Europe’s best university towns

The essays. The intellects. The pubs. Studying – and living – in Europe is a full-on education

Hundreds of thousands of university students have just begun a new term. The modern university traces its origins to 11th century Europe, when young men would gather around eminent scholars as a preparation for a life in the law or royal courts.

The universities that came into being still stand: only now they attract young men and women from all over the globe. As a single example, some 1,600 students out of almost 20,000 at Cambridge in England are drawn from overseas, an increase of around 20 per cent over the past seven years.

Entering these ancient seats of learning can be intimidating enough for a local youth. So what’s the experience like for overseas newcomers? We asked students past and present for their impressions.

University of Bologna, Italy

Founded 1088

By HEIDI CHEUNG, MBA in design, fashion and luxury goods, 2015-2016

Studying abroad had never been on my checklist. After all, I had a stable life in Hong Kong – somehow too stable. So I decided to do something out of my comfort zone.

Europe universities

Bologna is the oldest continuously operating university in the Western world. Alumni range from the poet Dante to designer Giorgio Armani (who studied medicine for two years before dropping out). We spent most of our time in the 16th century villa/campus, where the medieval architecture, paintings and sculptures became part of everyday life.

The constant influx of international students keeps this historical city alive, yet not tourist-crowded. The Quadrilatero area leads to narrow alleys full of hidden gems – including street performers and trattoria. My favourite is the 500-year-old pub Osteria del Sole. It mainly serves wine – a big help in our group project discussions.

Living abroad is never easy, especially in a non-English-speaking country. After taking away our mother tongue, default cultural settings and established successes, what’s left in us to convince the world – and ourselves – that we’re capable of achieving goals? Only by constantly taking on challenges can we build confidence. This was the greatest lesson that I took away from my beloved Bologna.

Advice to new students: ‘Throw yourself into city life’

Heidi Cheung is a project manager at a digital marketing agency in Milan

Sorbonne, Paris

Founded 1150

By CHENG TSUN-KAN. Master Philosophie: histoire de la philosophie, métaphysiques, phénoménologie, graduates June 2019

In 2017, after graduating from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I decided to continue my studies in France, a country that I knew only superficially. I had been learning French for a few years but on arriving I was still shocked by the cultural diversity and the unfamiliarity of the cityscape. My Paris was from books and pictures: a romantic capital dominated by 19th century architecture.

Europe universities

But there are also many new buildings which do not follow the same styles of elegance and classicism.

Studying at the University of Paris – better known as the Sorbonne – is both expected and unique. I study things that were unknown to me, such as Arabic philosophy. The orientation of French scholars differs greatly from those in Hong Kong. For example, 17th century theologian Pascal is an important figure in the French intellectual tradition while in the Anglophone world he does not enjoy the same degree of importance. I had to learn the French method: rigorous argumentation and the close reading of texts. I was given tasks called explication de texte, where you are required to break up paragraphs into subparts to analyse the interconnection of ideas. I was taught how to come up with a problématique, a guide for a chain of reasoning that’s essential to academic writings.

Despite the long history and reputation of the Sorbonne, it doesn’t feel elitist. My coursemates and I see each other as intellectual counterparts rather than rivals and we discuss ideas freely and openly. This sense of liberty, equality and fraternity exactly defines the French republican values.

Advice to new students: ‘Step out of your comfort zone and get into French society’

Cambridge, England

Founded 1209

By SIJIA JIANG, MPhil in politics, 2011-2012

From the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College to the gothic King’s College Chapel, the medieval university town’s beauty is timeless. You can even rent a punt and go up the River Cam, and walk to the apple tree beneath which Isaac Newton allegedly evolved his theory of gravity. Such wine-fuelled summer afternoons are just some of many memories that are uniquely Cambridge.

Europe universities

Being a student at Cambridge means being surrounded by legends, past and living. One could stay in a room once occupied by Sylvia Plath and drink at The Eagle, where Francis Crick announced the discovery of DNA. I once saw Stephen Hawking going into his favourite Chinese restaurant. You’re just as likely to overhear or have a stimulating conversation in the local pubs as you are in the classroom.

The quintessential student experience at Cambridge, as at Oxford (and Hogwarts), is going to ‘hall’ – formal college dinners, where everyone wears black gowns and sits at long tables in candlelit dining halls after saying grace in Latin.

Cambridge can be strangely hierarchical, with many archaic rules having survived over the centuries. The colleges’ lawns are not to be stepped on – unless you are a Fellow. Once winter hits, it means long nights and a biting wind that whisks in from the distant North Sea. But the rowing crews still get up before 6am to train on the River Cam for the annual, fiercely contested boat race against Oxford, held in London, every spring.

Advice to new students: ‘Try rowing (at least once…)’

Sijia Jiang is a journalist at Reuters

Heidelberg, Germany

Founded 1386

By NIKKI LEE, MA in linguistics, 2011-2013

The American writer Mark Twain described Heidelberg as ‘the last possibility of the beautiful’ by day, and ‘a fallen Milky Way’ by night. It was also where he overcame writer’s block – the Neckar river gave him ideas for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, while his time in the southwestern German city was documented in A Tramp Abroad. Twain was not the only visitor to find inspiration here; over the centuries writers, artists and scholars including Goethe and Joseph von Eichendorff have strolled its cobblestone streets, marvelled at romantic panoramas and visited the halls of Germany’s oldest university.

Europe universities
Stephen Louis

The university is one of the country’s highest-ranking institutions. Its students also make up one fifth of the city’s population. Take a walk around the Old Town, starting at Universitätsplatz to visit the Old University, which houses the University Museum and the Alte Aula, the school’s main hall in a neo-Renaissance style, where public concerts and lectures are frequently held. Hidden in a narrow alley is the student jail – yes, you read it right: a prison for misbehaving students. Enter the cells to discover colourful graffiti by ‘prisoners’ between 1778 and 1914.

Overall, both city and university are pretty friendly. There is no shortage of authentic restaurants along the main street (also one of Europe’s longest shopping streets), but the Zeughaus-Mensa im Marstall canteen is a gem. The student canteen, housed in the former royal stables, has been hailed the best in Germany. Finish the day with a visit to Heidelberg Castle or the Philosopher’s Walk for a mesmerising view of the city, or join the students at their favourite bar street Untere Strasse for a nightcap.   

Advice to new students: ‘Join a verein (club) – it can go a long way in building your social life’

Nikki Lee works in the publishing industry in Hong Kong

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