The big idea

Of course, it’s the capital, so it doesn’t get any bigger than this; in fact, London is the most written about city in the world and the biggest conurbation in Europe. Yet to many of the people who live there it’s simply a series of inter-related villages.

It’s also renowned for separating people from their money, but at the same time widely regarded as one of the safest ‘global’ cities; and it has a history of tolerance and providing refuge for exiles of other countries. It’s a welcoming city.
 
And given the size and scale of London, it’s typical it can’t content itself with simply being one city, as there are actually two cities within London: the City of Westminster, and the City of London, but more of that later…
 
So it’s pretty clear this is no ordinary city. But whichever way you look at it, London is all about power. And as such, a visit to London can make you feel you’re part of something big.You see, London positively buzzes with its international role as the global centre for commerce; and it’s alive with its rich history – not wallowing in it, but building on it, strengthening it and, most importantly, enjoying it. 

Power and the glory

Be it the monarchy, Church or democracy, London exudes authority and crackles with reminders of power struggles over the years. This is a place where important decisions are, and always have been, made. From an early centre of administration in Roman times, over the years London has increasingly dwarfed all other cities in the land, has continually expanded and simply kept spreading outwards, gobbling up communities in its’ path.
 
It houses the official London residence of the Monarchy, namely Buckingham Palace, and is home to no fewer than nine Royal Parks (see sidebar for a flavour), several other palaces – Kensington, Kew, Alexandra, Hampton Court, Eltham – a multitude of historical mansions, and the Tower of London; one of the country’s finest historical attractions, with events and displays which brilliantly bring to life British Monarchs over the years, and the painful ends for traitors (and of course, the Crown Jewels).
 
And then there’s Westminster Abbey, in which every sovereign’s coronation has taken place since 1066 and home to countless memorials and tombs to the most famous monarchs, statesmen, priests and influential people throughout the ages.And in Westminster itself we have the home of the country’s democracy: the Houses of Parliament.
 
All put together it’s a heady mix that tells the story of the struggles between King and Parliament, Church and State, and England and the rest of the world.
(Sidebar: Those nine Royal parks- and how to differentiate them: Bushy Park (deer), Regents (Sports), Richmond (Biggest), St James (Central), Green (peaceful), Greenwich (oldest), Hyde (popular), Kensington (formal), Brompton (cemetery))

Power on a global scale

Power struggles are commonplace in most countries’ histories, but what grabs you about London is the global impact of things here. And there are two areas that really stand out: first, the financial and commercial clout of the City, and second, reminders of the military muscle.
 
Consider The City itself, a square mile that includes the splendid architecture of the Bank of England, modelled on the Bank of Amsterdam, and the London Stock Exchange.And with over 500 foreign banks and the planet’s largest concentration of economic analysts, The City is the world’s most internationalised financial centre. Add in Canary Wharf, which includes Cesar Pelli’s 800ft Canada Tower – the tallest building in the country – and we start to get some idea of the global importance.
 
But also consider the power it had in terms of the docks: this was the country’s leading port at the start of the 19thcentury, the greatest port in the World no less: West India docks, India docks, London docks: all testament to London’s trading relationship and influence with the rest of Europe and beyond.
 
And finally, think about military or global power: consider Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Column, and all the other historical memorials such as the imposing Admiralty Arch, Horse Guards Parade, and the focus of Remembrance Sunday each year, the Cenotaph.

A world class entertainment scene
 

There’s a special feel to London, a certain attitude that gives it its’ very own identity; indeed internationally London is seen as the effortlessly cool capital. And that’s thanks in part to its industries focusing less on making things (apart from money, that is) and more on consuming them: shopping, entertainment, music, art and culture all combine to make London what it is: world class.
 
First consider the shopping. London has first-class options whatever your fancy.
How about checking out Burlington Arcade, the world’s first shopping arcade and one of the most attractive covered shopping streets in Britain. It’s known the world over for its craftsmanship and so is packed with luxurious accessories.
 
