“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” said English intellectual Samuel Johnson more than 200 years ago, in possibly the most famous quote about what was, for centuries, the world’s most famous city. What might have been gentle exaggeration then, though, is now almost literally true.
London’s vast size and scale makes it impossible to “do” on a single visit – or many years of visits – but even on a short trip, it is possible to get a good flavour of this sprawling metropolis. This is made even easier by London’s comprehensive – if sometimes erratic and complex – public transport system, which covers almost the whole city.
Greater London covers a vast area, but many of the most well-known sites are in the City of Westminster, a district covering a large part of central London. Westminster is home to the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, along with the upper-class residential districts of Mayfair and Knightsbridge.
Westminster’s famous West End holds much of London’s entertainment industry, along with Soho, a great place to wander through, as well as for spotting the odd celebrity coming in or out of the Groucho Club on Dean Street. Taking in Regent Street, Oxford Street, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, the West End is a good if touristy starting point for London – and parts, such as Covent Garden, are genuinely charming.
For a slightly different perspective, stroll north of Oxford Street up Marylebone High Street, a genteel shopping street which still holds decent independent restaurants, as well as minor London institutions such as Patisserie Valerie, or the excellent Daunt Books – then carry on to Regent’s Park.
Many of London’s various outer boroughs still retain their distinct identities, reflecting the towns and villages they once were before being swallowed up by the city.
These identities can sometimes be relatively recent. Brick Lane in Tower Hamlets, to the east of the city centre, was the first home in the UK to many immigrants from Bangladesh. The street and area around it has a clear Bengali flavour to it – and has now shed its formerly seedy reputation to become a thriving cultural hub.
Further east still, Docklands sees the remnants of run-down docks sitting next to – and now being taken over by – the gleaming towers of Canary Wharf and its increasingly hectic bustle of high-powered businesses. Next door lies Greenwich, home to the Royal Observatory, where visitors can straddle both the East and West hemispheres as they stand on the Prime Meridian – zero degrees longitude.
Not only can you fly with us to London, but across London too. Enjoy a fast, efficient and fun way to bridge the River Thames on the Emirates Air Line, our London cable car. The Emirates Air Line is an iconic part of London’s skyline, connecting the north and south of the River Thames between terminals at Emirates Royal Docks and Emirates Greenwich Peninsular. Experience spectacular views of London’s Docklands, the Millennium Dome, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Gherkin, Thames Barrier and the Olympic Park.
While not on the same scale as Florence or Paris in the culture stakes, London holds almost too many museums to count – and also plenty of small theatres and music venues.
For culturists, the big names are essential: the Tate, Tate Modern, National Gallery and British Museum are all doable even in a short visit, while those looking for high-brow entertainment can usually find something happening at the South Bank. Visitors with more time should investigate local listings magazines and websites to find the latest exhibitions and performances.
For many visitors to London, the West End is the first and last place they will go for entertainment. The area is home to “Theatreland”, an area packed with theatres carrying long-running plays and musical extravaganzas, generally including something by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Along with theatres, and the cinemas around Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, the West End is liberally scattered with big-name restaurants and clubs, but also includes London’s Chinatown, where it is still possible to get a traditional Chinese meal.
Over London’s centuries of existence, immigration has brought many waves of different nationalities to the city, all of them leaving their culinary mark. In the last decade, London has also seen an influx of high-end chefs from around the world, giving many traditional cuisines an interesting twist – and an equally interesting price.
Between them, London’s main airports of Gatwick and Heathrow have served as the traditional international gateways to the South of England.
From Heathrow you can easily head to points west. Visitors after a quintessentially “English” experience can head to the West Country, a land of rolling green fields, haystacks, cream teas and “quaint” little villages – albeit ones charging London prices for hotel rooms. For a less touristy West Country experience, head to the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset; not a true island, the district offers rolling gorse-covered hills, rugged coastline, and the striking mediaeval ruins at Corfe Castle.
From Gatwick Airport, which is as close to England’s south coast as it is to central London, head down to Brighton to see the archetypal British seaside resort. Famous for its piers – but currently only able to boast the Palace Pier (its rival, the West Pier, now lies in ruins after a pair of devastating fires) – Brighton was once the playground of George, the Prince Regent (later King George IV), and his palace now sits converted as the Royal Pavilion.