Although most of the best places to visit in London are north of the River Thames, which loops through the centre from west to east, there is no single focus of interest. That’s because London hasn’t grown through centralized planning but by a process of random agglomeration.
Villages and urban developments that once surrounded the core are now lost within the vast mass of Greater London, leaving London’s highlights widely spread, and meaning that visitors should make mastering the public transport system, particularly the Underground (tube), a top priority.
If London has a centre, it’s Trafalgar Square, home to Nelson’s Column and the National Gallery. It’s also as good a place as any to start exploring the city, especially as the area to the south of here, Whitehall and Westminster, is one of the easiest bits to discover on foot. This was the city’s royal, political and ecclesiastical power-base for centuries, and you’ll find some of London’s most famous landmarks here: Downing Street, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.
The grand streets and squares of St James’s, Mayfair and Marylebone, to the north of Westminster, have been the playground of the rich since the Restoration, and now contain some of the city’s busiest shopping zones: Piccadilly, Bond Street, Regent Street and, most frenetic of the lot, Oxford Street.
East of Piccadilly Circus, Soho, Chinatown and Covent Garden are also easy to walk around and form the heart of the West End entertainment district, where you’ll find the largest concentration of theatres, cinemas, shops, cafés and restaurants.
Adjoining Covent Garden to the north, the university quarter of Bloomsbury is the location of the ever-popular British Museum, a stupendous treasure house that boasts a wonderful central, covered courtyard. To the north of Bloomsbury lies King’s Cross, home to the British Library and the city’s Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, and now at the centre of a massive redevelopment project with galleries, restaurants and a swimming pond.
Welding the West End to the financial district, Holborn is a little-visited area, but offers some of central London’s most surprising treats, among them the eccentric Sir John Soane’s Museum and the secluded quadrangles of the Inns of Court, where the country’s lawyers learn and ply their trade.
Fashionable Clerkenwell, to the east of Holborn on the northern edge of the City, is visited mostly on weeknights for its many popular bars and restaurants, but also has vestiges of London’s monastic past and a radical history to be proud of.
A couple of miles downstream from Westminster, The City – or the City of London, to give it its full title – is the original heart of London, simultaneously the most ancient and the most modern part of the metropolis. Settled since Roman times, the area became the commercial and residential heart of medieval London, with its own Lord Mayor and its own peculiar form of local government, both of which survive (with considerable pageantry) to this day.
The Great Fire of 1666 obliterated most of the City, and although it was rebuilt, the resident population has dwindled to insignificance. Yet this remains one of the great financial centres of the world, with the most prominent landmarks these days being the hi-tech skyscrapers of banks and insurance companies. However, the Square Mile, as it’s known, boasts its fair share of historic sights too, notably the Tower of London and a fine cache of Wren churches that includes the mighty St Paul’s Cathedral.
East of the City, the East End and Docklands are equally notorious, but in entirely different ways. Traditionally working-class, the East End is not conventional tourist territory, but its long history of immigration is as fascinating as is its more recent emergence as a bolthole for artists. With its converted warehouse apartments and hubristic tower blocks, Docklands is the converse of the edgy East End, with the Canary Wharf tower – for three decades the country’s tallest building – epitomizing the pretensions of the 1980s’ Thatcherite dream.
The South Bank and Southwark together make up the small slice of central London that lies south of the Thames. The Southbank Centre itself, London’s concrete culture bunker, is now ingrained on the tourist map – thanks, in part, to the nearby London Eye, which spins gracefully over the Thames. The area is going from strength to strength, with the Millennium Bridge linking St Paul’s Cathedral with the former power station that’s home to Tate Modern, London’s beloved museum of modern art.
In Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens you’ll find a large segment of greenery that separates wealthy west London from the city centre. The museums of South Kensington – the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum – are a must, and if you have shopping on your agenda you may well want to investigate the hive of plush stores in the vicinity of Harrods, superstore to the upper echelons.
Some of the most appealing parts of north London are clustered around the Regent’s Canal, which skirts the northern edge of Regent’s Park and serves as the focus for the capital’s busiest weekend market, held around Camden Lock. Further out, in the chic literary suburbs of Hampstead and Highgate, there are unbeatable views across the city from half-wild Hampstead Heath, the sprawling stomping ground of dog walkers and kite flyers.
The glory of south London is Greenwich, with its nautical associations, royal park and observatory (not to mention its Dome).
Finally, there are plenty of rewarding day-trips up the Thames, southwest of the city centre from Chiswick to Hampton Court, an area that is liberally peppered with the stately homes and grounds of the country’s royalty and former aristocracy, from Syon and Kew, to Richmond and Ham.