For gentlemen, try Savile Row and Jermyn Street (synonymous of course with exquisite tailoring; in fact, the Japanese word for suit, ‘Sabiro’, is simply ‘Savile Row’ assimilated in to the Japanese language…). For antiques, go to Portobello Road or Kensington Church Street. For independent street wear try Seven Dials (good for trainers) next to Covent Garden and Carnaby Street. For markets, as well as Portobello Road, try Camden Market for handmade jewellery and vintage fashion; Covent Garden’s Apple Market for handmade craft products; or pop over to Greenwich for a buzzing art and craft market.
For department stores hit the West End/Oxford Street and try the new Westfield or stick to the big guns: Selfridges on Oxford Street, nearer the marble Arch End, the unrepeatable Harrods in Knightsbridge and two absolute one-offs, Liberty’s, near Soho, and Fortnum and Mason on Piccadilly. And then there’s Hamleys, the world’s most famous toy store; Foyles, London’s iconic bookshop; and Waterstone’s, the country’s biggest bookshop, in Piccadilly. This of course is just a taster, for wherever you go you’ll find interesting, shops, boutiques and markets.
 
Ok, how about the entertainment scene?
There’s over 60 theatres in London’s Theatreland, covering every genre from dance to musical to play, and the area around Leicester Square, Piccadilly and Covent Garden positively teems with them.
Add in the atmospheric Shakespeare Globe, and the modern theatres - the National Theatre, Europe’s largest arts centre, the Barbican, and the Southbank Centre – and the evening entertainment’s covered.
 
Music? As the home of the original anti-establishment Punk movement- the Sex Pistols and The Clash both hail from London- as well as iconic acts such as the Rolling Stones, The Who, David Bowie and, more recently, Amy Winehouse, London is a mecca for music fans. With The Proms at the world famous Royal Albert Hall; the opera at the Covent Garden Opera House; concerts from the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, both resident in the city; Ronnie Scott’s Jazz club in Soho; plus the new state-of-the-art British Music Experience at the O2 arena, which allows you to perform at a virtual concert - and without even mentioning the numerous Summer festivals in the capital - and this city is simply music to the ears.
 
And where else but London can also boast attractions such as the original Madame Tussauds, now exported to other cities around the world; the World’s first scientific zoo, London Zoo; and the most popular paid for attraction in the country, and the tallest wheel in Europe, the London Eye.
Phew. 

A cultural powerhouse

London really comes into its’ own here as a true cultural powerhouse in terms of museums and galleries; the capital has over 250 museums and a huge number of galleries.
 
The museums cover a vast breadth of subjects: from the well-known Natural History Museum, with its iconic T-Rex and life-sized blue whale model, and the V&A, which celebrates 3,000 years of art and fashion and includes four million pieces of furniture, sculpture, jewellery and metalwork from around the World; to the Science Museum, which features landmark inventions such as Stephenson’s Rocket, Whittle’s turbojet and the Apollo 10 module, and the neo-classical British Museum, with its iconic glass-roofed Great Court and Egyptian artefacts (including the Rosetta Stone, the famous mummies, Parthenon sculptures and the Elgin marbles).
 
But why not spread out and visit the National Maritime Museum to get an example of the might of British sea travel, or the Bank of England Museum to appreciate the evolution of a powerful banking system over time. The Design Museum down by the river celebrates all aspects of modern design, while the Geffrye Museum depicts English interiors over the last 400 years. And the Fan Museum in SE10 is the only museum in the world devoted to fans, with over 3,500 of them.
 
Into browsing galleries? London has the National Gallery, housing one of the World’s greatest art collections (Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is there, as is Monet’s Water Lilies and Seurat’s Bathers at Asnieres); the National Portrait Gallery, with over 160,000 portraits of famous British men and women- the largest collection of portraits anywhere in the world. It’s got Tate Britain; following on from the National Gallery, this displays five centuries of British art from the 16thcentury, including Constable, Hogarth and Bacon, as well as more contemporary artists like Hockney and Freud. And how about Tate Modern?  For an indication of scale and power marvel at the huge Turbine Hall used for temporary installations on a jaw-dropping scale, as well as much modern art from the likes of Pollock and Matisse.
The Institute of Contemporary Arts on The Mall is an absolute one-off; wonderful location meets challenging, boundary-pushing art.
But for a whistle-stop tour of art over time why not plan your trips by chronology: start with the National, then consider the Dulwich gallery of European old master from 17thand 18thcenturies, then move up to date with the Dali Universe, then consider the Saatchi gallery and end up in White Cube.
 
