London is a cosmopolitan mixture of the Third and First Worlds, of chauffeurs and beggars, of the establishment, the avowedly working class and the avant-garde. Unlike comparable European cities, much of London looks unplanned and grubby, but that is part of its appeal. Visiting London is like being let loose on a giant-sized Monopoly board clogged with traffic. Even though you probably won't know where you are exactly, the names will at least look reassuringly familiar. The city is so enormous, visitors will need to make maximum use of the underground train system: unfortunately, this dislocates the city's geography and makes it hard to get your bearings. Doing some travelling by bus helps fit the city together.


The main geographical feature of the city is the River Thames, which meanders through central London, dividing it into northern and southern halves. The central area and the most important sights, theatres and restaurants are within the Underground's Circle Line on the north bank of the river. The trendy and tourist-ridden West End lies within the western portion of the loop, and includes Soho, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Regent St. The East End, so beloved of Ealing comedies, lies east of the Circle Line; it used to be the exclusive preserve of the Cockney but is now a cultural melting pot. There are interesting inner-city suburbs in North London, including Islington and Camden Town. South London includes a mess of poor, dirty, graffiti-ridden suburbs, like Brixton, which have vibrant subcultures of their own.

Accommodation in London is ridiculously expensive and in short supply in July and August. There's the usual mix of hostels, university colleges, B&Bs and hotels. Earl's Court is a major centre for cheap hostels and hotels, but there are other good centres in Bloomsbury and Notting Hill. Less-cheap alternatives are Paddington, Bayswater and Pimlico. Eating out is also expensive, though Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants are less threatening to your wallet. Culinary hunting grounds are Covent Garden, Soho and north of Leicester Square.

Getting around

Heathrow airport is accessible by bus, London Underground (Piccadilly line) and the Heathrow Express, which makes the journey from Paddington Station to Terminals 1-3 in 15 minutes and to Terminal 4 in 20. A cab to or from the airport will cost around US$35 to US$50. The Gatwick Express runs between Gatwick airport and Victoria station in 30 minutes, or you can get a cab for around US$60. The Stansted Express will get you to Stansted airport from Liverpool Street station in 60 minutes or you can get a cab for US$100 (as if!).

London's tube is legendary, but mainly because it's not that much fun to use. Although the tube network is immense, buses are more pleasant and interesting, as long as the traffic's not gridlocked. Travelcards can be used on all forms of transport. Several rail companies now run passenger trains in London, most of which interchange with the tube.

London's famous black cabs are excellent but expensive. Minicabs are cheaper competitors, with freelance drivers, but you can't flag these down on the street. If you'd rather drive yourself, you're in for a parking nightmare - it's almost impossible to get a park in the city centre, and the punishments for parking illegally are cruel and unusual indeed.


Although a Celtic community settled around a ford across the River Thames, it was the Romans who first developed the square mile now known as the City of London. They built a bridge and an impressive city wall, and made Londinium an important port and the hub of their road system. The Romans left, but trade went on. Few traces of London dating from the Dark Ages can now be found, but the city survived the incursions of both the Saxons and Vikings. Fifty years before the Normans arrived, Edward the Confessor built his abbey and palace at Westminster.

William the Conqueror found a city that was, without doubt, the richest and largest in the kingdom. He raised the White Tower (part of the Tower of London) and confirmed the city's independence and right to self-government.

During the reign of Elizabeth I the capital began to expand rapidly - in 40 years the population doubled to reach 200,000. Unfortunately, medieval Tudor and Jacobean London was virtually destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. The fire gave Christopher Wren the opportunity to build his famous churches, but did nothing to halt the city's growth.

By 1720 there were 750,000 people, and London, as the seat of Parliament and focal point for a growing empire, was becoming ever richer and more important. Georgian architects replaced the last of medieval London with their imposing symmetrical architecture and residential squares.

The population exploded again in the 19th century, creating a vast expanse of Victorian suburbs. As a result of the Industrial Revolution and rapidly expanding commerce, it jumped from 2.7 million in 1851 to 6.6 million in 1901.

