World-class fashion and theatre, unrivalled music and clubbing, and a stunning, eclectic array of bars and restaurants are all wrapped up in a city built on historical grandeur. London is chic, royal, cutting-edge, ever-changing and always fascinating.
By the numbers
Population: 8,673,713 (city); 13,879,757 (metropolitan)
Elevation: 35 meters / 115 feet
Time Zone: GMT
London is 83 kilometres (51 niles) southeast of Oxford and 163 kilometres (101 inches) southeast of Birmingham.
Annual Rainfall: 601 millimetres / 23.7 inches
Average January Temperature: 5°C / 41°F
Average July Temperature: 19°C / 66°F
Did you know?
The Great London Fire of 1666 started in a bakery on Pudding Lane. Rumour has it, that the owner, Thomas Farynor, oversaw some blaze in the oven.
“The Tube”, London’s subway system, is the world’s oldest, and also one of the largest.
London is located in the east of England, sitting on the Thames River.
The various and diverse “villages” of London reflect the full spectrum of the city’s residents. From exclusive, elite establishments to downright dingy dives, tourist-drenched terrain to homegrown habitations, there’s something for every visitor. As Dr. Johnson said back in the 18th Century, “If you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life.”
The City of London & Square Mile
England’s coffers are in the Square Mile; one of the few places where the streets might as well be paved with gold. Modern structures like Lloyd’s Building outnumber the more ancient edifices of the Bank of England and the Old Bailey. The City embraces the sacred in St. Paul’s Cathedral and the everyday in Spitalfields Market and Leadenhall Market. Blackfriars Bridge was the site of the infamous 1982 murder of the Italian banker Roberto Calvi.
Westminster & St James’s
The British Empire was ruled from Whitehall, but now it only serves the United Kingdom. Not surprisingly, civil servants and politicians abound in the vicinity. Big Ben reliably strikes out the hour, loud enough to wake the old kings and queens from their tombs in Westminster Abbey. Visitors should definitely check out the A.W. Pugin-designed Houses of Parliament situated along the beautifully illuminated river, and take a stroll in St. James’s Park and Green Park.
Leicester Square & Piccadilly
Full of tourist frenzy, the Leicester Square is home to several bright multiplexes that are no strangers to star-studded film premieres. There is a plethora of bars, pubs and clubs that keep the punters happy. Stroll down Piccadilly and pop into Fortnum & Mason, take tea at the Palm Court in the Ritz, or shop along the sartorially elegant Jermyn and Regent Streets.
Knightsbridge & Belgravia
The two reasons to shop in this area have to be Piccadilly Circus and Harrods. Down the road is the stunning Baroque Brompton Oratory, and be sure not to miss Kensington Church Street or Sloane Street.
Covent Garden & Holborn
There’s been a clamp down on street performers, but the open-air party atmosphere still pervades in Covent Garden Piazza. The 18th-century former fruit and vegetable market has evolved gracefully and now houses fashion boutiques and other expensive stores. Stroll down Long Acre, Floral Street and the cobbled Neal Street or visit the Royal Opera House.
Soho & West End
This area is a vibrant combination of trendy and tacky. It leads a promiscuous triple life: a red light district, gay and lesbian nightlife hot-spot, and a respectable drinking and dining area. Chinatown is vibrant and the area also offers a host of other cuisines – British, vegetarian, French and Thai. Many Londoners congregate here for Chinese New Year Celebrations, a very colourful, fun-filled spectacle.
Battersea & Clapham
Home to hoards of trendy young things, this is the place to go for fun and funky bars and restaurants outside of central London.
Bayswater & Paddington
Famous for its train station and the Peruvian bear named after it (the marmalade sandwich-munching Paddington Bear), this area is a good bet for affordable accommodation that’s close to the tranquility of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.
Bloomsbury, Euston & Fitzrovia
Bloomsbury is London’s literary capital and a walking tour is the best way to discover the haunts of the city’s verbose geniuses. A visit to the area is not complete without a wander through the hallowed halls of London’s biggest tourist lure – the British Museum.
Reggae beats and spicy treats prevail in London’s largest Afro-Caribbean community. Once a no-go area, it is now frequented by all kinds of people, including trendy, affluent types who hang out in the myriad of cool bars and happening clubs. The wonderful cultural diversity is visible in the bustling, popular market.
Crowded streets spill over with shoppers and people-watchers who flock from far and wide to relax, rather than haggle, at the Camden Market. However, good restaurants like Gilgamesh, clubs like Monto Water Rats and a top comedy venue make Camden much more than a great grocery shopping stop.