What’s that old saying by Samuel Johnson: ‘When a man is tired with London he is tired with life’...imagine what he’d make of it now, some 300 years later?

The essence

Power.

If you want to be inspired to think big; spend time in London.
London was founded by the Romans around 50BC (as with most cities it was the on a part of the river, in this case the Thames, that was deep enough to allow transit for boats but wide enough to build a bridge across), and got off to a rough start only 10 years later when Queen Boudicca massacred the townspeople and put it to the torch in a revenge attack by the Iceni tribe for a previous Roman atrocity.

However, it was retaken by the Romans, fortified, and developed into an important commercial area, and by 200BC was known as Londinium, the capital of Upper Britain, effectively the administrative centre. York was the capital of Lower Britain, and the military centre.

Following the Romans retreat in the fifth century, the Saxons took over, laid out the basic shape of the city, and renamed it Lundenwic (the ‘wic’ denoting a trading centre); the city grew as a landing-place for ships and trade.
The next couple of hundred years saw a tussle between the rampaging Danes and the Saxons, until William the Conqueror took the country in 1066.

But before then in 1042, Edward the Confessor had dreamt of building a church so grand it would out-do all others in the land: hence West-minster was built and consecrated in 1062; the city was now the capital of England, taking the honour from Winchester, and henceforth became the centre for royal justice, while the downstream port of the City of London was the commercial centre. Modern London has grown out of these two cities.

In 1066 the new king, William the Conqueror, was crowned at the new Westminster Abbey; he quickly set about establishing his rule by building the White Tower, part of the Tower of London.
 
For the next few hundred years London grew massively via immigration: already it was the largest city in England- some 3 times bigger than its nearest rivals, York and Bristol; and by the 16thcentury London had become Northern Europe’s centre for commerce and financial affairs

Famous Londoners of this time included Geoffrey Chaucer, the ‘father of English poetry’ and Dick Whittington, four-times Mayor of London (the mayoralship of London being one of the most powerful barons in the country). In the 15thcentury William Caxton set up the first printing press in England, next door to Westminster Abbey.
 
The 17thcentury was a key period in the history of London, and perfectly illustrates the role of power in the capital, as this was the time of The Civil War, when Parliament stood against the Royalists; when Cromwell’s New Model Army defeated the monarch, Charles I, leading to his execution.

This was also the century when the Great Plague hit London, followed a year later, in 1666, by the Great Fire, when four-fifths of medieval London was wiped out.
 
The new king, Charles II, called for the rebuilding of the city, and turned to (soon to be Sir) Christopher Wren, who set about the task with relish, creating St Pauls Cathedral, the Monument (this commemorates the Great Fire), the Royal Observatory and the Royal Exchange amongst many others.
 
And while Wren was re-building much of the City, the favoured haunt for businessmen, the West End and Soho were being developed, as many of the wealthier folk driven out by the fire relocated there; this was the preferred area for leisure, as coffee houses sprang up to meet the demand; and Oxford Street was born as a shopping area. This also led in turn to a new type of housing development: the square, the first of which was Bloomsbury. Other changes in London included the expansion of the East End, as the immigrant French expanded; and a growing Italian contingent north of the city.

In the late 18thcentury London’s port traffic continued to provide the growth of the city and all parts of England wanted to get their goods down into the capital. While Bristol and Liverpool grew the Atlantic trade London continued its’ pre-eminent position with Europe and Asia.

New bridges were built across the Thames - Westminster, Blackfriars and Southwark; Buckingham House was re-modelled by the then King into a Palace; and the city was gaining a reputation as a centre of art dealers and collectors
 
At the start of the 19thcentury India Docks, West India Docks and London Docks were all added, buses started appearing regularly, and the predecessor of the cab could be seen on the streets of London.

Other transport developments like the expansion of the railways had helped to put London as the hub of the country; and in 1863 the first section of the London Underground, the world’s first underground railway, was opened.

