Top universities for Bohemia

Street art in Bristol
Seek the company of those who are unconventional in these five university towns and cities.

Arty, unorthodox or alternative – or just like to dip your toes out of the mainstream and into something a little different? If so, there are a few places in the UK that embrace the idea of vive la difference!

Brighton

For a long time, Brighton was caricatured as a haven for hippies. And then it was dubbed the LGBT Capital of the UK. With 13 of every 1,000 residents in a LGBT relationship, it is the ‘pinkest’ city in the UK.

It’s the home of Occupy-style student campaigns and the UK’s only Green MP. In 2015, 12,000 of its residents declared independence from ‘conservative thinking’ via Facebook and vowed to send aid parcels of gin and seagull relaxation sounds to beleaguered unorthodox thinkers in neighbouring towns.

So where does everyone hang out? The Brighton suburb of Kemp Town is a flamboyant mix of seafront crescents, Regency squares and old, narrow roads. It’s where the LGBT clubs and the occasional traditional pub are located. Its yearly carnival is a colourful bedlam of temporary body art and ethno-funk bands with names such as King Lagoon’s Flying Swordfish Dance Band and Voodoo Love Orchestra.

North Laine – in the centre of the city – is a warren of vintage clothing shops and exotic eating places. Vintage clothing is huge in the city and there are club nights for those who wear it.

London Road and Circus Street are two newly cool areas being redeveloped for cultural use and unorthodox outdoor sports (the ball games of pétanque and bat and trap). They’re also magnets for the hipsters now living in Brighton and commuting to London.

Brighton’s alternative culture puts a lot of emphasis upon quirkiness and decadence. For example, there’s a nightclub where people dress as cats and a morning yoga group that grooves to rave music.

Top bohemian areas: North Laines, Kemp Town, London Road and Circus Street.

Bristol

Bristol has several lovely old inner city areas that have never been fully gentrified and which are swarming with students and alternative types. These places are wealthy enough to support lots of quirky niche businesses yet currently not so rich that they can’t also support artists, artisans, university accommodation and ordinary residents whose families have lived there for ages. A typical result is that a school for graffiti art rubs shoulders with a manufacturer of drones used by TV production companies, a couple of environmental charities, hipster bars and grimy old kebab shops.

The city has a strong history of feeling independent from London, the Midlands and the North – and it’s very multicultural. It’s a hot spot for the Green Party.

Bristol is a great place for mingling with unconventional people who do their own thing. Expect to see a young couple skate through the traffic in Stokes Croft, past the massage parlour with a faux Banksy sprayed on its walls, and then have a snack at the eco-friendly laundrette that is also a boho café. The Stokes Croft area is the most ‘alternative’ part of the city and leads into the Gloucester Road, which is almost two miles long and lined with student housing and bars. Many of Stokes Croft’s meeting places – such as Hamilton House – are cool places to eat, drink, hang out and experience the arts, but they are also the home to crowdsourced humanitarian enterprises.

Top bohemian areas: Stokes Croft – known locally as ‘The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft’ because it’s so anti-big business in attitude that there were riots when Tesco wanted to open a store there. Also Gloucester Road, Southville/Bedminster, Totterdown, Hotwells and St Werberghs.

Glasgow

Glasgow is at its most bohemian at night. It’s when souls dressed in vintage clothes head to specialist night spots, swaying and swinging to contemporary big bands, swigging cocktails and munching on halloumi chips.

And if that’s not your particular left-field niche, alternatives include goth nights, steampunk soirees and cyber raves. One of the best alternative music venues is a vegan café by day, which pretty much sums up much of the city’s attitude to doing things differently.

All of this alternative nightlife is supported by alternative clothes shops – and these are dotted throughout Glasgow’s two most bohemian areas.

The West End is still the best known of these. It’s multicultural, cosmopolitan, leafy and arty. Merchant City is an area of former tobacco warehouses converted into boutique shops and eclectic bars. It’s the sort of place you can get a vintage hair do: a 1940s finger wave, a 50s flick or a 60s beehive.

The Glasgow School of Art plays its role in offering events that have a touch of bohemia. It’s also a nice place for cheap drinks and snacks.

Top bohemian areas: West End and Merchant City.

London

London property prices have put a squeeze on a lot of the capital’s bohemian venues. But the spirit is still alive in some of the uber-trendy, gentrified East End boroughs, in the Camden Market area where every student from every country seems to shop, and – to an extent – around Brixton.

Shoreditch is THE new bohemian hotspot in London – but it’s boho in a way that’s bang up to date technology-wise. So it’s no surprise that some Shoreditch-based artists don’t use anything as old-fashioned as spray cans and graffiti but express themselves by drilling small holes into the bricks of local buildings and cementing arty USB sticks into the walls.

The area is full of small galleries, bars with experimental décor and shabby chic. It’s a wealthy area – so without bohemian residents living on the breadline – but it’s friendly to students. Nearby Bethnal Green has a similar edge but is a bit less affluent and more multicultural in terms of the communities that live there.

At the weekend, Camden is where the whole world mixes al fresco. You’ll hear all sorts of languages while digging around in crates for kitsch bargains in the Electric Ballroom’s Record and Film Fair or deciding between Ethiopian curry and Brazilian BBQ in the street food area near the lock.

South of the river, Brixton Market has quite a bohemian feel. In a busy-bohemian-bee kind of way it’s full of pop-ups too: pop-up shops, pop-up food stalls and pop-up art galleries. It’s a great place to find venues where you can chill out to reggae.

Top bohemian areas: Shoreditch, Hoxton, Bethnal Green, Camden and Brixton.

Manchester

Many of the areas of Manchester now dubbed bohemian haven’t developed around the sorts of longstanding alternative and multicultural communities you’ll find in pockets of Bristol and Brighton. Rather they’re the result of recent investment in contemporary art and retail spaces. Nevertheless, they’re truly funky places.

The Northern Quarter is a hub of ever-changing and quite magnificent street art and delis. It’s also full of niche shops with trendy names such as Junk. Expect to find retailers of quirky memorabilia and sustainable local clothing. Affleck’s Palace is a multi-storey bazaar for alternative clothing and knick-knacks. The area is also brilliant for DJs, with at least six independent record stores.

The number of meat-free and dairy-free places to dine and snack is proliferating in Manchester – as you’d expect from the birthplace of the Vegetarian Society. Chorlton – a laid-back area for foodies to the south-west of the centre – has some great places for vegetarians and vegans.

Manchester’s LGBT scene is one of the busiest in the country. Based around Canal Street, its Gay Village has 28 venues. Its annual Manchester Pride attracts thousands of visitors from around the world. While a lot of the village is mainstream and commercial, it can get artsy – particularly at the avant garde edge of the drag scene, or tranarchy as it’s been called.

The University of Manchester has an excellent Stonewall ranking for how inclusive it is of LGBT students and staff.

Top bohemian areas: Northern Quarter, Chorlton and Canal Street.

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