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London
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Background
Introduction
World-class culture, fashion, music, and food – London has it all in spades. Combining a palpable sense of history with a vibrant cosmopolitan edge, this global metropolis has something for everyone. Traditionalists will love the royal landmarks and slew of legend-heavy heritage buildings that date back centuries. Hipsters will find inspiration in the gritty East End – a hotbed of galleries, nightclubs, funky restaurants and street markets. Yes, it rains, but the majority of London’s best attractions can be enjoyed equally whatever the weather; be it an international art museum, or a pint in a cosy 500-year-old pub.
Go for
Edgy fashion and design scene
Palpable history and culture
Exciting British and world cuisine
Orientation
London’s vast size is broken down into culturally distinct suburbs. The Thames, with many star attractions clustered around it, runs west–east through the city; central London lies between Chelsea Bridge (west) and Tower Bridge (east). Just north of its banks, Soho and Covent Garden – which together constitute London’s so-called ‘West End’ – are the city's beating heart, packed with restaurants, nightlife and theatres. Just east lies London's financial centre, the 'City of London', while west of Soho lie the major museums of South Kensington and the boutiques of Knightsbridge and Notting Hill.
Culture
Diversity defines Londoners – though steeped in formal traditions, it’s a city that embraces eccentricity. While it’s not easy to strike up conversation with strangers, locals are generally helpful and approachable. Social life still centres around the pub; always offer to ‘buy a round’ of drinks for your companions at the bar. Despite its status as a global metropolis, London shuts down early, with many bars closing at 11pm and restaurants rarely serving beyond 10pm.
Cuisine
Immigrants from far-flung former colonies have influenced London’s culinary scene, from the ubiquitous curry house to jerk chicken takeaways. More recently, scores of Michelin-starred chefs have set up shop in the capital, specialising in everything from tapas to sushi. Meanwhile, local chefs such as Mark Hix and Fergus Henderson have sparked a British food revival, championing seasonal produce. The traditional roast lunch at the local pub is still a much-loved Sunday ritual.
What to try
There may be more kebab shops than ‘chippies’ in London these days, but fish and chips remains a national dish, typically devoured after several pints of beer.
Where to eat & drink
A few general rules: steer clear of the tourist traps in Chinatown, Covent Garden, and around Leicester Square; fancy eateries abound in Mayfair, curry houses in and around Brick Lane, and authentic Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Road. Soho, South Bank around Waterloo, Clerkenwell, and Islington’s high street, are packed with great restaurants for an impromptu wander. Ubiquitous pubs are the mainstay of London’s drinking scene, ranging from historic, to charming, to downright dingy, while London’s famous hotels boast uber-stylish cocktail bars in fine, heritage surrounds. The scene ranges from swanky spots around Knightsbridge and Mayfair, to hip bars and underground clubs in Shoreditch and Brick Lane. Central Soho has it all.
Where to stay
Most first-time visitors stay in the West End, with theatres, shops, and landmarks on the doorstep. For proximity to museums, head to swanky South Kensington or bohemian Bloomsbury. Design conscious travellers check into the hip hotels in Shoreditch, surrounded by buzzing bars and colourful street markets. Midway between the two, Clerkenwell is a beguiling mix of historic charm and contemporary chic with excellent restaurants. If designer shopping is a priority, opt for Knightsbridge, close to Hyde Park, or Mayfair, a moneyed enclave and art hub, strolling distance from Bond Street’s exclusive boutiques.
Where to shop
Harrods, Selfridges, Liberty – London’s famous department stores are a destination in their own right. The eclectic boutiques of Covent Garden and high street chains lining Oxford, Regent, Bond, and Carnaby Streets are also perennially popular, but there are richer pickings in enclaves such as Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury, Redchurch Street in Shoreditch, and Marylebone High Street. London’s excellent markets are great for food and gifts. Stylish gents head to Savile Row and Jermyn Street.
What to buy
High-end fashion and contemporary design; art by undiscovered artists, tea and marmalade; antiques and books.
Travel advice
Health & safety
London is a lot safer than it used to be, though pickpockets do trawl touristy areas so keep a close eye on your belongings and be alert at ATMs. It’s generally safe to walk around all of central London, however, be wary if you’re on your own late at night, particularly in quieter residential areas, and don’t flash iPhones and other attractive gadgets around. It’s best to avoid taking unlicensed mini-cabs; stick to black taxis.
When to go
London teems with tourists year-round, but hotels ramp up their rates around peak holiday periods (Christmas, Easter, and summer school holidays). Many restaurants and bars close between Christmas and New Year, when some locals decamp to the countryside. There are plenty of outdoor festivals and cultural events during the summer, but the weather can be unpredictable. Expect long queues for the major sights in July and August. Snap up great bargains during the January and June sales.
Get there
London’s four main airports, Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton, are accessible by regular train and coach services. Heathrow is the only airport connected to the Underground. The Heathrow Express goes direct to Paddington in 20 minutes. (The Heathrow Connect train is significantly cheaper, but less frequent.) From Gatwick, express trains terminate at Victoria. Fast trains to Luton depart from King’s Cross and from Liverpool Street to Stansted. Taxis from all the airports are very expensive.
Get around
The cheapest and best way to explore London is on foot or by self-service bikes. Central London is not as big as it seems and most attractions are within walking distance of one another. If you have to travel further, the underground train network (The Tube) is extensive and efficient, though avoid the weekday rush hours if possible. Buses are an excellent, unheralded and more pleasant alternative. Ubiquitous black cabs are the luxury, but pricey, option.
Faster, cheaper travel
If you’re in town for more than a few days (or frequently), do what the locals do and sign up for the Oyster Card. It gives significantly discounted travel, and allows fast track access without having to queue for tickets.
What to take
Time. There are so many world-class attractions in London that you really shouldn’t rush. Take comfortable walking shoes; most of them are within walking distance of each other.
Fact sheet
  • Type City
  • Notoriety Well known
  • Price guide $$$$$
  • Time zone GMT / UTC +00:00
  • Currency GBP
  • Climate Cold temperate
  • Environment Urban
  • Politics Liberal
  • Best time Jan-Dec
Ratings
  • Safe
  • Clean
  • Friendly
Climate chart
Main gateways
  • London Gatwick [LGW]
  • London Heathrow [LHR]
  • London Luton [LTN]
  • London Stansted [STN]
  • London Charing Cross
  • London Euston
  • London Kings Cross St Pancras
  • London Paddington
  • London Victoria
  • London Waterloo
Get in the mood
  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith
    A vibrant portrait of modern, multicultural London, this novel chronicles three generations in Willesden, a suburb of North London.
  • The Diary of Samuel Pepys by Samuel Pepys
    Witty, salacious insights into life in 17th-century Restoration London, with first-hand descriptions of the Great Fire and Great Plague.
  • London Calling by The Clash
    Fusing rock, reggae, punk and rockabilly, this classic album sums up the rebellious spirit of London in 1979.
  • Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks
    Ray Davies’ timeless anthem is a wistful paean to his hometown.
  • London: Best Big City on Earth
    Official overview of the city’s major landmarks.
  • Notting Hill (1999)
    Britain’s master of rom coms, Richard Curtis, eulogises his neighbourhood, with help from Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.
  • Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003)
    This classic 1980s sitcom about a pair of dodgy wheeler dealers from Peckham depicts London in all its grubby glory.