Overview

If you're visiting London, England, for the first time, you may arrive expecting a European city that overflows with pomp and pageantry. Few visitors to London will fail to be impressed by the grandeur and craftsmanship of such monumental sights as Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's Cathedral, but that's just the historical foundation of today's modern, vibrant city.

Cosmopolitan London has every visitor attraction from Bengali markets to designer boutiques to world-class art exhibitions to hand-written Beatles lyrics at the British Library. London offers the best of British food, fashion and cultural pursuits, but its multicultural population gives it an international flair, as well. London has a lively mix of languages, dress, festivals and bustling street life.

As for sightseeing, visitors to London can admire orchids at Kew Gardens, gaze on the crown jewels at the Tower of London, learn about millennia of history at the British Museum and witness spectacular views of the city from the London Eye Ferris wheel—all in a day. An interest in the arts or royalty may be what draws you to the capital of England, but you don't have to be an avid theatergoer or a history buff to enjoy yourself thoroughly.

Sporting and cultural events take place across the capital, showing off this festive city at its best. London is a place you will want to visit again and again, and each time you visit, the city will have something new to offer.

Geography

London sprawls along both banks of the River Thames. Orientation is by boroughs (Westminster and the City are the central boroughs) or by areas, such as Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden. Locals use postal districts, or "postcodes" (Mayfair, Oxford Street and Park Lane, for instance, are in W1—that is, West 1; Bloomsbury and part of the City are in WC2, or West Central 2; Central Kensington falls within W8; South Kensington and Knightsbridge are in SW7). Postcodes are also becoming the quickest way of finding places, as they can be put into smartphone maps and online journey planners.

Central London can be divided into the West End (theaters, shops, restaurants, entertainment); the City (businesses, law courts, ancient buildings and ultramodern architecture); and Westminster (government offices, famous landmarks such as Big Ben). Across the river is the South Bank, with its arts venues and concert halls. Slightly beyond the reaches of central London, some of the districts that have experienced regeneration include Notting Hill, W11 (on the fringes of the West End); Greenwich, SE10 (south of the river); Hoxton and Shoreditch in N1 and EC2; Eastside, E1 (just north and east of Liverpool Street railway terminus); and the Olympic Park area called Stratford City (with the new postcode E20).

History

Although there is some evidence of Celtic settlements along the Thames, London's first known permanent settlers were the Romans, who established a stronghold there in AD 43. The city walls (parts of which can be seen today) were built after Londinium was burned to the ground by the Iceni tribe in AD 60. Viking and Saxon invaders were next to put down roots. And it was the Viking warrior Canute who first declared London the capital of England in 1016, a position it has held ever since.

The London we know today began to take shape in the 11th century, when Edward the Confessor commissioned the original building of Westminster Abbey. Shortly after its completion, William the Conqueror launched the Norman invasion in 1066 and seized the English throne. His fortress formed the core of the Tower of London. In the 1300s, bubonic plague, called the "Black Death," wiped out about half the city's inhabitants, reducing its population to around 50,000. Under Tudor rule in the 16th century, however, London tripled in size.

Also during that time, the English church separated from Rome, and religious persecution was rampant. That century also ushered in one of London's greatest artistic periods: The reign of Elizabeth I was the age of Shakespeare and other artists whose work is still admired today. In 1666, the Great Fire destroyed much of inner London (a happier consequence is that it also put an end to the worst plague outbreak, the Great Plague of 1665). The ambitious rebuilding process, spearheaded by architect Christopher Wren, destroyed virtually all that remained of medieval London. During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, London continued to grow and prosper under the reign of Queen Victoria. But just as the rich were getting richer, social divisions were becoming wider, with slums dramatically on the increase.

World War II brought devastation to London again—mainly during 57 consecutive days of bombing in 1940 (a period known as the Blitz). After the war, mass immigration from Britain's former colonies signaled the beginning of the multiculturalism seen throughout the city today. The 1960s were modern London's golden age, with much of the world seeking to emulate its swinging rhythm and freewheeling fashions and design. After a subsequent boom-and-bust period, there is now an unmistakable self-confidence in London, which prevails despite the world's current economic woes.

In honor of the millennium, a number of new landmarks were built, including the Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian-only route across the Thames, which leads to the Tate Modern art gallery, the huge Ferris wheel known as the London Eye, and the O2 Arena. More construction coincided with the city's hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games. With new hotels, galleries, stadiums and museums, the city is as vibrant as it has ever been.

Sightseeing

The sights of London embrace 2,000 years of history—the tramp of Roman legions, strolling players in the age of Shakespeare, plagues, royal pomp and circumstance, the Great Fire, the architectural heritage of the Georgian era, the squalid alleyways of Dickens' time, Victoria's great age of railways and trade, and the Blitz of World War II. In a city of more than 600 art galleries, 250 museums and countless places of interest, considerable planning is needed for sightseeing. The city's tourist attractions are sights you've heard about all your life. You won't have time to see them all, but some are absolute musts.