Chelsea & Fulham
Chic boutiques, expensive restaurants, aristocrats and models in slick sports cars haunt Brompton Cross, King’s Road and Kensington High Street. It’s always a pleasure to cruise across the delightful Albert Bridge at night when it’s all lit up.
Clerkenwell & Shoreditch
This trendy area is flush with hip, sofa-laden hangouts, swanky restaurants and sleek galleries. Most of the action revolves around Hoxton Square, but East London is always booming due to its proximity to the city. Once favoured only by struggling artists on the cutting edge, it’s now a new media mecca with artists and savvy tech upstarts providing a vibrant mix.
Docklands & Wapping
Heavily bombed during World War II, this area has become the incarnation of 1980s prosperity. Canary Wharf Tower dominates the skyline and the Canary Wharf area is one of the capital’s greatest economic powerhouses. The Tower of London was a 16th-century prison where some of Henry VIII’s unlucky wives were beheaded. No longer so unfriendly, visitors are able to view the fabulous Crown Jewels on the premises. Afterwards, stroll outside and take in the stunning Tower Bridge.
This is home to a beautiful active Benedictine Abbey, a large Polish community and the famous Ealing Studios where films like Shaun of the Dead and Doctor Who have been produced. Check out Charlotte’s Place for a down-home atmosphere and a well-cooked meal.
Otherwise known as zero degrees longitude, Greenwich is the home of the term, “Greenwich Mean Time.” Take a boat trip down the Thames for a romantic day out or visit the National Maritime Museum, the imposing Royal Naval College, Cutty Sark, and the Thames Barrier Park.
Hammersmith, Shepherds Bush & Chiswick
Hammersmith and “Da Bush,” as the area is sometimes more affectionately known, is a great place to come for a meal or night out away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. A popular place for theatre, you can choose from the cozy Lyric Hammersmith, the high-quality London Apollo or the fringe-style Bush Theatre.
This neighbourhood is a leafy suburbia with a charming village ambiance. Steeped in literary history, the homes of poets, playwrights and actors (past and present) are marked by endless blue plaques. An afternoon at Kenwood House or strolling on Hampstead Heath will keep you worlds away from the noise and bustle of London.
Hoxton & Shoreditch
This area is considered the base of London’s hippie scene for the artistic and those interested in media. East London has seen a significant boom thanks to its proximity to the city. Specialty bars and pubs dominate this district.
Tony Blair’s home ground and a yuppie playground, Upper Street is one long stretch of restaurants and bars. Seek out antiques in Camden Passage or stroll along Regent’s Canal and find out what makes this corner of North London so spectacular.
Maida Vale & St John’s Wood
An intriguing juxtaposition of massive houses and council estates gives this area a diverse ethnic and economic feel. It’s worth a visit if you’d like to see the canals and cafés of Little Venice. The venerable cricketing institute, Lord’s Cricket Ground, also calls this district home.
Marylebone & Regent’s Park
Harley Street is renowned worldwide for its medical consultants and cosmetic surgeons. A stone’s throw from Baker Street is Madame Tussaud’s and Regent’s Park. Wigmore Street hosts virtuosos at the legendary Wigmore Hall while the private Wallace Art Collection is housed in Manchester Square. Elegant Marylebone High Street has tasty gastronomic venues and high fashion boutiques. The beautiful interior of St James’s Church Roman Catholic Church, around the corner in Spanish Place, was restored thanks to John Paul Getty III.
This district is full of refined hotels where affluent foreigners stay. The impressive 18th-century edifices of Mayfair are inhabited by people of fabulous wealth. First-class shopping can be found along Bond Street and you can pick up a gem or two at Sotheby’s.
Notting Hill & Ladbroke Grove
This supremely hip district offers designer boutiques, retro shops, heavenly delicatessens, and the antique stalls of Portobello Road Market. The world famous Notting Hill Carnival at the end of August brings a Caribbean flavour to the streets, with hip-swaying dance troupes and general revelry. Fantastic café life, decadent bars, and superb restaurants satisfy food-lovers. The gospel choir at Kensington Temple is well-known for its soulful, arm-waving harmonies.
This district consists of riverside pubs, rowing clubs, and wealthy stockbrokers. Nearby Barnes is a similarly bucolic, quiet and upscale residential neighbourhood.
Richmond Park is one of Europe’s largest parks. The 17th-century Ham House, Kew Gardens’ botanic splendour, and Palladian Marble Hill House are all excellent reasons to venture beyond the center of town. A boat from the pier to Hampton Court Palace makes for a fun day trip.
