6 Things Every Visitor Should Know About London
London is a massive, diverse city, and it’s possible to live there for years and still not feel like you’ve got to grips with it all.
It’s the city of the frantic shopping of Oxford Street, the grandeur of Fortnum and Mason’s, and the lively bustle of Borough Market. It’s the city of Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde and David Bowie. It has a bigger population than Scotland or Wales (and by some counts, more than Scotland and Wales put together) – not to mention Finland, Israel, Austria or New Zealand. It’s a city that elected Boris Johnson as its mayor, and followed him with Sadiq Khan. It’s a city, above all, of contrasts.
So there’s plenty to learn about London even if you’re just coming here as a visitor. You might know that English people, Londoners included, will say “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me” and, above all, “sorry” at the slightest provocation (including apologising to you if you stand on their foot – the correct response to this is “sorry”, to which they might say “sorry” back). You might know about the traffic driving on the left and the general inadvisability of trying to get around London by car. You might even know that it’s a bad idea to ever arrange to meet someone on Oxford Street, especially at rush hour.
In this article, we take a look at a little more of what visitors ought to know about London, so that they can keep the locals happy, and get a proper feel for this wonderful, vibrant city.
1. Sometimes, it’s quicker to walk than take the tube
A remarkable amount of advice for travellers on visiting London revolves around the tube, and it’s not surprising. Tube etiquette is strict and its enforcers unforgiving, but even locals routinely make tube faux pas, such as deciding to bring all of their belongings onto the Central Line at rush hour, via Bank, eating an extremely smelly meal on a hot day, or wrapping themselves around the pole so that no one else can use it (or, once they’re done with it, want to).
But there are a few things that locals tend to be pretty well trained in doing and that therefore leave tourists as the chief group of unwitting tube-travel sinners. One key example is tourists who take the tube between stations when it’s quicker to walk. The tube map is famously not to scale (if you think it is, you’ll be very disappointed about how long it takes to get to Heathrow) and the distance between stations on the map is determined by graceful and easy-to-read design, not by actual London geography. Some stations are much closer together in real life than the map makes them appear.
Perhaps the best-known example of this is in the tourist-trap area of Leicester Square and Covent Garden. That’s a four-minute walk but probably eight or ten minutes on the tube, once you’ve navigated the barriers and got to the platform. These are also particularly crowded tube stations, so you will earn no friends among the commuters if you decide to take the tube for that single stop.
But there’s a lot more to tube etiquette beyond knowing when to walk between stations. For instance, if you forget to stand on the right on the escalators, a commuter who’s in a hurry is likely to say a loud “excuse me!” the first time, but if you still fail to move, you might get a kick in the shins – and there won’t be anyone feeling sorry for you. More embarrassing than inconvenient is those visitors who don’t realise that the ‘open’ buttons on the tube doors don’t actually do anything; the doors open automatically (which is much quicker than waiting for passengers to do it), and the buttons are just there as a standard part of train design – you can think of them as the Underground’s equivalent of an appendix.
2. There’s no definitive part of London
Like many huge cities – New York, for instance – there is no one area that epitomises London. When you walk through the genteel streets of Pimlico, for example, with its grand Regency houses that were once home to Winston Churchill, you might feel that you’re seeing the London that was promised to you by films and TV series. But London is made up of a collection of districts, which includes Pimlico, leafy Belgravia, wealthy Knightsbridge, up-and-coming Dalston, bohemian Soho and suburban Sutton – and that’s leaving a lot of places out. Each of these areas has its own particular culture and personality, but most of them won’t look like your postcard image of London.
If you assume that all of London looks like Sherlock or Mary Poppins, or that the people who live in the places that don’t wish that they did, you’re going to get a very misleading impression of London and might leave some unhappy locals in your wake. London is the most diverse city in the UK, and one of the most diverse in the world. Only 45% are white British, and there are more than 50 non-indigenous communities of more than 10,000 people. Only 78% of the population use English as their main language. So assuming that everyone looks and sounds like the Queen is not only inaccurate, but potentially insulting to the people of a city that is now led by a man who is proud to be the son of a Pakistani Muslim bus driver.
3. There’s no definitive London music either
Just as the people of London are more diverse than many visitors realise before they arrive, so there’s no particular type of music that’s associated with London. While you might instinctively seek out jazz in Paris and brass bands in Munich, London’s music scene is much more diverse.
There are plenty of grand venues to explore it in. For classical music and opera, there’s the beautiful Royal Opera House, the Royal Albert Hall, or the Royal Festival Hall (notice a theme?) to name a few. Stadium bands can play to thousands in the O2 arena. And the city is full of countless other live music venues, some of them large, some of them just a corner in a pub.
