Double-decker Routemaster bus at a stop outside St Paul’s Cathedral
Noisy, vibrant and truly multicultural, London is a megalopolis of people, ideas and frenetic energy. The capital and largest city of the United Kingdom, it is also the largest city in Western Europe and the European Union. Situated on the River Thames in South-East England, Greater London has an official population of a little over 8 million, but the estimate of between 12 and 14 million people in the greater metropolitan area better reflects its size and importance. Considered one of the world’s leading “global cities”, London remains an international capital of culture, music, education, fashion, politics, finance and trade. Among international tourists, London is the most-visited city in the world.
The name London originally referred only to the once-walled “Square Mile” of the original Roman (and later medieval) city (confusingly called the “City of London” or just “The City”). Today, London has taken on a much larger meaning to include all of the vast central parts of the modern metropolis, with the city having absorbed numerous surrounding towns and villages over the centuries, including large portions of the surrounding “home counties”, one of which – Middlesex – being completely consumed by the growing metropolis. The term Greater London embraces Central London together with all the outlying suburbs that lie in one continuous urban sprawl within the lower Thames valley. Though densely populated, London retains large swathes of green parkland and open space, even within the city centre.
Greater London is all of the area surrounded by the M25 orbital motorway, and consists of 32 London Boroughs and the City of London that, together with the office of the Mayor of London, form the basis for London’s local government. The Mayor of London is elected by London residents and should not be confused with the Lord Mayor of the City of London. The names of several boroughs, such as Westminster or Camden, are well-known, others less so, such as Wandsworth or Lewisham. This traveller’s guide to London recognises cultural, functional and social districts of varying type and size:
Vibrant historic district made famous by a group of turn-of-the-century writers and for being the location of the British Museum, the University of London and numerous historic homes, parks, and buildings. Part of the Borough of Camden.
|City of London
The City is where London originally developed within the Roman city walls and is a city in its own right, separate from the rest of London. It is now the most important financial centre in the world, but an area where modern skyscrapers stand next to medieval churches on ancient street layouts.
One of the main shopping and entertainment districts. Incorporates some of London’s theatreland. Part of the City of Westminster and Borough of Camden.
Buffer zone between London’s West End and the City of London financial district, home to the Inns of Court
West End district comprising Leicester Square, Chinatown, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus and the centre of London’s cinema and theatre land
Some extremely well-heeled districts of west central London and most of the city’s premier shopping street
|Notting Hill-North Kensington
Lively market, interesting history, the world famous carnival and a very ethnically diverse population
Largely residential district of northwest central London with lots of mid-range accommodation, and close to the Eurostar terminal
Dense concentration of highly fashionable restaurants, cafés, clubs and jazz bars, as well as London’s gay village all mixed in with a cluster of sex shops and seedier adult entertainment venues. Soho is also home to many TV production facilities.
The name South Bank is usually used to refer specifically to the complex around the National Theatre near Waterloo and the London Eye. The wider area South of the Thames, including Bankside (Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre) and up to Borough, was historically the location of the activities frowned on by the Puritans who exiled theatre, cock-fighting and bear fights from the original walled City of London to the south of the river.
An extremely well-heeled inner London district with famous department stores, Hyde Park, many museums and the King’s Road
A city in its own right, the seat of government and an almost endless list of historical and cultural sights, such as Buckingham Palace, The Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) and Westminster Abbey.
A diverse area of north London that includes eclectic Camden Town
A traditional working class heartland of inner London to the east of The City, made famous by countless movies and TV shows, and home to trendy bars, art galleries and parks, especially in the Shoreditch, Hoxton, and Old Street area.
On the pretty southern banks of the Thames; location of the Greenwich Meridian, Observatory, and the National Maritime Museum.
Hackney has become fashionable in recent decades and is home to a thriving arts scene as well as many trendy cafés, bars, and pubs.
|Hammersmith and Fulham
Borough in west London with a diverse population and the home of the BBC, plus a hotbed for professional football.
Literary north London and the wonderful open spaces of Hampstead Heath.
Area to the north of Clerkenwell that has undergone huge gentrification since 1990.
A diverse Caribbean-flavoured district to the south of the Thames, which includes the buzzing, bright-lights of Brixton.
Inner southern districts of London; traditionally residential, with a large melting pot of communities. The area retains some leftfield, quirky attractions. You can find a restaurant from just about any ethnic group in the world.
Grand Thames-side areas and open green parks in the north, and dense housing in south.
Largely made up of lush green middle-class/bourgeois suburbs, many of which were formerly part of the counties of Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire before being absorbed into Greater London.
Containing many commuter suburbs with housing in varying styles, as well as the buzzing urban centres ofSutton, Kingston upon Thames, Croydon and Bromley, all four having cultural facilities in their town centres with leafy residential neighbourhoods fanning out from them.
Mostly originally part of the county of Essex, taking in former industrial areas on the upper Thames Estuary such as Beckton, Barking and Dagenham. To the North East lies the gateway to the affluent Epping Forest area.
Taking in much of the ancient English county of Middlesex (which many local residents still identify with rather than “London”) and former parts of Buckinghamshire. Heathrow Airport is located in this part of the city.