Southwark, Lambeth & Waterloo
In this district, visitors can watch Shakespearean actors pace the boards at the marvellous Globe Theatre. The Tate Modern Gallery further boosts the South Bank’s shining cultural program. Foodies may wish to enter Butler’s Wharf – a gastronomic temple. Don’t miss the London Eye (also known as the Millennium Wheel) near Westminster Bridge. The gigantic Ferris wheel offers unrivalled views of London.
There’s more to the Village than the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, although it does tend to dominate the summer months. There’s a huge Common where you can ride horses or explore the nature trail and the common’s tranquil environs. You can also visit the Georgian Cannizaro House and the Wimbledon Windmill. This is where Baden-Powell invented scouting and Thomas Hughes wrote Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
Dining and drinking
Londoners are spoiled with many choices when it comes to dining out. The cuisine of almost any country in the world can be sampled in the capital. Options include Korean, Burmese, Argentine, Vegan, Malaysian, Mauritian, Modern British and Hungarian — all in all, an epicurean feast! Food is a popular hedonistic pleasure, with restaurants emerging as trendy hang-outs, chefs becoming TV stars and cooking books turning into hot bestsellers. Naturally every area and every other road in London has a place to eat, but certain areas stand out among the rest.
This perennially popular neighbourhood teems with great mid-range venues like Cottons — a favorite for Caribbean cuisine. The famous Jazz Café brings some great blues and an eclectic selection of music to the area.
Chelsea & Fulham
This area has a first-rate selection of restaurants catering to the area’s wealthy clientele — but the variety is just as vast as it is in the rest of the city. Join locals for authentic Italian at Chelsea stalwart La Famiglia. For some brilliant Modern British head to Bibendum and Bluebird. For the gastro-pub experience, join the Chelsea crowd at The Admiral Codrington and sample great, updated British grub like salmon fishcakes and warm liver salad.
Here the simple mixes with the traditional, the substantial with the stylish. Traditional English fare is the order of the day at Rules; it always offers a refined and restrained dining experience. Another appealing venue is The Ivy, in the heart of Theaterland, where you can do plenty of celebrity watching. Charlotte Street, up the road in Fitzrovia, is also packed with superb restaurants, perfect for business and romance.
Upper Street is swarming with restaurants, bars and cafés; Modern British cuisine is very well represented. You can also find a range of other cuisines, from tasty Turkish at Pasha to spicy Indian at Masala Zone.
Kensington & Knightsbridge
Kensington Place is a good spot for lunch. Try Clarkes for a contemporary and elegant experience. San Lorenzo on Beauchamp Place was Princess Diana’s favorite spot for Italian and continues to attract many food connoisseurs.
Some great eateries, including the elegant Orrery (another Conran venture). In St. Christopher’s Place, a charming courtyard off Oxford Street, you’ll find cafes, Italian trattorias and juice bars.
Mayfair & West End
In Mayfair, enjoy the Michelin-starred modern French cuisine of The Square, probably one of London’s finest restaurants. Check out Indian favorites including the pricey Veeraswarmy and Tamarind. If you seek relaxation, visit Momo, where you can enjoy succulent dishes from the Middle East.
This neighbourhood is home to hip restaurants of all kinds. There is a vast selection of Italian places, like the snug and friendly Osteria Basilico. For something more exotic, try some Caribbean food, abundant at Carnival time at street stalls.
One of London’s best-kept secrets. The hugely popular Greek restaurant Lemonia is perfect for families while Odette’s suits intimate, romantic dinners and enjoyment of fine wines. Manna is a great vegetarian restaurant, and Michael Nadra’s posh modern European delights hold plenty of promise.
Soho & Chinatown
One of London’s top nightlife areas, there is an incredible concentration of bars, restaurants and cafés here. From Bar Italia and the trendy vegetarian eatery Mildred’s to the Mediterranean charm of NOPI, Soho has it all.
Oxo Tower has the hype to match the buzz and a formidable view. Its West London counterpart, Thai Square Putney is an architectural delight offering both great views of the Thames and knock-out food to go with them. Terence Conran’s Blue Print Café leaves a fine impression with views of Tower Bridge.
The City of London
There is a super vegetarian lunch venue in the crypt of St. Mary-le-Bow called The Place Below. Other options in the area include The Eagle gastro-pub if you want a drink. Stylish and formal restaurants like the trendy Smith’s, are abundant.
Hotels are also a good bet for eating out, since they have a pleasant touch of luxury, tip-top service and tables that are often available at the last minute. Afternoon teas are an English tradition that cannot be missed — scones, clotted cream and leaf tea in silver teapots. The Dorchester and Brown’s are among the great hotels serving tea from 3p.
