London Feature

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London Today

If London contained only its landmarks—Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the Tower of London—it would still rank as one of the world's top destinations. But England's capital is much more.

It is a bevy of British bobbies, an ocean of black umbrellas, and an unconquered continuance of more than 2,000 years of history.

A city that loves to be explored, London beckons with great museums, royal pageantry, and 1,001 historic delights. Rain, crowds, high prices aside—just what is it that makes London such a great place to be?

The World Comes to Town

Londoners are among the least xenophobic in Europe, and with one-third of its residents born outside England, London is perhaps the most culturally diverse city on Earth.

It's part indifference and part adaptability (heavily sprinkled with tolerance), but Londoners pay precious little attention to outsiders.

This is undeniably part of London's charm: without the attentions of strangers, you can lose yourself here like in no other city.

With more than 300 languages spoken on its streets—from the hybrid multicultural London English to Pashto—the city is a terrific tangle of tongues.

And as one of Europe's largest cities—whether it's cuisine, music, theater, poetry, or fashion—the outside world converges on London to leave its mark.

A City of Ideas

The capital of England's knowledge economy, London is foremost a city of ideas and creativity.

From literati to glitterati, London is a vibrantly experimental capital and one of the destinations of choice for global culture hounds.

Whether it's experimental drama, offbeat literature, street fashion, street performers, sparkling West End productions, cutting-edge art, urban music, or left-field public sculpture, the city is a refreshing haven for the inventive, innovative, and independent-minded.

Scores of theaters in the West End make London a powerful magnet for drama enthusiasts, while the city's top-drawer museums embrace an almanac of human wisdom.

Stormy Weather

The rough seas of the global financial crisis have crashed down pretty hard on London over the past couple of years.

Some assigned part of the blame for the riots that gripped the capital in the summer of 2011 on a perception that The City (the confusingly named financial district) had been let off lightly for their part in the recession, while the poor were hit hard.

Meanwhile, Britain became embroiled in bitter rows with France and Germany over whether London—which, since 2009, has been the world's preeminent financial center, ahead of New York—should avoid undue penalization during the desperate efforts to save the ailing euro and shore up troubled European economies.

This has once more raised questions about how Britain sees itself in the world, and nowhere are these arguments had more fiercely than in its staunchly internationalist capital.

Is London more a thriving European city or the beating heart of an island nation? The future is unwritten.

Have and Have-Nots

For the people who live here, money is what makes London's cogs go around.

The credit crunch may have pierced its bubble of prosperity, but London's housing market enjoys its own economic microclimate, with prices still rising as they fall elsewhere.

Elegant areas such as Kensington and Knightsbridge are in a different world, with gravity-defying prices fed by waves of overseas investors and tycoons.

Today, The City contributes about 2.5% of the country's GDP, which highlights the pivotal role it plays in the country's economy.

But while its Kazakh oligarchs, Saudi playboys, and cash-splashing freewheelers suggest a city endlessly flaunting its wealth, income disparities are colossal.

London remains a reasonably safe city but it pays to keep your wits about you; gang culture and incidents of knife and gun crime conspire to make some neighborhoods a grittier and disadvantaged flip side to the city's flashier boroughs. But, happily, most of the city is safe, sound, and one of the most sublimely civilized places in the world.

Did You Know?

With nearly 8 million residents, London is the most populous city in Europe—and the most cosmopolitan, with more than 300 different languages spoken.

A penthouse in Hyde Park sold for £135 million (about $200 million) in 2011, making it the world's most expensive apartment.

Westminster, home to many of London's top attractions, is technically a separate city. Long since absorbed by London, it survives in name only—"City of Westminster" is written on every street sign.

The River Thames is a treasure trove. Everything from Roman jewels to medieval swords wash up on its shores, though you're more likely to find Victorian clay pipes or rusted coins if you hunt along the South Bank at low tide. The Museum of London offers a free identification service.

The Middle Temple, Covent Garden, is where many of the capital's attorneys matriculate. They'd better be handy with a sword, though; by ancient custom a suit of armor is kept by the front door for lawyers to don in case of attack.

The Tube (the London Underground) is the world's oldest subway system, dating from 1863. With more than 253 miles of track, it now covers more ground than systems in New York, Paris, and Tokyo.

London manners they never warn you about: Brits drive on the left, and they scurry on the left, too. You must stand to the right on escalators to avoid sharp words from a local trying to pass in a hurry.

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