Thursday, July 29, 2004

29 July 2004: London

According to the BBC News website, London has overtaken Paris as the top tourist city in Europe.


It's true. Apparantly there was a 22% surge in visitor numbers between March and May this year, which is stunning enough considering the weather we've had so far in 2004. But it's even more amazing when you consider this statistic (one I had suspected for a long time but had never seen figures for): London is the second-most expensive city in the world. Only Tokyo beats it. Yet the people keep coming.

And what do they come to see? The London Eye is the highest-grossing attraction in the country (ok, it's impressive, but it's hardly Disney or SeaWorld, is it?), and of course the Tower of London. You have to pay over eleven pounds to do each of these. For less, you can see Buckingham Palace (from the outside!), Leicester Square and Parliament. You can ride a big red double-decker bus, take the tube, get a black cab home after a night in the West End. Big city bustle and fun?

I lived in London for six years (give or take travelling around the world for a few months), and never understood the attraction. It's a dirty, foul-aired metropolis, streets too small for the traffic attempting to get through (even with Uncle Ken's Congestion Charge scheme), a city of contrasts between ultra-wealth and extreme poverty, and an increasing gap between the two. It's a place of immense sadness in many ways, very very different from the rest of Britain and confused as to why it is so different. But it is different, which is why many overseas tourists fly in to London and never actually leave the city. What else is there? Stonehenge? (Less impressive than Niagara Falls and I wasn't impressed by Niagara Falls) Edinburgh? (Edinburgh gets only 10% the number of visitors that London gets).

My tip: yes, visit London, but don't do the tourist thing too much. A good day would be, yes, to do the London Eye, followed by a river cruise down the Thames (complete with sarcastic commentary from the driver) past the Tower and down to Greenwich, where the observatory and small markets provide a fully diverting afternoon. Back under the river through the foot tunnel and catch the DLR back to Bank. A short walk to Brick Lane for the definitive curry experience, followed by a stop at the 24-hour bagel bakery and lastly a drink and a game of bar billiards at the Owl And Pussycat on Redchurch Street. If you have more time, the Angel provides more food experiences than you can shake a stick at; Hampstead Heath brings the countryside to the city (it's huge: it spans zones two, three and four); the Comedy Cafe on Rivington Street in Shoreditch is always decent (ie cheap) on a Thursday night; an international cricket match at Lord's or The Oval is worth catching, as is, in winter, ice-skating at Broadgate, right in the courtyard of all those big international banks. But then leave. Go and see Devon, or the New Forest, or the Isle of Skye. The weather will be just as bad, but it's cleaner, quieter and, yes, cheaper.

Better still, go to New Zealand. They may have more sheep than people, but there's always the off-chance of seeing a Hobbit.

No comments: