What strikes visitors more than anything about London is the sheer sioze of the place. With a population of around seven million, it is still by far Europe's largest city, spreading across an area of more than 620 square miles from its core on the River Thames. London is also pre-eminent in England: it's where the country's news and money are made and, as far as its inhabitants are concerned, porovincial life begins beyond the circuit of the orbital motorway. Londoners' sense of superiority causes enormous resentment in the regions, yet it's undeniable that the capital has an unmatched charisma, a unique aura of excitement and success. In many walks of life, it's still the case that if you want to get on, you've got to get on in London.
Much of the public architecture of London was built in the eighteenth century and during the reign of Queen victoria, when grand structures were raised to reflect the city's status as the financial and administrative hub of the invincible British Empire. However, in comparison to many other European capitals much of London looks bland, due partly to the German bombing raids in World War II, and partly to some postwar development that has lumbered London with the sort of concrete-and-glass mediocrity that gives modern architecture a bad name.
Yet London's special atmosphere comes not from its buildings, but from the life on its streets. A cosmopolitan city since at least the seventeenth century, when it was a haven for Huguenot immigrants escaping persecution in Louis XIV's France, today it is truly multicultural, with over a third of its permanent population origianting from overseas. This century has seen the arrival of thousands from the Caribbean, the Indian subcontient, the Mediterranean and the Far East, all of whom play an integral part in defining a metropolis that is unmatched in its sheer diversity.
Gatwick Airport - 0844 335 1802. www.gatwickairport.com - About 30 miles south of central London.
The Gatwick Express - 0845 850 1530. www.gatwickeexpress.com - rail service runs to Victoria station, and takes 30 mins. Tickets cost £16.90 for a single or £28.70 for a return.
Southern - 0845 127 2920. www.southernrailway.com - also runs a rail service between Gatwick and Clapham Junction/Victoria, with trains every 5-10 mins. It takes about 35 mins, and costs £11.30 for a single or £23.60 a return. A taxi into town costs around £100 (see Gatwick/s website for details)
Heathrow Airport - 0844 335 1801
www.heathrowairport.com - About 15 miles west of central London.
The Heathrow Express train service - 0845 600 1515.
www.heathrowexpress.com - runs to Paddington approximately every 15 mins, and takes 15-20 mins. Tickets cost £16.50 for a single or £32 for a return.
The Heathrow Connect rail service - 0845 678 6975. www.heathrowconnect.com - runs to Paddington every half-hour, and takes 25 mins. A single costs £7.90; a return costs £15.80.The Tube ride on the Piccadilly Line into central London takes around an hour.
Trains run every few mins. A single is £4.50.
National Express - 0871 781 8181. www.nationnalexpress.com - runs coaches to Victoria every 20-30 mins. It takes just over an hour and costs £5 single; a return is £9. A Taxi into town will cost roughly £45-£75 (see Heathrow's website for details).
London City Airport - 020 7646 0000.
www.londoncityairport.com - About 9 miles east of central London.
The Docklads Light Railways (DLR) runs to London City Airport. The journey to Bank station in the City takes around 20 mins, and the fare is £4. A taxi costs around £30 to central London: less to the City or to Canary Wharf (see London City Airport's website for details).
Stansted Airport - 0844 335 1803.
www.stanstedairport.com - About 35 miles north-east of central London.
Stansted Express trains - 0845 600 7245.
www.stanstedxpress.com - leave every 15-45 mins to Liverpool Street station. The journey time is 45-50 mins; a single is £18.80 and a return is £26.70.
The Airbus coach service to Victoria - 0871 781 8181. www.nationalexpress.com - takes at least 80 mins. Coaches run roughly every 30 mins. It costs £10 for a single or £17 for a return. Taxi to London is about £100 (see Stansted's website for details).