Destination guide: London, England
London is a city where you’ll find a whole world of history and culture in each of its colorful streets. As in other cities in Europe, London has an incredible ethnic mix, which gives a certain edge to this area of the United Kingdom.
On travelling through this fascinating city, you’ll find a large number of tourist attractions, among which are Westminster Abbey (a church where the remains of the Royal Family are buried and where important marriages are usually held), the Tower of London, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, the Greenwich National Maritime Museum and the British Museum, as well as the numerous parks scattered throughout London.
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London - Practical Information
Look at a map of London in all its vastness and you may feel slightly overwhelmed. This is totally normal – the agglomeration of villages and towns that have slowly merged to form the tapestry that is modern London still confounds seasoned residents of the capital. No matter how much time you spend here, you’ll always find brand new areas you’ve never heard of before.
London is also a tough city to divide, with its divergent councils, ancient parishes and haphazard postcodes, none of which take into account the borders of any of the others. But the very centre of the city is the commercial West End, with its kernel Soho and Covent Garden surrounded by academic Bloomsbury, bohemian Fitzrovia, chic Marylebone, super-rich Mayfair, royal St James’s and the political village of Westminster. Here you’ll find many of the best shopping, eating and entertainment options in London – as well as most of the other visitors to the city.
The South Bank, facing the West End and the City across the Thames, offers theatre, art, film and music, and features two of London’s most iconic modern sights, Tate Modern and the London Eye, and the South Bank Centre. The wealthy neighbourhoods from Hyde Park to Chelsea include exclusive Belgravia, shopping mecca Knightsbridge, posh Kensington and the large village of Chelsea, famed for the King’s Rd. No visit to London is complete without visiting South Ken’s museums, Harrods and Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge, or wandering the open spaces of Hyde Park.
To the east of the West End lie both the City (once the ancient Roman walled city of Londinium, now the financial hub of London) and the once shabby neighbourhoods of Clerkenwell, Shoreditch and Spitalfields, now London’s most creative and exciting districts. Here you’ll find supercool Hoxton Sq with its clubs and bars, Spitalfields Market and fantastic Brick Lane, long-time curry hub of Banglatown and now one of the best clothes-shopping areas in London.
Further east lie the East End and Docklands: the East End is ‘real’ London, a multi-ethnic yet strangely traditional stretch of the city that’s the home of the famous cockney. It’s currently being transformed for the 2012 Olympics, which are centred around the valley of the River Lea in and around Stratford at the East End’s furthest edge. Docklands is another, albeit government- and financial-sector–driven, example of urban renewal – now seriously rivalling the City as the home of money men and London’s tallest skyscrapers. The future belongs to the east, due not only to the Olympics but also to the Thames Gateway, a huge development of the Thames estuary.
North London is a hilly collection of charming villages, which often seem to exist as worlds within themselves, such as old-money Hampstead and Highgate, celebrity-filled Primrose Hill, fashionable Islington, hippie Stoke Newington and well-heeled Crouch End. In between are urban centres such as Finchley Rd, Camden Town, Holloway and Finsbury Park.
West London is grand, moneyed and home to traditional must-sees: Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and Kensington Palace. It has its cooler side, too, in Notting Hill and Portobello Rd, with its street market, superb shopping and many of the city’s better pubs and bars.
South of the river, Greenwich enchants with its huge historic importance as a centre of maritime activity, and, of course, time. Neighbouring Southeast London areas of Deptford, New Cross and Woolwich are showing signs of becoming South London’s long-awaited answer to Shoreditch.
Vast, residential South London has multiple flavours, from leafy Blackheath, Clapham, Putney and Richmond to edgier, rougher Brixton, Kennington and Vauxhall, now the area’s gay enclave. Southwest London includes urban villages of Putney, Barnes, Richmond, Wimbledon and Kew that, between them, attract huge visitor numbers for the lovely botanical gardens, the world-famous tennis tournament and the almost perfectly preserved Tudor palace of Henry VIII at Hampton Court.
London takes years to get to know and even Londoners never entirely agree on what to call certain areas – so take things easy and always have a good map – although much of London’s charm rests in what you’ll discover when you leave the beaten track and explore on your own.
Weights & Measures
Citizens of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA are given, at their point of arrival, ‘leave to enter’ the UK for up to six months but are prohibited from working without a work permit. If you’re a citizen of the EU, you don’t need a visa to enter the country and may live and work here freely for as long as you like.
Visa regulations are always subject to change, so check at www.ukvisas.gov.uk or with your local British embassy before leaving home.
Immigration authorities in the UK are tough:
Nationals of EU countries can enter the country to study without formalities. Otherwise you need to be enrolled in a full-time course of at least 15 hours per week of weekday, daytime study at a single educational institution to be allowed to remain as a student. For more details, consult the British embassy, high commission or consulate in your own country.
Tourist visas can only be extended in clear emergencies (eg an accident, death of a relative). Otherwise you’ll have to leave the UK and apply for a fresh one, although this tactic will arouse suspicion after the second or third visa. To extend your stay in the UK, ring the Visa & Passport Information Line ([tel] 0870 606 7766, 8649 7878; the Home Office’s Immigration & Nationality Directorate, Lunar House, 40 Wellesley Rd, Croydon CR9 2BY; [hrs] 10am-noon & 2-4pm Mon-Fri; [train] East Croydon) before your current visa expires. The process takes a few days in France/Ireland. Trying to extend within the UK takes a lot longer.
Like other nations belonging to the EU, the UK has a two-tier customs system: one for goods bought duty-free and one for goods bought in another EU country where taxes and duties have already been paid.
For goods purchased at airports or on ferries outside the EU, you are allowed to import 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco; 4L of still wine plus 1L of spirits over 22% or 2L of wine (sparkling or otherwise); 60ml of perfume; and other duty-free goods to the value of £300.
Tax Duty Paid
Although you can no longer bring in duty-free goods from another EU country, you can bring in duty-paid goods that cost less than you’d pay for the same items in your destination country. The items are supposed to be for individual consumption but a thriving business has developed, with many Londoners making day trips to France to load up their cars with cheap grog and smokes.
If you purchase from a normal retail outlet on the Continent, customs uses the following maximum quantities as a guide to distinguish personal imports from those on a commercial scale: 3200 cigarettes, 200 cigars, 3kg of tobacco, 10L of spirits, 20L of fortified wine, 90L of wine (of which not more than 60L is sparkling) and 110L of beer.
London is a world business hub, and doing business here (not including the media and new technology industries) is as formal as you would expect from the English. Looking smart at all times is still seen as a key indicator of professionalism, along with punctuality and politeness. Business cards are commonplace.
While the City of London continues to work a very traditional Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm routine (the Square Mile is deserted at weekends), business hours elsewhere in the city are extremely flexible. Larger shops and chain stores are usually open until 7pm Monday to Friday, as well as until at least 5pm Saturday and Sunday. Thursday, or sometimes Wednesday and more often Friday, there’s late-night shopping.
Banks in central London are open until 5pm, although counter transactions after 3.30pm are usually not processed until the next working day. Post offices vary in their opening times, but most are open from 9am to 5.30pm Monday to Saturday.
Traditionally, pubs and bars have been open from 11am until 11pm. The licensing laws were changed in 2005 to allow pubs and bars to apply for licences to stay open later, which means that some pubs are now open until midnight or later on weeknights and until 1am or 2am on weekends.
Restaurants are usually open for lunch from noon until 2.30pm or 3pm, and dinner from 6pm or 7pm until 11pm (with last orders by 10pm).
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