London is a cosmopolitan mixture of the Third and First Worlds, of chauffeurs and beggars, of the establishment, the avowedly working class and the avant-garde. Unlike comparable European cities, much of London looks unplanned and grubby, but that is part of its appeal. Visiting London is like being let loose on a giant-sized Monopoly board clogged with traffic. Even though you probably won't know where you are exactly, the names will at least look reassuringly familiar. The city is so enormous, visitors will need to make maximum use of the underground train system: unfortunately, this dislocates the city's geography and makes it hard to get your bearings. Doing some travelling by bus helps fit the city together.
The main geographical feature of the city is the River Thames, which meanders through central London, dividing it into northern and southern halves. The central area and the most important sights, theatres and restaurants are within the Underground's Circle Line on the north bank of the river. The trendy and tourist-ridden West End lies within the western portion of the loop, and includes Soho, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Regent St. The East End, so beloved of Ealing comedies, lies east of the Circle Line; it used to be the exclusive preserve of the Cockney but is now a cultural melting pot. There are interesting inner-city suburbs in North London, including Islington and Camden Town. South London includes a mess of poor, dirty, graffiti-ridden suburbs, like Brixton, which have vibrant subcultures of their own.
Accommodation in London is ridiculously expensive and in short supply in July and August. There's the usual mix of hostels, university colleges, B&Bs and hotels. Earl's Court is a major centre for cheap hostels and hotels, but there are other good centres in Bloomsbury and Notting Hill. Less-cheap alternatives are Paddington, Bayswater and Pimlico. Eating out is also expensive, though Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants are less threatening to your wallet. Culinary hunting grounds are Covent Garden, Soho and north of Leicester Square.
Heathrow airport is accessible by bus, London Underground (Piccadilly line) and the Heathrow Express, which makes the journey from Paddington Station to Terminals 1-3 in 15 minutes and to Terminal 4 in 20. A cab to or from the airport will cost around US$35 to US$50. The Gatwick Express runs between Gatwick airport and Victoria station in 30 minutes, or you can get a cab for around US$60. The Stansted Express will get you to Stansted airport from Liverpool Street station in 60 minutes or you can get a cab for US$100 (as if!).
London's tube is legendary, but mainly because it's not that much fun to use. Although the tube network is immense, buses are more pleasant and interesting, as long as the traffic's not gridlocked. Travelcards can be used on all forms of transport. Several rail companies now run passenger trains in London, most of which interchange with the tube.
London's famous black cabs are excellent but expensive. Minicabs are cheaper competitors, with freelance drivers, but you can't flag these down on the street. If you'd rather drive yourself, you're in for a parking nightmare — it's almost impossible to get a park in the city centre, and the punishments for parking illegally are cruel and unusual indeed.
Although a Celtic community settled around a ford across the River Thames, it was the Romans who first developed the square mile now known as the City of London. They built a bridge and an impressive city wall, and made Londinium an important port and the hub of their road system. The Romans left, but trade went on. Few traces of London dating from the Dark Ages can now be found, but the city survived the incursions of both the Saxons and Vikings. Fifty years before the Normans arrived, Edward the Confessor built his abbey and palace at Westminster.
William the Conqueror found a city that was, without doubt, the richest and largest in the kingdom. He raised the White Tower (part of the Tower of London) and confirmed the city's independence and right to self-government.
During the reign of Elizabeth I the capital began to expand rapidly — in 40 years the population doubled to reach 200,000. Unfortunately, medieval Tudor and Jacobean London was virtually destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. The fire gave Christopher Wren the opportunity to build his famous churches, but did nothing to halt the city's growth.
By 1720 there were 750,000 people, and London, as the seat of Parliament and focal point for a growing empire, was becoming ever richer and more important. Georgian architects replaced the last of medieval London with their imposing symmetrical architecture and residential squares.
The population exploded again in the 19th century, creating a vast expanse of Victorian suburbs. As a result of the Industrial Revolution and rapidly expanding commerce, it jumped from 2.7 million in 1851 to 6.6 million in 1901.
Georgian and Victorian London was devastated by the Luftwaffe in WWII — huge swathes of the centre and the East End were totally flattened. After the war, ugly housing and low-cost developments were thrown up on the bomb sites. The docks never recovered — shipping moved to Tilbury, and the Docklands declined to the point of dereliction. In the heady 1980s, that decade of Thatcherite confidence and deregulation, the Docklands were rediscovered by a new wave of property developers, who proved to be only marginally more discriminating than the Luftwaffe.
London briefly regained its 'cool' reputation in the 1990s, buoyed by Tony Blair's New Labour, a rampaging pound and a swag of pop, style and media 'names'. Blair's blane Ken Livingstone donned the mayoral robes in May 2000, opposing plans to sell off the tube and pushing for improved public transport and safety. The face of the city changed with the construction of the £1bn white elephant Millennium Dome, the London Eye observation wheel, the Tate Modern (linked by the when-will-it-ever-open Millennium Bridge) and the creation of the British Museum's Great Court. But some things never change: London's cost of living outdoes itself year after year, its chic quotient continues to soar and the gap between the haves and have nots looms ever larger.