Home to the annual tennis Championships and wombling Wimbledon Common
Leafy Thames-side scenery, Hampton Court Palace, the botanical gardens and some major parklands
- “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford” — Samuel Johnson
Settlement has existed on the site of London since well before Roman times, with evidence of Bronze Age and Celtic settlement. The Roman city of Londinium, established just after the Roman conquest of Britannia in the year 43, formed the basis for the modern city (some isolated Roman period remains are still to be seen within the City). After the end of Roman rule in 410 and a short-lived decline, London experienced a gradual revival under the Anglo-Saxons, as well as the Norsemen, and emerged as a great medieval trading city, and eventually replaced Winchester as the royal capital of England. This paramount status for London was confirmed when William the Conqueror, a Norman, built the Tower of London after the conquest in 1066 and was crowned King of England in Westminster.
London went from strength to strength with the rise of England to first European then global prominence, and the city became a great centre of culture, government and industry. London’s long association with the theatre, for example, can be traced back to the English renaissance (witness the Rose Theatre and great playwrights like Shakespeare who made London their home). With the rise of Britain to supreme maritime power in the 18th and 19th centuries (see Industrial Britain) and the possessor of the largest global empire, London became an imperial capital and drew people and influences from around the world to become, for many years, the largest city in the world.
England’s royal family has, over the centuries, added much to the London scene for today’s traveller: the Albert Memorial, Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Royal Albert Hall, Tower of London, Kew Palace and Westminster Abbey being prominent examples.
Despite the inevitable decline of the British Empire, and considerable suffering during World War II (when London was heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe in the Blitz), the city is still a top-ranked world city: a global centre of culture, finance, and learning. Today London is easily the largest city in the United Kingdom, eight times larger than the second largest, Birmingham, and ten times larger than the third, Glasgow, and dominates the economic, political and social life of the nation. It is full of excellent bars, galleries, museums, parks and theatres. It is also the most culturally and ethnically diverse part of the country, making it a great multicultural city to visit. Samuel Johnson famously said, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. Whether you are interested in ancient history, modern art, opera or underground raves, London has it all.
The City and Westminster
If you ask a Londoner where the centre of London is, you are likely to get a wry smile. This is because historically London was two cities: a commercial city and a separate government capital.
The commercial capital was the City of London. This had a dense population and all the other pre-requisites of a medieval city: walls, a castle (The Tower of London), a cathedral (St Paul’s), a semi-independent City government, a port and a bridge across which all trade was routed so Londoners could make money (London Bridge).
About an hour upstream (on foot or by boat) around a bend in the river was the government capital (Westminster). This had a church for crowning the monarch (Westminster Abbey) and palaces. As each palace was replaced by a larger one, the previous one was used for government, first the Palace of Westminster (better known as the Houses of Parliament), then Whitehall, then Buckingham Palace. The two were linked by a road called The “Strand”, old English for riverbank.
London grew both west and east. The land to the west of the City (part of the parish of Westminster) was prime farming land (Covent Garden and Sohofor example) and made good building land. The land to the east was flat, marshy and cheap, good for cheap housing and industry, and later for docks. Also the wind blows 3 days out of 4 from west to east, and the Thames (into which the sewage went) flows from west to east. So the West End was up-wind and up-market, the East End was where people worked for a living.
Modern-day London in these terms is a two-centre city, with the area in between known confusingly as the West End.
|Daily highs (°C)||8||10||13||16||19||21||23||23||20||16||12||8|
|Nightly lows (°C)||2||2||4||5||8||11||13||14||11||8||5||3|
See the 5 day forecast for London at the Met Office
Despite a perhaps unfair reputation for being unsettled, London enjoys a dry and mild climate on average. Only one in three days on average will bring rain and often only for a short period. In some years, 2012 being an example, there was no rain for several weeks.
Winter in London is mild compared to nearby continental European cities due to both the presence of the Gulf Stream and the urban heat effect. Average daily maximum is 8°C (46°F) in December and January. Daylight hours are short with darkness falling by 16:00 in December.
Snow does occur, usually a few times a year but rarely heavy (a few years being exceptions such as the winters of 2009 and 2010, with temperatures dipping down to sub-zeros regularly). Snow in London can be crippling, as seen at the end of 2010. Just 7 cm (3 in) of snow will cause trains to stop running, airports to see significant delays, and the postal service to come to a halt. London is a city which does not cope well with snow; walkways, stairs, and streets will not be cleared by shovels or ploughs. The streets will be salted/gritted, but will remain slick and snow/slush covered until the sun melts it away. This is due to a lack of widespread snow-clearing infrastructure as the city does not often see snow.
Summer is perhaps the best season for tourists as it has long daylight hours as well as mild temperatures. The average daily high temperatures in July and August are around 24°C (75°F). The highest temperature since 2000 was recorded once in August at 38°C (100°F). This means London can feel hot and humid for several days in the summer months. Also, because of the urban heat effect, at night it can feel humid and muggy.
The overall weather in summer can be variable, with occasional prolonged instances of rain and unexpected dips in temperature. If you’re coming during the summer it is still advised to dress in layers and bring some waterproofs!
Tourist information centres
Since the closure of the Britain and London Visitor Centre in December 2011 due to cost-cutting by the government, London has no centrally located tourist information centre.
The City of London Information Centre, as the last remaining information centre in any of the Central London boroughs, is now the only impartial, face-to-face source of tourist information in Central London. It is located in St. Paul’s Churchyard, next to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and is open every day other than Christmas Day and Boxing Day, from 09.30-17.30 Monday to Saturday, and 10.00-16.00 on Sunday.
There is no office for tourist information for the whole of the UK nor for the whole of England.