Why London is the Greatest City on Earth
I may live mostly in DC, frustratedly adore Beirut, and enjoy travelling round the world, but only one place is my true love: The Metropolis; Her Majesty’s Capital; London. Having lived there twice and visited so often I’ve lost count of the times, London is truly where my spirit resides. When I arrive at Dulles, I groan; when I arrive at Heathrow, I think “I’m home.”
Given a little thing called the Olympics is going on there now, it’s a great time to tell you why London deserves every bit of attention it’s getting.
Where to even start? London has been shaped by so much, is home to nearly everything, and has influence throughout the world with few to rival it – only London and New York are classified as Alpha ++ Global Cities.
Let me get this out of the way: New York is awesome, but London is awesomer.
They both have a fantastic cultural scene: art, music, theatre, film, nightlife, and other entertainment. They’re both major hubs of global business. New York may be the city that never sleeps, with a non-stop hustle and bustle that some are addicted to, and certainly make for a fun weekend. A few neighborhoods aside, London is not like that. Despite a metro area of 12 million, London is more relaxed and manageable without sacrificing any life or activity. New York has easy to navigate blocks, but walking there can be slightly monotonous, not to mention overwhelming from the endless skyscrapers, neon signs, and droves of people migrating downtown to uptown, east to west, and every other direction at all times of day.
London, on the other hand, is low-rise, more neighborhood-y, and its streets don’t always makes sense, which results in the occasional brief bout of being lost. But being lost in Central London is fantastic – there’s no city I love more for its architecture – an amazing and eclectic mix of medieval, Renaissance, early modern, Georgian, Victorian, 20th Century, and ultra modern new millennium. In the City of London, it’s easy to see most of these in a single view down a street.
People bang on about Paris, but you know what? Paris all looks the same – Hausmann had a good idea, but overdid it. No street in London looks like another, and many, many streets look fabulous. It’s also a wonderfully green city, with trees on every street and lush garden squares throughout many of its residential areas, not to mention its numerous and extensive public parks.
But let’s end the comparisons. London’s legacy as the capital of the largest empire on Earth (and the British Empire unabashedly balled harder than any other) has indelibly shaped it into something magnificent: from an immense and very palpable sense of history, to the imperial grandeur of much of Westminster, to its dominant position in modern business and finance, to the pervasive multiculturalism and diversity that has come to define the city.
Each of these influences is incredibly significant, but it’s the last that may be the most obvious. Ride on a tube or bus, and English is by no means the majority language. If you wanted, in the pre-Nigella, Heston, and Jamie era, to eat well and affordably, every neighborhood would have (and still has) something interesting and ethnic. London’s profound multiculturalism is all the more remarkable given the city was not founded by or predominantly based on immigrants; instead, it’s been brilliantly enhanced by them.
What else? You may have noticed I’m a bit of a petrolhead, and London is car heaven. London’s role as the Old World’s center of business and finance means there’s an inordinate amount of wealth floating about, and among many things this means amazing cars. Hang around Chelsea, Kensington, Knightsbridge, Belgravia, St James’s, or Mayfair (just to start) for a single afternoon and you’ll see more supercars and beautiful classics than a year of living in boring auto-transmission-land DC, and many of the more interesting new cars on the market appear on the streets there months ahead of their debut stateside. Of course, add this to the fact that Top Gear is a product of the UK and filmed just outside London, and there’s no better place to be for the automotive enthusiast.
Let’s also give a shout out to Transport for London. It may seem bizarre, but TfL blitzes every other public transport system in the world. The London Underground (tube) is leaps and bounds the best subway system in the world. It has the best map in the world, the trains are relatively clean and modern, but more to the point, the tube goes EVERYWHERE, in a way other cities can’t touch. In the rare event it doesn’t go somewhere, the bus system is even more extensive, and while it’s your only option late at night, night buses are similarly ubiquitous and far-reaching. As great as the tube is, given enough time, I prefer the bus, since you get a cheap tour of London, especially if you sit on the top level, first row.
This leads us nicely to another unlikely subject of praise: the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. While I have little sympathy for the current phase of the Conservative Party (I mean, Churchill was a Tory and the hardest baller in history, so they weren’t always bad), BoJo, former Tory MP for the lovely town of Henley-on-Thames, is awesome, even if it’s not always intended. Famous prior to his mayoral election in 2008 for his frankly hilarious gaffes, un-PC statements (and subsequent “global apology list” in his terms), and unintentionally hysterical appearances as a recurring guest and host on the institutional panel show Have I Got News for You, I have to imagine part of the reason he was elected was due to his goofy public persona. But he’s been good for London, and a vast improvement over the dour and alarmingly radical “Red’ Ken Livingstone. Needless to say, he’s been in charge of the city for most its run-up to the Olympics, and has made some funny and memorable appearances in the last week in relation the games. But he also introduced London’s bikeshare system, ended drinking on TfL lines (which objectively is good, once you’ve evacuated a tube because of a puking chav). But, as far as I’m concerned, the single greatest thing he’s done has been to RESTORE THE ROUTEMASTER! For those not in the know – the classic, hop-on, hop-off red double decker bus of London was the Routemaster. Ken Livingstone killed these off due to bullshit reasons, but Boris promised to bring them back during his campaign. As of this February, an updated Routemaster now plies the streets of London! Nothing was worse than waiting for a restricted-ingress-and-egress Ken bus to pull up to the stop in heavy traffic, and Boris, holding true to his campaign promise, has let progress and sanity rule once more. Huzzah Boris! Here’s to hopping on and off the bus once more!
