London

London


The Celtics were the first ones to found a settlement around a shallow ford in the River Thames, but it was not until the arrival of the Romans that the area, which is now known as the City of London, was developed. The Romans built a bridge across the river, as well as a huge city wall. London was included in their extensive road system and became an important trading place. After Roman times, the city expanded gradually and survived attacks from the Saxons and the Vikings.

King Edward I, who was also known as Edward the Confessor, started construction of the Westminster Abbey in 1045. The building was several times expanded and remodeled and it would later become the resting place of the British royals. The abbey has unique acoustics and it will make you shiver when you visit and a choir will start to sing. Nowadays it is one of the most visited churches in the Christian world. It is beautifully decorated and full of tombs and monuments. Edward the Confessor also built a palace at Westminster.

Fifty years later the Normans arrived in London. William the Conqueror raised the White Tower, which is now part of the Tower of London, and declared London an independent city.

Later, under Elizabeth I the city started growing rapidly and in only 40 years its population doubled from 100,000 to 200,000. In 1666 the Great Fire destroyed most of the city. Rebuilding efforts started immediately and Christopher Wren ceased the moment to build some of his churches on open spaces in between the rubble. Only a few years later the entire city was back on its feet and started to grow again.

By 1720 London already had some 750,000 inhabitants and was one of the largest cities in the world. The city grew richer and more important, as it was the seat of Parliament, where all important decisions were made on the growth of the Empire. During the 18th century Georgian architects tore down the few remaining medieval buildings and replaced them with their imposing structures and squares.

In 1851 London had 2.7 million inhabitants, but rapid growth, as a result of the industrial revolution and growing trade, boosted that number to 6.6 million only 50 years later. All these people were housed in huge expanses of Victorian suburbs.

It was these areas that were heavily damaged during the bombing campaigns of the German Luftwaffe in WWII. After the war, cheap and ugly building blocks were thrown up to provide London with large amounts of needed housing in a short time. The docks, which were also damaged, never recovered and shipping activities moved to Tilbury. The Docklands became derelict and it was not until the 1980's that developers discovered its potential. London boomed during the 1980's, but the boom didn't last very long, as the recession of the early 1990's stopped the flow of much needed cash.

At the end of the 1990's, Britain's new government tried to boost the economy and ordered huge projects such as the Millennium Dome and the London Eye observation wheel to be developed, but only several years later huge losses forced an end to most of them.

London is one of the few western cities that looks unplanned and grubby, although that adds to its appeal. To get around in this enormous city, you will have to use the Underground frequently, which will cause the dislocation of the city's geography and disorientation. Especially around the central area, there is a huge traffic congestion problem in London.

The main point of focus is probably the River Thames, as it runs right through the city and it is a good feature to help you find your way. The river divides the city in half. Most of the tourist sights are on the northern bank of the river, as are many theatres and restaurants. Most of the places of interest lie within the Underground's Circle line. Places such as Soho, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Regent Street all lie in the western part of the Circle, while the cultural melting pot of East End is to the east. In the North of London you will find numerous interesting inner-city suburbs such as Notting Hill and Camden Town, while the southern part of the city is mostly poor and graffiti-ridden. London covers an area of about 1300 km² (800 sq miles).

Warning

Continuous struggle between the IRA and the British government, as well as terrorist threats, have resulted in tight security measures in London. Be careful you never leave your bags unattended, as that might trigger a security alert. If you see unattended packages, notify security personnel and stay clear of the package. Left-luggage lockers at bus and train stations are frequently sealed off because of these kind of alarms and for the same reason there are often transport hold-ups.

Places to Visit

The Churches

Westminster Abbey is the resting place of most of the royals. It was built between 1045 and 1400.

St Paul's Cathedral was built by Wren between 1675 and 1710 on the site of two ancient cathedrals dating back to 604. Its dome is the world's second largest after Saint Peter's in Rome. Words spoken near the whispering gallery are reputedly carried to the other side of the dome, where they can be heard, so be quiet!

Westminster Cathedral is the seat of the head of Britain's Catholic Church. It is also the only remaining building in London that was built in neo-Byzantine style. Its interior consists of marble and was finished in brick when money ran out. There are 14 Cross sculptures by Eric Gill.

