Insight Guides: Pocket London - APA (2016)

WHERE TO GO

There are as many opinions on the best way to tour London as there are places to see. First-time visitors may find a ride on an open-top bus (for more information, click here) helpful in getting their bearings round the city centre. Once you’ve identified which area to explore, it’s best to pound the streets, and seeing the city this way enables you to trace the city’s development through its varied architecture.

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Buckingham Palace

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

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WESTMINSTER

The centre of official London, Westminster today is very different from its 11th-century origins as a marshy island where Edward the Confessor built a church, ‘West Minster’, and a palace. Nowadays, it is home to the UK Parliament and London’s grand place, Trafalgar Square.

Trafalgar Square

Named after the naval battle that took place in 1805 off Cape Trafalgar, southwest Spain – at which Admiral Lord Nelson defeated Napoleon – Trafalgar Square 1 [map] is as good a place as any to start a tour of London. Once criticised as little more than a glorified, polluted roundabout, the north side has been completely pedestrianised and the square has become the focus for many of London’s top cultural events and festivals.

Towering high above the square is the 170ft (52-metre) Nelson’s Column, topped by a statue of Britain’s most famous maritime hero. Adjacent are the stone lions by Sir Edwin Landseer that provide a popular spot for tourists after photo opportunities. Look out for the fourth plinth, in the northwest corner of the square, used to showcase temporary works of art by contemporary artists. Past commissions have gone to Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, Marc Quinn and Katharina Fritsch.

National Gallery

Dominating the north side of the square is the National Gallery (www.national­gallery.org.uk; daily 10am–6pm, Fri until 9pm; free except some special exhibitions), which houses Britain’s finest collection of European art dating from 1250 to 1900. The gallery was founded in 1824, when a private collection of 38 paintings was acquired by the British Government for £60,000 and exhibited in the owner’s house at 100 Pall Mall. As the collection grew, a new building to accommodate it was planned. William Wilkins’ grand neoclassical building opened in 1838 in the then-recently created Trafalgar Square. The Sainsbury Wing, to the west of Wilkins’ building, was added in 1991, designed by the American architect Robert Venturi in witty postmodern style. The two buildings are bridged by a circular link, and the pleasant paved area between them offers a short-cut to Leicester Square (for more information, click here).

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The National Gallery

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

The collection, which contains over 2,000 works, is divided into four sections. The Sainsbury Wing houses paintings from 1250 to 1500, including Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. The West Wing contains paintings from 1500 to 1600, including Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne and Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors. In the North Wing you can admire paintings from 1600 to 1700 including Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, Rembrandt’s Self Portrait, and Van Dyck’s Equestrian Portrait of Charles I. The East Wing covers art from 1700 to 1900 and includes works by the English painters Constable and Gainsborough and Impressionists such as Monet, Van Gogh, Cézanne and Renoir.

National Portrait Gallery

Adjoining the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery (2 St Martin’s Place; www.npg.org.uk; daily 10am–6pm, Thu–Fri until 9pm; free except special exhibitions) was founded in 1856 as a ‘Gallery of the Portraits of the most eminent persons in British History’. Additions to the collection have always been determined by the status of the sitter and historical importance of the portrait, not by their quality as works of art. Highlights include Holbein’s drawing of Henry VII and his son Henry VIII, a life-like portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, in brocade and pearls, and self-portraits of Hogarth, Gainsborough and Reynolds.

St-Martin-in-the-Fields

At the northeast corner of the square is the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields (Mon–Tue, Fri 8.30am–1pm, 2–6pm, Wed 8.30am–1.15pm, 2–5pm, Thu 8.30am–1.15pm, 2–6pm, Sat 9.30–6pm, Sun 3.30–5pm; free). This is the oldest building in Trafalgar Square, built in 1724 by a Scottish architect, James Gibbs, when the venue was literally in fields outside the city. This is the parish church of the royal family and the royal box can be seen on the left of the altar. Nell Gwynne, mistress of Charles II, is one of several famous people buried here. The church is renowned for its classical and jazz concerts, held at lunchtimes (usually free) and in the evenings. The crypt houses a brass-rubbing centre and a pleasant café.

Whitehall

The avenue of government buildings that runs south from Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square is named after Henry VIII’s Palace of Whitehall, which once stood on this spot, but burned down in 1698. The first major place of interest on the west side of the street is the Palladian-style Horse Guards 2 [map], built between 1751–3 on the site where the main gateway to the Palace of Whitehall once stood. Two mounted Life Guards duly maintain their traditional sentry posts between 10am and 4pm each day, changing every hour (www.army.mod.uk). The archway in the building leads through to the huge Horse Guards Parade ground, which adjoins St James’s Park (for more information, click here).

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Changing the Guard

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

Opposite Horse Guards is Banqueting House (www.hrp.org.uk; Mon–Sun 10am–5pm; charge), one of England’s first Renaissance buildings, and the only surviving part of the Palace of Whitehall. It was built in 1619 by Inigo Jones for James I and inspired by Jones’s hero the 16th-century Italian master Palladio. Its major interior feature is a splendid ceiling by Rubens, commissioned by Charles I. Ironically, Charles was later beheaded in front of this very building.

A little further down on the right hand side is 10 Downing Street (www.gov.uk/government/organisations/prime-­ministers-office-10-downing-street), office and residence of the prime minister since 1735. Barriers at the end of the street prevent the public from viewing the famous doorway.

Just south of here in the middle of the street is the Cenotaph, a memorial designed by Sir Edwyn Lutyens commemorating the dead of both world wars. Continuing south towards Parliament Square you pass the imposing headquarters of the Foreign Office and the Treasury. At the far end of King Charles Street, which runs between them, are the Churchill War Rooms (www.iwm.org.uk; daily 9.30am–6pm; charge), where you can explore Churchill’s underground World War II command post and a museum about his life and work.

The Houses of Parliament

The neo-Gothic Victorian triumph on the banks of the Thames is the Palace of Westminster 3 [map], better known as the Houses of Parliament. Guided tours (75 mins) are available on Saturdays throughout the year and weekdays during the summer recess (www.parliament.uk; 9.15am–4.30pm; charge). At other times of year (Oct–July) UK residents can contact their MP to request a free tour or free tickets to watch a parliamentary debate (Prime Minister’s Question Time is on Wednesdays from noon) and overseas residents can obtain tickets for debates by queuing on the day.

The original palace was built for Edward the Confessor around 1065, and for 400 years it was a royal residence. However, the only medieval part of the palace remaining is Westminster Hall, built in 1099. In 1834, someone disposed of several ancient wooden tally-rods in the basement furnace, and the resulting conflagration consumed most of the building. Many considered it a blessing to be able to rebuild the draughty old edifice. The architect Sir Charles Barry was the driving force behind the new design, a ‘great and beautiful monument to Victorian artifice’, which was completed in 1860.

The most famous element of Barry’s design is the clock tower housing Big Ben (UK residents can arrange a free tour by contacting their MP; no children under 11), a 13.5-ton bell, now officially called the Elizabeth Tower in honour of the Queen’s 60-year reign. Its popular name is thought to commemorate Sir Benjamin Hall, Chief Commissioner of Works when the bell was cast in 1859; however, it may also have been named after a boxer of the day, Benjamin Caunt.

Westminster Abbey

Facing the Houses of Parliament is Westminster Abbey 4 [map] (www.westminster-abbey.org; Mon–Thu 9.30am–3.30pm, Wed 2–6pm, Fri–Sat 9.30am–1.30pm; charge). Henry III built much of the abbey in the 13th century in early English Gothic-style, and it remained an important monastery until 1534 when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. After this, the abbey was still used as the royal church for coronations and burials, and all but two monarchs since William the Conqueror have been crowned here.

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The neo-Gothic vision that is the Palace of Westminster

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

Beyond the nave, in the south transept, is Poets’ Corner. Geoffrey Chaucer was the first poet to be buried here, in 1400. Behind the sanctuary are ornate royal chapels and tombs. The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, west of the nave, holds the body of a soldier brought from France after World War I.

Southwest of here, at the other end of Victoria Street, is London’s Roman Catholic cathedral, the outlandish Italian-Byzantine style Westminster Cathedral (www.­westminstercathedral.org.uk; tower: Mon–Fri 9.30am–5pm, Sat, Sun 9.30am–6pm; free), which dates from the 19th century. There are fine views from the Viewing Gallery 210ft (64-metres) up its distinctive striped tower.

Dead poets

Literary figures buried in Poets’ Corner include Alfred Tennyson, Ben Jonson (who is buried standing upright), Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning and Rudyard Kipling.

Tate Britain

About 15 minutes’ walk south of Parliament Square, on the riverside near Vauxhall Bridge, is Tate Britain 5 [map] (www.tate.org.uk; daily 10am–6pm; free except some special exhibitions). The nearest tube station is Pimlico, from where the gallery is well signed.

Although somewhat eclipsed by its newer sister gallery, Tate Modern (for more information, click here), Tate Britain is still the main national gallery for British art, showcasing works from the 16th century to the present day. Some highlights of the collection include Hogarth portraits, Constable’s Flatford Mill, Millais’s Ophelia, the pre-Raphaelite paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Stanley Spencer’s The ResurrectionCookham, Francis Bacon’s Three studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion and David Hockney’s Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. Among the British 20th-century sculptors represented are Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.

The Clore Gallery (an extension of the main building) was built in the 1980s to hold the Tate’s huge and magnificent J.M.W. Turner collection, which includes 282 oil paintings and over 20,000 other works by the Covent Garden-born artist.

The Tate Boat

If you’re interested in visiting both Tate galleries, the Tate Boat runs all year round, every 40 minutes, between Tate Britain and Tate Modern during gallery opening hours, and also stops at the Embankment, near Westminster. Tickets are available from both galleries; advance tickets are valid for use all day.

THE WEST END

Despite its misleading name, which reflects the fact that it is west of ‘The City’, the West End is actually London’s central shopping and entertainment hub. It is a sprawling part of town, stretching from Oxford Street in the north, through Soho, Chinatown and Covent Garden, to the Thames-side Embankment in the south. Though the area doesn’t boast a lot of traditional ‘sights’, it is thronged with tourists and locals, day and night, as it is home to the city’s greatest concentration of shops, theatres, restaurants, bars and clubs.