In the same way as London has no definitive musical genre, nor does it have a single definitive band. While Liverpool will forever be defined by the Beatles, Glasgow has Franz Ferdinand and the people of Manchester can argue over whether the Stone Roses trump Oasis, London has produced more bands and musicians than you can shake a stick at. There’s Coldplay who formed at UCL, Elton John from Harrow, Dire Straits from Deptford, The Kinks from Muswell Hill, Queen from Imperial and Ealing art college, Lily Allen from Hammersmith, Iron Maiden from Leyton, and dozens more. Pretty much any area of London you care to choose will have produced a famous band or artist; there just isn’t any single performer who represents the whole city.
4. The food is better than you might have heard – but you’ll have to queue for it
British food still has an undeservedly bad reputation around the world. But in London, regardless of the quality of “British food”, you don’t usually have to eat British food unless you want to. Those 55% of London residents who aren’t British have brought their food and food culture with them from all over the world – whether that’s India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Canada, France, Italy, Japan or just about anywhere else. Fusions between these different cuisines are also a popular option.
The only big downside of London’s food culture is its emphasis on queuing. Pop-ups and other temporary restaurants are increasingly the norm, and a nice long queue outside is a great advertisement for their popularity – so the only reason for these restaurants to take reservations is for the comfort of their patrons, and the patrons don’t seem to care. So you can find the best restaurants – or at least the most fashionable ones – by seeing the long queues of freezing-cold foodies snaking around the corners in the more popular parts of the city.
And don’t think that you can get away with skipping the queue. British queuing culture is just as much alive in London as it is anywhere else in the UK, and the only acceptable response to a queue is to go to the back of it and wait your turn. Grumbling about the length of the queue is OK only if it’s good-natured; if you start to sound genuinely annoyed rather than taking your annoyance with a dose of amusement, you’ll upset the locals. Queue-jumping is completely out. Admittedly, the worst that is likely to happen is a few people tutting and muttering, “you know there’s a queue?”, but they will be thinking of the most merciless revenge in their heads.
5. There are lots of cities that are quicker to get to than the other side of London
Hopefully by this point in the article, you’ll be starting to understand how very big London is – it’s in the top 25 in the world by population. But while some newer cities were built on a structured grid, with public transport systems designed for the needs of the 20th century or even the 21st, London has been a huge, sprawling city for rather longer, and its growth has been organic. This means that despite the best efforts of Transport for London, it’s not exactly quick to go from one place in London to another. After all, the Underground was first opened in 1863, designed for a world without typewriters, electric street lighting or pneumatic tyres. The original Underground trains were steam-driven.
The consequence of this is that while it might take an hour or more to get from one side of London to the other (potentially longer, depending on your specific journey), it can be a lot quicker to get out of London to one of many lovely surrounding towns and cities. Within a one-hour radius of London (at least on the faster trains) are the seaside resort of Brighton, Cambridge with its ancient university, and the medieval cathedral city of Canterbury. You can travel a remarkably long way from London before you leave its commuter belt.
6. Londoners think about themselves differently to how the rest of the country sees them
London is strikingly different from much of the rest of Britain – socially, economically, and politically. At times, it can seem as if London exists in something of a bubble on its own, to the extent that a joke campaign after the EU referendum for London to become an independent city-state gathered a number of genuine supporters.
And that’s illustrated in how London sees itself versus how the rest of the UK perceive London (and indeed, Londoners). People in the rest of the country are likely to think of Londoners as privileged, wealthy and indifferent to everywhere beyond the M25. They think of London politicians as incapable of understanding their priorities, led astray by money and power. The same story of the perception of the capital city versus everywhere else plays out in lots of countries, of course.
By contrast, the first characteristic that Londoners might pick to describe themselves is diverse, possibly followed by busy or hard-working. They might earn higher salaries than the rest of the country, but their thoughts are focused on the disproportionately higher rents and house prices that most of those salaries gets used up on. And while they’re probably aware that the level of investment in infrastructure is higher here than the rest of the country, they can also point to how London’s economy is vital for the rest of the UK, and just why that spending is needed.
The reality of the city is somewhere between the two, which is something that’s important to remember whether you’re hearing about London from an outsider or a local. And of course, the best way to get to know this wonderful, vibrant, exciting city with its many different features and facets is to come and visit it for yourself.
Image credits: millennium bridge; st paul’s; london underground; shoreditch street art; record stall; cheesecake; cityscape; picnic