Georgian and Victorian London was devastated by the Luftwaffe in WWII - huge swathes of the centre and the East End were totally flattened. After the war, ugly housing and low-cost developments were thrown up on the bomb sites. The docks never recovered - shipping moved to Tilbury, and the Docklands declined to the point of dereliction. In the heady 1980s, that decade of Thatcherite confidence and deregulation, the Docklands were rediscovered by a new wave of property developers, who proved to be only marginally more discriminating than the Luftwaffe.

London briefly regained its 'cool' reputation in the 1990s, buoyed by Tony Blair's New Labour, a rampaging pound and a swag of pop, style and media 'names'. Blair's blane Ken Livingstone donned the mayoral robes in May 2000, opposing plans to sell off the tube and pushing for improved public transport and safety. The face of the city changed with the construction of the £1bn white elephant Millennium Dome, the London Eye observation wheel, the Tate Modern (linked by the when-will-it-ever-open Millennium Bridge) and the creation of the British Museum's Great Court. But some things never change: London's cost of living outdoes itself year after year, its chic quotient continues to soar and the gap between the haves and have nots looms ever larger.

What is in London?

Trafalgar Square

It's the heart of visitors' London, beating with tour buses, cameras and flocks of persistent pigeons. On the square's northern edge is the cash-strapped National Gallery, which has one of the world's most impressive art collections. Famous paintings include Cézanne's The Bathers and van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding. Entry to the gallery is free, which means if you feel like dropping in and looking at just one or two pictures, you can do so at your leisure without feeling obliged to cover extensive territory.

Also in the vicinity are the National Portrait Gallery, a place to see lots of faces from the Middle Ages to modern times, and St Martin in the Fields, with an adjoining craft market and a brass-rubbing centre in the crypt.

Westminster Abbey

The resting place of the royals, Westminster Abbey is one of the most visited churches in the Christian world. It's a beautiful building, full of morose tombs and monuments, with an acoustic field that will send shivers down your spine when the choirboys clear their throats. The roll call of the dead and honoured is guaranteed to humble the greatest egoist, despite the weighty and ornate memorabilia. In September 1997, millions of people round the world saw the inside of the Abbey when TV crews covered Princess Di's funeral service. Since then the number of visitors has increased by 300%, and the visit is now more restricted, with some areas cordoned off.

Houses of Parliament

The awesome neo-Gothic brilliance of the Houses of Parliament has been restored thanks to a recent spring clean of the facade. The building includes the House of Commons and the House of Lords, so the grandeur of the exterior is let down only by the level of debate in the interior ('hear, hear'). There's restricted access to the chambers when they're in session, but a visit around 6pm will avoid the worst of the crowds. Check the time on the most recognisable face in the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben.

Nearby, Downing St, the official residence of the prime minister (no 10) and the chancellor of the exchequer (no 11), has been guarded by an imposing iron gate since the security forces realised that the lone iconic bobby outside Maggie's door was not sufficient to stop the IRA mortar bomb attack in 1989.

Tate Britain

The Tate Britain is the keeper of an impressive historical archive of British art. Built in 1897, the Tate is currently undergoing an ambitious programme of expansion. When all is complete, there will be six new galleries for temporary exhibition and nine new or refurbished ones for the Tate's permanent collection of peerless Blakes, Reynolds, Gainsboroughs, Hogarths, Constables, Turners and Pre-Raphaelite beauties.

Its sister gallery, the brand-spanking new Tate Modern, is housed in the former Bankside Power Station. The Tate Modern displays the Tate's collection of international modern art, including major works by Bacon, Dalí, Picasso, Matisse, Rothko and Warhol, as well as work by more contemporary artists. The building is as exciting as the art: gorgeous industrial-strength red brick with a 325ft-high (99m-high) chimney. The former turbine hall, below street level and running the length of the vast building, now forms the awe-inspiring entrance to the gallery.

Buckingham Palace

The Queen opened Buckingham Palace to the public for the first time in 1993 to raise money for repairs to Windsor Castle. The interiors range from kitsch to tasteless opulence and reveal nothing of the domestic life of the Royal Family apart from a gammy eye when it comes to interior decor. The changing of the guard is a London 'must see' - though you'll probably go away wondering what all the fuss was about.

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