What strikes visitors more than anything about London is the sheer size of the place. The population – currently around seven million – may be declining, but it is still by far Europe’s largest city. It is also far more diffuse than the great cities of the Continent, such as Rome or Paris. Londoners tend to cope with this by compartmentalizing the city, identifying with the neighborhoods in which they work or live, and making occasional forays into the “centre of town” – the West End, London’s shopping and entertainment heartland.
The majority of London’s sights are situated north of the River Thames, which loops through the centre of the city from west to east, but there is no single predominant focus of interest, for London has grown not through centralized planning but by a process of agglomeration. Thus London’s highlights are widely spread, and visitors should make mastering the public transport system, particularly the Tube, a top priority.
The good news is that London’s museums and galleries – the British Museum, the Tate, and scores of smaller specialists – are among the finest in the world, while monuments from the capital’s more glorious past are everywhere to be seen, from medieval banqueting halls and the great churches of Sir Christopher Wren to the eclectic Victorian architecture of the triumph list British Empire. The major sights – Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London – draw in millions of tourists every year, and in most cases rightly so. Yet there is as much to be had from the city’s quiet Georgian squares, the narrow alleyways of the City of London, the riverside walks and the large expanses of inner-city greenery.