Piccadilly Circus

At the heart of the West End is bustling Piccadilly Circus 6 [map], whose illuminated advertisements first appeared in 1890. Three years later, a memorial to the philanthropic Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury was erected in the circus, topped by a statue of a winged figure, popularly known as ‘Eros’, but actually a representation of Anteros, the Greek god of selfless love. Other attractions here include the Trocadero Centre (www.londontrocadero.com), which houses gamerbase, an advanced gaming centre, and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, a motley collection of bizarre exhibits.

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Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

Running northwest out of Piccadilly Circus is Regent Street, designed by John Nash as a ceremonial route to link Carlton House, the long-demolished Prince Regent’s residence at Piccadilly, with Regent’s Park. Despite the Regency connections, the elegant shop fronts disguise how young the street actually is – much of it was built in the 1920s, over 100 years after Nash began work. The main section of Regent Street – between Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Circus – is notable for its massive shops, including Arts and Crafts flagship store, Liberty, and the seven-floored Hamleys, the largest toyshop in the world.

Oxford Street

Bordered by Marble Arch to the west and the crossroads with Tottenham Court Road to the east, Oxford Street 7 [map] is the busiest and most famous – although admittedly not the most glamorous – of London’s shopping streets. The quality of establishments along its length varies wildly, from market stalls and discount stores selling Union Jack T-shirts, through branches of most of the major high-street chains, to top-class institutions such as Selfridges department store.

Named after the Earl of Oxford, who owned land north of here from the 16th century, the road was built as a main route out of the city and was intended to link the counties of Hampshire and Suffolk. From the 1760s it began to develop as an entertainment centre. The Pantheon (replaced by Marks & Spencer in 1937) housed fetes and concerts, and Jack Broughton’s amphitheatre, on the corner of Hanwell Street and Oxford Street, was famed for its boxing bouts and tiger baiting. By the late 19th century, however, the street was becoming established as a place for retail therapy. Furniture store Waring & Gillow opened in 1906, while the department stores Debenham and Freebody (now Debenhams) and Selfridges – both of which have stayed loyal to the street – opened in 1909.

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Purchase-laden shoppers heading home from Oxford Street

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

Soho and Chinatown

Soho 8 [map], the area bordered by Regent Street, Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue, has long been the focal point of London’s nightlife. Soho is characterised by narrow streets peppered with bars, cafés, restaurants, theatres, small shops and boutiques, though life has not always been so hectic here. Before the 1666 Great Fire of London, this area was open land where people came to hunt – the name ‘Soho’ is thought to derive from a hunting cry. After the fire, the area’s open land was used for new housing and, in the late-17th and 18th centuries, it was inhabited by noblemen and eminent socialites.

However, by the 19th century, wealthy Londoners were moving out to Mayfair (for more information, click here), and Soho was taken over by the bohemian crowd. Its coffee houses and ale-houses soon became places for debate, founding a tradition that continues today in drinking clubs such as the Groucho Club. In the 20th century the area became increasingly cosmopolitan. By the ‘swinging sixties’, Soho’s seedier side had come to the fore, and prostitution and the porn industry were rife. In 1972 the Soho Society was formed, and the group launched a campaign to clean up the area; by the early 1980s all sex shops had to be licensed.

The area is now known primarily as the focus of London’s gay scene and for its excellent clubs, restaurants and bars. The main locations to check out include Old Compton Street, the area’s main artery, and Soho Square, an unexpected green space that gets very crowded in summer. There’s also an authentic outdoor fruit-and-vegetable market in Berwick Street and, in the west, pedestrianised Carnaby Street, which although not at the cutting edge as it was in its 60s heyday is still worth a look for its fashion boutiques.

At the southern edge of Soho is Shaftesbury Avenue, the heart of London’s Theatre­land. On the other side of the street is Chinatown, a tiny district that centres on Gerrard Street. Street names are subtitled in Chinese, and the tops of telephone boxes resemble mini pagodas.

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A taste of China

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

Leicester Square

South of Chinatown is Leicester Square 9 [map], which can be accessed via Leicester Place, home to the arthouse Prince Charles cinema and the French church Notre Dame de France. The expansive square is dominated by big cinema complexes, where many of the capital’s blockbuster premieres take place, alongside chain restaurants and mainstream nightclubs.

Covent Garden

With its pedestrianised cobbled streets, markets, opera house, shops, theatres, cafés and bars, Covent Garden ) [map] is one of central London’s most appealing areas. It has a lively atmosphere and attracts a mix of people including opera and theatregoers, street performers, shoppers and tourists.

The area owes its name to the fact that it was once pastureland belonging to the convent of Westminster Abbey. After the dissolution of the monasteries the land was given to the first Earl of Bedford, then in the late 1620s the Covent Garden that we see today took its form, when the fourth Earl commissioned Inigo Jones to design buildings ‘fit for habitation’. Influenced by his studies of Palladian architecture in Italy, Jones created the main piazza, which consisted of St Paul’s Church and three sides of terraced houses. Although the design found little favour with Jones’s contemporaries, it attracted rich, aristocratic families.

However, Covent Garden’s popularity as a chic residential area was short-lived. In 1670, Charles II granted a licence for flowers and vegetables to be sold here, and with the arrival of the market and the lower-class people it attracted, the area began a slow decline. By the late 18th century it was best known for coffee shops, prostitutes and brothels. The market was held here until 1974, when it moved to its present site in Vauxhall, south London.

The central Market Hall was designed by Charles Fowler in 1831. Today it hosts a selection of small shops, various arts and crafts market stalls, several bars and restaurants and various spaces where buskers perform. Street entertainers also utilise the space in front of St Paul’s Church (www.actorschurch.org; Mon–Fri 8.30am–5pm, Sat opening times vary – see website for details, Sun 9am–1pm; free) on the western side of the square. St Paul’s is known as the ‘actors’ church’, owing to its long association with the many theatres in the parish, and it contains memorials to Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Vivien Leigh and Gracie Fields.

At the northeast corner of Covent Garden is the Royal Opera House (www.roh.org.uk), the third theatre to have stood on this site since 1732 (two previous buildings burnt down). The present one, which dates from 1946, was refurbished for the millennium at a cost of £120 million; facilities for the performers were improved, air-conditioning was introduced into the auditorium, and the glass Floral Hall (a delightful place for coffee) was rebuilt next to the main house. Both opera and ballet are performed here.

Located in the southeast corner of the piazza, the London Transport Museum (www.ltmuseum.co.uk; Sat–Thu 10am–6pm, Fri 11am–6pm; charge but ticket is valid for one year from purchase) utilises many interactive exhibits to trace the development of the city’s buses, trams and tube since 1800, as well as exploring the future of public transport in the capital. It is an excellent place to take young children.

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There are plenty of refreshment options in the Market Hall

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

Somerset House

Just south of Covent Garden, parallel to the Thames, is the Strand, a road that links Westminster to the City along a route opened in Edward the Confessor’s time. The church on an island at the eastern end of the Strand is St Mary-le-Strand. Built in 1724, it originally stood on the north side of the street, but, with the advent of the motorcar, the Strand was widened, and the church was left in odd isolation.

Opposite St Mary-le-Strand is Somerset House ! [map] (www.somersethouse.org.uk; courtyard daily 7.30am–11pm, free; collections daily 10am–6pm, charge), a grand example of neoclassicism, designed in the 18th century by Sir William Chambers. Located on the site of a 16th-century palace, Chambers’ noble edifice was built to house government offices, including the Navy Board, and the three main learned societies of the United Kingdom: the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. By the early 20th century the building was mainly used as the headquarters of the Inland Revenue and the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths. In the 1970s it was decided to return it to public use – it is now home to an exhibition space dedicated to presenting contemporary arts in innovative ways. The central courtyard is a fabulous space, housing an ice-rink in winter and hosting live music performances and open-air cinema screenings in summer.

Also housed in the complex is the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery (www.courtauld.ac.uk; daily 10am–6pm; charge, half price on Mon), a compact and impressive collection of Old Masters and Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, including famous paintings by Manet, Cézanne, Degas, Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh.

The Embankment

Parallel to the Strand is the riverside Embankment, which is the site of London’s oldest outdoor monument, Cleopatra’s Needle. Cut from the quarries of Aswan (c.1475BC), the 68ft (21 metre) Egyptian obelisk is one of a pair (the other is in New York) and was given to the British Empire by the Turkish Viceroy of Egypt in 1819. It took 59 years for the British to move it from where it lay in the sand to its present position – it was intended to stand in front of the Houses of Parliament but the ground there was too unstable. It is said that the sphinxes at the base are facing in the wrong direction.

BUCKINGHAM PALACE AND MAYFAIR

West of Piccadilly Circus is the smartest part of central London. The area has consistently retained its social prestige since the building of its great estates began in the 1660s. With its Georgian residences, gentlemen’s clubs and exclusive shops, it is synonymous with wealth. The area is divided in two by Piccadilly. To the north of this famous thoroughfare lies Mayfair, to the south St James’s, the royal parks and Buckingham Palace.

Buckingham Palace and the Parks

The Queen’s main London residence, Buckingham Palace @ [map] (www.royalcollection.org.uk; times vary, check website for details; charge) was originally built in 1702 for the Duke of Buckingham, then bought by George III and enlarged for George IV by the architect John Nash. The main facade is a later addition – by Aston Webb in 1913. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh occupy about 12 of the palace’s 775 rooms, on the first floor of the north wing. If the Queen is in residence, the royal standard flies from the central flagpole.

The building was opened to the public in 1993 to help pay for the repairs to the fire-ravaged Windsor Castle, and now partly opens in summer/early autumn when the Queen is away, with some exclusive guided tours (around £75 per person) held in winter. The 19 State Rooms open to the public include the Dining Room, Music Room and Throne Room.

The Queen has one of the world’s best private art collections, comprising about 9,000 works, including exceptional drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and royal portraits by Holbein and Van Dyck. A selection is on show in the Queen’s Gallery (Buckingham Palace Road; www.royalcollection.org.uk; daily 10am–5.30pm, last admission 4.30pm; charge).

Most people in the crowds outside Buckingham Palace come to see the Changing the Guard at 11.30am (daily May–July, alternate mornings Aug–Apr). The New Guard, which marches up from Wellington Barracks, meets the Old Guard in the forecourt of the palace, and they exchange symbolic keys to the accompaniment of regimental music.