Many public houses, besides pumping real ale, stand transformed into gastro-pubs. With such fabulous choice, standards are very high. London is truly terrific on a global scale.
Each of London’s boroughs has something unique to offer. Soho is always buzzing with crowds who pack themselves into the many pubs, cafes, bars and restaurants. It’s also home to London’s lively gay scene.
Islington is vibrant and hip, with a café/bar scene that leads to a lot of people watching. Here you’ll find Sadler’s Wells (for contemporary dance, ballet and opera), the Almeida Theatre and an excellent antique market called Camden Passage.
Camden is a friendly community, with a large, thriving base that supports artistic endeavours. There are loads of live music venues here, including the Jazz Café. There’s also a massive, trendy market on weekends, and the Jongleurs Camden Lock comedy club.
The art scene is alive and kicking in London with the injection of a new British vitality spearheaded by Damien Hirst. The proliferation of hip, trendy, and increasingly famous young British artists merely adds to the wealth of the more traditional art that London has to offer. The National Gallery and the Tate Britain are mainstays. The Courtauld Institute of Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the Barbican Centre and Serpentine Galleries are lesser known but just as good. For a modern challenge, check out the Saatchi Gallery and of course, the Bankside behemoth that is the Tate Modern.
Most of the city’s mainstream cinematic venues are centred in Leicester Square. A cheap option is the Prince Charles cinema. For a real ‘Art-House’ experience, try the Gate Cinema, the ICA Bar And Cafe, or the BFI Southbank. There are also frequent film festivals like the popular Latin American Film Festival. The BFI London IMAX at Waterloo offers a state-of-the-art screen featuring IMAX films — a real viewing experience.
If you’re looking for a laugh, you can’t beat what London has to offer. The most famous club is The Comedy Store, but the Camden Comedy Club and Up the Creek are also worth checking out. Besides these regular venues, there are comedy festivals and comedy nights held around the city regularly. Of these, the Live At The Chapel in Union Chapel, Islington hosts some of the biggest names in comedy entertainment. Dance
Performances tend to center on Sadler’s Wells theatre, where contemporary dance, ballet and opera can all be found. The Royal Festival Hall and The Barbican Centre also house excellent productions, and the ICA is a Mecca for experimental dance.
If you want to check out some art, not to worry-museums here are abundant and of excellent quality. The Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the V&A South Kensington are all located in South Kensington. The Imperial War Museum is also worth a look — it isn’t just for tank-spotters. Naturally, there is an absolute myriad of smaller, often fascinating museums throughout London: Pollock’s Toy Museum & Toy Shop, the Design Museum and the Horniman Museum and Gardens are just a few examples.
Classical and Opera
Classical music has three main homes in London: the Barbican Centre, the South Bank Centre and the Royal Albert Hall. The London Symphony Orchestra is resident at the Barbican and the Philharmonia is based at the Royal Festival Hall, which is part of the South Bank Center. The Royal Albert Hall plays host annually to the BBC Proms — a fabulous summer-long festival of classical music. Opera resonates from two sources — the English National Opera and the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
This sort of music is everywhere in London. Camden is always bubbling with indie vibes. The Brixton Academy is an excellent place to see bands on the verge of stadium-sized fame, and Borderline is good for bands on the verge of Brixton Academy-sized fame. For jazz, you can’t beat the legendary Ronnie Scott’s.
These places come in as many flavors, shapes, sizes and styles as there are people to fill them. The better-known clubs tend to be around the Leicester Square/Charing Cross Road area. Legendary nightclub Fabric brings together some of the best DJs on the international circuit with a loyal EDM-loving fan base. Shoreditch’s XOYO is where those with a love for live music will find their niche, while rooftop revels can be had at Queen of Hoxton. For alternative sounds in a student-led space, Corsica Studios is a great choice while more mainstream sounds can be found at the ultra-popular Ministry of Sound.
Theatre in London can be separated into three parts. One section encompasses the sophisticated end of the theatre spectrum – plenty of Shakespeare and complex modern plays. There are three repertory companies based in their own theatres – the Royal National Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe.
Then there are the “West End” shows (this refers to big productions, not to their location). Many of the West End shows can be found on or around Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road. There are many big production musicals and plays that make for a great evening out.
The rest are generally known as Off West End. One of the best exponents of this sector is the Almeida where film stars Ralph Fiennes and Nicole Kidman have trod the boards. The Lyric Theatre and the Young Vic also regularly host high-quality productions.
London features a number of tour companies and discount booking businesses. Theatre Breaks offers discounted rates to some of the most popular attractions and events.
