The West End
This is the heart of sightseeing London, as well as the site of the capital's main shopping and entertainment scenes. If you're in town to see the sights, indulge in a little retail therapy, or take in a show, you'll be spending a good deal of time here. Its name suggests a clearly defined area, neatly separated from the rest of London. In fact, the "West End" is more of a concept than a specific location, and its definition varies according to which source you read. If you're not quite sure where you are, look around you. If the crowds are thronging and you can see "Sale!" signs and ads for musicals, you're probably here.
Running through its heart is signature thoroughfare Oxford Street, a grand statement of commercial intent, lined from one end to the other with large, international chain stores. Either side lie some of London's most iconic neighborhoods, each with its own distinct characteristics, including literary Bloomsbury, seedy Soho, and upscale (some would say, snooty) Mayfair. Attractions range from the scholarly (the world-beating collections of the British Museum and other museums of the Museum Mile (www.museum-mile.org.uk) stretching from King's Cross to the Thames as well as the National Gallery) to the relaxing (the open spaces of Green Park and St. James's Park) and, of course, the royal -- for many visitors, Buckingham Palace is still top of their to-do list.
Trafalgar: London's Most Famous Square
London is a city full of landmark squares. Without a doubt, the best known is Trafalgar Square (www.london.gov.uk/trafalgarsquare; Tube: Charing Cross), which has been significantly remodeled over the past decade, with parts pedestrianized and most of the former swarms of pigeons sent on their way. It boasts numerous landmarks, including the National Gallery on the north side, St. Martin-in-the-Fields on the east, and at the center Nelson's Column -- a 46m (151.3 ft.) granite column topped with a statue of Horatio Viscount Nelson (1758-1805), one of the country's most celebrated naval heroes.
Nelson first went to sea when aged just 12, and by the age of 39 had risen to the rank of admiral. His career saw him score a series of famous victories, albeit at ever greater cost to himself. The Battle of Calvi in 1794 cost him his eye, the Battle of Santa Cruz cost him an arm, while his most famous victory at Trafalgar ultimately cost him his life. He was a major celebrity of the time and, like any celebrity worth their salt, kept the public intrigued with a complicated private life -- his affair with Lady Hamilton, a married society beauty, was a notorious and much-discussed scandal.
He proved a larger-than-life character in death as well as life. The 1.68m (5 ft. 6 in.) admiral was immortalized in a statue some 5.5m (18 ft.) high, built in 1843 by E. H. Bailey. The lions at the base were the later work of Edward Landseer in 1868, and the fountains and ponds weren't constructed until 1939.
There's always plenty going on at Trafalgar Square. This is where most major parades and marches end up, and it provides the focus for the festivities for St. Patrick's Day, the New Year's Day Parade, Pride London, and numerous other events (mostly for free). For decades the square was also the venue for the rowdiest New Year's Eve celebrations, held within earshot of the famous bongs of Big Ben, although these days larger crowds can be found around the London Eye where there's a midnight firework display.
The square is also the site of a few unusual attractions, including an equestrian statue of Charles I, from where all distances from London are measured, and in the southwest corner, the world's smallest police station -- it has room for just one, rather lonely, officer. The square is also cornered by four plinths, three of which bear statues, while the "Fourth Plinth" plays host to a succession of temporary, often sensationalist, artworks.
The major draws of this area are the great stretches of greenery -- chief among them Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens -- that together make up central London's largest open space. They offer pretty much everything you could want from a park: lots of grassy lawns for sunbathing; shady trees for sitting under to read a book; a lake for boating and swimming; as well as plenty of unusual odds and ends, such as the Peter Pan statue and the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. Perhaps most importantly, the park offers you the chance to get a little bit lost, and to feel (however briefly) that you've left the big city behind.
To the west is the less-visited Holland Park, which has a more quirky vibe, with its free roaming peacocks and Youth Hostel Association (YHA) hostel, while to the northwest are the more well-to-do surrounds of Notting Hill and its famous market snaking along Portobello Road. The Museum of Brands, Packaging, and Advertising here is a real find.
This stretch of London enjoys a dual nature. It's the moneyed heart of the capital, home to a number of neighborhoods -- including Chelsea, Belgravia, and Knightsbridge -- that have become bywords for a certain type of designer-shopping, Michelin-starred-eating, and multi-million-pound-property-buying wealth. But it's also London's main museum district. Alongside the great department stores and unashamed consumerism of Knightsbridge, sit South Kensington's three great repositories of knowledge: The Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, each world leaders in their fields. Southwest London is also where the country's most important political institution, the Houses of Parliament, can be found, perched regally on the riverbank, as well as two of its finest -- albeit contrasting -- galleries: Tate Britain, with its unrivaled collection of traditional British art; and the Saatchi Gallery, which specializes in a controversy-seeking array of "is it art?" contemporary offerings.
No. 10 Downing Street: Just an Ordinary Home -- A snatched glimpse through the railings at the end of the street is as much as you're likely to see these days of the country's most powerful address -- No. 10 Downing Street, home of whoever happens to be the current prime minister. The second-most powerful person in the land, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the finance minister), lives next door at No. 11. There's a connecting door between the two to spare the great officeholders the indignity of having to walk outside whenever they want to talk.