As a further example of the city’s desire to lead the world, in 1851 London hosted the first ever World Fair, the Great Exhibition, as a celebration of the progress of civilisation. Attracting some 2 million visitors, the profits from the Exhibition were used to establish a lasting legacy of institutions for the common good: we know these today as The V&A, The Science Museum and the Natural History Museum.

Towards the end of the 19thcentury London was the capital city of the largest empire in the world. It had a directly elected government, had erected a number of buildings and monuments reflecting that status; amongst them Admiralty Arch, the replacement Gothic houses of Parliament, Whitehall, and the impressive Tower Bridge, known at the time as the Wonder Bridge, due to its’ size and the fact it used hydraulic power- there’s that word again- on a scale never seen anywhere before (also, in a nod to peoplepower, the right of public assembly at Hyde Park acknowledged following mass protests which led to the World famous Speaker’s Corner).

And so to the 20thcentury, as London continued to expand and continued to adapt. The start of the century saw the boom in theatre buildings in the West End; the relentless march of the service economy as Harrods and Liberty expanded, Selfridges arrived from the States and the luxury hotel chains opened their doors.

Following World War I, memorials were established such as the Cenotaph, to focus a nations’ grief for the tragic loss of lives.
And then World War II, and the Blitz on London, which lasted 57 consecutive nights. Almost 30,000 Londoners were killed during the war, and over 50,000 injured.
 
But from those dark days, London took it (‘London can take it’ was the title of a short documentary of the time to remind the country to ‘keep calm and carry on’), and post-war was a time of new beginnings for the city. The South Bank was re-developed into what is now a thriving arts complex; the Swinging 60’s, Kings Road and Carnaby Street heralded London’s position as the capital of style; and since those heady days, tourism has been the pre-eminent engine of growth for London. Indeed by the 1980’s some 90% of the country’s estimated 14 million visitors ‘did’ London. And it’s continued to build on this heritage with attractions ever since: the Millennium Bridge, Tate Modern, The London Eye amongst numerous world-class draws for the city.

How it can make you feel visiting London

Simple: tired. No, no, just kidding. Although there’s an element of truth in that, because the sheer diversity and scale of the city are such that it’s easy to try and do too much at once – give yourself a few days to fully appreciate everything the place has to offer.

London really will inspire you, fill you with a sense of wonder, delight, and entertain you – you get the idea. So whether you come for the sights, the history, the shopping, the entertainment, the arts or simply for the experience, you’re sure to have a good time.

History

Blimey, how long have you got?

Seriously though, London is quite simply huge. And to really ‘get under the skin’ of the city you need to experience all the different elements that make up the essence of ‘power’; the Church, the Monarchy, the home of Parliament; the landmarks and icons of the city; those museums and galleries, the utterly unique stores, and the entertainment.
Let’s start in the city of Westminster, the area dating from the 11thcentury, with the home of British art from 1500 to the present day, Tate Britain. Here you’ll find a wonderful collection of historic British art, Constables, Turners and the like, mingled pleasingly with contemporary artists’ work. Along the Vauxhall Bridge Road you’ll find Westminster Cathedral- not to be confused with the Abbey round the corner- this is the mother church of the catholic community in England and Wales, and the largest Catholic church in the country.
 
Head around the corner and there’s Westminster Abbey, famous and traditional place of coronations and royal weddings. Inside the Abbey is a fascinating collection of tombs of past English monarchs, and the famous Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, the one tomb no-one is allowed to tread on. While here look out for the plaque commemorating  where Caxton set up his first printing press nearby.
Next door is Westminster Palace, more commonly known as The Houses of Parliament. Rebuilt in the 19thcentury following a fire to the previous palace, this Gothic masterpiece with its’ famous Clock Tower- more commonly known as Big Ben after the name of the heaviest bell in the tower- is recognised globally (if you’re visiting in the evening see if the lantern at the top of the clock tower is lit, denoting if the Houses of Parliament are in session- it was allegedly installed at the request of Queen Victoria so she could see from Buckingham Palace if the members were working!).
 