What is in London?
It's the heart of visitors' London, beating with tour buses, cameras and flocks of persistent pigeons. On the square's northern edge is the cash-strapped National Gallery, which has one of the world's most impressive art collections. Famous paintings include Cézanne's The Bathers and van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding. Entry to the gallery is free, which means if you feel like dropping in and looking at just one or two pictures, you can do so at your leisure without feeling obliged to cover extensive territory.
Also in the vicinity are the National Portrait Gallery, a place to see lots of faces from the Middle Ages to modern times, and St Martin in the Fields, with an adjoining craft market and a brass-rubbing centre in the crypt.
The resting place of the royals, Westminster Abbey is one of the most visited churches in the Christian world. It's a beautiful building, full of morose tombs and monuments, with an acoustic field that will send shivers down your spine when the choirboys clear their throats. The roll call of the dead and honoured is guaranteed to humble the greatest egoist, despite the weighty and ornate memorabilia. In September 1997, millions of people round the world saw the inside of the Abbey when TV crews covered Princess Di's funeral service. Since then the number of visitors has increased by 300%, and the visit is now more restricted, with some areas cordoned off.
Houses of Parliament
The awesome neo-Gothic brilliance of the Houses of Parliament has been restored thanks to a recent spring clean of the facade. The building includes the House of Commons and the House of Lords, so the grandeur of the exterior is let down only by the level of debate in the interior ('hear, hear'). There's restricted access to the chambers when they're in session, but a visit around 6pm will avoid the worst of the crowds. Check the time on the most recognisable face in the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben.
Nearby, Downing St, the official residence of the prime minister (no 10) and the chancellor of the exchequer (no 11), has been guarded by an imposing iron gate since the security forces realised that the lone iconic bobby outside Maggie's door was not sufficient to stop the IRA mortar bomb attack in 1989.
The Tate Britain is the keeper of an impressive historical archive of British art. Built in 1897, the Tate is currently undergoing an ambitious programme of expansion. When all is complete, there will be six new galleries for temporary exhibition and nine new or refurbished ones for the Tate's permanent collection of peerless Blakes, Reynolds, Gainsboroughs, Hogarths, Constables, Turners and Pre-Raphaelite beauties.
Its sister gallery, the brand-spanking new Tate Modern, is housed in the former Bankside Power Station. The Tate Modern displays the Tate's collection of international modern art, including major works by Bacon, Dalí, Picasso, Matisse, Rothko and Warhol, as well as work by more contemporary artists. The building is as exciting as the art: gorgeous industrial-strength red brick with a 325ft-high (99m-high) chimney. The former turbine hall, below street level and running the length of the vast building, now forms the awe-inspiring entrance to the gallery.
The Queen opened Buckingham Palace to the public for the first time in 1993 to raise money for repairs to Windsor Castle. The interiors range from kitsch to tasteless opulence and reveal nothing of the domestic life of the Royal Family apart from a gammy eye when it comes to interior decor. The changing of the guard is a London 'must see' — though you'll probably go away wondering what all the fuss was about.
Not far off and definitely worth a stroll is St James's Park, which is the neatest and most royal of London's royal parks. St James's Palace is the only surviving part of a building initiated by the palace-mad Henry VIII in 1530. Just near the park's northern edge is the Institute for Contemporary Art, a great place to relax, hang out and see some cutting-edge film, dance, photography, theatre and art.
Once a vegetable field attached to Westminster Abbey, Covent Garden became the low-life haunt of Pepys, Fielding and Boswell, then a major fruit and veg market, and is now a triumph of conservation and commerce. The car-free piazza is surrounded by designer gift and clothes shops, hip bars and restaurants. Stalls selling overpriced antiques and bric-a-brac share the arcaded piazza with street theatre, buskers and people-watchers.
The most trafficked attraction in Bloomsbury, and in the entirety of London, is without a doubt the British Museum. It is the oldest, most august museum in the world, and has recently received a well-earned rejig with Norman Foster's glass-roofed Great Court. The museum is so big and so full of 'stuff' collected (read: stolen?) by Victorian travellers and explorers that visitors often make the mistake of overdosing on the antiquities. See as much as you want to see, not as much as you believe you should. Highlights include the weird Assyrian treasures and Egyptian mummies; the exquisite pre-Christian Portland Vase and the 2000-year-old corpse found in a Cheshire bog. With the removal of the British Library to St Pancras, the Reading Room is now open to the public, sadly making Reader's tickets a thing of the past.
Bloomsbury is a peculiar mix of the University of London, beautiful Georgian squares and architecture, literary history, traffic, office workers, students and tourists. Its focal point, Russell Square, is London's largest square.
St Paul's Cathedral
Half the world saw the inside of St Paul's Cathedral when Charles and Di tied the knot here in 1981. The venerable building was constructed by Christopher Wren between 1675 and 1710, but it stands on the site of two previous cathedrals dating back to 604. Its famous dome, the biggest in the world after St Peter's in Rome, no longer dominates London as it did for centuries, but it's still quite a sight when viewed from the river. Visitors should talk low and sweetly near the whispering gallery, which reputedly carries words spoken close to its walls to the other side of the dome.