It is not a grand place, certainly not when compared to some of the extravagant residences enjoyed by other heads of state, such as the U.S. White House or France's Elysée Palace. But then, unlike those buildings, it was never designed to be a center of political power, just a simple house on a regular residential street named after the man who built it, George Downing. Its elevation to greatness came about entirely by accident when the country's first prime minister, Robert Walpole, moved here in the early 18th century, once the previous tenant, a Mr. Chicken, had moved out. A precedent had been set and Britain, being a country that likes to make up traditions and norms as it goes along -- this is a country, remember, with no written constitution -- decided to stick with it. Every prime minister since has followed in Walpole's footsteps, for no other reason than that it seemed the thing to do.
The South Bank
Today the riverside path between Westminster Bridge and Tower Bridge is perhaps the capital's favorite strolling route, taking walkers past a line of attractions, including the London Eye, the Southbank Centre, Tate Modern, Shakespeare's Globe, and HMS Belfast, as well as providing great views out across to the undulating façades of the northern bank of the Thames.
The area wasn't always so popular, however. Or rather, it used to be popular for very different reasons: In Elizabethan times, this was the bad side of town, where people from the respectable north came to indulge in such disreputable practices as gambling, prostitution, bear baiting, and going to the theatre. Shakespeare's original Globe lay not, as you might have suspected, in the heart of some center of learning, but in the midst of the city's red-light district.
The region was cleared up in later centuries, and didn't begin to become a center of tourism until the 1950s, when the Royal Festival Hall was built as one of the main venues for the Festival of Britain, the first national cultural event after the war. Various other attractions followed in the ensuing decades, and together they now form one of the city's prime arts hotspots. And things haven't finished yet. An extension to Tate Modern and a new museum on London Bridge are due to open in the next couple of years, while above London Bridge station, the "Shard," the U.K.'s tallest skyscraper, is claiming its spot on the city's skyline. Note that since the "Gherkin," no new tall building can be without its pre-planned, user-friendly nickname.
The City is the ancient core of London, where the original Roman settlement was founded nearly 2,000 years ago, and where many great historic structures -- including the Tower of London and St. Paul's Cathedral -- still stand. However, its status as the U.K.'s financial capital means that it also has London's fastest changing skyline. After all, money has no sentiment or yearning for tradition, and if profit dictates that something old should be torn down and replaced with something new, then all too often that's what happens. Current building trends are very much in an upward direction. The skyscrapers 30 Mary Axe (better known as "the Gherkin") and the Heron Tower (currently the City's tallest building) were erected in the past decade, and are to be joined by some even taller companions in the next few years, each with their own ready-made nickname -- the "Cheesegrater," the "Helter Skelter," the "Walkie Talkie," and others. You can explore the City's long history at the Museum of London, and find out about the influence of money on the region at the Bank of England Museum.
Legal London -- The bustling former London borough of Holborn (Ho-burn) is often referred to as "Legal London." It's home to the majority of the city's barristers, solicitors, and law clerks, as well as the ancient Inns of Court (Tube: Holborn or Chancery Lane), the beautiful complexes where barristers have their chambers and law students perform their apprenticeships. All barristers (litigators) must belong to one of these institutions: Gray's Inn, High Holborn, WC1 (tel. 020/7458-7800), Lincoln's Inn (the best preserved), Serle St., WC2 (tel. 020/7405-1393), or just over the line inside the City, the Middle Temple, Middle Temple Lane, EC4 (tel. 020/7427-4800) and Inner Temple, Crown Office Row, EC4 (tel. 020/7797-8250). The Inns' grand interiors can only be visited by prior appointment, but their peaceful gardens and "magnificent ample squares," as Charles Lamb put it in the 19th century, are open to the public, and free. It's well worth wandering the cobbled archaic precincts admiring the various Gothic and Tudor buildings. In the grounds of Inner Temple, look out for the atmospheric, 12th-century Temple Church, with its unusual circular nave.
East London has been reinventing itself for as long as anyone can remember: The 1950s saw the erection of the area's defining tower blocks to replace the housing lost to Hitler's bombs; the 1980s and '90s witnessed the wholesale revamp of Docklands following the closure of the Central London Docks; the 2000s have seen pockets of gentrification emerge amid the deprived estates, particularly in Hoxton and Shoreditch, where thriving arts and music scenes have taken off. The latest chapter of renewal was kickstarted by the awarding of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to London in 2012, which has resulted in a great swathe of industrial Stratford being cleared away to make room for a multitude of sporting venues.
Perhaps as a result of all this change, many of the museums here have a nostalgic tone, celebrating a variety of lost worlds, including toys at the V&A Museum of Childhood, medicine at the Royal Hospital Museum, domestic life at the Geffrye Museum and Dennis Severs' House, and the docks themselves at the Museum of London Docklands. Only the Whitechapel Art Gallery seems completely of the moment, promoting all that is most "now" in the world of art.
North & Northwest London
This area begins just north of the West End where, across Marylebone Road, lies one of the capital's finest open spaces, Regent's Park. The park has a timeless appeal with its tidy lawns, elegant flower borders, and wildfowl ponds. Its northern corner is occupied by London Zoo, a sightseeing stalwart for 150 years, which has been significantly remodeled in recent years. To the north of the park the tourist scene revolves around two main hubs. The first of these is Camden, with its great sprawling market, vibrant music scene, and carefully maintained "alternative" image. However, the Jewish Museum aside, it doesn't have much in the way of specific attractions, being more of a shopping and hanging-out, feeling-the-vibe sort of a place. There's a lot more going on in Hampstead, to the northwest, including a great expanse of heathland that rivals Hyde Park for the title of the capital's greatest open space, as well as a decent gathering of museums and galleries, many dedicated to the assortment of writers and artists who have settled in this enclave of middle-class bohemia over the years.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.