North of the palace is Green Park £ [map], the smallest of the royal parks and the only one without flower beds – hence the name. The park was once a burial ground for lepers, and its lush grass is said to be a result of this.

Running east from Buckingham Palace is the Mall, the sweeping boulevard that edges St James’s Park $ [map]. The park is the oldest of the royal parks, built by Charles II, who had been exiled in France and wanted to recreate the formal gardens he had admired there. The bird sanctuary on Duck Island is now home to exotic waterfowl and pelicans (the legacy of a pair presented to Charles II by the Russian ambassador in 1665).

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Looking along the Mall towards Buckingham Palace

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

St James’s

St James’s, the area north of the park, is the epitome of aristocratic London and the heart of clubland in the old-fashioned sense (gentlemen’s clubs not nightclubs). In its 18th-century heyday it was an upper-class male bastion; nowadays, there are very few gentlemen’s clubs left, but the district is still home to centuries-old wine merchants, milliners, shirtmakers (notably on Jermyn Street) and shoemakers who cater for discerning masculine tastes.

St James’s Palace (closed to the public), north of the Mall, was built as a hunting lodge in 1532 by Henry VIII. The palace was the official residence of the court before Buckingham Palace was first used for that purpose in 1837. It is now home to several members of the royal family, including the Princess Royal. Adjacent is Clarence House, the London residence of the Prince of Wales.

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St James’s Palace, after which the area is named

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

Also on the north side of the Mall, in Carlton Terrace, is the Institute of Contemporary Arts, or ICA (institute Tue–Sun 11am–11pm, galleries Tue–Sun 11am–6pm, Thu until 9pm; free; www.ica.org.uk). In addition to the gallery spaces, where changing art exhibitions are held, the centre is home to a decent café/restaurant, a bar (comedy and other events are sometimes staged here), a theatre, a tiny bookshop and two cinema screens, where arthouse movies are shown.

Beside the ICA, on the route to the east end of elegant Pall Mall, is the Duke of York’s Column, a memorial to George III’s impecunious son, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces. The Duke died with debts of over £2 million, and the statue was paid for by withholding one day’s pay from every officer and soldier. North of here is elegant Pall Mall’ where exclusive gentlemen’s clubs mingle with the grand homes of royalty. Off the north side of Pall Mall is St James’s Square, laid out by Henry Jermyn, the first Earl of St Alban in about 1660.

Parallel to Pall Mall, running west from Piccadilly Circus towards Hyde Park Corner, is Piccadilly. The road is one of the main routes in and out of the West End, and its name comes from the ‘pickadills’, or ruffs, worn by the dandies who frequented the area in the 1600s. At 197 Piccadilly is St James’s Church (www.sjp.org.uk), designed in 1684 by Sir Christopher Wren. It has a craft market and coffee house and holds excellent classical concerts.

A few doors down is Fort­num & Mason % [map], London’s most glamorous grocers and purveyor of goods to the Queen for over 300 years. Enjoy the quintessential (if pricey) afternoon tea here or further along the road at The Ritz (www.theritzlondon.com; reservations essential; dress smartly).

Mayfair

To the north of Piccadilly is Mayfair, one of the classiest areas in the capital and the most expensive place to land on the English Monopoly board. The second most expensive, Park Lane, bounds the area to the west, while Oxford Street marks Mayfair’s northern side. The district takes its name from a riotous 17th-century fair and still contains dozens of narrow alleys and cut-throughs that give the visitor a flavour of 17th-century London. It was at this time that the area was first transformed from a swampy plague pit where highwaymen preyed on passers-by to the fashionable place to be seen, and where Regency bucks such as Beau Brummell chaperoned respectable ladies on their morning strolls.

On Piccadilly is the 17th-century Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy of Arts ^ [map], or RA, (www.royalacademy.org.uk; Sat–Thu 10am–6pm, Fri 10am–10pm; charge), entered through a huge arch and across a large courtyard and known for high-profile temporary exhibitions. Its less-known permanent collection includes Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo, Constable’s The Leaping Horse and Gainsborough’s A Romantic Landscape. Diploma work, submitted by Academicians on election to membership, includes Walter Sickert’s Santa Maria delle Salute, Richard Eurich’s The Mariner’s Return and David Hockney’s Grand Canyon.

Shepherd Market

The pedestrianised enclave off Mayfair’s Curzon Street (or via Clarges Street or Half Moon Street from Piccadilly) was named after Edward Shepherd, who built the area in the mid-18th century. In the 17th century, the annual 15-day ‘May Fair’ was held here, hence the name of the whole area. Shepherd Market is now a great place to relax, with bars, Victorian pubs and restaurants aplenty, many of which have pavement tables.

Alongside the RA is the Burlington Arcade, built in 1815 and one of the oldest, most elegant of the capital’s covered shopping promenades. Beadles patrol this Regency promenade. In their top hats and livery, they ensure good behaviour, with ‘no undue whistling, humming or hurrying’.

Mayfair’s other upmarket retail environments include the bespoke suits of Savile Row, the commercial art galleries of Cork Street, auction houses Sotheby’s and Bonhams, and Old Bond Street and New Bond Street, both of which are famous for their proliferation of designer flagship stores.

BLOOMSBURY AND MARYLEBONE

Despite their central location, both Marylebone and Blooms­bury are surprisingly genteel. Marylebone High Street and Marylebone Lane enjoy a village atmosphere, and many of London’s top doctors have surgeries around Harley Street and Wimpole Street. East of Tottenham Court Road is Bloomsbury, London’s literary heart and home to the British Museum, British Library and much of the University of London.

The British Museum

The British Museum & [map] (www.britishmuseum.org; Great Russell Street; daily 10am–5.30pm, Fri until 8.30pm; free), opened in 1759, is the nation’s greatest treasure house, with items from Neolithic antiquities to 20th-century manuscripts. The main entrance is via the steel-and-glass-roofed Great Court, Europe’s largest covered space, in the middle of which is the grand former main reading room, now an information centre. Behind the famous Athenian frontage are the 5th-century BC Elgin Marbles ‘rescued’ by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in Athens in 1801, and the linguist’s codebook, the Rosetta Stone, the key that unlocked the mysteries of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. There are excellent Assyrian, Egyptian and Roman artefacts in the main museum, including the world’s richest collection of Egyptian mummies and funerary art, the exquisite 1st-century Roman Portland Vase and the Nereid Monument, an elaborate Turkish tomb dating from 380BC.

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Mayfair’s Burlington Arcade

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

Though a world museum, it is guardian of the great British treasures, too, including the Sutton Hoo trove from a burial ship of an Anglo-Saxon king, the 7th-century Lindisfarne Gospels and Lindow man, a Briton killed 2,000 years ago and preserved in a peat bog. The African Galleries display several 16th-century bronzes from Benin City.

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The Great Court of the British Museum

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

King’s Cross and St Pancras

The area around King’s Cross and St Pancras stations is in the process of being regenerated, with the fully overhauled St Pancras International itself one of the architectural and retail highlights of the area. The immense Victorian Gothic red-brick and glass edifice is London’s Eurostar terminus, while the adjacent St Pancras hotel has been restored to its former glory. Next door, King’s Cross has also been improved, with a semi-circular concourse in the station itself. Nearby, it is worth making a quick detour to the vast, canal-side Granary Square, where 1,000 choreographed, illuminated fountains shoot up daily between 8am and 7pm.

Literary Bloomsbury

In the early 20th century Bloomsbury was home to Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Dora Carrington, Roger Fry and Queen Victoria’s biographer, Lytton Strachey, known collectively as the ‘Bloomsbury set’. Although their inclinations spread across painting, philosophy and writing, their connection was to challenge the conventions of the day. At that time publishing was a major industry in the area, with publishers including the Bloomsbury set’s own Hogarth Press. Many imprints have since moved to cheaper premises, however, as have most of the area’s second-hand bookstores.

The British Library (www.bl.uk; 96 Euston Road; Mon–Thu 9.30am–6pm, Fri 9.30am–6pm, Sat 9.30am–5pm, Sun 11am–5pm; free) used to be housed in the British Museum, but as the museum collection grew, it was decided to move the 9 million books, including a Gutenberg Bible, the Magna Carta and original texts by Shakespeare and Dickens. Galleries in the current premises, near St Pancras, display some of the library’s treasures, ranging from a 3rd-century biblical manuscript to original copies of Beatles’ lyrics. The library hosts changing literary-themed exhibitions, many of which are free, and has four places to eat and drink.

West of here on Euston Road is the Wellcome Collection (www.wellcomecollection.org; Tue–Sat 10am–6pm, Thu until 10pm, Sun 11am–6pm; free), which showcases an eclectic mix of art and medical artefacts, including shrunken heads, a chastity belt and Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush.

The Regent’s Park

Further west still is The Regent’s Park * [map], an elegant 470-acre (190-hectare) space surrounded by smart Regency terraces. Within the park are formal gardens, an open-air theatre where Shakespeare’s plays are staged in summer, and a boating lake. Regent’s Canal runs through the north of the park. Also at the northern end of the park is London Zoo (www.zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo; mid-Feb–Oct 10am–5.30pm, Nov–mid-Feb 10am–4pm; charge), which is home to more than 720 species of animal. There are lions, tigers, gorillas and hippos, with many breeding programmes for endangered species. The £3.6 million ‘up-close’ enclosure, Tiger Territory, opened in 2013; tragically the first baby tiger to be born to the zoo in 17 years drowned in the enclosure’s pool in October 2013 aged just three weeks. The zoo is expensive, but discount offers, including 2-for-1 entrance with a train ticket, can help bring down the price.

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One of the taller inhabitants of London Zoo

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

Northwest of Regent’s Park is Lord’s Cricket Ground (tours hourly on the hour Oct–Dec daily and Jan–Mar Sat 10am–2pm, also daily at 3pm in Oct and Apr–Sept, Jan–Mar Mon–Fri 11am–2pm; charge; www.lords.org), the ancestral home of cricket. To visit the ground, the portrait-lined Long Room through which players walk on their way to the field, and the memorabilia-packed MCC Museum, you have to take a 100-minute tour, which runs most days except on important match days.

