So the weather stinks, no one smiles, and it takes far too long to get around—just what is it that makes London such a great place to be?
No Single London
To be sure, London is not an easy city for the visitor: most Londoners have about as much time for tourists as they do for toxic waste. But this, bizarrely, can be the city’s greatest charm. Without the attention of strangers, you can lose yourself in London like in no other city. Despite its enormous size, London is still the fastest-growing European city, which means the only certainty is that it will not stay still.
Going Health Mad
Despite being the most polluted city in Europe, London is working hard to rid itself of its unhealthy image. The Congestion Charge, begun under the previous mayor (Ken Livingston), now charges £8 to any vehicle entering central London, and has reduced both traffic and pollution. The smoking ban took effect in 2007, and all restaurants, bars, and clubs are now smoke-free.
London’s current mayor, Boris Johnson, who came into office in 2008, has placed particular emphasis on building more cycling lanes and encouraging Londoners to recycle. The mayor is also trying to boost sporting facilities to “create healthy bodies and healthy minds,” particularly as the 2012 Olympics get closer. Preparations for the high-profile world event continue, including improvements on the world’s oldest underground, which began operating in 1863. The Olympic Park in East London will be the focus of the Games, and will afterward be transformed into the largest urban park in Europe. Boris Johnson is planning on spending £6 million on improving the capital’s open spaces, with the aim of making London the world’s greenest city. Sustainability lies at the heart of the Games, placing particular emphasis on global issues such as combating climate change and encouraging healthful living.
The Olympics are not only about sport—the Cultural Olympiad, which kicked off after the Closing Ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, celebrates people, cultures, and languages. Using music, art, and theater, the Cultural Olympiad aims to inspire and involve young people and celebrate London’s unique cosmopolitanism and cultural diversity. The Millennium Dome, once the city’s biggest white elephant, has been rechristened. The O2 has undergone a remarkable renaissance as a top-level concert venue that hosts some of the hottest tickets in town. It was the site of the Spice Girls Reunion and a fund-raising gig by the remaining members of legendary rock band Led Zeppelin.
London to the core, Amy Winehouse has wowed American audiences with Billie Holiday-esque tales of heartbreak and real-life tabloid excesses. Talented and troubled in equal measure, even as she was winning a clutch of Grammys, she couldn’t help name-checking her home borough of Camden.
The Changing City
London has slowly expanded around The City—the historic center of the capital. Also known as the Square Mile, it is London’s financial hub. Today, The City contributes about 2.5% of the country’s GDP, which highlights the pivotal role it plays for the country’s economy. Whether the markets are up or down, space is limited in The City. To the east, the Docklands area was built as an alternative financial center, currently housing more than 500 banks. Canary Wharf, home to Britain’s tallest building (a tower of the same name), has also become a second center for London’s financial business, providing more space for the construction of office buildings.
Haves and Have-Nots
London is now reckoned to be shading New York as the world’s most significant financial center. The buildup of high-net-worth individuals in London adds to its international flavor, ranging from Kazakh oligarchs to Saudi playboys with every shade and nation in between. Although London remains a safe city, there are worries about the incidence of gang culture and gun and knife crime on its streets. Because of London’s almost schizophrenic veering between extremes, often its deprivation is as apparent as its grandeur.
Did You Know?
With more than 7 million residents, London is the largest city in the European Union. It’s among the most densely populated, too, after Copenhagen, Brussels, and Paris. The city’s ethnic mosaic includes communities from 34 different countries.
Up to about £2,000 (nearly $4,000) of taxpayers’ money can be used to purchase a wig for a London judge, who often still wears the antiquated accessory. Barristers and solicitors (lawyers) must pay for their own wigs and often buy them used.
More than 100 species of fish, including smelt (which locals say has an odor resembling their beloved cucumber sandwiches), live in the Thames. The Thames looks brown because of sediment but is actually Europe’s cleanest metropolitan estuary.
Despite being surrounded by more than 5,000 pubs and bars, Londoners drink less than the average British resident. Twenty-three percent of men in London drank 22 or more units of alcohol per week from 2001 through 2002, compared with 27% in Great Britain as a whole.
The Tube is the world’s biggest subway system. With 253 mi of routes and 275 stations, it covers more ground than systems in New York, Paris, and Tokyo.
There are 481 foreign banks in the city, more than in any other world financial center. The London Stock Exchange deals with almost twice as many foreign companies as the New York Stock Exchange.
City taxi drivers must pass a training test that requires at least two years of preparation. Eight of every 10 applicants drop out before completion.
London Restaurant Reviews
London rivals New York, Paris, and Tokyo as one of the best places to eat in the world right now. The sheer diversity of restaurants here is unparalleled. Among the city’s 6,700 restaurants are see-and-be-seen hot spots, casual ethnic eateries, innovative gastropubs, and temples to haute cuisine.