The Tower of London (dating from 1078) is always popular—get there early if you can, because waits of up to three hours aren't unusual in summer. Huge St. Paul's Cathedral, designed by 17th-century architect Christopher Wren, can take hours to wander through if you're in the right mood. The other famous church, Westminster Abbey, is where royals are crowned and married and England's notables are buried.

Across the street from the abbey is the clock tower attached to the Houses of Parliament; this is commonly known as Big Ben, which is actually the nickname of the Great Bell of this famous chiming clock that everyone watches (on TV) to see in the new year. Don't expect to see everything in a few hours at the British Museum—there are too many treasures to explore and too many other people. Art lovers will find paradise at Tate Britain and the Tate Modern, not to mention the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Fans of the literary arts should treat themselves to a tour of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the British Library. And for great perspective, take a ride on the giant London Eye Ferris wheel. Beloved by locals and visitors alike, it offers fantastic bird's-eye views of the city.

The River Bus service on the Thames—part of London's transport network—is a great way for visitors to venture farther afield. Kew Gardens (officially, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew) and Hampton Court Palace are accessible by river from Westminster Pier. Immerse yourself in tranquility at the former, royal prosperity at the latter. You can also get boats in the other direction to Tower Bridge and Greenwich.

If you've seen all the major sights or just want to escape the crowds for a while, visit the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Sir John Soane's museum (open during extensive renovations through 2016) or 18 Stafford Terrace. They're some of our favorite off-the-beaten-track spots in the city.

To make the most of your visit, consider buying a London Pass. Valid for one to six days (with prices £49-£81 adults without transport, £58-£199 with transport), it offers free entry to more than 60 London attractions, including the Tower of London, St. Paul's Cathedral and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Phone 020-7293-0972. http://www.londonpass.com.

Nightlife

The city has a proliferation of small, highly specialized clubs. The major entertainment guides are essential for keeping abreast of ephemeral hot spots. For the most complete listings, see Time Out, a free publication available every Wednesday (http://www.timeout.com/london), or The Guide in the Saturday edition of The Guardian newspaper.

Most nightclubs have a cover of £5-£25, and you'll probably have to stand in line to get in. Bouncers are fickle: You may be turned away because of your appearance or the time you show up. (Women are less likely to be turned away than men.) Clubs generally close around 3 am, although some of the top dance spots may stay open until 6 am.

London pubs are a social experience not to be missed. They vary in quality from historic, antiques-filled hostelries to unsavory, Spartan taprooms. Many are divided into a public bar and a usually more comfortable saloon or lounge bar. The smoking ban has made pubs more enjoyable for the increasing numbers of nonsmokers who frequent them, and any drinking spot with a garden or other form of outside space has been able to capitalize on providing the best of both worlds for its customers.

An addition to the pub scene is the gastro-pub, usually an old pub that has been refurbished to attract a more fashionable, affluent crowd and that serves good, restaurant-quality food at reasonable prices.

Closing times can vary from 11 pm until the early hours. Changes in U.K. law allow those that wish to remain open later to apply for extended licensing hours.

Dining

London is now one of the premier culinary cities of Europe, a result, in part, of the restaurant boom that started in the 1990s. Londoners' interest in food continues unabated, and most of the "celebrity chefs" who have become stars of British television have restaurants there (Jamie Oliver, Angela Hartnett, Antony Worrell Thompson and Gordon Ramsay). Much of the best food borrows flavors and ingredients from around the world—though some so-called British eateries are stunning diners with their quality and innovation and use of local ingredients. Many popular restaurants are high on style, too—sleek and chic in renovated buildings or designer hotels. Old-fashioned pubs that have been given a fresh makeover are also in vogue. Even museums, themselves experiencing renewed popularity, now provide notable eating establishments.

Though variety is the key word, specific areas are best for specific tastes: Chinese is forever associated with Gerrard Street, W1, in Chinatown; for inexpensive Indian food, head for Brick Lane, E1; for Middle Eastern, try Edgware Road, W2. For something inexpensive and filling, head for a pub. For good value, look for pre- and post-theater specials at restaurants in the West End and some of the excellent fixed-price lunchtime menus at many of the city's top restaurants.

Dining out is expensive, but keep in mind that menu prices always include 20% VAT (value-added tax). It's a good idea to reserve a table at all but the most casual, humble restaurants. Most restaurants open for very specific lunch and dinner hours. Lunch is generally served noon-3 pm, and 7-11:30 pm is typical for dinner. Many restaurants offer two dinner seatings most evenings. Note that many of London's most expensive restaurants do offer an affordable way to enjoy their cuisine—a bargain-priced, prix-fixe lunch menu, often costing less than £25 per head.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, including tax but not tip or drinks: $ = less than £25; $$ = £25-£45; $$$ = £46-£70; $$$$ = more than £70.

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