Marylebone

South of the Regent’s Park is Madame Tussauds (www.madametussauds.com/­london; hours vary – see website for details – but generally Mon–Fri 9.30am–5.30pm, Sat–Sun 9am–6pm, spring/summer school holidays 9am–7pm; charge). The waxworks museum is home to thousands of effigies of various celebrities from royals to filmstars to Marvel superheroes, made with glass-fibre bodies and wax heads. It was founded in 1835 by Marie Tussaud, who prepared death masks of famous victims of the guillotine during the French Revolution. Those gory beginnings are echoed in the Chamber of Horrors.

Nearby at 221b Baker Street is the Sherlock Holmes Museum (www.sherlock-holmes.co.uk; daily 9.30am–6pm; charge). It pays tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictitious sleuth by creating an imaginative evocation of the Victorian detective’s apartment.

Other cultural attractions in Marylebone include the Art Nouveau Wigmore Hall (36 Wigmore Street; www.wigmore-hall.org.uk), a notable venue for chamber music, and the Wallace Collection ( [map] (Hertford House, Manchester Square; www.wallacecollection.org; daily 10am–5pm; free), a fine private collection of 17th- and 18th-century English and European paintings, porcelain and furniture, elegantly displayed in an 18th-century mansion. Highlights include Franz Hals’ Laughing Cavalier, Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing and furniture attributed to master cabinetmaker André-Charles Boulle.

THE SOUTH BANK

The area south of the Thames, from County Hall (opposite Westminster) to Southwark, further east, is an historic part of London. The first bridge across the Thames was built by the Romans near London Bridge, and the community around it developed as an alternative to the City, since it lay beyond the City’s jurisdiction. In Shakespeare’s day this was a place for showing unlicensed plays and setting up brothels, and it retained its reputation as an area of vice well into the 19th century.

In the late 20th century the area was transformed into a vibrant cultural centre; warehouses were renovated and converted into expensive flats, and the Underground’s Jubilee Line extension improved access. Highlights of the area now include the London Eye, South Bank Centre, Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe. Further east, the capital’s (and Western Europe’s) tallest building, The Shard, has led regeneration of the London Bridge area. Located beside London Bridge station, at 1,016ft (310m) tall, it contains several restaurants, the 5-star Shangri-La hotel, offices and a viewing gallery (for more information, click here).

County Hall

Facing the Houses of Parliament is the neoclassical County Hall (www.londoncountyhall.com), built from 1909–22 and once the seat of the Greater London Council, which ran London until an unsympathetic Thatcher government abolished it in 1986. It now houses two hotels, an aquarium, a chamber of horrors, the Namco Funscape games arcade and entertainment centre, and several restaurants. The Sea Life London Aquarium (www.visitsealife.com; daily 10am–7pm with last admission 1 hour before closing; charge) contains thousands of specimens representing around 500 species of fish in 14 themed zones. The London Dungeon (www.the­dungeons.com; daily, Mon–Wed, Fri 10am–5pm, Thu from 11am, Sat–Sun 10am–6pm, holidays generally open one hour later than normal – see website for details; charge) is a theme park of gore, focussing on London’s bloody history.

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The London Eye, seen from Westminster Bridge

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

The London Eye

Towering over County Hall is the London Eye , [map] (www.­londoneye.com; some variations – see website for details – but generally times are daily Sept–Dec and Jan–late Mar 10am–8.30pm, late Mar–mid-Apr and late June–Aug 10am–9.30pm, mid-Apr–late June 10am–9pm; charge). Europe’s tallest observation wheel was built to mark the turn of the millennium. At 450ft (135m), it is one of the highest structures in London. The 32 enclosed capsules, each holding 25 people, take 30 minutes to make a full rotation – a speed slow enough to allow passengers to step in and out while the wheel keeps moving. On a clear day, you can see for 25 miles (40km).

The Southbank Centre

East along the river from the London Eye is the Southbank Centre ⁄ [map] (www.southbankcentre.co.uk), Europe’s largest arts complex, housing concert halls, a gallery, cinema and theatre. Develop­ments in the 2000s greatly improved the area around the centre, which is now packed with lively restaurants and bars. The Royal Festival Hall (daily 10am–11pm), the only permanent building designed for the 1951 Festival of Britain, is a major music venue. In 1967 the 2,900-seat hall gained two neighbours: the 917-seater Queen Eliza­beth Hall, for chamber concerts, music theatre and opera, and the more intimate, 372-seat Purcell Room. Work completed in 2007 restored original 1950s design elements and improved the acoustics of the main auditorium. On the upper level of the Southbank Centre complex is the Hay­ward Gallery. The gallery’s programme of changing exhibitions focuses on single artists, historical themes and artistic movements, other cultures, and contemporary themes.

Next door is BFI Southbank (www.bfi.org.uk), Britain’s leading art-house cinema since 1952. With four screens, an interactive ‘mediathèque’ and a stylish bar and café, it holds over 2,400 annual screenings and events, from silent movies (some with live piano accompaniment) to world cinema.

The final building in the complex is the National Theatre (www.national­theatre.org.uk). Opened in 1976, it houses three separate theatres under one roof: the 1,200-seater Olivier, the 900-seater Lyttelton and the intimate Cottesloe with galleries on three sides.

Around Waterloo

A detour away from the South Bank along Waterloo Road takes you past the cylindrical BFI London IMAX Cinema (www.bfi.org.uk). Where Waterloo Road meets The Cut is the Old Vic theatre (www.oldvictheatre.com), founded in 1818. A music hall in its early days, it is now a repertory theatre with Kevin Spacey as artistic director. Further along The Cut, the Young Vic (www.youngvic.org) stages experimental plays and gives young directors a chance to develop their art.

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Imperial War Museum

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

South of Waterloo station is the Imperial War Museum ¤ [map] (www.iwm.org.uk; Lambeth Road; daily 10am–6pm; free), which underwent a £40-million refurbishment in 2014 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. Several new galleries were added and the building’s famous atrium now houses a Spitfire and a Harrier Jump Jet.

Located in the 1811 Bethlehem hospital for the insane, there is much civilian material from both world wars on display at the museum, plus the latest in weaponry. An audio-visual display recreates a wartime air raid on a London street, and visitors can experience conditions in the trenches during World War I. The museum’s Holocaust Exhibition is built around the testimonies of survivors, from the origins of anti-Semitism to its horrific conclusion.

Around Gabriel’s Wharf

East of the National Theatre, past an 18-storey tower housing ITV London, is Gabriel’s Wharf, a group of shops and restaurants backed by a striking set of trompe l’œil paintings. Set back from the river, the Art Deco Oxo Tower has pinprick windows outlining the word ‘Oxo’, a gimmick that the makers of the beef extract of the same name designed to get round a ban on riverfront advertising. The tower has a public viewing gallery and an excellent restaurant.

Further east, just beyond Blackfriars Bridge, which is now home to Blackfriars station, the riverside walk leads past the Bankside Gallery (daily 11am–6pm during exhibitions; free; www.bankside­gallery.com), home of the Royal Watercolour Society and Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers.

Tate Modern

Easily identifiable by its tall brick chimney, Tate Modern ‹ [map] (Bankside; www.tate.org.uk; Sun–Thu 10am–6pm, Fri–Sat 10am–10pm; free) occupies the former Bankside Power Station and houses the Tate’s international modern collection and part of its contemporary collection. The main entrance, to the west of the building, leads into the ground floor through a broad sweep of glass doors and then down a massive concrete ramp. The impressive space rising six storeys ahead is the Turbine Hall, the old boiler room now used to house massive art installations. A bridge is being built across the Turbine Hall to link level four with Tate Modern’s new 11-level extension, designed, like the gallery’s first phase, by renowned architects Herzog & de Meuron. Located on the south side of the building, the extension is slated to open in late 2016.

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Inside the Tate Modern

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

The permanent collection, including work by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Duchamp, Dalí, Bacon, Pollock, Rothko and Warhol, plus sculpture by Giacometti, Hepworth and Epstein, is housed on levels 2, 3 and 4 (the main changing exhibitions are shown on levels 2 and 3, with smaller ones also on level 4). Works are organised into four artistic movements across four wings: ‘Poetry and Dream’ (level 2) – Surrealism; ‘Transformed visions (level 3) – post-war expressive abstraction; and, both on level 4, ‘Energy and Process’, focussing on Arte Povera, and ‘Structure and clarity’, which covers Cubism, Geometric Abstraction and Minimalism. The displays move backwards and forwards in time, showing the predecessors and sometimes the opponents of each movement, as well as how they shaped and informed subsequent developments and contemporary art.

The gallery has a restaurant with great views on level 6, and a café on level 1, adjacent to the excellent bookshop. To beat the crowds, visit on Friday or Saturday evening.

The Millennium Bridge

Providing a link across the Thames from Tate Modern to St Paul’s, as well as some spectacular views up and down the river, is Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge. Said to resemble a ‘blade of light’ when floodlit, this innovative suspension bridge – its cables are strung horizontally rather than vertically – opened in 2000.

Shakespeare’s Globe

Bankside and Southwark are the South Bank’s most historic areas. They grew up in competition with the City across the river, but by the 16th century had become dens of vice. Bankside was famous for brothels, bear- and bull-baiting pits, prize fights and the first playhouses, including Shakespeare’s Globe (21 New Globe Walk; www.shakespearesglobe.com). The replica of the 1599 building opened in 1996 and is worth a visit even if you’re not seeing a play. Thanks to the efforts of the actor Sam Wanamaker, who sadly died before the project was completed, the Globe has been re-created using original construction methods. The open-air galleried theatre accommodates 1,500 people – 600 standing (and liable to get wet if it rains) and the rest seated. The season runs mid-Apr–mid-Oct.

The adjacent Shake­speare’s Globe Exhibition (daily mid-Oct–early Feb 10am–5pm, mid-Apr–mid-Oct 9am–5.30pm; tours also within these times but mornings only Tue–Sun in winter, for details, check website; charge) enhances visitors’ knowledge of the Bard.

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The Globe Theatre

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

Shakespeare’s plays were not only shown at the Globe but also at the Rose Theatre (www.rosetheatre.org.uk), Bankside’s first playhouse, built in 1587, but pulled down in the early 17th century. The foundations were discovered in 1989 and a campaign to restore it began. The Rose reopened in 1999 and today Globe tours visit the theatre during afternoons in summer, when performances are taking place at the Globe. There are also separate tours on Saturday afternoons in summer (late May–July Sat 10am–5pm; free).

