London is one of the world’s most touristy cities, and little wonder. Seeing the place for the first time, many visitors experience a strange sense of déjà vu: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament towering statesmanlike above the serene waters of the River Thames; Nelson’s Column rising out of the pigeon-infested expanse of Trafalgar Square; the voluminous dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the romantic outline of Tower Bridge; red doubledecker buses and the regal façade of Buckingham Palace; Life Guards and Beefeaters in their ceremonial red tunics and unusual headgear – the list of clichés goes on. More than a city, London has become the universal symbol of Englishness and empire, from the lordly towers of Westminster Abbey to the royal pageantry of the Trooping of the Colour.
For many visitors, these emblematic sights are what London is all about. This is no surprise, given how imposing many of them are, or how much history and tradition they encapsulate. Having said that, there’s a whole lot more to London than kings, queens, palaces, and soldiers in silly hats
Modern London is one of the most extraordinary cities on the planet. It can confidently lay claim to being the world’s most ethnically diverse and eclectic metropolis – a third of Londoners were actually born abroad, and the contribution of foreign nationals to the city’s cultural and culinary make-up can hardly be underestimated, from the cafés of Chinatown to the Sikh and Hindu temples in Southall. It’s a place of amazing cultural ferment, setting the global agenda in everything from fringe theater and pop music through to avantgarde art and architecture, epitomized by the string of landmark new constructions that have appeared across the city during the past decade.
Visiting London for the first time is like the ultimate sightseeing trip, offering a string of world-famous landmarks, monuments, and street scenes which are instantly recognizable from films, paintings, and photographs – from the city’s familiar red double-decker buses through to the flashing neon signs of Piccadilly Circus. Perhaps no other city in the world musters as many iconic images in as small a space
Crowds, lines, and costs are the main turn-offs. Visiting London’s major attractions is a wallet-emptying business – Madame Tussauds, for instance, charges around £25 per adult, or £85 for a family ticket – and the queues and heaving throngs of visitors can be horrendous at all major sights. In addition, the expense of getting around can be equally punitive: around £5 for a single tube journey within central London on the city’s world-famous (but ridiculously overpriced) underground system, whose jampacked cars turn into human sardine cans during the morning and evening rush hours
DOING IT ANYWAY?
A little advance planning can massively improve your experience of London. Get hold of a good city map or A–Z, purchase tickets for tourist sights ahead to avoid the lines, and check websites for special offers and discounts. You may also be able to save some money by getting hold of a London Pass. Buy a Travelcard or Oyster card rather than purchasing individual tube tickets. And avoid the rush-hours if you can, especially if you’ve got luggage
Getting There and Around
London is served by Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, and London City airports. There is a sprawling underground (or “tube”) system, plus extensive overground train and bus services, as well as plentiful taxis
These range from the spectacular London Eye through to the stunning new Swiss Re Tower, popularly known as “the Gherkin.” And not forgetting Docklands, where clusters of towers, including the monumental Canary Wharf, have risen from nowhere over the past three decades to become a symbol of the modern city – built, appropriately enough, on the remains of its remarkable industrial and maritime past.