Palaces and Royals

After a fire destroyed parts of Windsor Castle in 1993, parts of Buckingham Palace where opened to the public in order to raise money for repairs at Windsor. There is nothing much spectacular to see in Buckingham Palace though.

The Tower of London used to be a castle and a palace, but nowadays it is a museum and a monument to cruelty. People like Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Walter Raleigh and Rudolf Hess were once imprisoned in the tower. In Martin Tower all sorts of torture implements are on display and there are numerous suits of armor, coats of arms and Beefeaters. According to legend, once the ravens on the green desert the tower, London will fall to its enemies.

Parliament

The Houses of Parliament boast a beautiful neo-Gothic façade. It is home to both the House of Commons and the House of Lords and it is possible to follow sessions, but access is restricted. The Big Ben is the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament.

On Downing Street, you will find the official residence of the prime minister (no 10) and the chancellor of the exchequer (no 11). Most of Downing Street is closed to all traffic. The street has an iron gate, fences and security forces around them for protection.

Museums

The august British Museum is the oldest museum in the world. Most of the antiquities on display were looted from former colonies, or stolen by Victorian travelers and explorers from their original locations. The most important exhibitions are those of the Egyptian mummies, Assyrian treasures, the pre-Christian Portland Vase and a corpse that dates from the 1st century and was found in a bog in Cheshire. Admission to the British Museum is free.

More booty can be seen at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Its collection consists of some 4 million items and it looks like a huge Victorian market place. Items that will catch your eye include Chinese ceramics, Japanese swords, cartoons by Raphael, sculpture by Rodin, the Frank Lloyd Wright study and the pair of Doc Martens.

The Natural History Museum is housed in one of London's finest Gothic-revival buildings. It has an interesting dinosaur exhibition, but also the spooky 'rainforest at night' is well worth a visit.

Galleries

The National Gallery is on the edge of Trafalgar Square. It has an excellent art collection that includes The Bathers by Cezanne and Arnolfini Wedding by van Eyck. Entrance is free.

The Tate Gallery houses Britain's largest modern art collection, as well as an historical archive of British art. Next door is the Clore Gallery, where you can see a collection of JMW Turner paintings. The Tate Modern is housed in the old redbrick Bankside Power Station with a 325-feet high chimney. Numerous works by Bacon, Dalí, Picasso, Matisse, Rothko and Warhol, as well as work by more contemporary artists are on display there.

Cultural Centers

Most of London's cultural centers are housed in ugly concrete buildings, but the events that are organized inside make up for everything. The South Bank is spectacularly lit at night. It is home to the Hayward Gallery, the Festival Hall, the National Theatre and the National Film Theatre. The Barbican is home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Classical Orchestra, but the building is absolutely monstrous. The Globe Theatre is a reproduction of the original, which staged plays by Shakespeare and was closed in 1642. The Institute for Contemporary Art displays films, photography, theatre, dance and art.

The Parks

Hyde Park is a huge park, where duels used to be settled, executions took place and horse races were organized. During WWII potatoes were grown there to feed the population of the capital. There are several nice lakes in the park and on Serpentine Lake you can go out on a boat. There are several sculptures by Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore in Hyde Park, as well as the contemporary Serpentine Gallery and Speaker's Corner.

In Regents Park you'll find London Zoo, a mosque, and an open-air theatre. In the center of the park are the Queen Mary Rose Gardens. From the park it's a short walk to Primrose Hill, which offers great views over London.

Kew Gardens is in Richmond, Surrey. It includes a botanical research center and two Victorian conservatories, the Palm House and the Temperate House. Both buildings hold unique collections of exotic plant life. The buildings are surrounded by large gardens.

Hampstead Heath is a park covered with woods, meadows, hills and ponds and of the few places in London, where you can completely forget that you are in the center of one of the world's major cities.

In Greenwich Park is the Royal Observatory; the place that was set as the prime meridian or 0°r; meridian. Nearby is the Millennium Dome that failed as a tourist attraction.