A global shopping destination, London has it all. From ultra-chic designer boutiques to international brands and bustling local markets, there’s something to suit every budget. Oxford Street with its high-street brands and upscale shops houses legendary department stores like Selfridges while Bond Street is famed for its luxury shopping. The covered arches of Covent Garden Market are home to a variety of local arts and crafts, while the surrounding alleys have some of the best shoe stores in the city! Antique collectors can’t miss the Chelsea Antique Market and Portobello Road Market, and the tailors of Saville Row offer bespoke clothing that’s famed the world over. For alternative and one-of-a-kind punk and goth finds, Camden is the place to go while the Camden Lock Market has some great bargains to be had.
New Bond Street is home to several designer boutiques. Pop into Yves Saint Laurent for exclusive fashion from one of Paris’ oldest fashion houses, Polo Ralph Lauren for the American portrayal of the English classics, Hermès for those must-have silk scarves, plus Tiffany’s, Chanel and DKNY. Also on New Bond Street are: Russell & Bromley and Louis Vuitton.
Turn down Conduit Street for a quick look at the quirky eccentricities of the English and Italians in the form of Vivienne Westwood and Moschino.
At the tail end of the Old Bond Street some of the most popular ‘Temples of Fashion’ are situated and so it simply can’t be missed, including Prada, Gucci, and Joseph. Once at the end of the street cross over Piccadilly then walk down St James Street, which you’ll find a little to the left. St James’ Street will lead you to Jermyn Street, favorite haunt of gentleman in search of shirt makers and tailors before popping down to St James’ Square to his Club.
There’s a great selection of quintessentially British boutiques in this area and shirt makers galore. Here’s a few of the best of them, each having its own particular style: Hilditch & Key, T. M. Lewin & Sons, and probably most popular of all, Thomas Pink.
Men’s toiletries shops, such as the Prince of Wales’s favorite, Floris, which sells up-market fragrances for men (and women) and the most gorgeous smelling potpourri, are also in the area. Don’t forget shoes — you can have them made for you at John Lobb, or pick up some beautiful, more affordable leather numbers at Church’s or Russell & Bromley. At Alfred Dunhill, you can pick up anything from a jacket to their renowned cigars. But Fortnum & Mason is really the place to go for any tasteful souvenir of England with their selection of English teas, coffees, chocolates and other edibles.
South Kensington, Knightsbridge & Harrods
South Kensington is the home of the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. It is also celebrated for Kensington Palace and its shops. Knightsbridge is known primarily for its swanky shops — the world famous Harrods being its pride and joy.
Begin with the Victoria & Albert Museum as it’s close to the South Kensington tube station and all the museums are well sign-posted from here.
In 1899, Queen Victoria named this museum after herself and her beloved husband, and the V&A, as it is commonly known, was born. Statues of the pair, sculpted by Alfred Drury, can be found in front of the Cromwell Road facade.
One of the largest museums in the world with over 150 rooms, it’s best explored by wandering around. If you prefer to be more focused, there are excellent guidebooks in the museum shop, which will direct you to exhibits of particular interest. Constables, Raphael Cartoons, and The Dress Collection are all wonderful, while the temporary exhibitions are always very good.
Science & Natural History Museums
Next on the tour is the Science Museum, built in 1913, it has seven floors covering the science of medicine, food, space travel and much more. More child-friendly than the V&A, much of this museum has hands-on exhibits coupled with informative displays and eye-catching models making it an educational treat for the entire family. A map from the museum shop will detail the exhibits and help you guide your visit.
Last in the triangle is the Natural History Museum, a spectacular building housing the history of creation. Zoology, paleontology, entomology and you-name-it-ology provide an endless choice of exhibits for you to view. All manner of living and extinct beings are displayed and explained here, with the Dinosaur Gallery being a popular choice.
Both museums are excellent and should definitely be visited at some point during your time in London. They are geared towards children but are also extremely educational for adults. South Kensington has lots of lovely eateries and is worthy of further exploration with shopping Mecca Brompton Cross.
To visit London’s most famous shop, Harrods, keep the Natural History Museum and the V & A on your left, and go down Cromwell Road, which leads into Brompton Road. You’ll pass the impressive Brompton Oratory, scene of many high society weddings, on your left, and before long, Harrods will appear on your right.
Notting Hill and Holland Park
The centerpiece of Notting Hill is Portobello Road Market. Come out of Notting Hill Gate tube station and follow either the crowds or the signs for the market. Parts of it are open on weekdays, but the full effect can only be experienced on Saturdays when the antique shops and stalls open. It begins to come alive at around 7a and it’s much easier to wander around at this time; by about 11a it gets quite crowded and by 1p it’s packed.