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Southwark

Back on the riverside walk, by Southwark Bridge, is the Anchor Inn. The present building (1770–5) is the sole survivor of the 22 busy inns that once lined Bankside. Just behind is Vinopolis (1 Bank End; http://vinopolis.co.uk; Thu–Fri 2pm–10pm, Sat noon–9.30pm, Sun 1–4pm; charge). Occupying an area under the railway arches, this ‘wine museum’ offers a visual tour through exhibits of the world’s major wine regions. There are self-guided three tours available, of different lengths, with each tour including several wine tastings.

Like most country bishops, the bishops of the powerful see of Winchester had a London base. A single gable wall remains of Winchester Palace, their former London residence. The bishops had their own laws, regulated local brothels and were the first authority in England to lock up miscreants. The prison they founded, in Clink Street, remained a lock-up until the 18th century, and the word ‘clink’ became a euphemism for jail. The Clink Prison Museum (1 Clink Street; www.clink.co.uk; Mon–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat–Sun 10am–7.30pm, open until 9pm July–Sept; charge) recalls the area’s seedy past.

Clink Street leads to Pickfords Wharf, built in 1864 for storing hops, flour and seeds. At the end of the street, in the St Mary Overie Dock, is a full-size replica of Sir Francis Drake’s 16th-century galleon, the Golden Hinde (Clink Street; www.goldenhinde.com; daily 10am–5.30pm; charge). The ship, launched in 1973, is the only replica to have completed a circumnavigation of the globe. It has now clocked up more nautical miles than the original.

Southwark Cathedral and Borough

Southwest of London Bridge and hemmed in by the railway, is Southwark Cathedral › [map] (http://cathedral.southwark.­anglican.org; Mon–Fri 8am–6pm, Sat, Sun 8.30am–6pm; free). In the 12th century it was a priory church, and it has a Norman north door, early Gothic work and a number of medieval ornaments. Shakespeare was a parishioner here, and a memorial in the south aisle, paid for by public subscription in 1912, shows him reclining in front of a frieze of 16th-century Bankside; above it is a modern stained-glass window depicting characters from his plays. John Harvard, who gave his name to the American university, was baptised here, and is commemorated in the Harvard Chapel.

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Fresh produce at Borough Market

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

Near the cathedral is Borough Market (www.borough­market.org.uk), which despite its smart glass and steel frontage on Borough High Street, dates back to the 13th century. Now a gourmet market (and an increasingly popular tourist destination), it has over 100 stalls, many offering high-quality takeaway meals. The full market is held on Wednesday and Thursday (10am–5pm), Fridays (10am–6pm) and Saturdays (8am–5pm), with a smaller number of stalls mostly catering to the lunch trade open on Monday and Tuesday (10am–5pm). It isn’t cheap, but the quality is high, and you can often try before you buy. Apart from organic basics such as fruit and vegetables, there is a wide choice of more unusual food, with stalls specialising in potted shrimps, game and Spanish ingredients.

Across Borough High Street from the cathedral, the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret (9a St Thomas Street; www.thegarret.org.uk; daily 10.30am–5pm; charge) is Britain’s only surviving 19th-century operating theatre. The Herb Garret, once a store and curing place for herbs, now documents their use in 19th-century medicine.

East along St Thomas Street is the area’s newest landmark (completed 2012): Western Europe’s tallest building, The Shard fi [map]. Designed by Renzo Piano, the behemoth towers 1,016ft (310 metres) over London Bridge station next door and has sparked massive (ongoing) regeneration in the area. If you have a head for heights, you can take a lift up to the 72nd floor (entrance on Joiner Street; www.theviewfromtheshard.com; Sun–Wed 10am–7pm, last entry 5.30–6pm, Thu–Sat 10am–10pm, last entry 8.30–9pm; charge) for unobstructed views of the city and beyond. Advance booking is recommended, although it is sensible to check the weather first, as mist (particularly in the mornings) often clouds the upper part of the tower.

For excellent food and drink options, continue east for a couple of minutes, to reach Bermondsey Street. This fashionable strip is also home to Zandra Rhodes’ colourful Fashion and Textile Museum (83 Bermondsey Street; http://ftmlondon.org; Tue–Sat 11am–6pm; charge), which puts on changing exhibitions exploring fashion, textiles and jewellery. Further along the street, at No. 144–152, is White Cube (http://whitecube.com), the largest of the celebrity gallery owner Jay Jopling’s sites.

The Pool of London

Between London Bridge and Tower Bridge is the Upper Pool of London, a former hive of waterborne trade. Hay’s Galleria, with its shops, stalls and restaurants, marks the first of the Surrey Docks on the south bank. HMS Belfast, a World War II cruiser, is moored here as a museum (www.iwm.org.uk/visits/hms-belfast; daily Mar–Oct 10am–6pm, Nov–Feb 10am–5pm (last admission 1 hour before closing); charge). To its east, the oval-shaped glass building is City Hall (Mon–Thu 8.30am–6pm, Fri 8.30am–5.30pm), home to the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority (the body that governs London).

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HMS Belfast

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

Tower Bridge

The elaborate Gothic-style bridge looming into sight as you walk east is Tower Bridge fl [map]. In the 19th century, a time of great industrial expansion, there was a need to improve circulation over the river without hindering the access of ships into London’s docks. The result was this triumph of Victorian engineering, built between 1886 and 1894, a bridge that could be raised, made from a steel frame held together with 3 million rivets and clad with decorative stonework. The bridge was opened amid great celebration by the then-Prince and Princess of Wales, on 30 June 1894. The entrance to the Tower Bridge Exhibition (www.towerbridge.org.uk; daily Apr–Sept 10am–6pm, Oct–Mar 9.30am–5.30pm; charge) is on the north bank of the Thames. The semi-guided tour takes visitors through the bridge’s history, from the controversy that raged over the need to construct it, to its electrification in 1977. You also get the chance to see much of the inside of the bridge, including the engine rooms and raised walkways.

Butlers Wharf and the Design Museum

The old warehouses located just east of Tower Bridge contain a gourmet’s delight. The gourmet in question is Habitat founder Sir Terence Conran, who has opened up several restaurants in the biscuit-coloured Butlers Wharf. Originally completed in 1873, and once the largest warehouse complex on the Thames, Butlers Wharf closed in 1972. In 1985 a development team chaired by Conran began transforming the area’s buildings into a stylish shopping, dining and residential area at a cost of £100 million.

Adjacent is the Design Museum (28 Shad Thames; www.designmuseum.org; daily 10am–5.45pm; charge), which was set up by Conran when the Victoria and Albert Museum declined to make a temporary design show permanent. The museum contains a collection of influential design and design classics, mainly from the 20th and 21st centuries. It also holds excellent, themed, changing exhibitions. In 2016 the museum is scheduled to move to new premises in the former Commonwealth Institute, on Kensington High Street, in West London. Once remodelled, the new building should offer three times as much space for exhibitions and events as the one at Shad Thames.

THE CITY

For most of the capital’s 2,000-year history, the area between St Paul’s and the Tower – generally referred to as the ‘Square Mile’ – was London. Still known as ‘The City’, it has its own local government, led by a Lord Mayor, and its own police force. The network of medieval alleys and back streets is still evident, but today’s tall buildings hum with banks of computers processing international finance. Teeming with life on weekdays, the City is virtually deserted at weekends.

The Square Mile extends from the highly ornate Law Courts (located at the junction of the Strand and Fleet Street) to the west, to the Tower of London to the east, and from the Barbican in the north to the Thames to the south. This was the area originally enclosed by the Roman Wall, but it is now firmly held in place by commerce.

Legal London

Legal London starts at the edge of the City with the Royal Courts of Justice (better known as the Law Courts; www.­justice.gov.uk), in an elaborate late 19th-century building on the Strand. On the other side of busy Fleet Street, a few steps along, a tiny alleyway leads to the gas-lit sanctuary of the area known as the Temple, which houses two of the four Inns of Court – Inner Temple and Middle Temple (not open to the public). In former times these were the residences of barristers and barristers-in-training, and today’s barristers-in-training must still be members of an Inn. The Temple takes its name from its 12th- and 13th-century function as the home of the crusading Knights Templar.

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The Royal Courts of Justice

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

On Chancery Lane is Lincoln’s Inn, the oldest of the four Inns of Court. On a large square adjacent is Sir John Soane’s Museum (13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields; www.soane.org; Tue–Sat 10am–5pm and by candlelight 6–9pm first Tue of month; free), the former home of a prominent late 18th-century London architect. The house is just as Soane left it, packed from floor to ceiling with priceless treasures, such as paintings by Hogarth (notably The Rake’s Progress series), Turner and Canaletto.

Off Fleet Street, famous as the former centre of English newspaper production, is Dr Samuel Johnson’s House (17 Gough Square; www.drjohnsonshouse.org; Mon–Sat 11am–5pm, until 5.30pm May–Sept; charge). It was here that the first definitive English dictionary was compiled.

St Paul’s Cathedral

St Paul’s ‡ [map] (www.stpauls.co.uk; Mon–Sat 8.30am–4pm; charge), the first purpose-built Protestant cathedral, is Sir Christopher Wren’s greatest work. A tablet above Wren’s plain marble tomb in the crypt reads: Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice (Reader, if you wish to see his memorial, look around you). Although Westminster Abbey hosts more national occasions, Churchill lay in state here in 1965, and Prince Charles married Diana Spencer here in 1981.

Historians believe that the first church on this site was built in the 7th century, although it came into its own as Old St Paul’s only in the 14th century. By the 16th century St Paul’s was the tallest cathedral in England. Much of the building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Construction on the new St Paul’s Cathedral began in 1675, when Wren was 43.

The architect was an old man of 78 when his son Christopher finally laid the highest stone of the lantern on the central cupola in 1710. In total, the cathedral cost £747,954 to build, and most of the money was raised through taxing coal arriving at the port of London. The building is massive and the Portland stone dome alone – exceeded in size only by St Peter’s in Rome – weighs over 50,000 tons. Generations have giggled secret messages in St Paul’s Whispering Gallery, over 100ft (30m) of perfect acoustics. You have to climb nearly 260 steps to reach it, however, and a further 270 to enjoy the view from the highest of the dome’s three galleries.

