In 1777 Samuel Johnson famously said “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford” and it is true now as it has ever been, although the city has changed immeasurably since the 18th century. London is a true global city – probably the most cosmopolitan and multi-cultural city on the planet, it is rich in the history and culture of the United Kingdom and in the history and culture of most other countries. It is said that 300 languages are spoken here. Welcoming 16.8m visitors in 2013 and certainly more in 2014, London is the most visited city in the world. Ask why and you will quite possibly get 10m different answers ! So, what does bring so many visitors to London ?
There is no point in the calendar year when there is not something going on in London. By the nature of its diversity, London events cover a huge range of varied cultures: London’s West End (and other) theatres, art galleries, Southbank and Royal Albert Hall concert halls, the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera House – homes to cultural events that transcend national boundaries – whilst Notting Hill Carnival is the largest street carnival in Europe, originally inspired by immigrants from now independent countries in the West Indies. In pop culture, British talent has forged ahead from the days of the Beatles through to One Direction and beyond, making Britain and London one of the pop capitals of the world and leading to an addition to the English language; “Britpop”. London’s free museums vie for pole position with better funded museums in the U.S. and elsewhere, many housing collections that have been accumulated over hundreds of years.
Geographically a rather inocuous country, Britain has been multi-cultural for a very long time. Invaded and settled in by Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings and Normans, each of which contributed significantly to the country’s development, has made Britain outward looking for a very long time. London – Londinium at the time, was founded by the Romans as their major port and hub for the road network they built from here to cities around the country. Parts of the Roman Wall around the City of London can still be seen at London Wall. Leaping forward, the White Tower was the first part of what was then a defensive fort on the River Thames built by William the Conqueror after his invasion in 1066 and forms the core of the Tower of London today. The City of London expanded slowly outside its original 1 square mile. In the 16th century, what is now Hyde Park was a favourite hunting ground for Henry VII, well outside the city walls. Only in the late 18th and 19th centuries did London start to develop in areas such as Mayfair, Knightsbridge, South Kensington and Chelsea. It is in these areas that much of the buildings put up in those eras remain and give them their unique atmosphere. These outlying areas, now very much part of central London, were – and still are – served by the oldest underground railway in the world. Behind this briefest of references lies a rich history, which attracts the attention of the world.
For better or for worse, the British Empire expanded fairly rapidly over the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, with British seafarers and others settling in new lands as far apart as U.S.A. and Australia and New Zealand. British ways of governance and of life were established in North America, Australia, India, parts of Asia and Africa. Much has been dismantled or adapted to suit structures developed since – especially in U.S.A. – but much remains and whilst all of the countries involved are now very individual, there is an awareness of some British heritage. H.M. The Queen remains head of state of many Commonwealth countries as well as Head of State in the United Kingdom. There is an interest in this shared heritage and the country where it all started, no matter how much it has changed since.
In 2012 London and other cities in the United Kingdom hosted the Olympics – the first city to host the Games three times in the modern era. Whilst Britons have not had a tradition of being high achievers in sport, we do, nevertheless, participate in many and host a number of international sporting events – the Commonwealth Games followed 2 years after the Olympic Games but in Glasgow. Places such as St. Andrews in Scotland, regarded by many as the home of golf, and Wimbledon, best known home of tennis grand slams sit alongside more stadia such as Twickenham, for Rugby (London hosts the Rugby World Cup in September October 2015) and Lords and the Oval for cricket. The U.K. 4 home nations may be singular under-achievers in international football but there is no escaping the draw of the English Premier League, including many London- based clubs, such as Chelsea and Arsenal.
All in all, whilst London is just one of a number of global cities, the others are largely modern creations or cities which have developed in the 20th and 21st centuries. London develops every day but from a base that stretches back much further than most cities can claim, lending a familiarity and draw to London’s major sights, London shopping and much more which other major cities lack to the same degree.