City Life: Cultural kaleidoscope
England's capital has got it all. And she flaunts it.
From the revived East End to the swish haunts of Notting Hill, London accessorises its heritage beauty with couldn't-give-a-damn street cred. This feisty lady is effortlessly cool: glorious parks and historic squares, monuments galore, museums piled with colonial swag, galleries where art soothes or surprises, and stages attracting theatre's hottest talent. A multi-ethnic English eccentric, the British capital lets you eat and shop your way around the globe, sending you home sated and satisfied. The Routemaster buses, King's Road punks and Carnaby Street swingers may be long gone, but this shoppers' Valhalla has reinvented itself as a modern metropolis. And, while architectural icons the Gherkin, the London Eye and Wembley Stadium provide a skyline for the new renaissance, the build-up to the 2012 Olympics provides an endlessly fascinating topic for the city's enthusiastic cabbies…
On weekdays from 7am to 6pm, there's an £8 daily Congestion Charge payable to drive into and around central London (www.cclondon.com); parking is easy, but pricey. Beware overzealous traffic officials.
London has several international airports: Heathrow, to the west, is on the Piccadilly Line, or 15 minutes from Paddington on the Heathrow Express train (£14.50). Gatwick, to the south, is 30 minutes from Victoria via the Gatwick Express (£14.90). Stansted and Luton, to the east, are where most of the budget carriers land. There are trains to Liverpool Street four times an hour (£14.50) from Stansted, and a regular rail service to King's Cross from Luton. City Airport in Docklands is dominated by European business flights and is on the DLR line.
International trains arrive at St Pancras (www.stpancras.com), which has good links via the Underground. The Tube network will be your saviour, taking you anywhere you need to go (www.tfl.gov.uk/tube); your best bet is to buy an Oyster card from any station for reduced-price journeys (valid on buses too) across the capital.
Country code for the UK: 44. London: 020.
Martin Amis' London Fields follows three characters as nuclear disaster looms; Iain Sinclair circumnavigated the M25 on foot to research London Orbital; Peter Ackroyd's epic London: The Biography treats the town as a personality.
Do go / Don't Go
London empties out in August, but tourist sites still get crowded. Spring and summer can be lovely, even if the weather is reliably unreliable.
You name it… London wins global praise for its authentic multi-cultural cuisine, from Chinatown's dim sum to Brick Lane's saucy spices and West London's Moroccan tagines. You want Lebanese falafel or Vietnamese phô? You're in the right city. To tick the traditional box, acquire a taste for jellied eels or pie and mash - try F Cooke on Broadway Market, E8 (+44 (0)871 332 8190). Or just start your day, like your cabbie did, with a full English breakfast from a greasy-spoon caff. For the local brew, try a pint of Young's or Fuller's ESB.
You can hail one of London's trademark metered hackney cabs anywhere, or ring Zingo (0870 070 0700) from your mobile, and the nearest one will find you. Avoid unlicensed minicabs; we recommend Climatecars (+44 (0)20 8968 0440), whose carbon‑neutral minicabs operate in central London.
10 per cent is standard, but many restaurants now add a discretionary 12.5 per cent, so be careful not to tip twice.
A pocket‑sizedA-Z guide with a Tube map will prevent 'Where am I?' moments becoming 'Lost' moments.
There's something to tickle all tastes: Tate Modern and Tate Britain house British and international art collections (www.tate.org.uk). Hoxton's White Cube gallery (www.whitecube.com) is edgier, or, for the more experimental, try the galleries lining Vyner Street in Bethnal Green. At Somerset House, there are open-air pop and classical concerts in summer; ice-skating in winter (www.somerset-house.org.uk). Arm yourself with a copy of weekly listings magazine Time Out for the latest information about what's on; visit www.ticketmaster.co.uk to book anything from West End drama to stadium gigs.
London moves so quickly that, by the time you've heard about that hot club, exhibition or under‑the‑radar boutique, chances are it's, like, so over. Tag along with an Urban Gentry guide, however, and you'll get an up‑to‑the‑minute take on city life; choose from themed tours including Art Insider, East End Hip and Market Fresh, or get them to tailor a bespoke itinerary around your tastes. See www.urbangentry.com for details.
Designer-label zones are Sloane Street and Knightsbridge, and Bond Street and South Molton Street. Markets abound in London: Camden gets packed on Sundays with students and tourists (good for vintage and clubwear); over east, Spitalfields Market sells funky babywear, T-shirts, artworks and organic food; get up early for Columbia Road Flower Market at the top of Brick Lane (itself a teeming Sunday-morning institution); for organic-food tasting opportunities, Borough Market is open Fridays and Saturdays; Portobello Market in Notting Hill is a Saturday stop for antiques, fashion and fruit and veg.
Book a ride on the London Eye, the South Bank's big wheel (www.londoneye.com), for sight‑spotting and vertigo‑inducing views of five counties. Then amble over Waterloo Bridge at sunset to reacquaint yourself with the cityscape from the ground. Want to work harder for your views? Climb the spiral steps of St Paul's Cathedral to the Whispering Gallery and then up and out to the Stone and Golden Galleries for magnificent panoramic views of the capital. At King Henry's Mound in Richmond Park, six miles away, there are incredible westward vistas of Berkshire, plus an amazing view back to St Paul's.
The Changing of the Guard, at Buckingham Palace, 11.30am daily in summer. If it's sunny, head to a green space (www.royalparks.gov.uk). If not, lots of museums are free: try the Photographers' Gallery (www.photonet.org.uk), or the Serpentine (www.serpentinegallery.org). For more free museums, see www.londonnet.co.uk/museums. In summer, pull up a pew on the South Bank (www.southbanklondon.com) and, before long, street theatre will start happening all around you. Take note of Covent Garden's buskers - they often go on to do greater things.
Late March Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race from Putney to Mortlake (www.theboatrace.org). Mid April The London Marathon: a 26‑mile race for athletes, fundraisers and mentalists in diving suits (www.london‑marathon.co.uk). Late May Chelsea Flower Show brings marvellous blooms to SW3 (www.rhs.org.uk/chelsea). Late June The Wimbledon Championships sends the capital tennis mad for a fortnight (www.wimbledon.org). July-September The BBC Proms concerts (www.bbc.co.uk/proms). August Bank Holiday weekend Notting Hill Carnival, a float‑filled, bass‑thumping weekend of musical mayhem. September Open House Weekend sees 600 buildings, old and new, open to the public, free of charge (www.londonopenhouse.org). Mid October-early November London Film Festival (www.lff.org.uk). 5 November On Guy Fawkes' Night, there are fireworks displays in parks all over town; book an eighth-floor table at the Oxo Tower (+44 (0)20 7803 3888) for a premium view of the Lord Mayor's fireworks on the river. London Jazz Festival - nice (www.serious.org.uk).