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Spectacular St Paul’s Cathedral

Peter Smith/St Paul’s Cathedral

In the cathedral’s crypt, the largest vault of its kind in Europe, is a treasury containing ceremonial vessels, a burial chamber and a chapel dedicated to members of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). The highlights of this cavernous undercroft include the tombs of the Duke of Wellington (whose casket was so huge that it had to be lowered into its resting place via a hole in the Cathedral floor) and of Admiral Lord Nelson, who was foresighted enough to take a coffin with him to the Battle of Trafalgar.

The Barbican

North of the City is the concrete Barbican ° [map] (Silk Street; www.barbican.org.uk), an arts and conference centre opened in 1982. The cultural offerings here include art galleries, theatres, a concert hall (the Barbican is the home of the London Symphony Orchestra), cinema, a library, bars and restaurants. Visit at lunchtime for free foyer concerts.

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The Gherkin

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

The Gherkin

Although 30 St Mary Axe (www.30stmaryaxe.co.uk) is one of the City’s most iconic sights, that name would mean little to many of its fans. More familiar is its nickname, ‘The Gherkin’, inspired by the glass tower’s distinctive shape (rather than its address). Designed by Lord Foster, the building has 40 floors and, at 591ft (180m) high, is more than three times the height of Niagara Falls.

Just outside the arts centre is the Museum of London (150 London Wall; www.museumoflondon.org.uk; daily 10am–6pm; free), which charts every aspect of the capital’s long history.

The Financial City

The heart of the business district of the City focuses on the Bank of England · [map] (nicknamed ‘The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’). Imposing windowless walls rise impregnably, with seven stories above ground and three below. This is where the nation’s gold reserves are kept. Opposite the Bank of England is the neoclassical Mansion House, residence of the Lord Mayor of London. Adjacent is Wren’s St Stephen Walbrook, whose dome is said to have been a rehearsal for St Paul’s.

Northwest of the Bank is the Guildhall (Basinghall Street; www.guildhall.cityoflondon.gov.uk; Mon–Sat 10am–4.30pm, May–Sept also Sun 10–4.30pm, subject to events taking place at the Guildhall; free), the town hall of the City of London. This building dates from 1411 and withstood the Great Fire and the Blitz. Step inside when open to the public to see the ancient Great Hall. Here the centuries-old functions and ceremonies continue: banquets of state, the annual swearing-in of the new Lord Mayor in November and meetings of the Court of Common Council. The adjacent Art Gallery (free) is well worth a visit too – the remains of a Roman amphitheatre are visible on the lower floor.

East of the Bank of England, along the ancient thoroughfares of Cornhill and Leadenhall Street, is Lloyd’s of London. Lloyd’s originated in 1688 in Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House, where ships’ captains, owners and merchants gathered to do marine insurance deals. Lloyd’s moved to Richard Rogers’ space-age building in 1986. A huge atrium rises 200ft (60m) at the heart of this steel-and-glass structure which, like Rogers’ Pompidou Centre, exposes its workings to view.

In the shadow of Lloyd’s is the Victorian Leadenhall Market, once the wholesale market for poultry and game, and now a handsome commercial centre. It has been prettified, and its magnificent Victorian cream-and-maroon structure now houses sandwich bars, restaurants and upmarket fashion chain stores, which attract city workers at breakfast and lunchtime.

Just north of Leadenhall is Liverpool Street station, along with Broadgate, where there is an ice rink at Broadgate Square.

South of Leadenhall Market, back towards the river, is Christopher Wren’s 202ft (62 metre) high Monument (Monument Yard; www.themonument.info; daily Oct–Mar 9.30am–5.30pm, Apr–Sept 9.30am–6pm; charge), topped with a gleaming gold urn of fire. The Roman Doric column was designed to commemorate the victims of the Great Fire, which destroyed 13,200 houses and 87 churches. Its height matches the distance from the spot in Pudding Lane, where the fire is believed to have started. There are 311 stairs up to the encaged viewing platform at the top.

The Tower of London

East of the Monument, on the north bank of the Thames is the Tower of London º [map] (Tower Hill; www.hrp.org.uk; Mar–Oct Tue–Sat 9am–5.30pm, Sun–Mon 10am–5.30pm). Encircled by a moat (now dry) and with 22 towers, the building was begun by William the Conqueror in 1078. Over the years its buildings have served as a fort, arsenal, palace and prison, and housed a treasury, public record office, observatory, royal mint and zoo.

At the centre of the complex is the White Tower, designed by the Norman monk Gandulf for William the Conqueror. The Tower’s walls are 15ft (5m) thick and contain the fine Norman Chapel of St John on the first floor. Henry VIII added the domestic architecture of the Queen’s House behind the Tower on the left, which is where the Tower’s governor lives. The most recent buildings are the 19th-century Museum and Waterloo Barracks, to the right of the Tower, which contains the Jewel House where the Crown Jewels are a major attraction. At the centre of the display are a dozen crowns and a glittering array of swords, sceptres and orbs. The Imperial State Crown, made in 1937, has 2,868 diamonds and is topped with an 11th-century sapphire. A moving walkway speeds you past the treasures, so, rather disappointingly, you can’t linger.

Look out for the Tower ravens; according to legend, if they ever leave, the Tower and England will fall. Ravens are bred and their wings are clipped to ensure they stay. Also look out for the Beefeaters, who guard the tower and act as guides.

KENSINGTON AND CHELSEA

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is central London’s most expensive residential area. It is home to upmarket shops such as Harrods and Harvey Nichols, designer row Sloane Street, and also takes in the King’s Road, an influential fashion stretch in the 1960s. The borough has a royal palace, a fine park and a clutch of world-renowned museums.

Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens

Hyde Park and the adjoining Kensington Gardens cover one square mile (2.5 sq km) – the same area as the City of London. Although they are a single open space, they are two distinct parks, divided by the Ring or West Carriage Drive.

Hyde Park Corner, at the western end of Piccadilly, is a good place to enter the park. Near the entrance to the park, facing Wellington Arch, is Apsley House, which has the enviable address of No. 1, London. Built by Robert Adam for the Duke of Wellington, it is now home to the Apsley House Art Collection (www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/apsley-house; Apr–Nov Wed–Sun 11am–5pm, Nov–Mar Sat–Sun 10am–4pm; charge) and has a fine collection of Old Master paintings and memorabilia linked with the Duke. Highlights include Canova’s larger-than-life nude statue of Napoleon, one of numerous items in his house depicting the Duke’s great foe, and a magnificent reconstruction of the Waterloo Banquet.

The Domesday Book of 1086 records that wild bulls and boars once inhabited Hyde Park ¡ [map]. The park was first owned by the monks of Westminster Abbey, but after ecclesiastic property was confiscated during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII turned it into a royal hunting ground. The park was opened to the public in the 17th century and then sold off in chunks by Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector.

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Boating on the Serpentine, Hyde Park

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

At the northeast corner of the park is the monumental Marble Arch, erected in 1827 in front of Buckingham Palace and moved here in 1851 when it proved too narrow for the State coaches to pass through. The traffic island in which it now resides was the site of Tyburn Tree, a triangular gallows on which an estimated 50,000 people were publicly hanged between 1571 and 1759. Just inside the park is Speaker’s Corner, where anyone can pull up a soap box and sound off – a tradition going back to the days when condemned men were allowed to have a last word.

The lake at the centre of both parks is called the Serpentine in Hyde Park and the Long Water in Kensington Gardens. It was created in the 1730s as a boating pond, and boats can still be hired from the north bank. On the Kensington Gardens side, next to the lake, is a statue of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. According to tradition, at 9am every Christmas Day, hardy swimmers dive into the lake to compete for the Peter Pan Cup. On the south side of the Serpentine is the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, a circular ring of flowing water that you can dip your feet in. The Serpentine Gallery (www.serpentinegallery.org; Tue–Sun 10am–6pm; free), housed in a 1930s tea house, stages cutting-edge art shows. Past subjects include Man Ray, Henry Moore and Cindy Sherman. A short walk from the gallery is the Serpentine Sackler Gallery (times as main gallery) designed by architect Zaha Hadid and incorporating The Magazine, a listed neoclassical gunpowder store dating from 1805. The park’s new addition, which includes gallery space and a restaurant (called The Magazine), opened in autumn 2013.

South of the gallery is the Albert Memorial, a gilded tribute to Queen Victoria’s consort. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, it depicts the Prince as a god or philosopher, holding the catalogue of the Great Exhibition. Opposite, just outside the park, is another of Victoria’s tokens to her husband, the Royal Albert Hall (Kensington Gore; www.royalalberthall.com; charge for tours). There are various themed tours of the ornate concert hall, such as the Victorian tours, behind the scenes tours and a tour that includes afternoon tea.

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The Royal Albert Hall

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

Kensington Gardens were once the private gardens of Kensington Palace (www.hrp.org.uk; state rooms daily 10am–6pm (last admission 1 hour before closing); charge). The palace has been a royal household ever since the asthmatic William of Orange fled damp, polluted Whitehall. A number of monarchs were born here, most recently Victoria in 1819. A number of members of the royal household live in the private side of the palace, with the newest inhabitants being the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their two children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte.

To the north of the gardens is the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground (www.royalparks.org.uk; daily from 10am, May–Aug until 7.45pm, Apr and Sept until 6.45pm, Mar and early Oct until 5.45pm, Feb and late Oct until 4.45pm, Nov–Jan until 3.45pm), commemorating the late Princess, who lived at Kensington Palace at the time of her death. A huge wooden Peter Pan-inspired pirate ship on a sandy ‘beach’, wigwams and sensory trails offer hours of fun for children.

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Kensington

A few yards from the peace of these parks is busy Ken­sing­ton High Street, which is dominated by chain stores. However, if you take a few steps off this main thoroughfare you will find elegant squares with gorgeous old houses. Situated just next to the neo-Gothic church of St Mary Abbots is Kensington Church Street, famed for its antiques shops. At the west end of Kensington High Street is the wooded Holland Park, home to a blitzed Jaco­bean mansion, Holland House, with Japanese gardens and peacocks.

South Kensington

Familiarly known as ‘South Ken’, this area is best known for its museums, a legacy of the Great Exhibition of 1851, at which Prince Albert raised money to purchase 87 acres (35 hectares) of land in South Kensington and make this the ‘museumland’ of London. South Kensington has a large French population, which makes for a number of very good patisseries and some of the best French bookshops in London.

