Noisy, vibrant and truly multicultural, London is a megalopolis of people, ideas and energy. The capital and largest city of both the United Kingdom and of England, 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 nearly 8 million people — although the figure of over 14 million for the city's total metropolitan area more accurately reflects London's size and importance. London is one of the great "world cities," and remains a global capital of culture, fashion, finance, politics and trade.
London will host the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Probably the world's greatest metropolis, anything and everything you could possibly want to buy is available in London, if you know where to look, and if you can afford it (London is not particularly noted for bargain shopping, owing to high prices and high exchange rates (depending on where the traveller is from) - though it can be done with some determination). In Central London, the main shopping district is the West End (Bond St, Covent Garden, Oxford St and Regent St). On Thursdays many West End stores close later than normal (7PM-8PM).
- Oxford Street. Main shopping street home to flagship branches of all the major British high street retailers in one go including Selfridges, John Lewis (includes a food hall), Marks & Spencer and other department stores.
- Regent Street (between Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus). Includes such gems as Hamleys, considered to be London's flagship toy store, on seven levels, and the London Apple Store.
- Bond Street. Some of the world's most luxurious designer stores such as Cartier, D&G, Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton and Versace.
- Tottenham Court Road. Contains some of the world's most luxurious designer interior stores such as Heals, whilst the southern end is famous for its large concentration of hi-fi, computer and electronics stores.
- Covent Garden. Fashionable area home to quaint outlets and relatively expensive designer stores. Around Seven Dials chains include Adidas Originals, All Saints, Carhartt, Fred Perry, G Star Raw and Stussy. For shoes head for Neal St. Also the London Transport Museum whose gift shop has some of the best souvenirs in the city (old maps, vintage Tube posters, etc).
- Charing Cross Road (near Covent Garden). A book lovers haven! New, second-hand, antiquarian and specialist.
- Soho . Offers alternative music and clothes. Now home to Chappell of Bond St's historic music shop.
- Camden Town. Alternative clothing and other alternative shopping, popular with teenagers and young adults. Also nearby Camden Lock market.
- Chelsea. The King's Road is noted for fashion, homeware and kids. On Wednesday many stores close late.
- Knightsbridge. Department stores include the world famous Harrods (includes a food hall) and Harvey Nichols. On Wednesday many stores close late.
- Westminster. Some of the world's most famous shirts are made on Jermyn St.
Tax-free shops in airports are not strong in variety, prices are equal to London, and they close rather early as well. Shop listings at airport web sites can help to plan your tax-free (vs traditional) shopping. In the evening allow extra half an hour as closing hours are not always strictly respected.
Borough (tube: London Bridge) is a great (if expensive) food market, offering fruit, veg, cheese, bread, meat, fish, and so on, much of it organic. It's open Th-Sa, and it's best to go in the morning, since it gets unpleasantly crowded by around 11AM.
Old Spitalfields Market is an excellent market for clothes from up-and-coming designers, records, housewares, food, and all things trendy. Also Brick Lane, Greenwich and Portobello,.
London is a huge city, so all individual listings are in the appropriate district articles.
- Take a walk through London's Royal Parks. A good walk would start at Paddington station, and head through Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Green Park (passing Buckingham Palace) and St James Park before crossing Trafalgar Square and the River Thames to the South Bank and Waterloo Station. At a strolling pace this walk would take half a day, with plenty of places to stop, sit, drink, eat en-route. A good pictorial description of this walk can be found online at Trips By Trains Royal Parks Walk.
- Live MusicLondon is one of the best cities in the world for concerts, spanning from new musical trends to well known bands. Between huge concert facilities and small pubs, there are hundreds of venues that organise and promote live music every week. Many concerts, especially in smaller or less known places are free, so there is plenty of choice even for tourists on a budget.