Markets

The Camden Markets are huge. They stretch between the Underground stations of Camden and Chalk Farm and incorporate Camden Lock on the Grand Union Canal. During weekends and festivities they get so crowded with an ethnic mix of people that you feel like Camden is a market in a city of the developing world. The Camden Markets are divided into several parts, including the Camden Canal Market, where you can find bric-a-brac, furniture and designer clothes, the Camden Market for leather goods and army surplus gear and the Electric Market, if you're looking for records and 1960's clothing.

Portobello Market is the most famous street market in London. There are numerous stalls where jewelry, antique, ethnic utensils, second hand clothes and fruits and vegetables are sold. It is best visited on Saturday mornings, before it gets too crowded. The Petticoat Lane in East London is an expensive Sunday morning market. On Brixton Market you can hear reggae music, Muslim preachers and an ethnic mix of smells and sights.

The last surviving produce market in Central London is Smithfield. It is the largest wholesale meat market in Europe, although it has had several setbacks in recent years, due to various livestock diseases that spread over the entire U.K. Activity at Smithfield usually starts deep in the night and the local pubs open at midnight to accommodate the stallholders' unsociable hours.

The Brick Lane market in the East End is open on Sunday mornings. It consists of a collection of blankets on the street, instead of stalls, where all sorts of goods are for sale. On this market it is a custom to haggle over the price of items. The Kensington Market is a good place to look for clothing, but it is also possible to get a haircut, tattoo or piercing.

Shopping

There are numerous shopping malls, supermarkets, warehouses and other shops in London, but some are legendary. Covent Garden used to be a field where vegetables were grown for Westminster Abbey. Later is became a fruit and vegetable market and nowadays it's a nice arcaded piazza surrounded by all sorts of shops, bars and restaurants.

Harrods is probably the most famous warehouse in London, probably in the whole of England. Security is tight, but it is worth to have a look around.

Fortnum & Masons is renowned for its food hall. Scott bought his supplies there, before he set out to the Antarctic. If you need supplies too, we suggest you buy them somewhere else, as it is very expensive.

Cemeteries

The Victorian Gothic atmosphere at Highgate Cemetery is unique. The cemetery is very large and filled with massive cypress trees and angels in al sorts and sizes. There are numerous Egyptian-style catacombs and personalized tombs. The cemeteries of Kensal Green and Brompton are also Victorian and boast numerous catacombs and angels as well.

Hampstead

At Hampstead you can forget that you are in the 21st century. Just do Church Row, Admiral's Walk, or Flask Walk and you will find yourself in another world, full of Georgian cottages, terraces and houses. The marvelous Kenwood House is also well worth a visit.

Holland Park

Holland Park is a residential area, where you will find numerous elegant houses, several exhibition galleries and lots of green and gardens. Arabic style Leighton House has excellent exhibitions of pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Other sights

There are many more tourist sights in London, but it would be too much to list them all here. They include the aquarium, the IMAX Theatre, the London Eye, the Shakespeare Theatre and many more.

When to Go

On New Year huge street celebrations are held and especially on Trafalgar Square it is madness. On Shrove Thursday, pancake races are held in Covent Garden. Most attractions have the same opening hours all year round. During the winter the weather is usually quite cold, but there are less tourists, so accommodation is cheaper, easier to find and queues are shorter everywhere.

In the beginning of May the London Marathon is held and later that month you can enjoy the FA Cup Final. In the end of May there is the Chelsea Flower Show. In June the Queen's birthday is celebrated with a parade called Trooping the Colour. Also in June is London Pride, Europe's biggest gay and lesbian festival and tennis can be enjoyed at Wimbledon for two weeks in June. The weather is usually very pleasant in May and June, but in June the city gets very crowded with tourists.

During the summer months of July and August you'll have the best chance of good weather, but during the summer season most hotels are fully booked and prices skyrocket. In July the world's biggest military tattoo is held. It is called the Royal Tournament and it takes place in Earl's Court. The Notting Hill Carnival is celebrated in August.

In September you can see a vicar blessing more than 100 horses in Hyde Park, during the Horseman's Sunday. After that the weather usually turns sour and there is little going on in the winter, apart from Guy Fawkes Day, on the 5th of November, with lots of fires and Lord Mayor's Show, which is held in late November. During Christmas time London is beautifully decorated with thousands of lights.