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The Natural History Museum

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

Natural History Museum

On Cromwell Road is the impressive neo-Gothic pile of the Natural History Museum ™ [map] (www.nhm.ac.uk; daily 10am–5.50pm; free except for some special exhibitions), built from 1873–80. The museum’s biggest draw is undoubtedly the Dinosaur Gallery – the museum’s showpiece is an 85-ft (26-m) diplodocus skeleton in the grand central hall. There is also a crowd-pleasing animated model of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, which roars and smells authentically unpleasant. Other highlights include a life-size model of a blue whale, a simulated earthquake in a mock-up of a Japanese supermarket and an escalator that rises up through a rotating model of the globe, giving the sensation that you, and not the globe, are turning. The Darwin Centre’s Cocoon building is a futuristic home for the museum’s enormous insect and plant collection. Book online in advance for a chance to get a closer look at the specimens and take a peek behind the scenes at the important work done by the scientists there. Note that the Exhibition Road entrance is step free.

Portobello Road Market

Notting Hill is a gentrified residential area with some of the grandest Georgian townhouses in the capital. The area is also home to the annual Notting Hill Carnival and the Portobello Road Market. Built on the site of a pig farm named after an English victory over Spain at Porto Bello in the Gulf of Mexico in 1739, it has developed over the past 50 years into a major antiques market.

The road accommodates three markets. The antiques market, at the south end (Sat 6am–5pm), merges into a food market where the traditional fruit-and-vegetable stalls have been joined by traders selling fish, cheese and more exotic foodstuffs from around the world (Mon–Sat 9am–6pm, early closing Thu 1pm, Fri and Sat open till 7pm). Next, a flea market mixing genuine junk with cutting-edge fashion operates under the Westway flyover, at the north end, on Saturdays with stalls also on Monday to Friday.

Science Museum

Next door is the Science Museum (www.sciencemuseum.org.uk; daily 10am–6pm; free), which traces the history of inventions from the first steam train to the battered command module from the Apollo 10 space mission. Seven floors of exhibition space cover computing, medicine, photography, chemistry and physics. There are imaginative exhibits on genes and the future of digital communications. The vast Wellcome Wing houses an IMAX cinema and some flight simulators, whilst the Launchpad gallery, with its host of hands-on exhibits, is great fun for kids. The Garden, in the basement, is great for young children.

Victoria and Albert Museum

The first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A; Cromwell Road; www.vam.ac.uk; daily 10am–5.45pm, Fri until 10pm; free except for special exhibitions), Henry Cole, began assembling the museum’s collection the year after the 1851 Great Exhibition. However, Queen Victoria only laid the foundation stone of the current building in 1899, 38 years after Albert died. Its 1909 façade is by Aston Webb, who also designed the front of Buckingham Palace. Inside is the richest collection of decorative arts in the world, exhibited in beautiful galleries that have been cleverly remodelled to showcase the latest in modern design.

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Tipu’s Tiger at the V&A

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

The collection includes extra­ordinary groupings of sculpture, pottery, china, engravings, illustrations, metalwork, paintings, textiles, period costumes and furniture. On the far side of the John Madejski Garden are the spectacular Arts and Crafts-designed Morris, Gamble and Poynter rooms, with their stained glass and Minton tiles. Originally designed as the museum’s refreshment rooms, they have been restored to their intended function as a delightful café.

Knightsbridge

Just south of Hyde Park, Knightsbridge is one of the most expensive chunks of real estate in London and home to Harrods # [map], one of the world’s most famous department stores. Opened by Henry Charles Harrod in 1849 as a small grocer’s shop, the present terracotta palace – whose façade is lit by some 11,500 light bulbs at night – was built at the turn of the 20th century. Until 2010, the shop was owned by Mohamed Al Fayed, an Egyptian businessman whose son Dodi died with Princess Diana in the Paris car crash. Staff claim to be able to source any item you want, and the shop even has a dress code, which security men on the door ensure is enforced. The vast Edwardian Food Halls are a major attraction, exquisitely decorated with around 1,900 Art Nouveau tiles.

Southwest of Harrods and its more fashionable neighbour, Harvey Nichols, is Beauchamp (pronounced ‘Beecham’) Place. The former village high street is now home to some pricey restaurants and designer shops. Sloane Street, a major shopping artery, has back-to-back designer labels and connects Knightsbridge with Chelsea.

Chelsea

Chelsea has long been at the cutting edge of London fashion. Mary Quant started it with the first boutique (long-gone) on the King’s Road, and from the World’s End (430 King’s Road) avant-garde designer Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren gave the world punk in the late 1970s. Chelsea in the 21st century is more subdued, and the King’s Road tends nowadays towards chain stores; however, a walk along it is still good for people-watching.

Where Sloane Street meets the King’s Road is Sloane Square ¢ [map], named after Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection formed the basis of the British Museum. Close to the square, the Duke of York’s HQ now houses the Saatchi Gallery (www.saatchigallery.com; daily 10am–6pm (last admission 5.30pm); free). The gallery showcases the work of contemporary artists assembled by former advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, a collection including Tracey Emin’s My Bed, Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde and works by Jake & Dinos Chapman and Grayson Perry. In 2010 Saatchi announced that he would be gifting the gallery to the nation. Its name will eventually change to the Museum of Contemporary Art for London (Moca, London).

The Royal Hospital on Chel­sea Bridge Road, has been a Chelsea landmark since 1692. It is home to the Chel­sea Pensioners, known for their scarlet coats, a design that dates back to the 18th century. Between here and the Embankment are Rane­lagh Gardens, which host the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (www.rhs.org.uk) every spring.

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Leafy Cheyne Walk in Chelsea

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

Continue down to the River Thames along Royal Hospital Road and turn into Tite Street. This attractive residential area is the epitome of bourgeois respectability but in the early 19th century it was very bohemian. Look out for the blue plaques on the street dedicated to Oscar Wilde (No 34) and John Singer Sargent (No 31). Turn right on to the Embankment and ahead is Cheyne Walk. The splendid houses here were on the water’s edge until the reclamation of the Embankment in the 19th century. Blue plaques mark the former homes of pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti as well as the author George Eliot. Just off Cheyne Walk is Carlyle’s House (24 Cheyne Row; www.nationaltrust.org.uk/carlyles-house; mid-Mar–Oct Wed–Sun 11am–4.30pm; charge), home of the Victorian writer, Thomas Carlyle, until his death in 1881.

NORTH LONDON

Easily accessible by Underground, North London has many attractions, including upmarket Hampstead, notable for its heath and literary connections, neighbouring Highgate with its cemetery, and elegant Islington, the stomping ground of the chattering classes. Camden is worth a visit for its busy, bohemian market and its pleasant canal area.

Islington

This borough, widely regarded as the territory of well-heeled socialists, symbolises the gentrification of London’s Georgian and Victorian dwellings. Classic terraces can be found in areas such as Canonbury Square, where authors George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh once lived. The square is home to the Estorick Collection (39a Canonbury Square; www.estorickcollection.com; Wed–Sat 11am–6pm, Sun 12–5pm; charge), a showcase for modern Italian art.

The crossroads at the heart of Islington’s shopping district is called the Angel, named after a long-gone coaching inn. Adjacent is Camden Passage, an upmarket antiques arcade; more affordable bargains can be had at the street market held here on Wednesday and Saturday (9am–6pm), with some stalls also on Sunday (11am–6pm). At the south end of Islington is Sadler’s Wells (Rosebery Avenue; www.sadlerswells.com), London’s top modern dance venue.

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Camden

Markets are the main attraction in Camden ∞ [map]. Cheap clothes aimed at the young are sold at Camden High Street (daily 9.30am–5.30pm), while crafts are on offer at Camden Lock Market, off Chalk Farm Road (daily 10am–6pm; www.­camdenlock.net). Camden Lock is on the Regent’s Canal, an 8.5 mile (14km) stretch of water running from Paddington to Limehouse in Docklands.

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Shopping at Camden Passage

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

Hampstead and Highgate

Exclusive Hampstead § [map] has long been a desirable address, especially among the successful literary set, and it still has its fair share of wealthy celebrity residents. Open spaces predominate. The 3-sq-mile (8-sq-km) Heath is the main ‘green lung’, with Parliament Hill on its south side giving splendid views across London, as does the 112-acre (45-­hectare) Prim­rose Hill overlooking Regent’s Park to the south. These are all welcome areas of parkland over which locals stride, walk dogs, fly kites, skate and swim in the segregated ponds.

The elegant Kenwood House (Hampstead Lane; daily 11.30am–4pm; free), which overlooks Hampstead Heath, displays the Iveagh Bequest. The collection includes works by Rembrandt, Reynolds, Turner and Gainsborough.

Sigmund Freud, fleeing the Nazis in 1938, moved from Vienna to Hampstead. The Freud Museum (20 Maresfield Gardens; www.freud.org.uk; Wed–Sun noon–5pm; charge) preserves his house as he left it.

A pretty hill-top suburb, Highgate is home to the grandest burial ground in London, Highgate Cemetery (Swain’s Lane; http://highgatecemetery.org; Mon–Fri 10am–5pm, Sat–Sun 11am–5pm; charge). 170,000 people are interred here, including Christina Rossetti, George Eliot and Karl Marx, buried in 53,000 graves.

EAST LONDON

This part of London was the first stop for many successive waves of immigrants, whose labour helped to fuel the Industrial Revolution and build the docks through which much of the British Empire’s trade passed. Poverty and overcrowding were endemic. Although many areas remain poor, a growing number have now been gentrified. Further east still, in Stratford, there has been extensive regeneration, kick-started by the preparations for the London 2012 Olympics.

Spitalfields and Whitechapel

Just east of Liverpool Street is Spitalfields Market ¶ [map] (www.spitalfields.co.uk), a former fruit-and-vegetable market, which has a buzzy bohemian craft, clothing and organic food market (main market on Sundays but many shops and stalls open on Saturday, for the ‘Saturday-Style Market’, and during the week too) and a modern shopping arcade with fashion and home stores adjacent.

Nearby is a museum with a difference, the wonderfully atmospheric Dennis Severs’ House (18 Folgate Street; tel: 020 7247 4013; www.dennissevershouse.co.uk; Sun noon–4pm, selected Mon – see website for details; Mon evenings (by candlelight), booking necessary; charge). An American artist, Severs renovated this former 18th-century silk-weaver’s house in the 1970s, creating a time capsule that assaults the senses – it looks, smells and sounds as if 18th-century Huguenots still live there.