- TheatreThe West End, especially the areas concentrated around Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Shaftesbury Avenue and Haymarket, is one of the world's premier destinations for theatre, including musical theatre. In the centre of Leicester Square there is an official half-price TKTS booth. For up-to-date listings see the weekly magazine Time Out or check the official London theatreland site. The South Bank is another area well-known for serious theatre, and is home to both the National Theatre and the Globe Theatre. London's theatre scene outside of these two main districts is known as "the Fringe".
- Watch a movieAs well as the world-famous blockbuster cinemas in the West End, London has a large number of superb art house cinemas. In the summer months, there are often outdoor screenings at various venues, such as Somerset House and in some of the large parks.
- Watch footballTake in a home match of one of the city's 20+ professional football clubs for a true experience of a lifetime as you see the passion of the "World's Game" in its mother country. The biggest EPL clubs in London are Arsenal, Chelsea, Fulham, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United. A level down finds Charlton Athletic, Crystal Palace, Queen's Park Rangers and Millwall. Many of the bigger clubs will require booking in advance, sometimes many months ahead, but smaller clubs allow you to simply turn up on match day and pay at the gate. You will be able to find a ticket to a quality football match on any Saturday during the season.
- WimbledonWimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament in the world and is widely considered the most prestigious. Naturally it is a regular feature on the Tennis calendar. London goes "tennis crazy" for two weeks when the competition commences in late June and early July.
- Open House London WeekendExplore many of the city's most interesting buildings during the London Open House Weekend - usually held on the third weekend of September. During this single weekend, several hundred buildings which are not normally open to the public are opened up. See website for details of buildings opening in any given year - some buildings have to be pre-booked in advance - book early for the popular ones!
- Natural History Museum, One of the first of its kind in the world. The museum houses many permanent and temporary exhibitions covering plants, animals and geology from the worlds natural history. Of interest to most would be the permanent dinosaur exhibition. Although many displays feel dated this is an excellent museum and is always, deservedly, crowded.
- Winter Skating. London has a number of outdoor ice rinks that open in the winter months. Considered by some to be somewhat overpriced and overcrowded, they nonetheless have multiplied in recent years, easing congestion and increasing competition. Most charge from £10-12 (adults) for an hour on the ice, including skate hire. See the district articles for the City of London, East End and Leicester Square.
- Summer Skating. In summer (and also in winter, for the more dedicated) there is also a thriving roller skating (on inline and traditional "quad" skates) scene in London, catering to many disciplines including street hockey, freestyle slalom, dance, general recreational skating (including three weekly marshalled group street skates) and speed skating. This mostly centres around Hyde Park (on the Serpentine Road) and Kensington Gardens (by the Albert Memorial). See the district articles for Mayfair-Marylebone and South West London.
- Shopping.If it's available, it can be bought in London. Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street, all in the West End, are some of the most famous shopping destinations in the world, but they are also just the tip of the iceberg, and many London districts and town centres have unique shopping attractions of their own.
If you don't feel like splashing out on one of the commercial bus tours, you can make your own bus tour by buying an Oyster card and spending some time riding around London on the top deck of standard London buses. Of course you don't get the open air or the commentary, but the views are very similar. You will likely get lost but that is half the fun; if it worries you go for a commercial tour.
- Open top bus tourThese offer a good, albeit somewhat expensive, introduction to the sights of London. Two principal operators tend to dominate the market for this kind of tour: (The Original Tour +44 (0)20 8877 1722 and The Big Bus Company +44 (0)20 7233 9533). Both provide hop-on/hop-off services where you can get off at any attraction and catch the next bus; both provide live commentaries in English and recorded commentaries in other languages (not necessarily on the same buses).
- London DucktoursIf you are in the mood for a view of London by boat. The tour bus is actually a D-Day landing water/land vehicle that has been refurbished complete with tour guide.
- London Movie ToursLondon is the third busiest filming location in the world and has plenty of famous film locations to visit from movies such as Bridget Jones's Diary, The Da Vinci Code and Sherlock Holmes.
