Majestic London has always been a great city in flux, and these days it’s hard to turn a corner without stumbling into some work-in-progress crater so vast you can only imagine what was there before. New neighborhoods continually bubble up and burst to the fore—for example, a visit to Shoreditch at the eastern edge of The City should provide you with your quotient of London hipness. The anything-goes creative fervor that swirls through London like a fog shows up in DIY art galleries, cutting-edge boutiques, pop-up restaurants, nighttime street-food markets, and slick hipster hotels.
Although many images are seared on your consciousness before you arrive—the guards at Buckingham Palace, the big red double-decker buses, Big Ben, and the River Thames—time never stands still in this ancient and yet gloriously modern city. Instead, London is in permanent revolution, and evolves, organically, mysteriously, historically through time.
With the exceptions of Canary Wharf, the former Swiss Re HQ ("the Gherkin"), the Lloyd's of London building, and the London Eye, London's skyline has traditionally been low-key, with little of the sky-scraping swagger of, say, Manhattan, Hong Kong, or Shanghai. But a spectacular crop of soaring new office towers with wonderful monikers—the Quill, the Shard, the Pinnacle, the Cheese Grater, and the Walkie-Talkie—is taking over the city skyline. With an astonishing 250-odd new skyscrapers being planned or built, opinions are split. Not everyone loves Renzo Piano’s spire-like Shard and its 95-floor cloud-piercing "Vertical City" at London Bridge, which has stunning viewing galleries on the 68th, 69th, and 72nd floors. However, once you whiz up and enjoy the 40-mile views, your take on the vast immensity of London is transformed forever.
There's no doubt that London was built on immigration and is now one of the most diverse cities on Earth, with 300 languages spoken on the streets and nearly every world religion practiced at its places of worship. Immigrants make up over a third of the population and "white Britons" are in the minority for the first time, representing 45% of London’s population of 8.2 million. The largest first-generation immigrant communities are from India, Poland, Ireland, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Jamaica. To Londoners, this is no big deal, as this has always been a city of immigrants—from invaders like the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans to those seeking sanctuary like the French Huguenots and east European Jews, along with those seeking their postwar fortunes from Caribbean islands, the Indian subcontinent, and the rest of the British Commonwealth. Despite the populist tendencies sprouting up in other parts of the United Kingdom and Europe (and a new anti-immigration Prime Minister in the form of Boris Johnson), London remains proud of its immigrant heritage, and welcoming to any who wish to call themselves a Londoner.
Arts and Culture
Have you scanned a free copy of the daily London Evening Standard newspaper lately? They're full of world-class shows, plays, jazz performances, readings, recitals, concerts, fashion follies, lectures, talks, tastings, cabarets, burlesque, and art auctions and exhibitions. Whether it’s modern art and rare Old Master paintings at Frieze London art fair in Regents Park or a Dinerama nighttime vinyl-and-food-truck feast in Hoxton, London is one of the most happening places on the planet.
Despite being horribly expensive, you'll notice that the public transport in London is generally nicer and more reliable than mass transit in other major cities. The much-delayed, £15 billion high-speed Crossrail underground railway—known as the Elizabeth Line, after Queen Elizabeth II—is an epic feat of engineering that will shorten the journey time for east to west trips. With 10 new stations and quick trips linking Paddington Station with Heathrow Airport and Canary Wharf in the east, even the notorious over-congestion will be eased when it finally opens in 2021. In addition, the Night Tube now runs 24-hours a day on weekends on five key Underground lines. Don't miss London's popular bike-sharing program, Santander Cycles, which has more than 11,000 bikes at some 700-odd central London docking stations, with unlimited short rides costing just £2 over a 24-hour period.
With its heady mix of modernity, migrants, and money, London is historically a pretty liberal city. It elected its first Muslim mayor in 2016, Sadiq Khan, a former London MP, human rights lawyer, and son of a London bus driver, but the city keeps adjusting to the fallout from the 2016 Brexit vote. The majority of Londoners voted to remain in the European Union, and many of the city's E.U.-origin residents, students, and workers are nervous about what leaving the E.U. means for them and their legal rights to live, work, and study in the United Kingdom. Most Londoners were not pleased when pro-Brexit, anti-immigration former mayor Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019 following Theresa May's resignation. But whatever the final agreed terms of Brexit are (discussions are still in progress), London carries on as ever—vibrant, vital, diverse, and open for business.
New Upgrades and Exhibits
Some of London’s top cultural attractions seem to be caught in an arts upgrade arms race and are investing heavily in new galleries, exhibits, extensions, and assorted shiny new bells and whistles. Look for the major £56 million revamp of the eminent Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, which includes extended public galleries and a slick new bridge, or enjoy the recently sprung-to-life Granary Square at King's Cross, where 1,080 choreographed water jets are the buzzy area's answer to an Italian piazza. Tate Modern has added a £50 million modern brick extension, but look for the city's quirkier historic openings such as the 670-year-old Charterhouse in Smithfield, which you can now tour with residents of this Wolf Hall–like former Carthusian monastery, mansion, boys' school, and latter-day almshouse.
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