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Dennis Severs’ House

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

Southeast of Spitalfields is Brick Lane, known for its proliferation of Indian restaurants. On the northern stretch of Brick Lane there are fashionable boutiques and trendy bars – the latter are mostly within the Old Truman Brewery, the self-styled creative hub of the East End.

Responding to the East End’s spiritual and economic poverty, a local vicar and his wife founded the Whitechapel Art Gallery (Whitechapel High Street; www.whitechapelgallery.org; Tue–Sun 11am–6pm, Thu until 9pm; free) in 1897. The gallery mounts high-profile shows of cutting-edge art in a lovely airy space.

Hoxton

One of the areas in this eastern part of London to experience a huge degree of gentrification is Hoxton, near Old Street. The transformation began when artists moved in, many creating studios in redundant warehouses. Art dealers and designers followed, and urban desolation became urban chic. Commercial galleries radiate from Hoxton Square. Café-bars and clothes shops line the streets around Curtain Road, and the area is one of London’s most popular places for a night out. On Sundays, Hoxton’s Columbia Road Market (8am–3pm) specialises in flowers, plants and garden accessories.

Docklands

In the 1990s, London’s docks were transformed. Made derelict by heavy World War II bombing and rendered obsolete by the new container ports to the east, their proximity to the financial institutions of the City made them an attractive location for high-tech office buildings. The 850ft (260m) Canary Wharf • [map] complex, officially called One Canada Square, was the first of several skyscrapers to spring up here. The area is now a lively but somewhat sterile patchwork of glass, steel and concrete, with a large shopping centre (including a big Waitrose home and food store) underground. The Museum of London Docklands (West India Quay; www.museumoflondon.org.uk/docklands; daily 10am–6pm; charge) recounts 2,000 years of local history. Highlights include a 20ft (6 metre) model of Old London Bridge and an evocative exhibition about London’s role in the slave trade. There is a lovely play space for young children – Mudlarks (see website for opening times).

Stratford

One of the strengths of the London 2012 Olympic Games bid was the promise of large-scale redevelopment of some of the capital’s most deprived areas, mainly in the east of the city. Once the events were over, the process began of turning the centrepiece of the Games, the Olympic Park in Stratford into the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park ª [map] (http://queenelizabeth­olympicpark.co.uk). The £292m project, completed in 2014, involved dismantling the temporary venues – such as the hockey and basketball arenas – and turning the site into an area of parkland, with walking and cycling routes and recreational facilities.

Other major venues – the Olympic Stadium, the velodrome and swimming pool – continue to be used for sport. Also open to the public is the 676ft (114.5m) tall ArcelorMittal Orbit, the giant twisted sculpture at the heart of the Olympic area, designed by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond.

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Skyscrapers in Docklands

Ming Tang-Evans/Apa Publications

SOUTHEAST LONDON

The expansion of the Over­ground and Jubilee lines into southeast London has opened up this area to those who previously dismissed it for being off the main Tube network. There are many riches here, however, from historic naval Greenwich to artistic Dulwich.

Greenwich

Long the favoured destination of nautical and science buffs, Greenwich q [map] enjoyed notoriety in 2000 as the site of the Millennium Dome. The great white tent was built to house a one-year exhibition for the millennium, but was a financial and critical failure. The structure was later relaunched as the O2 Arena (www.theo2.co.uk) and is a popular venue for concerts and sporting events (nearest Tube: North Greenwich).

Cable car

London’s newest addition to the public transport network is the Emirates Air Line, a cable car that runs between North Greenwich (near the O2) over the Thames to the Royal Docks. It’s a great way to get fabulous views of east London, including the new Olympic park and the sweep of the Thames as it heads out to sea. However, it is an impractical solution for commuters and the number of passenger journeys has been in dramatic decline since the Olympic Games in 2012. You can use your Oyster or buy tickets on site (more expensive). For more information, check www.tfl.gov.uk.

There are plenty of other reasons to visit villagey Greenwich. The district can be covered in half a day and is at its busiest at weekends, when its craft markets are held. One of the nicest ways to arrive is by boat from Westminster or Tower Bridge, although you can also travel by Docklands Light Railway (DLR) from Bank to Cutty Sark station or by train from London Bridge.

In dry dock on the waterfront is the Cutty Sark (King William Walk; www.rmg.co.uk/cuttysark), a sailing ship from the great days of the tea-clippers that used to race to be the first to bring the new season’s tea from China. The ship reopened to the public in 2012 after it was damaged by a serious fire in 2007. Luckily, at the time of the blaze many of the ship’s timbers and its striking figurehead had already been removed to allow restoration work to take place. The ship is set in a huge glass chamber, meaning that you can walk underneath it, touch its bottom and even sit underneath it at the Even Keel Café.

Much of the land in the area is taken up by lovely Greenwich Park (www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/greenwich-park), at the top of which is Sir Christopher Wren’s Royal Observatory (Greenwich Park; www.rmg.co.uk/royal-observatory; daily 10am–5pm; free), where Greenwich Mean Time was established in 1884. It is a steep climb to the Observatory, but the views across to Canary Wharf are splendid. A brass rule on the ground marks the line between the Eastern and Western hemispheres, making it possible to have a foot in both.

At the base of the park is the imposing National Mari­time Museum (Romney Road; www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum; daily 10am–5pm; free), which traces the history both of the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy, as well as the colonisers and discoverers. An extension to the museum was added in 2011, creating an attractive broad, glass parkside entrance, new galleries and a pleasant café.

Opposite is the Old Royal Naval College (King William Walk; www.ornc.org; daily 10am–6pm; free), designed by Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh, with gardens by André Le Nôtre. It was built as a hospital for naval pensioners to match Wren’s Royal Hospital in Chelsea and was designed in two halves to leave the view free to the river from Inigo Jones’ small, but perfectly formed Queen’s House (Romney Road; www.rmg.co.uk/queens-house; daily 10am–5pm; free), a gift to Anne of Denmark from her husband, James.

The heart of Greenwich lies to the west of the park, where an attractive, old-fashioned covered market and neighbouring Greenwich Church Street are lively at weekends.

Dulwich

With its leafy streets, elegant houses and a spacious park, Dulwich w [map] is an oasis of calm. It is largely the creation of one man, Edward Alleyn, an actor-manager who bought land in the area in 1605 and founded an estate to administer a chapel, alms houses and a school for the poor.

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Dulwich Picture Gallery

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

The Dulwich Picture Gallery (Gallery Road; www.­dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk; Tue–Fri 10am–5pm, Sat–Sun 11am–5pm; charge) was formed by combining Alleyn’s art collection with a bequest of paintings originally intended for a Polish National Gallery, but diverted when the King of Poland was forced to abdicate. The grand building was designed by Sir John Soane and opened in 1814 as the country’s first major public art gallery, with works by masters including Rembrandt, Rubens, Gainsborough and Murillo.

The Horniman

Just east of Dulwich, in Forest Hill, is the Horniman Museum (100 London Road; www.horniman.ac.uk; daily 10.30am–5.30pm; free). Founded in 1901 by Frederick Horniman, a tea merchant, the museum houses rich collections of ethnography and natural history.

SOUTHWEST LONDON

This wealthy area incorporates Wimbledon, synonymous with tennis; genteel Richmond, home to a pleasant shopping centre and a vast area of parkland; Kew, site of the Unesco-protected Kew Gardens; and Hampton Court, where the 16th-century riverside palace was the favourite residence of Henry VIII.

Wimbledon, Richmond and Kew

The suburb of Wimbledon hosts Britain’s top tennis tournament in June/July (for more information, click here), and its history is captured in the Lawn Tennis Museum (Church Road, Wimbledon; www.wimbledon.com; daily 10am–5pm; charge, with additional fee for tours). The area is also known for Wimbledon Common, a large partly wooded expanse with nature trails.

The main attraction in Richmond is Richmond Park (www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/richmond-park), grazed by herds of red and fallow deer and, at 2,350 acres (950 hectares), the largest of the eight royal parks. The original royal residence in the park is the Palladian White Lodge (1727), now used by the Royal Ballet School. Richmond Green is the handsome town centre, lined with some fine 17th- and 18th-century buildings, and the remains of the 12th-century royal palace.

Ham House

Reached along the towpath at Richmond is Ham House (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ham-house; Mar–Oct Sat–Thu noon–4pm; charge), a furnished 1610 Palladian building set in lovely gardens.

The nearby suburb of Kew e [map] is synonymous with the Royal Botanic Gardens (www.kew.org; late Mar–late Aug Mon–Fri 9.30am–6.30pm, Sat–Sun 9.30am–7.30pm; late Aug–late Oct daily 9.30am–6pm; late Oct–mid-Feb daily 9.30am–4.15pm; mid-Feb–late Mar daily 9.30am–5.30pm; charge). The 300-acre (120-hectare) gardens were established in 1759 with the help of Joseph Banks, the botanist who named Botany Bay on Captain James Cook’s first voyage to Australia. Other explorers and amateur enthusiasts added their specimens over the centuries, making this a formidable repository and research centre.

The gardens are beautiful, with grand glasshouses including the Palm House and Waterlily House, an orangery, mock Chinese pagoda and the 17th-century Dutch House, a former royal palace. George III was locked up here when it was thought that he had gone mad. His wife Charlotte had a summerhouse built in the grounds as a picnic spot. Two small art galleries focus on horticulture. Note that the Temperate House (the world’s largest Victorian greenhouse) and the Evolution House are closed for restoration until summer 2018.

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Hampton Court Palace

Lydia Evans/Apa Publications

Hampton Court

Located 14 miles (23km) west of central London and easily accessible by train from Waterloo or by riverboat from Westminster or Richmond, the Tudor Hampton Court Palace r [map] (daily 10am–4.30pm, Apr–Oct until 6pm; charge) was built in 1514 for Cardinal Wolsey but appropriated by Henry VIII in 1525, following Wolsey’s fall from grace. Surrounded by 60 acres (24 hectares) of immaculate riverside gardens, it was Henry’s favourite palace – he spent five of his six honeymoons here. Although the State Apartments are sumptuous, featuring works by such gifted craftsmen as Antonio Verrio and William Kent, the highlights of the visit are the Great Hall and Chapel Royal. Also popular is the 300-year-old palace maze.