- New London Tours, , +49 30 510 50030Old City of London Tour starts everyday at 10 am by the sundial directly opposite the Tower Gateway exit at Tower Hill Station. Royal London Free tour starts daily at 11AM by Wellington Arch. Use EXIT 2 when leaving Hyde Park Corner station. (Phone number links to Germany.)
- Architectural Tours, +44 20 3006 7008Open House Architecture Tours take place every Saturday morning and offer an opportunity to experience London’s built environment at first hand. The tour guides, all of whom are architects, architectural writers or architectural historians, have an in-depth knowledge of London, enabling them to provide an intelligent but accessible commentary to the tours. Four geographical areas are rotated on a weekly basis: The Square Mile, Edges of the City, Westminster and Docklands. Please note that a coach is used to get you to the key destinations, with some walking in-between.
London is a huge city, so all individual listings are in the appropriate district articles and only an overview is presented here.
English Heritage runs the Blue Plaques programme in London. Blue Plaques celebrate great figures of the past and the buildings that they inhabited. These are among the most familiar features of the capital’s streetscape and adorn the façades of buildings across the city. Since the first plaque was erected in 1867, the number has grown steadily and there are now more than 800. Recipients are as diverse as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sigmund Freud, Charles de Gaulle, Jimi Hendrix and Karl Marx. Look out for these around the city.
- Buckingham Palace - The official London residence of the Queen, also in Westminster. Open for tours during the summer months only, but a must-see sight even if you don't go in.
- The London Eye. The world's third largest observation wheel, situated on the South Bank of the Thames with magnificent views over London.
- Marble Arch is a white Carrara marble monument designed by John Nash. It is located in the middle of a huge traffic island at one of the busiest intersections in central London where Oxford St meets Park Lane in Mayfair.
- Piccadilly Circus is one of the most photographed sights in London. The status of Eros stands proudly in the middle while the north eastern side is dominated by a huge, iconic neon hoarding.
- St Paul's Cathedral, also in the City, is Sir Christopher Wren's great accomplishment, built after the 1666 Great Fire of London - the great dome is still seated in majesty over The City. A section of the dome has such good acoustics that it forms a "Whispering Gallery".
- Tower Bridge - Is the iconic 19th century bridge located by the Tower of London near the City. It is decorated with high towers and featuring a drawbridge and you can visit the engine rooms and a Tower Bridge exhibition.
- The Tower of London - Situated just south east of the City, is London's original royal fortress by the Thames. It is over 900 years old, contains the Crown Jewels, guarded by Beefeaters, and is a World Heritage site. It is also considered by many to be the most haunted building in the world. If you are interested in that sort of thing its definitely somewhere worth visiting. Sometimes there are guided ghost walks of the building.
- Trafalgar Square - Home of Nelson's Column and the lions, and once a safe haven for London's pigeons until the recent introduction of hired birds of prey. It recently attracted controversy over the 'Fourth plinth', previously empty, being temporarily home to a Marc Quin sculpture, 'Alison Lapper Pregnant'. Overlooked by the National Gallery, it's the nearest London has to a 'centre', and has recently been pedestrianised.
- Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster (including Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament) in Westminster. The seat of the United Kingdom parliament and World Heritage site, as well as setting for royal coronations since 1066, most recently that of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The Palace of Westminster is open to the public only for viewing parliamentary debates, tours of the building are available during July-August when Parliament is away on summer recess.
Museums and Galleries
London hosts an outstanding collection of world-class museums. Even better, it is the only one of the traditional "alpha world cities" (London, Tokyo, New York City and Paris) in which the majority of the museums have no entrance charges, thus allowing visitors to make multiple visits with ease. Although London can be expensive, many of the best museums and galleries are free including:
and most museums in Greenwich. Note that admission to many temporary exhibitions is not free.
- British Museum
- National Gallery
- National Portrait Gallery
- Natural History Museum
- Tate Modern
- Tate Britain
Aside from these world famous establishments, there is an almost unbelievable number of minor museums in London covering a very diverse range of subjects. The British government lists over 240 genuine museums in the city.
