Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in London
London, capital of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, seat of the royal family, Parliament and government, lies in a gently undulating basin enclosed by hills, on both banks of the Thames some 50mi/75km above its estuary into the North Sea. The "Greenwich Meridian", longitude 0°, runs through the London suburb of Greenwich. London is not only the financial and cultural center of Great Britain but also one of the most interesting cities in the world, a real metropolis, where people from all different countries have made their contribution to a cultural melting pot which finds expression in music, theater, dance, literature, and not least, gastronomy.
The Thames, which follows a winding course through London, divides the city into a northern and southern part, with the main tourist sights lying on the northern bank. The city of London only covers an area of 2.6sq.km, about one square mile, thus its name the "Square Mile". It has a resident population of only about 5,000 people but 400,000 people work here. The actual area of London (Inner London) - consisting of the City and 12 surrounding boroughs covers 120sq.mi/303sq.km with a population of 3.2 million and together with a ring of 20 further boroughs (Outer London) make up the Metropolitan County of Greater London with a population of 6.8million covering 610sq.mi/1,579sq.km. Including the adjoining suburbs the number of people in the conurbation of London reaches 12 million.
London is unique as a metropolis as it is without a unified administrative body. Until 1986 it was administrated by the Greater London Council which was abolished by the Thatcher government. Responsibility was devolved to the individual boroughs but in certain fields they have formed associations.
The administration of the City of London is based on medieval attested rights. It consists of 24 Aldermen, who are elected for life, 131 Councilmen, who are elected annually in December to represent the wards, and finally, the Lord Mayor who is also elected for one year on Michaelmas Day and is the senior representative of the City. On the day following his election the Lord Mayor's Show takes place, a colorful procession through the streets and the new Lord Mayor takes the oath of office. The representatives of the old craft guilds, the Liverymen, play an important part in the government of the City. They nominate two candidates to the Aldermen for election as Lord Mayor and elect the Aldermanic Sheriff and the Lay Sheriff who support the Mayor.
Over 100 theaters and ensembles, including the world famous Royal Shakespeare Company, two opera houses, six top-class orchestras, numerous museums and collections of international reputation such as the British Museum and the National Gallery earn London its status as a world cultural center, especially for music. The annual high point of the musical season are the "Proms", the promenade concerts which take place from July to September in the Royal Albert Hall. Musicals have their premières in the theaters of the West End. In numerous less well established concert halls and music bars the "Swinging London" of the 1960s lives on; this was when the city became the center of beat, pop and rock and the Rolling Stones began their careers. The publications "What's on" and "Time Out" provide the visitor with detailed information of cultural events.
Almost all national newspapers are published in London and it is also headquarters of the state-owned radio and television company BBC (British Broadcasting Company). Three universities, numerous colleges and research institutes are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.
London is the banking centre of the world and considered a main business centre in Europe with the one-third of the world's largest financial companies headquartered here. The foreign market in London is the largest in the world with an average daily turnover totaling more than the New York and Tokyo combined. More than 450 banks and over 500 insurance companies have offices in London. London is also the center for the world trade in art as represented by the auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's. The increasing attraction of London as a financial center in the 1980s sparked off a building boom which resulted in spectacular buildings such as the Lloyd's building, the headquarters of the insurance firm, but also the unsuccessful Docklands development. While London became the center of service and financial companies industrial production declined and moved out of the city. The city's prosperity sank and the rigorous privatization policy of the former Thatcher government did one more thing to exacerbate social problems such as high unemployment, a shortage of cheap housing and an inadequate education system and health sevice.
Traditional industries are textiles, furniture and printing; between the two world wars cement-making, papermaking and vehicle manufacture were established on the lower reaches of the Thames. Since the end of the Second World War a major development has been the establishment of a large refinery and petrochemical complex at Tilbury, to which the most important docks were transferred. London still ranks as one of the busiest seaports in the world, serving as one of the world's principal centre for maritime industries rivaling centres such as Hong Kong, Singapore, New York and Athens. There are numerous shipping organisation headquarters located in London as well.
There are five airports close to London, two of which are of relevance for the visitor: Heathrow, one of the busiest airports in the world, handling about 42 million passengers annually, and Gatwick which handles chiefly charter flights. An underground rail service operates from Heathrow to the city center (Picadilly Line to Piccadilly Circus) as do certain bus lines (A1 to Victoria Station, A2 via Euston Station to Russell Square and night bus 97); from Gatwick British Rail's Gatwick Express and the Green Line bus no. 777 both terminate at Victoria Station.
London has 15 important mainline stations. The rail connections to the European mainland depart and terminate at Victoria and Liverpool Street Stations. Trains for the north depart mainly from Euston, King's Cross and St Pancras Stations, for the west from Paddington and for the south from Victoria, Charing Cross and Waterloo.