Worth a look on Blenheim Crescent is Books for Cooks; a wonderful little shop for anyone who loves food.
If you prefer to stop at a pub, Duke of Wellington on the corner of Elgin Crescent is good.
At lunchtime there’s no need to go far. Walk down Blenheim Crescent and take the first left along Kensington Park Road. On either side there are excellent Italian and French restaurants which spill out onto the pavement when it’s warm (on the left is 192 which is particularly trendy).
Walk up to Elgin Crescent away from Portobello Road until you hit Ladbroke Grove. Turns left here and walk up the hill until you reach the main road at which it ends — Holland Park Avenue. Then cross over Holland Park Avenue and turn right. Just after Aubrey Avenue turn left and walk up the hill until you find an entry to Holland Park itself.
This park is tucked away and is well worth exploring. It’s attractive with each different area having its own feel, which makes for a sense of intimacy and exploration.
Further up towards Notting Hill Gate tube, on the other side of the road, there is Gate Cinema, an art-house cinema. It has an intimate feel with just one screen. You might not have heard of the film showing at the Gate but it will always be worth a try.
Houses of Parliament & Whitehall
A tour of Westminster could only start at Trafalgar Square. Nelson’s column dominates the square, commemorating Horatio Nelson’s service to his country. Nelson, measuring only 162cm. in real life and having suffered from seasickness, definitely cut an interesting figure as an admiral. He finally lost his life at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, having already lost his right arm and left eye in battle. The column, erected in 1843, is over fifty meters high. The sword alone measures over seven feet — a lot bigger than Admiral Nelson ever was in the flesh.
To the north of the square are National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, which house some of the nation’s most prized treasures and some 2000 remarkable works of fine art. Note the unimposing church on the square’s east side: St. Martin-in-the-Fields. This provided shelter to many Londoners during the Blitz when London came under fire from Germany’s Luftwaffe during WWII.
Set off southwards along the grand boulevard of Whitehall, towards the Houses of Parliament. Whitehall is home to the headquarters of most of Britain’s governmental ministries and you’ll pass the statue of Charles I, who was executed as an enemy of the realm by Oliver Cromwell in 1649. On the left-hand side of the road is the Old Admiralty building, still in use to this day, opposite which you will find the imposing structure that is the Ministry of Defense.
On your right you will pass the Horse Guards, in all their plumed glory. Don’t miss this opportunity to take the compulsory London photograph with a mounted horse guard, and yes, they really aren’t allowed to smile!
Number 10 Downing Street & Westminster Abbey
Number 10 Downing Street provides the next photo opportunity. It’s been the official residence of the Prime Minister since 1732, but Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, broke with tradition. Deciding that number 10 was too small for his growing family, he swapped houses with the Chancellor of the Exchequer who normally resides at the more family-friendly house at number 11. His successor, Gordon Brown, reinstated number 10 as the Prime Minister’s residence. You will have be satisfied with a mere glimpse through the railings as increased security threats have prevented public access to Downing Street.
To your left, in the middle of the boulevard, is the Cenotaph, the monument commemorating Britain’s war dead. Remembrance Day (the second Sunday in November), sees a parade along Whitehall by representatives of people who fought in both the Falklands and the Gulf. The Queen and Prime Minister lay wreaths to commemorate the fallen.
Continue along Whitehall until you reach Parliament Square, which is adorned with statues of some of Britain’s greatest parliamentary figures, including Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli. Cross the square to Westminster Abbey where sovereigns are crowned and buried. This imposing building is hundreds of years old, and is a wonderful example of Gothic architecture.
Poets’ Corner pays tribute to, among many others, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Byron and Dickens. Whether the remains in Shakespeare’s tomb are his or not is still debated by historians and scholars, as is the answer to the question of his true identity. In amongst the tombs of various heads of state and leading political and cultural figures is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, who lost his life in WWI. Kids will lap up the opportunity to take brass rubbings of some of the inscriptions, allowed on certain tombs. Meanwhile, take a break and have a coffee from the stand inside the Abbey.
Walk over to the Houses of Parliament — the seat of British government — which stand on the site of the original palace built for Edward the Confessor, which burnt down in 1834. Designed by Charles Barry, the current structure is an excellent example of Gothic Revival, incorporating Gothic and Elizabethan styles. Try and time it so that you’re here on the hour to hear Big Ben strike. The name ‘Big Ben’ actually refers not to the tower but to the 13-ton bell inside it.
Head straight for Westminster Bridge for your perfect photo opportunity — the Thames, The Houses of Parliament and a red double-decker bus — ample proof that you were in London.