Next head up Whitehall and check out the statue of Charles I, facing his execution site; this marks the exact centre of London, from which all distances are measured. Also on Whitehall, make sure to visit The Banqueting House (once called the ‘most revolutionary piece of architecture ever to rise in London’, the impressive ceiling paintings by Rubens in the Main Hall are worth it).
Go past Downing Street on the left, and end at Trafalgar Square, to marvel at Nelsons Column, flanked by those four huge bronze lions. To the north of the square you’ll find the imposing National Gallery and, round the corner, the National Portrait Gallery.
 
Then maybe zoom over the Mall to Buckingham Palace, the official London residence of British monarchs since 1837, when Queen Victoria first took up residence. Upon her arrival, a new wing was quickly added to the building to solve a noticeable problem- not enough bedrooms for visitors- less of an issue today as it has 775 rooms in total.
Go a little bit further West and check out Knightsbridge, including of course Harrods on the Brompton Road.
Further out, on the Cromwell Road is that trio of fabulous museums from the Great Exhibition- but thoroughly modernised for a superb experience; the V&A, The Natural History Museum and The Science Museum.
 
Head slightly north towards Hyde Park and you’ll be confronted by the Albert Memorial, erected by Queen Victoria in honour of her beloved husband Prince Albert; now this is pure spectacle. It took 10 years to create and is widely regarded as one of the grandest high-Victorian Gothic pieces anywhere in the world. Just along, and over the road, you’ll also be able to admire the Royal Albert Hall. Opening 10 years after the death of Prince Albert this was built to fulfil his vision of a central hall to promote the arts and sciences, surrounded by museums and places of learning.
 
Now cross over Hyde Park, and up through Mayfair towards Oxford Street. At the top of Park Lane, you’ll see Marble Arch- originally an entrance to Buckingham Palace, this was moved at the end of the 19thcentury to its current location. Head along Oxford Street, and the largest M&S in the country, as well as Selfridges with those impressive window displays, until you get to Regent Street. Take a right down Regent Street –stopping at Hamley’s if kids are on your trip- until you reach the heavy traffic of Piccadilly Circus. Here you’ll find the iconic illuminated ads on the curve of one of the buildings (home of TDK and Sanyo?), the statue in the middle of Eros- the first statue in the world to be cast in aluminium- and the start of Piccadilly, the street with Fortnum & Mason and the largest bookshop in Europe.
Off Piccadilly Circus is also the legendary Shaftesbury Avenue, in the heart of Theatreland. Stroll along here, with the bohemian and creative Soho to the left and Chinatown to the right until you get to Covent Garden (London’s first Italian style piazza, designed by Inigo Jones). This is a great place to while away a bit of time, with noisy street entertainers and the beautiful Royal Opera House tucked away in the corner.
 
Head a bit further north from here and stop by the British Museum. With one of the largest collections in the world, it’s quite hard to know where to start with this. Suffice to say, make sure you visit; it’s awesome.
 
Then head down to the Embankment; stroll along and cross the Thames on the Westminster Bridge (notice how the Westminster Bridge is predominantly green, matching the colours of the House of Commons; whilst the bridge at the other side of the Houses of Parliament- the Lambeth Bridge, is predominantly red, matching the seats in the House of Lords). On the other side of the Thames you’ll find the London Eye, that huge 443ft frame of the giant original wheel; walking along you’ll also pass Hayward’s Gallery and the modern blocks of the National Gallery.
 
Stroll along and see The Tate Modern, all imposing and austere; and then the small and intimate Globe Theatre. Then pop over the Millennium Bridge, head towards the City and marvel at  St Pauls Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren’s stunning 300 - year old domed cathedral.
 
From here visit the Stock Exchange, and check out the Bank of England on Threadneedle Street (why not try the Bank of England museum, where you can handle a real gold ingot) and then marvel at that wonderfully - designed big ‘Gherkin’ building.
 
Then it’s off to the Tower of London: aside from the Crown Jewels, the other big attraction is the White Tower, housing the Royal Armoury. A superb story of the 900-year old power struggles waged throughout Britain. And right next door, that wonder bridge, Tower Bridge, where you can now tour the inside for great views.
 
Finally, why not head over to the Royal Observatory in nearby Greenwich? Here in SE10 is the National Maritime Museum, probably the biggest museum of its kind in the world, and the home of the Royal Observatory, the location of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian. Rather apt really, given the global outlook of this magnificent city.

When to visit

City pics

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