London is a city that exists on arrogance. A small Roman settlement right at the edge of the continent, it somehow made itself the centre of the world: culturally in 1811, when it was the first Western city to top a million inhabitants; quite literally in 1884, when Greenwich was designated the official Prime Meridian.
People with ambition have always been drawn to London. Global financial institutions fight for a foothold in the City. Retail brands are not considered contenders until they have a flagship in the West End. International talent comes to join theatres, dance companies, orchestras, galleries, football teams. Collectors spend millions through art fairs and private dealers. Students crowd universities and vocational colleges. In return, the city and its suburbs export designs, actors, artists, comedy, films, fashion, TV and rock stars to the rest of the world, while international magazines repeatedly proclaim London the coolest city on earth. Received wisdom is that Londoners are reserved and unfriendly – avoiding eye contact in public places and brushing dawdlers out of the way in a hurry to get to their next appointment. Yet the city has a history of welcoming outsiders. The area of Whitechapel alone has, over the centuries, assimilated incoming waves of Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshis, all now bona fide Londoners themselves.
As the traditional London of cosy boozers and greasy caffs fades out, a new, equally indigenous culture is evolving where kids of all backgrounds mix Caribbean vowel sounds with Asian slang, where every local high street has a curry house and Vietnamese noodle bar, and where the whole city celebrates Chinese New Year, Diwali and the Notting Hill Carnival. The city’s size allows for anonymity. You can, broadly speaking, be who you want, which has made London fertile ground for youth culture and various street styles. It is the natural home of eccentrics, and resonates with all their creative energy.
But London has no right to be so popular. It is an inefficient sprawl of villages, bound together by Victorian terraced housing and concrete estates. Unadventurous clients and planning officials have ensured that, while many of the world’s most fêted architects live here, London itself sees little of their work. It has its own muddled beauty, but not the obvious good looks of European capitals such as Paris, Rome or Stockholm.
Pride in London’s iconic Tube system is crushed by daily evidence that it can no longer cope with demand. Living costs are high, working hours and commutes long, and Londoners stressed. Arrogance, attitude, ambition. They allowed the city to rebuild itself after the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed 80 per cent of the city, and again after the devastating Blitz bombings of 1940-41. They allowed it to reinvent itself from a shabby, post-industrial town in the 1970s, to become a cultural touchstone for the new millennium. Around the world, London makes sure it still grabs all the attention. No wonder the rest of Britain resents it.
Virgin Atlantic flies to London daily from Dhs1,750 return, including taxes
Where to stay
Shoreditch Rooms (www.shoreditchhouse.com)
8,278,000 (core city 7,074,000)
Where is it?
The south-east of England, on the River Thames.
Mild but wildly unpredictable.
Approximately 77 per cent white, 9 per cent Afro-Caribbean, 9 per cent Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi, 5 per cent of other ethnic origin. There are strong Irish, Cypriot, Vietnamese, American, Antipodean, French, Chinese, Turkish and Polish communities.
The London Eye, Tate Modern, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, South Kensington museums, the British Museum, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory at Greenwich, Hampton Court Palace.
Cheshire Street, Marylebone High Street, East End art galleries, Geffrye Museum, stand-up comedy clubs, Bankside and the Southbank Centre, Battersea Arts Centre, Sir John Soane’s Museum, Wellcome Collection, many free museums and galleries.
Where’s the buzz?
Brick Lane, Hackney, Hoxton, Camden and New Cross for indie bands.
Theatre box-office receipts
£401 million (Dhs2.3 billion) in 2006.
Proportion of London that is open space
30 per cent, including 147 public parks and the eight Royal Parks.
Number of black cabs
Number of CCTV cameras a Londoner will be seen by in a day
300. Estimates claim there are close to 4.2 million closed-circuit cameras watching London.
Number of pubs
Households officially homeless
21,140 in 2005.
Average distance travelled per person on public transport in a year
Side of escalator to stand on
Right, and walk down on the left. Only tourists do otherwise.
Arts & culture
Food & drink
Quality of life