Guides to city-planning rarely use London as an example of how things should be done, preferring instead to cite more neatly ordered metropolises with carefully drawn grid plans and formally delineated zones.
London is certainly not neat. But then the city wasn't so much planned as made-up, created piecemeal as and when new bits were required. It represents 2,000 years of local projects, individual labors, grand aristocratic ambitions, philanthropic ventures, government schemes, and royal follies -- all created with little reference to each other -- and then placed on the same patch of ground like the pieces to 500 separate jigsaws.
This history can, unfortunately, make it confusing for visitors to find their way around. Roads don't meet at precise right-angles, but wind and roam, seemingly at random. There appears to be no obvious city center -- or conversely, several separate centers vie for your attention. This occasionally maddening muddle is also a huge part of London's charm.
One thing the city's great mish-mash layout guarantees is surprises -- hidden alleys, unexpected delights, stumbled-upon treasures -- as well as the near certainty that you'll get lost at some point (even locals do, all the time). For peace of mind, it's worth investing in an A to Z street atlas, available in all good bookshops, and quite a few central newsagents.
Examined on a map of the U.K., London can look intimidating -- a vast urban sprawl. You need to remember, however, that the city comes in two different sizes. There's Greater London, which is huge, encompassing some 650 square miles; this part is made up largely of residential suburbs, and most of it can safely be ignored by sightseers. Central London, where most of the major attractions are -- and where you'll be spending the majority of your time -- isn't really so big at all.
Of course, things aren't entirely straightforward. Central London may be where it's at, but exactly where the center is, isn't always clear. The areas used in this guide -- the West End, West London, Southwest London, and so on -- are not for the most part formally recognized zones with marked boundaries, but unofficial identifiers used for the purposes of splitting the city into manageable chunks for readers.
The most important of these areas, from a sightseeing perspective, is the West End. Unofficially bounded by the River Thames to the south, Farringdon Road and Farringdon Street to the east, Marylebone Road and Euston Road to the north, and Hyde Park and Victoria station to the west, this is where most of London's major attractions are found. Visitors will probably spend a good deal of their time here, whether at Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, or the bars, shops, and theatres of Soho. It's also where you'll find the capital's greatest concentration of good hotels and restaurants.
For the purposes of this guide, Hyde Park has been nominated as the gateway to West London. Its main hotel district lies just to the north, where cheap and mid-range places cluster around Paddington station, which serves as the main train link with Heathrow Airport, and thus provides many visitors with their introduction to the city. A more limited supply of more expensive, more fashionably appointed accommodation is available farther west in the swankier surrounds of Notting Hill, site of the famed Portobello Road Market.
South of Hyde Park in Southwest London are the upscale neighborhoods of Belgravia, South Kensington, Knightsbridge, and Chelsea, which offer high-class restaurant and hotel options -- at high prices.
To the south, across the river, the South Bank and Bankside present a great line of attractions, including the London Eye, the Southbank Centre, Tate Modern, Shakespeare's Globe, and HMS Belfast, which hug the river's edge between Westminster Bridge and Tower Bridge. South of this attraction hotspot, however, London's cultural energy fades into sleepy waves of suburbs, with the odd point of interest poking its nose above the surface. There are hotel and B&B options south of the river, which are often a good deal cheaper than those in the center, but you will have to factor in the (often high) transport costs that staying on the outskirts incurs.
There's less choice in the City, immediately east of the West End, site of the original Roman settlement of "Londinium," and today one of the world's major financial centers. Although jeweled with historic sites, the City empties out in the evenings and on weekends, and there are better places to base yourself if you're looking for an atmospheric place to stay or a hopping nightlife scene.
Keep heading east or northeast beyond the City and you reach East London, the inner part of which is known as the East End. Much of this area is poor and deprived, with postwar tower blocks littering the skyline. Pockets of gentrification have emerged in recent years, particularly in the arty enclaves of Shoreditch and Hoxton, where some rather grand hotels have opened. Elsewhere the accommodation can be cheap, but often comes with very few frills. The Docklands area has been revitalized and reenergized in the past few decades, and Canary Wharf has emerged as London's second major center of finance. It's hoped that Stratford will enjoy a similar resurgence following the development of the main London 2012 Olympic Park there.
Although primarily residential, North and Northwest London have more to offer visitors than their southern counterpart, with the great sprawling markets of Camden and the wild open spaces and genteel charms of Hampstead among the main draws. Hampstead also boasts a fine collection of small hotels and B&Bs, but staying here will mean a deal of traveling back and forth to the center.
Out in the suburbs, areas such as Greenwich, and Kew, Richmond, and Wimbledon offer great day-trip opportunities. Although some of these areas are perhaps a bit too far-flung to make convenient bases, Greenwich is ideally situated on the Jubilee tube line and Docklands Light Railway (DLR), making it a good base for easy trips to Stratford and the Olympic Park, while also being near enough to 2012 Games venues such as Greenwich Park (Equestrian) and North Greenwich Dome (Artistic Gymnastics).
As a visitor it's easy to dismiss the letters that appear at the end of addresses as some sort of arcane cipher. In fact, these postcodes -- or at least their first two or three letters and numbers -- can be a handy way of finding out an establishment's general location. This can be particularly useful when hotel hunting: The postcode will reveal just how "close to central London" your prospective room really is.
The very center of London is divided into six postal zones, where the postcodes are prefixed by either the letters WC (West Central) or EC (East Central). All other London postcodes use letters to indicate what direction they are from these central zones: W is West, SW is Southwest, and so on. So, much of what you might consider to be central London does not fall under either the WC or the EC postcodes. Most of the West End, for instance (including Soho, Marylebone, Mayfair, and Fitzrovia), is actually in W1. Still, despite these anomalies, it's a useful system. The postcodes where you'll likely be spending the majority of your time are: WC1, WC2, W1, W2 (Bayswater & Paddington), W11 (Notting Hill), E1 (East End), SW1 (Victoria & Knightsbridge), SW3 (Chelsea), SW7 (South Kensington), SE1 (South Bank), EC1, EC2, EC3, EC4, N1 (Islington & Hoxton), and NW1 (Camden & Primrose Hill).