London Eye & Southbank
The big white building on the opposite bank is County Hall, home to the London Aquarium in the basement, loved by kids and adults alike. You’ll also see the London Eye (Millennium Wheel).
Now that you’re on the south side of the river, amble along the embankment of the Thames (postcard view of the Houses of Parliament) passing the London Eye. You will soon come across a concrete complex built in the 1960s, and once described by Prince Charles as being London’s greatest eyesore — known collectively as the South Bank. The South Bank includes: the Royal Festival Hall (home to The London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra), the Hayward Gallery, the National Film Theatre (NFT) and the Royal National Theatre (simply called ‘The National’), which houses the National Theatre Olivier, National Theatre Lyttelton and National Theatre Cottesloe Theatres. There is always something exciting going on here — the South Bank also provides the finishing-line to the gruelling 42.1 miles (26.2 miles) of the annual London Marathon.
Original London Sightseeing Tour Company (+44 20 8877 1722 / http://www.theoriginaltour.com)
Premium Tours (+44 20 7713 1311 / http://www.premiumtours.co.uk)
Big Bus Company (+44 20 7233 9533 / http://www.bigbus.co.uk)
City Cruises ( +44 20 7740 0400 / http://www.citycruises.com)
Catamaran Cruises (+44 20 7925 2215 / http://www.bateauxlondon.com)
It was those trusty Italian conquerors, the Romans, who established Londinium in 43 CE. They built a wall around their settlement and a bridge over the river Thames to set the city up as an important trade center. However, the locals were not happy about it. Boudicca (or Boadicea), the tribal queen of the Iceni Celts and a fearsome chariot-driver, struck a blow for the Britons in 60 CE, burning much of the city to the ground. The Romans were undeterred and stayed around for another 350 years. By the end of the 1st Century CE, London was the capital of Roman Britain.
The Romans’ departure was not good news for London: the city was deserted, sacked, burned (again), occupied, captured, and generally slapped around by the Scandinavian Vikings and the Germanic Saxons for the next 550 years. The first incarnation of St. Paul’s Cathedral was built in the 7th Century. Two centuries after the Saxon King Alfred the Great occupied London, the Normans arrived. It was 1066 and William the Conqueror was in charge. He decided London was the most impressive city of his newly acquired kingdom, stayed, and was the first English king crowned at Westminster Abbey. He also began to build the White Tower — the first part of what is now the Tower of London.
The Middle Ages saw London grow, despite fires sweeping through the city and a massive bout of Black Death in 1348, which wiped out nearly half of the city’s 60,000 inhabitants.
The Tudors took over in 1485, and the infamous Henry VIII became a major player in the radical transformation of the country. He wanted a son, which meant divorcing his then spouse and getting a younger wife, which the Pope would not allow. So, he had his chancellor Thomas More establish the Church of England and thereby outlawing Catholicism. This meant that all the land previously owned by the Church was now his. He set about carving it up and giving large chunks to his friends (and more importantly to his potential enemies). Convent Garden became Covent Garden, and the land previously owned by Westminster Abbey, covering much of what is now the West End, was released for private development. In short, a new London was born.
The Globe Theatre was built in 1598, entertaining bawdy crowds with the classic plays penned by Shakespeare. Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Around this time, there were approximately 220,000 people in London and the population was continuing to expand rapidly.
The Great Plague in 1665 and the Fire of London in 1666 wiped out much of the population along with most of medieval and Tudor London, but it meant that there was an opportunity to start anew architecturally. Christopher Wren took full advantage of this — designing and building 51 London churches, including the rest of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The City’s population expansion continued to snowball to 750,000 people by 1720 and the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century saw it explode to 2.5 million. The author Charles Dickens depicts the London of this time as a grimy, smoggy, poor and crime-ridden city.
During World War II much of London was destroyed due to the Blitzkrieg. Rebuilding began in 1945 and one result of this was the South Bank Centre. It was designed as a centerpiece for the arts, and its functional rather than beautiful buildings draw crowds from all over.
Meanwhile, back in the “Swinging Sixties” London gained a reputation for being at fashion’s forefront. It was an era epitomized by Twiggy, the very first supermodel, and Carnaby Street, with its Mary Quant Colour Shop and Quadrophenia vibe. London is now recognized as one of the top international centres for fashion; it has also become world-renowned for its cutting-edge art.
Getting there and getting around
From the Airport
Public Transport: The London underground system is conveniently linked to Heathrow Airport, with stops at terminals 1-4. Tickets can be purchased at the terminals.
Bus: Use Megabus (+44 0900 160 0900 / http://www.megabus.com/uk/) for discounted fares to destinations throughout England.