Entertainment

The weekly Time Out has information on all kinds of events that take place in and around London. All useful information, such as the closing times of the pubs (11 pm) and the time when the underground gets locked up (around midnight) can be found in there. London has a lively nightclub scene and there are always live venues going on. In Time Out you can see what is on and where. More information on nightclubs and bars can be found in the Capital Guide. Just try to get a copy of one of them when you arrive in London.

There are numerous theatres in the capital, as well as countless music venues. If you like classical music; a night at the Albert Hall should not be missed. The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden has excellent operas, but it is very expensive if you want a decent seat.

Activities

There are plenty of things to do in London, apart from visiting all the tourist sights. You can hire a rowboat and peddle the Serpentine and in the Docklands other water sports such as jet skiing, water-skiing and windsurfing can be practiced. You can walk through London to see all the sights, but it is also nice to do some walking in one of the city's parks. Especially Hyde Park and Regents Park are excellent for walking. In Hyde Park it is also possible to rent horses. You can also explore the city on bike, but be very careful as there is a lot of traffic and it is all on the left side.

Transportation

The best way to see London is from the top deck of a double-decker bus. Tours along the main tourist sights are available, but it is also possible to take local buses that ply more or les the same route. The London Underground is huge and gets you everywhere, but it is not so much fun, mainly because you loose track of where you actually are. There are also several regional trains that run between several districts of London. Tickets are valid on all trains and Undergrounds.

There are loads of black cabs in London. The legendary taxis are quite expensive though, but cheaper minicabs are available as well. If you come to London by own means of transportation, be prepared for traffic congestions and parking problems.

There are several ways to get to downtown London from Heathrow airport. You can take a cab, or you can use the bus, the Underground (Piccadilly line) or the Heathrow Express, a sort of light rail system, which is probably the fastest and most convenient way to get to the center of town. The trains run between the airport and Paddington Station.

You can get to London by air. London Heathrow is one of the world's largest airports. There are three more airports in the city, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton, but they are all much smaller than Heathrow. The city also has rail connections with the mainland of Europe, via the Tunnel. Le Shuttle is a rail service, which is operated by Eurotunnel. It shuttles vehicles, cargo and people between Calais in France and Folkestone in the United Kingdom. There are also ferries between the two. Eurostar is a high-speed passenger service that connects London, Paris, Lille and Brussels with one another. Waterloo International is London's rail terminus for destinations in Europe.

Buses also ply the route and they usually cross the Channel by ferry or hovercraft. That ride is often included in the fare.

Places to stay and eat

There is a wide variety of accommodation in London, but especially during the summer months it is all ridiculously expensive and hard to come by. There is only a slight price-difference between bed & breakfasts and four star hotels. There are hotels, hostels, Bed & Breakfasts and camping sites all over the city. Some of the 'cheaper' accommodation is located in and around Earl's Court, Bloomsbury and Notting Hill. There are also countless restaurants and all of the world's cuisines are available in London, but eating out in London is also very expensive. You might fond some pizzerias or Chinese restaurants with reasonable prices though. The best variety of restaurants can be found in Covent Garden, Soho and north of Leicester Square.

Things to bring

Always bring an umbrella to London, as the weather is very unpredictable. Visitors from outside the U.K. should also bring an electric adapter if they want to use their own phone-chargers or shavers, etc. In the U.K. 220 V is used, but the plugs are different than in the world's most other countries, so your plug won't fit without the adapter. And finally, bring a lot of money. London is one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Useful Links

www.s-h-systems.co.uk/tourism/london/index.html
tube.tfl.gov.uk/
www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/
www.londoneye.com

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Miscellaneous Information

Latitude:    51 29 N
Longitude: 0 00 E
Elevation:  45 m (148 ft.)

Population: 10,000,000
Cost-of-living compared to Washington D.C.: 149%

Hours from UTC: 1
Daylight savings time: Late March through late October

City phone code: 71 and 81
Country phone code: 44

Average Weather Patterns

 TemperaturePrecipitation
January4.2°C (39.6°F)5.1 cm (2.01 in)
April8.9°C (48°F)4.6 cm (1.81 in)
July17.8°C (64°F)5.1 cm (2.01 in)
October10.6°C (51.1°F)5.8 cm (2.28 in)

Current Weather

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