To measure London’s spectacular culinary rise, note that it was once a common dictum that the British ate to live, whereas the French lived to eat. The best of British food—local, regional, seasonal, and meticulously sourced—is now all the rage and appears on more smart menus by the day. “Nose-to-tail” eating—where every scrap of meat is deemed fair game for the plate—has made a spectacular comeback at St. John in Clerkenwell, and fits perfectly with the new mood of austerity.
Meanwhile, Hell’s Kitchen star Gordon Ramsay sets the highest bar at his eponymous place at Royal Hospital Road in Chelsea, and the rest of the much-lauded haute cuisine scene is dominated by world-class masters. Marcus Wareing roars up on his mentor Ramsay’s shoulder at Wareing’s self-named place at the Berkeley, Michel Roux Jr. rules the roost at Le Gavroche in Mayfair, Eric Chavot sets a blistering pace at the Capital, Hélène Darroze does it for the girls at the Connaught, and Claude Bosi is beginning to boss things at Hibiscus.
For cheap eats, don’t miss the city’s unofficial dish, the ubiquitous Indian curry. The quality of other international cuisines also has grown in recent years, with London becoming known for its Malaysian, Spanish, Turkish, and North African restaurants. With all of the choices, traditional British food, when you track it down, appears as just one more exotic cuisine in the pantheon.
Whatever eating experience you seek, London can likely deliver. From dirt-cheap street food to posh multicourse meals, the city has become a destination for gustatory adventurers. Dig in, and enjoy!
London Hotel Reviews
You’ll find many things in London hotels: luxury, extraordinary service, and incredible views. But one thing you’ll look long and hard for is a bargain. Rooms have traditionally been expensive, and the wild swings of the exchange rate make it hard to predict just how much you’ll end up paying. Meanwhile, the London hotel market is ignoring the credit crunch and focusing on luxury, luxury, luxury. Five-star hotels close, renovate, and reopen at a dizzying pace, most of them raising their prices at the end of the process. If it’s any consolation, London does luxury better than just about any city, so you’ll get your money’s worth.
For those on more moderate budgets, the situation is in transition. The city is still struggling to develop a solid base of moderately priced high-quality hotels. Two places that have opened in recent years—the Hoxton and Guesthouse West—are great options in this category. A newly attractive alternative are hotels in the Premier and Millennium chains, which offer sleek, modern rooms, lots of modern conveniences, and sales that frequently bring room prices well below £100 a night. The Best Western Premier Shaftesbury Kensington and Millennium Gloucester are both good examples.
At the budget level, small bed-and-breakfasts still dominate, although most are quite battered and basic. An alternative to that is the easyHotel chain, with its tiny, bright orange “pod” rooms. There’s also the more sophisticated (and more expensive) base2stay, which falls somewhere between budget and not so much. And even at the very bottom of the price scale, accommodations can be unexpectedly trendy—just look at the slick simplicity of the Generator hostel.
London is a veritable utopia for excitement junkies, culture fiends, and those who—simply put—like to party. Virginia Woolf once wrote of London, “I step out upon a tawny-colored magic carpet..and get carried into beauty without raising a finger. The nights are amazing, with all the white porticoes and broad silent avenues. And people pop in and out, lightly, divertingly, like rabbits.”
Most who visit London will, like Woolf, be mesmerized by the city’s energy, which reveals itself in layers. Whether you prefer a romantic evening at the opera, rhythm and blues with fine French food, the gritty guitar riffs of East London, a pint and gourmet pizza at a local gastropub, or swanky cocktails and sushi at London’s sexiest lair, the U.K. capital is sure to feed your fancy.
London is one of the best shopping cities in the world, as well as one of the most expensive. But whether you are looking for furniture or a fine cashmere scarf, bespoke shoes or a funky frock, London will not disappoint.
Although it’s impossible to pin down one particular look that defines the city, homegrown designers like Vivienne Westwood, Matthew Williamson, Paul Smith, and Alice Temperley stand out for their quirky, eccentric designs. London is, after all, the city that brought punk, miniskirts, and Mod fashion to the world. But if you’re after a more traditional look, head to Jermyn Street and Savile Row, which still retain their old-world look and feel—and there’s no better place in the city to buy custom-made shirts and suits. If your budget won’t stretch to Savile Row, no problem. The city’s High Street chain stores like Topshop, Oasis, Reiss, and FCUK are great places to pick up designs straight from the catwalk, at a fraction of the price. And don’t forget London’s markets, known for their size, variety, and sheer street theater.
Apart from bankrupting yourself, the only problem you may encounter is exhaustion. London’s shopping districts are spread out all over the city, so do like the locals do. Plan your excursion with military precision, taking in only one or two areas in a day, and stop for a hearty lunch and glass of wine or a pint in a pub.