London is one of the world's greatest cities. Diverse, ethnically and linguistically, it offers an intoxicating mix of grandeur, history, style and culture. From ancient streets, leafy parks and grand architecture to iconic landmarks, neon lights, world class shopping and a cool arts scene, there's nowhere in the world quite like this thriving metropolis.
Known as Londonium to the Romans, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. The City of London is the capital's 1.12 square mile historic nucleus and modern financial center and often is referred to as the "Square Mile." The rest of London stretches for a remarkable 30 miles on both sides of the River Thames.
Contemporary museums, such as the Tate Modern and Saatchi Gallery, add an option to beloved standards like the Victoria and Albert Museum (better known as the V&A) and the National Gallery. You can splurge on Saturday morning along Portobello Road or stroll Jermyn Street for gentlemen's shops bearing royal warrants. (Prince Charles gets his pajamas at Turnbull & Asser.) But it's also fun to join the flocks of shoppers at fashion-forward boutiques along New Bond Street, Regent Street or -- less expensively -- within the markets and funky shops of Brick Lane in the East End.
Visitors typically spend most of their time in and around the West End, where London's main attractions -- Piccadilly Circus, Charing Cross Road's book shops, Covent Garden, Soho, Regent and Oxford Streets, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Carnaby Street -- are located. Farther west are the pricier neighborhoods of Belgravia, Kensington (Kensington Palace, Albert Memorial, Royal Albert Hall), South Kensington (Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum), Knightsbridge (Harrods, Harvey Nichols), Mayfair, Chelsea (Kings Road) and Notting Hill (Portobello Road).
The City of London's financial district (home to St. Paul's Cathedral, Fleet Street, Tower of London) is a must for history lovers. In medieval times, the City constituted most of London, but over the years, urban areas sprawled far beyond. As the City's boundaries have remained almost unchanged since the Middle Ages, it is now only a tiny part of the metropolis, though holds city status in its own right.
London is a major port of embarkation and debarkation, although few ships actually dock near the city center. The city is linked to five different ports, all of which are commonly referred to as "London" by the cruise industry. The ports of Southampton and Dover are each located about 80 miles from downtown London (southwest and southeast, respectively). These ports handle the larger ships carrying 2,000 passengers or more; see the individual port profiles for travel hints and tips.
The Port of Tilbury is 25 miles east of central London, near the mouth of the Thames, and home to a purpose-built cruise facility, the London Cruise Terminal. Tilbury is situated less than an hour from the London City or Gatwick airports, but about 90 minutes from Heathrow Airport by car or coach. Links into town have been improved with the Thames Clipper, fast catamaran river buses carrying 220 passengers, taking 50 minutes to reach Tower Bridge.
But two ports are located near the heart of London, and if you are lucky enough to be docking at Tower Bridge or Greenwich it means you're on a small, luxury vessel. Tower Bridge is the most scenic place to dock, with the Tower of London and the City easily accessible by foot. There are also fashionable shops, restaurants and delis at Butler's Wharf on the south bank. Greenwich, a fascinating, historic suburb, is within easy reach of the West End. Greenwich is a great place to be moored; the Greenwich Observatory, National Maritime Museum, Cutty Sark and the shops and weekend market are just minutes away on foot.
London is a big, crowded city, and like other big cities, petty crime is common. Take care of your bags and belongings at all times.
The national currency is the pound sterling. Currency exchange can be made in airports, banks, post offices and travel agencies. For up-to-the-minute currency exchange information, go to www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. Traveler's checks should be exchanged at banks or exchange offices. For the best exchange rate, use ATMs, which are found almost everywhere.
If you are visiting from outside the European Union, you can get back some of the VAT (Value Added Tax) you pay on certain goods. Not all shops participate, and stores that do set a minimum purchase level. You need to carry your passport with you and fill in a form at the time of purchase. Present the forms to customs officials at your final departure from the European Union, but keep in mind the agents probably will ask to see the goods. Visit www.globalblue.com for more information.
English is spoken and understood everywhere, of course, as are many other languages.
If you want to spend your hard-earned cash on a souvenir from London, you have plenty of choices, from mugs featuring the royals, toy Routemaster buses and Union Jack cufflinks to tea towels with tube maps emblazoned on the front. If you're looking for something with a bit more taste and originality, head to Liberty of London on Regent Street, with its Tudor frontage, wooden balconies and glass atriums it is a sight worth seeing in its own right. The shop has its own distinctly British line in fabrics, so look for scarves or accessories. Harrods offers a good line in non-tacky gifts (see below), and Fortnum & Mason near Piccadilly Circus also has a lovely food section with lots of ideas for hamper gifts.