Greater London is home to 7 million people. A city of extremes, it contains some of the UK’s richest and poorest areas. A jumble of ancient and modern, grand and shabby, beautiful and beastly, London is a city that inspires strong reactions. Many love it, some hate it. It’s possible to do both at the same time.
For most of its history, London was the most important city in Britain (and, many Londoners would maintain, in the world). With a fortunate location in terms of trade and climate, it thrived as a Roman settlement (despite being burned by Boadicea), and after a spell of semi-abandonment emerged to become the legendary bustling city of the Middle Ages, noisy, smelly and above all exciting. From the narrow winding streets whose layout is still preserved in the City emerged early theatres, printing presses, radical politics, philosophy and literature. By the time London was rebuilt following the Great Fire of 1666, its growth was unstoppable. Acres of expensive residential development resulted in the great squares and elegant streets west of the City. Manufacturing and other trades – including fishing – thrived in the East End. London was always a unique melting pot where aristocrats could mix with orange-sellers, and poets with sailors.
Today legacies of all London’s past eras can be found in the modern city, along with more recent influences. Consecutive waves of immigration have led to a richly diverse culture, while regeneration initiatives have cleaned up some of the most deprived areas. The high-rise futuristic Docklands area has changed London’s skyline. Like most cities, London still has its problems, but it remains an unmatchable destination, rich in history, architecture, culture and interest.
When to go
London is an all-year-round city. The winter can be cold and grey, and the summer can be sweltering and smoggy, but unpredictability is the key feature of London weather, so don’t count on anything. Late spring or early summer (May-June) will give you the best chance of seeing London looking its most appealing in the mild sunshine, and you may avoid the worst tourist excesses.
Located in the south-east of England, London has excellent links with the rest of the UK by rail, air and coach. It is also a major international transport hub, and has easy connections to Europe – including via Eurostar train direct to Paris – and the rest of the world.
How to get to London
London’s principal airports are Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. All offer easy rail or bus connections into the centre. From Heathrow the cheapest option is the regular underground service, but the Heathrow Express, which runs to Paddington Station, is very fast and comfortable. Gatwick also has an Express train service to Victoria Station. From Stansted there is a train known as the Stansted Express, but be prepared for a slow journey to Liverpool Street Station.
London must-see tourist attractions
London is a vast city, and is so rich in famous and evocative sights that a short-term visitor needs to be selective in their choice of activities.
Among the must-sees for most first-time visitors are the great historical sights such as the Houses of Parliament, parts of which are open to the public, world-famous clock Big Ben, and the imposing Westminster Abbey. Just over the Thames you can find the more modern charms of the London Eye, which offers spectacular views over the city.
The Tower of London is another of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. Next to Tower Bridge, here you can see the Crown Jewels and take a step closer to the more murky bits of London’s past.
Continuing the state and royal theme, parts of Buckingham Palace, London residence of the Queen, is open to the public (the Summer Opening of the State Rooms is from 31 July to 26 September 2004), while outside you can witness the changing of the guard. A short walk away, through pretty St James’s Park with its fairy-tale view from the central bridge, is Whitehall, the centre of government. You can’t walk past Number 10 Downing Street, home of the Prime Minister, but you can peer through the gates at the end of the street for a good view of the famous residence and its comings and goings.
The notable streets of London are tourist attractions in themselves, and few will leave without visiting shopping centre Oxford Street, theatre-lined Shaftesbury Avenue, dignified Piccadilly, flashy Piccadilly Circus, or the bookshop mecca of Charing Cross Road.
London is world-renowned for entertainment and culture, most visitors will wish to take in a play, musical or art gallery. Whatever your tastes, you’ll find London has a large amount to offer.
For a Friday or Saturday night out, head for Soho or Covent Garden, enjoy a restaurant meal (hunt out some English food, or try the international cuisine for which London is famous), and end the evening at a theatre, bar or nightclub, or simply enjoying the hugely intense buzz that is Soho at night. Packed with drunken young (and older) people on their week’s ‘big night out’, the area is chaotic, but fairly safe. Stay alert, don’t carry huge amounts of money, and never take one of the unlicensed ‘mini cabs’ that prowl the streets. Black cabs can be hard to come by, but waiting to hail one of these, or using one of the city’s decent nightbuses, is by far the best option.
Check Time Out magazine to decide your evening’s activity, as London has a wealth of excellent possibilities, but most are geared for specific tastes and you want to make sure you get the most from your night. There are too many diverse nightclubs to recommend one or two, but a glance at Time Out’s listings will help you avoid the expensive tourist traps.
Other good locations for a night on the tiles include Islington, Camden (alternative, live music and clubs) and Shoreditch (painfully hip restaurants and trendy bars and clubs).