There are cities and there are CITIES – and then there is London. I have been fortunate to visit this great city several times, recently returning from a two week stay.
You might be surprised to know that the actual City of London is small (thus, it’s also known as the Square Mile or The City), is home to only about 9,500 residents, and is the main old financial and historic centre where centuries-old stone buildings rub against world-class glass high rises. But Greater London forms one BIG metropolis over 607 square miles, or 1,572 square kms, is home to some 9.5. million ethnically-diverse people, and is comprised of 32 unique boroughs. Now, we have not seen all of Greater London (because who has?), but we found that if you want posh, colourful houses and high-end shopping, head for Kensington and Chelsea and Notting Hill and Pimlico and Westminster. If you want bohemian living and graffiti and street art, head for Camden Locks or Shoreditch (truly, anything goes in these ‘hoods). Then there is the high-banking area and ongoing residential skyscraper development of Canary Wharf, traditional Greenwich, young professional ‘burbs like Maida Vale or Chiswick, wealthy Richmond and Hampstead and Highgate, the ‘other side of the river’ Southwark . . . Each borough is self-sufficient, with it’s own stores, recreation, and pubs – don’t forget the pubs. But the ‘fun’ comes in finding the hidden little pockets of character within each of these boroughs – such as Hackney Wick, a gritty, graffitied neighbourhood in Hackney fast becoming an incubator for arts and breweries, tucked on the edge of Stratford’s posh Olympic site with it’s high-end residential developments or the Beer Mile on Druid Street, a row of industrial brewhouses in the Bermonsey area of Southwark.
These pictures show the variety in several different boroughs (in order, Knightsbridge, Camden Locks, Canary Wharf, Greenwich, Richmond, and Hackney Wick) in London.
This can all seem rather intimidating. You might be wondering, “How do I navigate this conglomeration of people and neighbourhoods?” Never fear! The Queen might reign, but the Tube, or Underground (don’t call it a subway!) really rules! I am not sure the Londoners appreciate how efficient their transportation system is.
Made up of 272 stations and up to 543 trains at peak hour, this monster snake coils through Greater London and moves up to 5 million (5 million) people per day. On first glance, the Tube is daunting. But look at it like a game – get the London Underground map and just play. If you take the wrong train or get off at the wrong station, don’t worry, just recalculate. And the Oyster Card is the ticket to riding the rails – and the buses (all 8,500 of them) and the London Overground trains. By the way, you probably will not see any of the estimated 500,000 mice living in the London Underground tunnels. They are tough little critters, some with no tails and lots with no hearing. Apparently, the harsh life of the Underground has even altered their “biochemistry” to make them a little tougher than the average mouse. It’s true – it’s been studied. Read timeout.com , ‘Why London’s tube mice are the toughest critters around’. Ride the Tube, and you’ll know why! Or, you could call any one of the 21,000 black taxi cabs.
Your first visit to London will likely be spent doing the not-to-be-missed activities such as a walk along the River Thames with all the history and the parliament buildings and the bridges (such as Tower Bridge and London Bridge and Millenium Bridge) and the sky scrapers (such as the Shard and the Gherkin) and the London Eye ferris wheel - you’ll see them all in a short distance - a tour of a museum, a visit to a cathedral, and a trip to a theatre performance. There are many internet sites that provide walking routes of the major ‘attractions’.
But after your first visit, you might want to go deeper. There are over 250 theatres in London, many playing major hits, only a few of which are Matilda, Wicked, The Jersey Boys, Mama Mia, and Come From Away (which we saw at the Phoenix). There are over 230 museums such as the well-known Tate Modern and the Natural History Museum. We toured the Victoria and Albert Museum (completely overwhelming in it’s detail) and the Imperial War Museum. And there are probably hundreds of churches such as the breathtakingly beautiful St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey – we all know where the royals get married. And there are 35 bridges to discover crossing the Thames in greater London.
The Phoenix Theatre, Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Imperial War Museum.
So, you might be a bit over-stimulated at this point but, again, don’t fret! It’s easy to escape. London is known as a ‘green city’ with 3,000 designated parks, eight of which are deemed Royal Parks (which means they are huge and spectacular) such as Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, and Richmond Park. But you can just walk a block or two off the beaten path in any borough and find a glorious greenspace that is not even listed (the British are known for gardening.) Or take a day trip out of town from one of the main underground stations (we went to the nearby fairy tale university town of Cambridge for a break). Enjoy this slide show of some beautiful parks (click the little black arrow).
One of my favourite activities, though, is the London ‘walks’. Regent’s Canal and Grand Union Canal have a gentile canal-side walk beside houseboats and swans and ducks. Hampstead Heath is a wilder meadow walk. Kew to Richmond is an athletic path lining the Thames and Kew Botanic Garden. Roughguide.com, ‘The Best Walks in London’, gives suggestions for both popular and more remote walks such as the Parkland Walk which is an old abandoned rail bed leading up to Highgate with it’s Highgate Wood and Queen’s Wood parks and Alexandra Castle. The pictures are the Regent's Canal, Kew to Richmond, and Parkland Walk.
.Hidden London and Secret London are good internet sites for more off-the-beaten-path adventures such as creepy abandoned structures or the prettiest houses or the funkiest streets, or maybe you want to find the traditional Sunday roast or high tea or the oldest pub or the best scones. I like to scope out the coffee houses and bakeries – tea is still popular, but the coffee culture is taking over. I can just see my sister hunting down all 8,000 mews (a 'mew' is a row of houses - some quite ornate- which were formerly coachhouses for the coachmen and horses of the rich.)
These pictures are of what is said to be one of the funkiest streets, one of the prettiest houses, and a mew.
This density of population and uniqueness of boroughs and multiculturalism leads to complete non-judgement. It really does not matter what you wear or the style of your hair or your age or sexuality or ethnicity. You’ll see every possible configuration in Greater London! Everyone blends in. It makes London one civil and safe city. (And it also does wonders for food! No longer are the British known for bland, over-cooked peas. There is a restaurant for any desire in every neighbourhood. Yes, restaurant prices are half again what we pay, but food in grocery stores such as Tesco or Sainsbury’s is quite a bit cheaper.)
You don't have to go 'big'. London, itself, is plenty. For instance, we did not go to the big Chelsea Flower Show which is posh and costly, but Belgravia In Bloom is a great free hunt to find all the flower statues.
No matter how often you visit, you will never see all of London, and that is the joy There is always a ‘new’ hundreds-of-years-old side street or park or pub or walk or statue to discover. Or a market or a fair or a concert or even a peaceful demonstration (or two). As Samuel Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”
Always have money on your Oyster card.
(all statistics are general information easily attainable from the internet)