My City: London

Impressive as the well-known historical draws may be, just as enjoyable are the second division attractions.

by World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

The key to understanding London is, as the old cliche has it, that it is a series of 'villages'. In fact, if estate agents are to be believed, new villages are being discovered all the time, often in places more usually associated with inner-city deprivation. But there is a grain of truth to the village conceit: more than most other cities, London is a collection of discrete neighbourhoods. This is due largely to its history: as the British Empire gathered steam in the 19th century, the capital exploded out from the twin centres of the City of London and Westminster, engulfing dozens of smaller settlements.

Growth was also almost completely unplanned; London was the original megacity, a Victorian Los Angeles or Tokyo. What this means is that there are hidden quirks, gardens and attractions dotted everywhere - places that in other, better-designed, cities simply wouldn't exist.

If you're on business in the City, the Tower of London and St Paul's Cathedral are the obvious historical draws, and very impressive they are too. But to my mind, more enjoyment is to be had in out-of-the-way 'second division' attractions, which try that little bit harder. One of my personal favourites is Monument, built in 1677 to commemorate the Great Fire of London. At 202ft high, it is the largest isolated stone column in the world and the views from the top are terrific; moreover, its 311 steps make it a useful lunchtime workout.

I take a similar view of culture. Sure, Tate Modern and the National Gallery are huge, must-see attractions. But what about the astonishing opulence of the Wallace Collection, just north of Oxford Street, or the small but perfectly avant garde Serpentine Gallery in the middle of Hyde Park? Go to either of these and you might actually enjoy what you see displayed rather than feeling like Tourism Unit No. 4815162342.

When it comes to eating, London is both great and rather disappointing. It is true that British cuisine has improved out of all recognition in the last decade or so; in practice, this means that if you have money to burn, London is the equal of anywhere in the world. But if you want somewhere reasonable, you have to make a little extra effort. With this in mind, I recommend two mid-range places, both on the City fringes.

The first of these is St John, a restaurant hard by Smithfield meat market in Clerkenwell, and run by Fergus Henderson, a man who has redefined British cooking with a celebration of all things offal. A word of warning: although this is a singular eating experience, it is not a good place to take a vegetarian. The second, just off Whitechapel Road, is a Pakistani establishment called New Tayyab. A family-run place, specialising in grilled meats, it has been garnering rave reviews from all quarters.

As with restaurants, so with hotels, except that good value is nearly impossible to find near the centre of town. So a couple of places that are more stylish than the big chains: the first is the Portobello in Notting Hill. The Hip Hotels guide says it's "like spending a few days with a rich, funky aunt who happens to live in London's Notting Hill". The second is the Soho Hotel, right in the middle of the West End, which is, of all things, a converted car park. Rooms have a cool 1960s feel and the bar attracts a stylish media crowd.

Like any big city with a pre-20th century street pattern, traffic in London is dreadful and renting a car is a sure way to ruin your stay. For all Londoners' whining, though, the tube is pretty good even if it is crowded and hot in summer. Some people swear by buses too, but I believe they combine all the downsides of public transport with being stuck in a car. London's famous black taxis boast that they are the best in the world; amazingly, this is true. And so they should be for the prices they charge.

Rhymer Rigby is a London-based freelance journalist, specialising in business and travel.

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