For the tourist, London is a thrilling place with a multitude of places to visit. Monuments from the capital’s glorious past are everywhere, from medieval banqueting halls and the great churches of Christopher Wren to the eclectic Victorian architecture of the triumphalist British Empire. There is no shortage of things to do in London: you can relax in the city’s quiet Georgian squares, explore the narrow alleyways of the City of London, wander along the riverside walks, and uncover the quirks of what is still identifiably a collection of villages. The largest capital in the European Union, stretching for more than thirty miles from east to west, and with a population of just under eight million, London is also incredibly diverse, ethnically and linguistically, offering cultural and culinary delights from right across the globe.
The capital’s great historical landmarks – Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and so on – draw in millions of tourists every year. This isn’t a city that rests on its laurels, however. Since the turn of the millennium, all of London’s world-class museums, galleries and institutions have been reinvented, from the Royal Opera House to the British Museum. With Tate Modern and the London Eye, the city boasts the world’s largest modern art museum and Europe’s largest Ferris wheel. And thanks to the 2012 Olympics, even the East End – not an area previously on most tourists’ radar – has been given an overhaul.
You could spend days just shopping in London, mixing with the upper classes in the “tiara triangle” around Harrods, or sampling the offbeat weekend markets of Portobello Road, Brick Lane and Camden. The city’s pubs have always had heaps of atmosphere, and food is now a major attraction too, with more than fifty Michelin-starred restaurants and the widest choice of cuisines on the planet. The music, clubbing and gay and lesbian scenes are second to none, and mainstream arts are no less exciting, with regular opportunities to catch outstanding theatre companies, dance troupes, exhibitions and opera.
London’s special atmosphere comes mostly, however, from the life on its streets. A cosmopolitan city since at least the seventeenth century, when it was a haven for Huguenot immigrants escaping persecution in Louis XIV’s France, today it is truly multicultural, with over a third of its permanent population originating from overseas. The last hundred years has seen the arrival of thousands from the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent, the Mediterranean, the Far East and Eastern Europe, all of whom play an integral part in defining a metropolis that is unmatched in its sheer diversity.
A brief history
The Romans founded Londinium in 43 AD as a stores depot on the marshy banks of the Thames. Despite frequent attacks – not least by Queen Boudicca, who razed it in 61 AD – the port became secure in its position as capital of Roman Britain by the end of the century. London’s expansion really began, however, in the eleventh century, when it became the seat of the last successful invader of Britain, the Norman duke who became William I of England (aka “the Conqueror”). Crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey, William built the White Tower – centrepiece of the Tower of London – to establish his dominance over the merchant population, the class that was soon to make London one of Europe’s mightiest cities.
Little is left of medieval or Tudor London. Many of the finest buildings were wiped out in the course of a few days in 1666 when the Great Fire of London annihilated more than thirteen thousand houses and nearly ninety churches, completing a cycle of destruction begun the year before by the Great Plague, which killed as many as a hundred thousand people. Chief beneficiary of the blaze was Christopher Wren, who was commissioned to redesign the city and rose to the challenge with such masterpieces as St Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich.
Much of the public architecture of London was built in the Georgian and Victorian periods of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when grand structures were raised to reflect the city’s status as the financial and administrative hub of the British Empire. And though postwar development peppered the city with some undistinguished modernist buildings, more recent experiments in high-tech architecture, such as the Gherkin, have given the city a new gloss.