In the late 1900s, various travel companies ran contests to name "the city of the century"—and London always won. Today, other capitals have acquired many of the same cultural offerings and attractions, and London is no longer unique. But it is always a superb choice for a vacation week or two.
My own stays in London have never failed to impress and excite me. Stumbling off the plane after an overnight flight to London, I used to be startled by the appearance of the people staffing the customs and immigration counters at Heathrow Airport. They were in civilian clothes--normal business suits, unlike the uniformed staff performing the same function in other airports around the world. "Good morning", they would quietly say, in the stately tones of a Shakespearean actor. "May I know the purpose of your visit?"--the latter uttered as if they were apologizing for this intrusion into my privacy. And whether it was my first visit or my fiftieth, I was made sharply aware that I had arrived at the center of a remarkable civilization.
Those customs officials are today—drat!—in uniforms. But the special courtesies and civilities of London remain as pleasant and powerful as ever. For a tourist who will show the same polite attitude to the British you meet, a stay in Britain's capital will be a refreshing change of pace from the harsher life we sometimes know at home.
It will also be an immersion into an intense world of learning and ideas. Though London is not the only city to possess scores of theaters, concert and lecture halls, bookstores, great museums, universities and schools of every sort, it nevertheless possesses more of these than any tourist could ever hope to visit. If you have even a smidgeon of interest in recent and ancient history, in parliamentary debates, in gatherings called to discuss public policies, you will find all these on every day and in every section of the city.
Theater is the major highlight of your stay—more playhouses and theater auditoriums than in any other city, more provocative plays presented at any one time than in any other city, more of an effort to introduce new—and sometimes outlandish—ideas through the mechanism of dramatic plays, more skilled productions of classical works, more outstanding actors than in any other place. Some people I know are so enamored of the London theaters that they may attend three plays a day—a normal matinee, a 5 pm matinee, and then an evening performance. Except for a very few super-hits, tickets are always available, and the avid theatergoer is constantly aglow at the ideas and talents they encounter here.
Be sure, as well, to attend a production of Shakespeare at the re-created Globe Theater near the Thames; and make the trip there even if you don't have a reservation. Tell the ticket attendant that you are willing to be a "groundling", standing in front of the stage (and sometimes leaning on it) as Londoners of the 1600s did.
There's more than theater to attract you. Unlike most other capital cities, the great national museums of London are almost always free of admission charges. From the British Museum to the British Library, from the National Gallery to the Victoria and Albert, you pay not a single cent—not even a "suggested contribution"—to while away the days amid many of the most fascinating collections on Earth.