London – the grand resonance of its very name suggests history and might. Its opportunities for entertainment by day and night go on and on and on. It’s a city that exhilarates and intimidates, stimulates and irritates in equal measure, a grubby Monopoly board studded with stellar sights.
It’s a cosmopolitan mix of Third and First Worlds, chauffeurs and beggars, the stubbornly traditional and the proudly avant-garde. But somehow – between ‘er Majesty and Boy George, Damien Hirst and JMW Turner, Bow Bells and Big Ben – it all hangs together.
The city is so enormous visitors will need to make maximum use of the underground train system: unfortunately, this dislocates the geography and makes it hard to get your bearings. A ride on a red double-decker bus (a quintessential London experience) will help piece things together.
Area: 1,572 sq km
Population: 7.2 million
Time Zone: GMT/UTC 0 (Greenwich Mean Time)
Telephone Area Code: 020
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, such as Brixton, which have vibrant subcultures of their own and are in many ways where the real vitality of London lies.
When to Go
London is a year-round tourist centre, with few of its attractions closing or significantly reducing their opening hours in winter. Your best chance of good weather is, of course, at the height of summer in July and August, but there’s certainly no guarantee of sun even in those months – plus it’s when you can expect the biggest crowds and highest prices.
Most businesses close on public holidays such as New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, May Day Bank Holiday (the first Monday in May), Spring Bank Holiday (the last Monday in May), Summer Bank Holiday (the last Monday in August), Christmas Day and Boxing Day (26 December).
There are countless festivals and events in London. It all kicks off with the New Year’s Eve fireworks and street party in Trafalgar Square, followed by the New Year’s Day Parade. On Shrove Tuesday pancake races are held in Covent Garden, and in early May more serious racers take part in the London Marathon.
All London gets its colours on for the FA Cup Final in mid-May. There’s even more colour at the Chelsea Flower Show, held in the last week of May.
Trooping the Colour, the Queen’s birthday parade, is held in June; Wimbledon runs for two weeks in the same month and London Pride, Europe’s biggest gay and lesbian festival, also hits the streets. In July the world’s biggest military tattoo, the Royal Tournament, is held in Earl’s Court, and the raucous Notting Hill Carnival takes over the streets in August.
Horsy folks can’t resist late-September’s Horseman’s Sunday in Hyde Park, with more than 100 horses receiving the blessing from a vicar on horseback, followed by show jumping in Kensington Gardens.
Things wind down as the weather gets colder, though there are plenty of bonfires on Guy Fawkes Night, on the 5th of November. The Lord Mayor’s Show is held in late November, complete with floats, bands and fireworks. Trafalgar Square lights up in December with the Lighting of the Christmas Tree.