First Bus Service (+44 20 7291 0505 / http://www.firstgroup.com/index.php/) provides transit to Acton, Greenford, Uxbridge, Northumberland Park, Alperton, Westbourne Park, Hackney, Rainham and Orpington.
Taxi: The following cab companies will take you from the airport to all city points:
Car Rentals: Rental car companies are stationed at all of London’s major airports and will rent you the car of your choice:
Auto Europe (+44 1 888 223 5555 / http://www.autoeurope.com/)
Zipcar (+44 207 960 6421 / http://www.zipcar.com/)
Alamo (+44 129 356 7790 / http://www.alamo.com/)
Hertz (+44 870 846 0003 / http://www.hertz.com/)
With the advent of the Channel Tunnel, London can now be accessed from the Continent by train. Eurostar (+44 8705 186186, +44 1233 617575 / http://www.eurostar.com/) takes rail passengers from Brussels’s Midi/Zuid or Paris’s Gare du Nord to London’s St. Pancras. There are also stops at Ashford, Calais-Fréthun and Lille, along with occasional seasonal stops at Euro Disneyland, the Alps and Avignon.
London’s Tube (http://tube.tfl.gov.uk/) will get you anywhere you need to go. There are 12 underground Tube lines. Underground trains on all lines run every few minutes between 5:30a-12:30a Monday to Saturday, and between 7:30a-11:30p on Sundays. While single fares are available on most forms of transit, visitors are advised to purchase a Travel Card or use Oyster to pay as you go. Oyster (http://tfl.gov.uk/oyster/) is London’s Smart Card; users can put Travel cards or bus pass season tickets on their Oyster cards, add cash to pay as you go, or have a combination of both. Oyster cards are reusable, and cash can be added to an already existing balance. Although Oyster is not valid on National Rail services, Oyster users still pay considerably less on the tube, bus, DLR and tram services. Visitors from within and outside of the UK should visit these sites to purchase their Travel Cards in advance: http://www.ticket-on-line.com/.
The public bus system in London is one of the world’s largest transportation services in the world. Over 6,500 buses carry around 5.4 million passengers every week. Routes 9 and 15 are especially good for sightseeing. The most convenient way to travel via the bus is to purchase a Bus Pass or Travel Card from an underground ticket office, travel information center, or ticket stop. Please remember that bus tickets used for travel in Central London (zone 1) cannot be purchased on board. A valid ticket or Oyster Card is needed prior to boarding. Tickets are also available for purchase at bus stops.
There are a number of overland rail lines that cover London. The North London Line provides the only east-west rail link bypassing the middle of town, linking stations in east London through north London over to Kew in the west.
The Docklands Light Railway (+44 20 7222 1234 / http://www.tfl.gov.uk/dlr/) covers a large segment of east London and Docklands, intersecting with the Tube network at Bank, Tower Hill and Stratford. This line contains a useful link to Maritime Greenwich, and there is also a new link to the London City Airport. Services operate from 5:30a to 12:30a and tickets must be purchased prior to entering the system.
BritRail (+44 845 711 4141, +44 845 748 4950 / http://www.networkrail.co.uk/) has stops in Kings Cross, Cambridge, and Euston or take the Network Rail.
First Capital Connect (http://www.firstcapitalconnect.co.uk/) runs the Thameslink and East Coast Maine Line.
Tramlink (+44 20 8681 8300 / http://www.tfl.gov.uk/trams/) runs approximately every 15 minutes and covers suburban south London linking Wimbledon, Croydon, New Addington and Beckenham.
National Rail (+44 845 748 4950, +44 20 7278 5240 / http://nationalrail.co.uk/) operates in the same zone system as the London Underground, but is also able to reach areas outside of this region such as Hampton Court and Windsor. Oyster Card readers are not available at all stations and holders should check their validity prior to using National Rail services.
You can also get around with the London River Services (http://www.tfl.gov.uk/river/), which provide a great way to view London day or night by traveling on the Thames river. Services head east towards Greenwich, The O2 and the Thames Barrier, and travel west towards Richmond and Hampton Court. Tickets can be purchased at one of several boarding piers, and, in some cases, on the boat. Travel Card holders can receive a one-third discount off most river services.
Coaches (+44 870 608 2608) have the virtue of serving some locations that are inaccessible by other modes of transportation. They cater to many popular destinations including Oxford, Windsor (for Windsor Castle and Legoland), Leeds Castle, Lakeside Shopping Centre, and Southend-on-sea.
The London Travel Information Call Centre is open 24 hours, 7 days a week and offers a multitude of comprehensive travel information. It can be accessed by calling +44 20 722 1234.