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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

An Introduction to London's Culture: 76 Attractions & Activities


London skyline with various cultural attractions on the horizon

What is London?

London, largest city and capital of England and the United Kingdom, is a sprawling metropolis on the River Thames with 32 boroughs, over 2,000 churches – more than 50 built by one man alone – 270 Tube stations, 9 palaces, 4 castles and a staggering 9 million people.

Exploring London

Exploring these streets will be a riotous journey across the past and present. There’s a lot to take in, but it’s a feast for the eyes: of paving stones, slabs, and cobbles; of columns, arches, spires and most of all bridges – bridges across the River Thames, which flows through the centre of the city, bridges across smaller rivers rendered invisible, and bridges into the worlds of the ancient Romans, medieval monarchs, imperial Victorians, the Blitz-beaten 1940s and the future-gazing ‘60s.

London’s stucco cream and red-brick walls and sash windows contain the histories of countless lives: those who were swept up or swept away by (progressively) England’s, Britain’s, and the United Kingdom’s capital and who have been all but forgotten, as well as those luminaries which this entanglement of brick and mortar, steel and concrete, now celebrate. As the seat of the United Kingdom’s government, the British monarchy and the centre of commerce, you’ll also find that London is rich in tradition and ceremony; a financial and cultural capital of the world.

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A Brief History of London

The history of London stretches all the way back to the Romans, who, in the 1st century AD, founded a port and trading settlement called Londinium. The modern city, however, started to take shape in the 11th and 12th centuries, when iconic structures like Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, many of which survive, were built. However, at that time the capital really comprised two cities: formed of the City of London (known as ‘the Square Mile’) around St Paul’s, and the city of Westminster, located on a former island created by the River Tyburn, upstream from London and the site of the Palace of Westminster and the Abbey. As the power of its royal dynasties and its mercantile economy grew, London expanded in size and began to flourish.

In the 17th century, the city was hit by a deadly plague and devastating fire, following which many of London’s famous buildings were constructed. The two historic cities converged around this time forming a single built-up area, but with differing cultures: economic and legal in London, political and aristocratic in Westminster (the latter forming the West End). The districts that now appear inextricable to the modern capital, were then assimilated by the ever-expanding city, which had swollen to two million people in the mid-19th century. London’s striking medieval structures and pleasant neo-Classical architecture was then complemented by the Victorian Gothic Revival (think Big Ben, the Palace of Westminster, and St Pancras station), as well as the world’s first underground railway. However, Victorian London brought as much shame as it did glory: from the treatment of the destitute and poor in London’s Work Houses to the operation of a global empire which revelled in brutal conquest, slavery and exploitation.

Despite the relentless German bombing campaigns during the Second World War, and the Great Smog in the following decade that claimed the lives of thousands, London has continued to develop and prosper. Out of the ashes rose new structures, whilst the already cosmopolitan city grew steadily more multicultural. This is a city with a rich history, and a seemingly infinite variety of architectural styles, museums, languages and cuisines. As Dr Samuel Johnson quipped in the 18th century, when someone ‘is tired of London’, they’re ‘tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford’.

London’s top cultural attractions

In no particular order, here’s our list of London's cultural attractions and activities that are worth visiting.

Westminster Cathedral

38. Big Ben

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