The origins of London go back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. Even Celtic settlers recognized the importance of the site as a gateway between England and the Continent. In the time of the Emperor Claudius four Roman legions led by Aulus Plautius conquered southern England and established "Londoninium" on the north bank of the Thames on two hills almost 66ft/20m high, which today are the sites of Leadenhall Market in the east and St Paul's Cathedral in the west. The name is thought to originate from the Celtic "Llyndun" (=high-lying fort). It was probably the Romans who built the first wooden bridges over the Thames, not far from the present-day London Bridge. Tacitus records the warlike Queen Boadicea who burns down the first Roman settlement in A.D. 61 with her tribesmen. In the period that follows it is rebuilt with a forum and a Temple of Mithras, the remains of which can still be seen near the Guildhall. About 150 years later town walls are built which occupy roughly the same area as the present-day City. From 240 onwards London is the capital of one of the four Late-Roman provinces. When the British legions are transferred to Germania about 407 it marks the end of the period of Roman rule of Londinium. Around 410 Emperor Honorius gives the British towns their independence and leaves them to the mercy of the Anglo-Saxons.
About 449 the Anglo-Saxons found the Harbour of "Lundenwic". They strengthened their rule with the victory of Hengist and Eric over the Britons in 457. London became the capital of Essex, one of several of their kingdoms, which Egbert of Wessex united in 827. Following the expulsion of Danish Vikings, who burned down Anglo-Saxon London in 851, Alfred the Great made the rebuilt city the capital of his empire alongside Winchester. Under Knut I London became the only capital. He and his successor Edward the Confessor resided in Westminster.
After the Battle of Hastings William the Conqueror had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey. Although he guaranteed the citizens their rights he built the White Tower at the Tower of London as a symbol of his power. During the reign of Henry I London was finally established as the capital and asserted its independence. In 1176 the existing wooden bridge was replaced by a stone bridge which lasted more than 650 years. In 1189 the representatives of the Guilds elected Henry Fitzailwyn to be the first Lord Mayor of London. King John recognized in the Magna Carta the right of the guilds to choose the Lord Mayor annually; the king must confirm this appointment. From this arose the custom of the Lord Mayor's Show. Over the following decades the city expanded; in 1245 rebuilding of Westminster Abbey began. The Inns of Court were established during the reign of Edward I. From 1376 the Common Council, which acted as an informal contact between the Lord Mayor and the Aldermen of the wards, began to meet regularly. At the end of the 15th century it became an official establishment, elected by the citizens.
During the reign of the Tudors the economic growth of London was accelerated. The first trading companies were established, in 1565 Thomas Gresham established the London Exchange. At the end of the 16th century this city of 300,000 inhabitants was the most important trading center in the world. The 17th century was characterized primarily by revolt and catastrophe. In 1605 the Catholic Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament ("Gunpowder Plot"). During the Civil War London was the focus of the unrest: in 1649 Charles I was beheaded in Whitehall. Following the defeat of Cromwell political calm was restored but the city with a population of half a million was hit by devastating catastrophes. The Great Plague claimed over 100,000 victims between 1664 to 1666; hardly was the epidemic over when the Great Fire which lasted four days and nights broke out devastating four-fifths of the city in September 1666; 100,000 people were made homeless. The rebuilding following this tragedy is still evident today; especially the work of Sir Christopher Wren, whose buildings determined the face of London's architecture from 1675 to 1711. Together with numerous secular buildings he built 53 churches, among them St Paul's Cathedral, one of the emblems of the city. The economy flourished with the expansion of the British Empire; a visible example of this is the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694.
Under the Hanoverian kings England became the leading world power. The first official census in 1801 showed London's population to be 860,000. From 1808 the port was developed. During the reign of Queen Victoria, who made Buckingham Palace the principal royal residence in 1837, London, at that point the most important city in the empire, expanded faster than ever before. This was largely the result of the development of the railroads, even the lower-income groups could live further from their place of work. London was surrounded by a wide ring of Victorian suburbs. Prestigious buildings and improvements to the infrastructure characterized the building boom - work began in 1840 on the new Houses of Parliament, in 1851 the Great Exhibition housed in Sir Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace took place in Hyde Park, in 1863 the first underground train ran from Bishop's Road to Faringdon. This was also one of the darkest chapters of London' history: in 1888 Jack the Ripper terrorised the East End.
During both world wars London was the target of German air attacks. 1915 saw the first Zeppelin raid on London. The consequences of the Second World War were far worse: air attacks in 1940/1941 and the V1 bombs from June 1944 resulted in 30,000 deaths, three quarters of all London's buildings were hit. The first high point of the post-war period was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in Westminster Abbey in 1953. In the 1960s "Swinging London" was the center for the new lifestyle of the younger generation. The Greater London Council was established in 1965 (dissolved in 1986). Other important dates of the post-war period were 1982 with the beginning of building in the Docklands and in 1986 the reform of the London Stock Exchange, which resulted in the "Big Bang". Since the 1970s London has increasingly become the target of terrorist attacks by the IRA; the latest wave of attacks continued throughout 1992.
The City and The Tower
Strand, Holborn, Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square
Whitehall, Westminster and St James's
St James's District
Hyde Park, Kensington and Chelsea
Hyde Park Corner
On the South Bank of the Thames
Sights in the Outlying Area