The 'green lungs' of London are the many parks, great and small, scattered throughout the city including Hyde Park, St James Park and Regent's Park. Most of the larger parks have their origins in royal estates and hunting grounds and are still owned by the Crown, despite their public access.
- Hyde Park and adjoining Kensington Gardens make up a huge open space in central London and are very popular for picnics.
- Regent's Park is wonderful open park in the northern part of central London.
- St James's Park has charming and romantic gardens ideal for picnics and for strolling around. St. James's Park is situated between Buckingham Palace on the west and Horse Guards Parade on the east.
- Hampstead Heath is a huge open green space in north central London. Not a tended park a such and is remarkably wild for a metropolitan city location. The views from the Parliament Hill area of the heath south over the city are quite stunning.
- Richmond Park also is a huge green space, but has a thriving deer population that is culled in the spring. Excellent place for cycling.
In an emergency, telephone "999" (or "112"). This number connects to Police, Ambulance and Fire/Rescue services. You will be asked which of these three services you require before being connected to the relevant operator.
Like many big cities, London has a variety of social problems, especially begging, drug abuse and theft (mobile phones are a favourite, often snatched by fast-moving cyclists).
London has the oldest police force in the world, The Metropolitan Police Service, and on the whole, London is a safe place to visit and explore. Alongside the regular Police, there are over 4,000 Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) that provide a highly visible presence on the streets and are able to deal with low-level crime. Normal precautions for the safe keeping of your personal possessions, as you would in any other city, are suggested.
Crime mapping has been launched in London allowing residents and visitors to see the level of recorded crime for different areas.
If you're planning to go out late at night and are worried about safety, frequent crowded areas such as the West End. There are always plenty of people on the street, even at 4AM. Generally, outside central London, the South, and East suburban areas are considered more dangerous, notably Brixton and Hackney, although some parts of North-West London such as Harlesden and northern Camden are also known trouble spots.
The main problem right throughout London to various degrees is drunken behaviour, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights and after football matches. Loud and rowdy behaviour is to be expected and fights and acts of aggression also occur. If you are harassed, it is best to simply ignore and walk away from those concerned. Trouble spots can be expected around popular drinking locations such as Soho and in various suburban centres.
Every night, Soho presents a particular danger: the "clip joint". The usual targets of these establishments are lone male tourists. Usually, an attractive woman will casually befriend the victim and recommend a local bar or even a club that has a "show". The establishment will be near-desolate, and, even if the victim has only a drink or two, the bill will run to hundreds of pounds. If payment is not immediately provided, the bouncers will lock the "patrons" inside and take it by force or take them to an ATM and stand over them while they extract the cash.
To be safe, if a woman you just met suggests you a place, try to recommend a different bar, and if she insits on hers walk away and do not listen to her suggestions. Sometimes this con trick takes place when someone is lured into a private club with the promise of something perhaps more than a drink (like a 'private show' or sex for a small amount of money). A 'hostess fee' will appear on the bill for several hundred pounds, even though there has been nothing more than polite conversation.
The Metropolitan Police have placed significant resources in combating street level crime. Working in conjunction with borough councils, they have been able to bring the level of theft and pickpocketing in major retail areas in London to a level that is manageable.
Street gang culture is a growing problem in London as with many other cities in England. While most groups of youngsters are not likely to present any danger to tourists, some people feel the need to be slightly more vigilant in certain areas, especially certain outer suburbs.
Don't take illegal minicabs (see Get around for details).
Travelling on lower deck of a night bus is generally safer, as there are more passengers around, and you are visible by the bus driver.
If you have been the victim of crime on the railways or the London Underground, you should report the crime as soon as possible to the British Transport Police, who have an office in most major train and tube stations. Elsewhere, you should report your crime as normal to the Metropolitan Police.