With over 600 square miles (about 1600 km) and the third-largest urban population in Europe, you can find pockets of gorgeous solitude in London Town, but you’ll never be lonely. No matter where you are right this minute, there’s surely more happening in any given corner of this vibrant, fascinating and delicious city.
Here are 10 great reasons to get out there and experience London now:
1. In the same day, you can explore 2,000 years of history and still visit the future.
Fed up with box stores and housing developments? Escape to a city whose recorded history goes back to AD 50, and rediscover a sense of place.
Walk what’s left of the Roman Empire’s Londinium, then jump to the first millennium at the Tower of London. Visit the Medieval era at Westminster Abbey, the Elizabethan at the Globe Theater and the neo-Baroque of the early 1700′s at the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral. Enjoy Victorian London at Kew Gardens’ Palm House and the recently refurbished St. Pancras train station, and see rare examples of Art Nouveau at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and Blackfriar’s Pub.
For a taste of the Mid-Century, see how the Tate Modern re-purposed a 1950′s power station; launch into modern London before the rocket-shaped Swiss Re building, better known locally as “The Gherkin.” For a glimpse of the city’s future as the site of the 2012 Olympics, head east to check out construction of the Shard London Bridge, which will soon be the tallest building in the European Union.
If this is your first visit to London or you’re simply tight on time, try a free walking tour or double-decker bus tour to get the inside scoop on London through its many ages. Otherwise, enjoy the simple pleasure of strolling through London’s many neighborhoods to see the city’s long timeline unfold.
2. With much of the world’s great theater, music and comedy on offer, there’s always something on.
England is full of actors, musicians and comedians, and they all flock to London to make their mark. Inside of a week you could see a Broadway-style musical in Piccadilly, a modern playwright’s debut in the West End or a global film festival in the City Centre. Go hear synthesized Punjabi bhangra at a local nightclub, scream along with thousands at a big-ticket stadium show, or sit quietly in on a classical quartet’s rehearsal at Trafalgar Square’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Be one of the first to discover the next Eddie Izzard or, at the very least, immerse yourself in the mysteries of British humor.
3. Enjoy a drink at a local pub — or roughly 3,800 pubs. Whichever.
London’s public houses, or “pubs,” are once-Roman inventions made popular by the fact that for many hundreds of years, the city’s water wasn’t half as safe to drink as its booze. These days, London’s drinking water is clean, its pubs are smoke-free by law, and with often-quirky names like Adam & Eve and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, have become beloved British institutions.
Pass up a pub visit and you’ll miss a truly local London experience: Quaffing a lager, tasting wine from the Cornish Coast, eavesdropping on heated debates over U.K. politics and football, or learning which part of the Thames Water Main is under construction this week.
4. Taste exciting, world-class cuisine. (No, seriously.)
All right, so England hasn’t always been known for great food (or in many cases, even particularly good food), but all that has begun to change in a great big way. Famous local chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver have blazed an exciting gastronomic trail across the city, celebrating Britain’s fresh, homegrown produce, proteins and artisanal products.
London’s modern dining scene also reflects its increasingly multicultural population, offering creative twists on the cuisines of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Middle East, North Africa and the Caribbean. It’s now just as easy to find a traditional English breakfast (bacon, sausage, eggs, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, toast and tea) as it is to find a sleek little gastropub, Turkish meze or some of the richest, most complex curries in the world.
5. Get swept up in the flow of the mighty Thames.
At the heart of London, the River Thames is wide, dark and exciting. This 215 mile (346 km) river runs through the entire city — as well as a whopping eight counties in England. Conservation efforts over the last 20+ years have kept the river clean, and it’s now wonderful to float breezily along, watching the city change from dazzlingly wealthy to workaday and back again.
To experience the river, walk the Thames Path through the city center or take a river cruise from Westminster to Greenwich to see the whole winding spectrum. Climb aboard an amphibious World War II vehicle and drive straight from Westminster into the Thames. Hop on the Tate Boat to explore two of London’s greatest museums and a little river action in-between, or find an event in or along the river while you’re in town. For elegant day trips from the city center, glide away to Kew Gardens and Hampton Court or take a train to a beautiful autumn riverside walk in the countryside.
6. See some of the planet’s greatest art, both very old and brand-spanking new.
From Hans Holbein’s iconic portrait of King Henry VIII to the flowery mid-1800s romance of the Pre-Raphaelites to Banksy’s subversive graffiti, London’s art scene is a visual means of telling the British Empire’s evolving story. Right now, dozens of art museums and art galleries are launching their new exhibition seasons, and it’s the perfect time to catch the Tate Britain’s world-famous Turner Prize and the modern art scene’s Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park.
7. Get your shop on with uniquely British products.
Rococo chocolates, Agent Provocateur lingerie, fine teas from Whittard’s — London is full of uniquely British-made souvenirs to help you bring the UK home. With a slew of historic markets, glass-covered arcades and bustling shopping streets like King’s Road and Carnaby Street, London specializes in products found only in England. Now that summer crowds have gone home, you can take your time indulging in Bond Street treasures long-approved by the Royal Family, browse through that other London department store, Harvey Nichols, or pick up all your holiday gifts (way ahead of time, for once) at Fortnum & Mason’s magnificent food emporium.
8. Romp across whole acres of green space…fit for a queen.
As the autumn leaves begin to change, take a guided walk in one of the city’s Royal Parks. Many of London’s green spaces are former royal hunting grounds that have been re-purposed as public havens, featuring forests’ worth of trees, rolling hills, marshland and more. Sail along the canals in Regent’s Park, visit the pelicans in St. James’s Park, or stroll the lavish Italian Gardens in Kensington. There are parks in every corner of the city, from huge to intimate, each with its own special character to explore.
9. Listen to the full array of British accents.
All of the U.K. gathers in London, and if you pay attention you can hear the difference between a northerner’s near-Scottish lilt or the more arch, posh speech pattern of the southeast. The British Library’s Sounds Familiar program can help you make sense of the variety of accents found in London, but there’s no substitute for asking in-person questions of locals like cab drivers, publicans, tour guides, that cute guy or girl at the next table, etc., and letting the lyrical answers unfold.
10. The autumn shoulder season has just begun, and you can now experience London for less.
From mid-September to early November, airline fares and local hotel rates drop about 20%. For instance, the average summer season hotel room in London will set you back £118 ($186/€138), but now’s your chance to book for an average of £94 ($149/€110); this time of year, a shared hostel room will cost about £13 ($20/€15).
Take a look at a wide array of the latest flight and package deals to London then pre-order a LondonPass & Travelcard combo to score discounts on attractions, restaurants and your bus, Tube, rail and boat travel around the city.
See that? You haven’t even yet arrived in London, and already you’ve saved money. Nice.