If the sun is shining, join the queue for the renowned home-made gelato at Jannettas.

Not only was this building Prince William’s favourite haunt, today’s Hotel du Vin St Andrews is a perfect base to venture forth or stay in too. Its seafront location lets you watch seals being fed at the adjacent Aquarium or scan the sea from the hotel’s bistro for a glimpse of the local wild dolphins.

Bristol

Graffiti in Bristol, UK

The roots of this lively West Country port date back 1,500 years to Saxon times, and at its 18th-century peak, leading trade with America and the West Indies, Bristol was Britain’s second city after London.

Today, Bristol is best known for cultural exports. The vibrant music scene that spawned talents like Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead remains – catch up-and-coming stars at Mr Wolfs and The Louisiana – or enjoy a gig on the 1950s German cargo ship Thekla. And while the identity of world-famous street artist Banksy remains a mystery, we do know he’s a Bristol boy. And a clever way to explore the city is via Banksy’s earlier works from the 1990s on its characterful streets.

Start by the harbour where Grim Reaper was moved from The Thekla to be displayed at the M Shed local history museum. Further along the harbour is the Vermeer-spoof Girl With The Pierced Eardrum, a stone’s throw away from the majestic 1840s liner SS Great Britain. Next up, check out Paint-Pot Angel by the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, a treasure trove mixing Egyptian mummies, dinosaurs, African textiles and Old Master art.

The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta in Bristol, UK
Bristol International Balloon Fiesta

End your Banksy trail in the hip cultural quarter of Stokes Croft, where Banksy’s Mild Mild West awaits beside cool F&B and creative space, The Canteen. Can’t get enough of Bristol’s art? There’s also Arnolfini Arts Centre back by the harbour. And if you’re in town in August, you cannot miss the visual feast that is the Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot air ballooning event in Europe with over 130 balloons taking flight each year.

The culinary capital offers creativity in its food too. Tuck into inventive vegetarian small plates at Root, or squeeze into the converted shipping container housing the acclaimed Box-E.

Box-E’s mini demonstration of upscale industrial conversion is echoed on a grander scale at The Sugar House – Hotel du Vin Bristol City Centre’s sweet transformation of a 1720s sugar warehouse, where the old boiler room is now Reception and the engine house a wine cellar serving its restaurant. Join its past A-list guests like Kate Moss, the Beckhams and Katy Perry, and tap the Bristol vibe.

If views are what you fancy, Hotel du Vin Bristol Avon Gorge offers just that. Opened in 1896, the hotel was originally a prestigious spa hotel and hydropathic institution with panoramic views over the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge and Avon Gorge. Today, the refurbished hotel shows off its unique historic features — steam pumps from the former spa, a marble staircase and stained-glass windows — alongside grilled meats and drinks from its bar and restaurant.

Liverpool

The Beatles Statue in Liverpool, UK

This port city’s dynamism complements distinctive cultural history. Europe’s oldest Chinatown can be found here, where you can enjoy a meal at excellent restaurants like Yuet Ben, and consider how a band and a football club brought worldwide fame to this 13th-century city.

Memories of the world-famous Fab Four dot their hometown. Visit the comprehensive Beatles exhibition at Albert Dock, grab a selfie by the life-sized statues of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr at the Pier Head, or book a black cab Beatles Tour to whizz around key spots in the city. Ardent fans shouldn’t miss Jacaranda cafe on Slater Street, where the teenage Lennon and McCartney hung out, while the Casbah Coffee Club hosted early gigs way before the famous Cavern Club. There’s still a silhouette of Lennon painted on the wall by his first wife, Cynthia here.

Liverpool Football Club, meanwhile, has earned global sporting renown, most recently dribbling their way to the 2018 Champions League final. Just be wary of expressing too much enthusiasm for them in case you’re talking to a fan of the city’s other Premier League team, Everton!

The Malmaison Liverpool has found a stylish solution to please fans of both sides with a unique purple colour scheme that mixes the reds and blues. There’s a homage to the Fab Four too; the second-floor Beatles atrium features a suspended Yellow Submarine. Though the only new-build in the group, the exposed pipes and rough brickwork of the brasserie provides a retro-industrial vibe.

While you shouldn’t miss the classic Walker Art Gallery and Tate Liverpool, there are striking alternatives to check out too. The Foundation for Art and Creative Technology highlights avant-garde film and photography, while the International Slavery Museum chronicles a dark side of the city’s trading past by the harbour.

As peculiar is the Victoria Gallery at Liverpool University. It features oddball Victorian collections, including the world’s most important display of false teeth and a specialist archive of old smoking pipes.

Come celebrate Malmaison’s 25th anniversary with us! Stay and dine with us from £99 between October 2019 and March 2020 and also enjoy 25% off all upgraded check-ins. Terms and conditions apply.

Adapted from Fraser Cachet Issue #32 © Frasers Hospitality and SPH Magazines

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