Victoria & Albert Museum
The Victoria & Albert Museum, on Cromwell Rd in South Kensington, has an eclectic mix of booty gathered together under its brief as a museum of decorative art and design. It sometimes feels like an enormous Victorian junk shop, with nearly four million artefacts on display. It's best to browse through the collection whimsically, checking out the Chinese ceramics, Japanese swords, cartoons by Raphael, sculpture by Rodin, the Frank Lloyd Wright study and the pair of Doc Martens.
Also on Cromwell Rd, the Natural History Museum is one of London's finest Gothic-revival buildings, but even its grand cathedral-like main entrance can seem squashed when you're confronted with hordes of screaming schoolkids. Keep away from the dinosaur exhibit while the kids are around and check out the mammal balcony, the Blue Whale exhibit and the spooky, moonlit rainforest in the ecology gallery.
The huge Camden Markets could be the closest England gets to free-form chaos outside the terraces of football stadia. They stretch between Camden and Chalk Farm tube stations, incorporating Camden Lock on the Grand Union Canal, and get so crowded on weekends that you'll think you're in the Third World. The markets include the Camden Canal Market (bric-a-brac, furniture and designer clothes), Camden Market (leather goods and army surplus gear) and the Electric Market (records and 1960s clothing).
After Camden Market, the colourful Portobello Market is London's most famous (and crowded) weekend street market and is best seen on a Saturday morning before the gridlock sets in. It's full of antiques, jewellery, ethnic knick-knacks, second-hand clothes and fruit and veg stalls. Starting near the Sun in Splendour pub in Notting Hill, it wends its way northwards to just past the Westway flyover.
Humongous Hyde Park used to be a royal hunting ground, was once a venue for duels, executions and horse racing, and even became a giant potato field during WWII. It is now a place of fresh air, spring colour, lazy sunbathers and boaters on the Serpentine. Features of the park include sculptures by Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore and the Serpentine Gallery, which holds temporary exhibitions of contemporary art.
Near Marble Arch, Speaker's Corner started life in 1872 as a response to serious riots. Every Sunday anyone with a soapbox — or anything else to stand on — can rant or ramble on about anything at all.
Kew Gardens, in Richmond, Surrey, is both a beautiful park and an important botanical research centre. There's a vast expanse of lawn and formal gardens and two soaring Victorian conservatories — the Palm House and the Temperate House — which are home to exotic plant life. It's one of the most visited sights on the London tourist agenda, which means that it can get very crowded, especially in the summer. And with nearby Heathrow continuously spitting out jets, there isn't much chance of total peace and quiet.
Off the Beaten Track
Hampstead Heath is one of the few places in London where you can actually forget that you're in the middle of an 800-sq-mi (1300-sq-km) city. There are woods, meadows, hills, bathing ponds and, most importantly of all, lots of space. After a brisk walk on the heath, pop into the Spaniard's Inn for a tipple or have a look at Robert Adam's beautiful Kenwood House and wander around its romantic grounds. You can lose the 20th century altogether in Church Row, Admiral's Walk and Flask Walk, which have intact Georgian cottages, terraces and houses.
Highgate Cemetery can't be beaten for its Victorian Gothic atmosphere and downright eeriness. Its extensive and overgrown grounds include cypress trees, Egyptian-style catacombs, enough chipped angels to please the most discerning Joy Division fan, Karl the more serious Marx brother and personalised tombs reflecting their eccentric inhabitants.
Kensal Green and Brompton cemeteries are also Victorian delights, complete with catacombs and angels.
Holland Park is both a residential district, full of elegant town houses, and an inner-city haven of greenery, complete with strutting peacocks and scampering bunnies, the restored remnants of a Jacobean mansion (now set aside for the world's backpackers), two exhibition galleries and formal gardens. Nearby, the Arabesque splendour of Leighton House is full of pre-Raphaelite paintings of languorous, scantily dressed Grecian ladies slipping their hands into the milky waters of public baths.
Brick Lane Market
Sunday morning means bagels for breakfast at Brick Lane market in the East End. The ground is strewn with blankets covered in everything from rusty nails to gold watches. Haggling's the key, though consonants drop off vowels faster than zeros drop off prices.
Ye olde Kensington Market is the place to go to replace your punk mohair jumper, bum bag and kilt, and why not get a haircut, tattoo, pierced upper ear and a new slogan painted on your leather jacket while you're there?
For a pot of treasure at the Victoria Line's end, head south to Brixton Market, a cosmopolitan treat made up of a rainbow coalition of reggae music, slick Muslim preachers, halal meat and fruit and vegetables. Its inventory includes wigs, homeopathic root cures, goat meat and rare records.
Bill Bryson, Notes from a small Island, L, 1999
Christopher Daniell, A Traveller’s History of England, Birminghem, 1995
Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography, L, 2000