Speaking tangentially of Olympics, summer in London is unbeatable. While England is often grey and rainy, June through August are the most consistently sunny months, with the temperature usually hanging around the 70s and low 80s (or 20s C), generally considered ideal weather by most of humanity. And nobody takes advantage of good weather like Londoners – it’s often said that the shorts and sandals come out at about 60º or May, whichever comes first. What’s often overlooked is London’s northerly location, roughly on the same latitude as Newfoundland. That means summer nights don’t get dark until after 10pm, and the British passion for being outside as soon as the temperature creeps up can be enjoyed well into the evening and into a long, lovely twilight. Of course, being that far north means winter days are quite short, but it’s not as bad as it sounds – the run up to Christmas sees Central London decorated beautifully, lit up, and active in the dark, which is a pretty sight indeed. After Christmas, when the lights are removed, the days are starting to get longer, so there’s definitely a silver lining in all of it. What’s more, in winter, the pubs and many other places have mulled wine, which is rather lovely when it’s cold and meteorologically miserable.
Speaking of things geographically focused, I love London’s layout and its mighty River Thames. The centre of town is relatively flat, making for easy walking, with some nice hills in the north, especially, say, around Hampstead Heath, providing sweeping views of the whole city below. Running through all of it is a gorgeous series of canals:
And of course, dividing North from Saaarf, is the Thames, my favorite river in the world. The reason London exists at all, and the center of its economy for most of its history, the Thames is now a main focal point of the city, with lovely embankments on either side, and fantastic bankside architecture and pedestrian infrastructure. I suppose the Seine is quite pretty, but nothing has the majesty of the Thames, or indeed the pleasure of a sunny afternoon spent on the South Bank.
Speaking of pubs as i did a couple paragraphs ago, the real thing that makes London the greatest city on earth is its culture, in all forms, be they its pubs, its clubs, or its ministries of sound, or indeed its street life, its fashion, its restaurants, its art, or its music scene. One advantage of a city of 12 million is that every taste is catered for. Big deal, you say, plenty of cities are larger. But few have done so much to contribute to global culture as London.
The miniskirt and the Swinging 60s came from London. Porter and stout beer were invented in London, as was modern gin. Modern celebrity chef and foodie culture largely developed around London – whether you see that as a good or bad thing, let me remind you that standards of food have undeniably improved because of it. James Bond’s HQ is in London. Wimbledon is in London. Football was codified in london, hence the ubiquitous usage of the word in nearly every other language. For that matter, London is the capital of the country whose language is now the single dominant one worldwide. London bands/musicians include The Beatles (from Liverpool but based in London since their first single), the Rolling Stones, the Who, Eric Clapton, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, T. Rex, Queen, The Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Jam, Motörhead, Depeche Mode, Blur, Bloc Party, M.I.A., Amy Winehouse, and everyone’s current favorite, Adele. Living next door to Hendrix, albeit 200 years prior, Händel spent the majority of his career in London. Clubbing and electronic dance music, and the culture that goes with it, while not invented in London, was perfected in and began its global conquest from London.
Such a productive culture naturally attracts others to it, and the cycle continues. London has events, venues, bars, clubs, galleries, restaurants, styles, and fashions to suit every taste. There’s so much going on on any given day that it’s actually impossible to do everything you’d want, even given an unlimited budget and a totally clear schedule. But this just makes it the more fun – as painful as it may be to choose between seeing a sold out Muse concert at Wembley stadium, or Madeon playing rocking electro choons at a small underground club, or hear a standup performance by Stephen Fry, all on the same night, the fact that you have that choice is remarkable. While I can’t say those three specific events have all occurred on the same night, many similar such lineups have. And while Londoners may have a cynical streak typical of residents of any metropolis, they do enjoy their city immensely, despite their propensity to moan. Many events run multiple days and nights to cater to the demand, the best restaurants must be booked far in advance, and the queues to get in the newest club will almost certainly run far down the street at peak hour. None of this is due to lack of supply, mind you. On a related note, London also has the immense uniqueness of being home to a successful competitor to Starbucks. I refer to Caffè Nero, which is as ubiquitous in the UK as its Seattle rival, but a damn sight better. Not as good as the best independent coffee joints, of course, but they’re still bloody decent, and where else is there such viable competition to the evil West Coast over-roaster?
Finally, and definitely related to current events, I FUCKING LOVE THE BBC. This network, based in London, of course, has brought you, to name only a tiny few, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Doctor Who, the Office, and Sherlock, and of course, Top Gear. The fact that these shows, especially Top Gear, could all come from a publicly funded network is fantastic, and where else but Britain could such a politically incorrect show continue to air and be so wildly successful? As for the Olympics coverage, well, to put it simply, its eats shitty-ass NBC alive for breakfast. Every single sport is televised live, with sensible commentary and no fluff. If you live in the UK you of course already know this, but if you’re outside and haven’t done so already, enjoy this belated link, which shows you how to watch BBC live streams online from outside the UK. It really works and it’s immensely superior to relying on NBC.
This post has stretched out, but I could keep writing my love for London until my fingers bleed. I assume you’ve been convinced if you were on the fence, and I hope you’re enjoying what’s shaping up to be the best Olympics ever.