London, with its 8.3 million inhabitants, is an intense city that can be daunting at times. We’ve complied for you a bespoke list of the top things to know before you set foot in the city; where to go, what to eat and what to say. So don’t feel too overwhelmed, just embrace the British eccentricity and enjoy everything that this legendary city has to offer.
1) Class system and etiquette
The land of princes, princesses, lords and, of course, Her Majesty the Queen is famous the world over for a certain snobbery and centuries-old class system. Whilst it may be true that the British sometimes still think in terms of upper, middle and working classes, benchmarking people based on their school, university education or the supermarkets they frequent, is it also true that they are friendly open-minded people who don’t apply this antiquated system to foreigners, who all seem extremely exotic to them.
The British are equally famous for their rules of etiquette that have recently been successfully turned into money making schemes by certain entrepreneurs and private schools in the country. These complex rules can appear overwhelming to visitors, but don’t panic. What sets Londoners apart is their awareness and consideration of others in a city this large: always wait for others to alight from a train or bus before getting on and always form an orderly queue in shops. That aside, some basic consideration and politeness go a long way with the locals and will more than make up for any small (and probably unnoticed) etiquette blunders.
The Brits make queuing into an art form, Source: Flickr: Garry Knight
Like all British people, Londoners unashamedly love their drinking and have created wonderful shrines to this noble art form in the form of quaint, cosy and fireplace bedecked pubs. Spending time in one of these establishments allows a visitor to get a real feel for the locals at their best and their worst.
Their best is generally after a couple of pints when the alcohol eases the suffocating British politeness whilst loosening tongues and wallets. It’s very common to see slightly inebriated locals buying rounds of drinks for a group of friends, work colleagues and sometimes even strangers. Unless you’re a woman being approached by a man it’s generally rude to turn down the offer of a drink without a good excuse. But note you’ll be obliged to buy the next one in return.
Their worst* is generally the hour leading up to closing time (11pm) when the British often find it necessary to drink as much as humanely possible (in case there’s an alcohol shortage the next day, of course). Around this time they are likely to start speaking very loudly and repetitively, singing out of tune or hugging the nearest person available to them before staggering blindly off to the nearest open curry house.
Source: Flickr: trombone65
3) What to wear
London, home to the world-renowned Central Saint Martin’s fashion school, which includes Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Christopher Kane and John Galliano in its alumni, is known for its bold and daring fashion.
In this achingly cool city it’s not unusual to see the first glimpses of nascent trends that will in future years spread all over the world. But, if you’re not a budding Christopher Kane don’t panic, all you need to know is that anything goes in this city. London is the place to experiment, so throw your style rulebook in the bin, put your safe outfit back in the cupboard and get ready to style it like the fabulously original individual that you really are.
4) Boris Johnson
Talking about someone who is not afraid to go their own way leads me nicely on to London’s larger-than-life mayor, Boris Johnson. With his wild hair and Etonian education Boris defines the ‘eccentric’ English character. But words can’t really sum up his peculiar ways, so I’ll let this video do that for you...
Forty percent of Greater London is green space, making it the greenest city of its size in the world. These parks offer a chance for visitors and locals to slow down and get back to nature. Whether it’s swimming in the Serpentine at Hyde Park, hiking up Primrose Hill for the view in Regents Park, spotting deer in Richmond Park or hanging out with the hipsters in Victoria Park there’s something for everyone in this surprisingly green city.
Richmond Park in London, Source: Flickr: Smudge 9000
If you like markets then you’ll be spoilt for choice in London. There are the obvious ones like Notting Hill’s Portobello Road for antiques and South London’s Borough Market for food, but a personal favourite is Colombia Road Flower Market.
Every Sunday this little East End terraced street is filled by a riot of colours, with bustling market traders selling all manner of flowers and plants. Tip: Try to survey the whole market first before deciding what to buy to avoid lugging plant pots around through the crowded market, and probably squashing them in the process.
7) London lingo
The English language has its local peculiarities and there are some words that are mostly or only used in London and the South East of England, so it’s worth familiarising yourself with them...
Boris bikes = The city bikes schemes, nicknamed after Boris Johnson, the London mayor who introduced them.
Hackney carriage = the official name for a black cab.
The Knowledge = The test that a black cab driver has to pass before he can gain his licence, proving that he has an intimate knowledge of London’s streets.
The City = When used with a capital C this refers to the ‘The City of London’, the original site of London during Roman times, that is now the financial centre of the city generating 20% of the nation’s GDP.
The Square Mile = Another name for The City, which is approximately one square mile in size and contains St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Tower = The Tower of London.
Silicon roundabout = The roundabout in Old Street, around which a number of tech firms have now based themselves.
The M25 = The circular motorway that surrounds the capital, and is usually congested and so best avoided wherever possible.
Black cab (Hackney carriage) in London, Source, Flickr: ashraf mahmood
8) Two wheels
After their recent sporting successes at the London Olympics and the Tour de France the British have gone cycling mad. The two-wheeled community is taking over the city and as a result new niche cycle cafes are popping up everywhere. These provide a comfortable pit stop where cyclists can have their bike fixed whilst relaxing with top-notch coffee and food. Two of my favourites include Look Mum No Hands! near Old Street and Rapha Cycle Club in Soho.
Look Mum No Hands! Source: Facebook
9) Money, money, money
As one of the key financial powerhouses of the world, London is a magnet for money. The city has an awe-inspiring GDP of $761 billion. To put that into perspective, it’s more than twice the GDP of the United Arab Emirates ($390 billion).
It is also the super rich capital of the world, with 72 billionaires making the city their home according to recent figures. Many of these billionaires are foreigners, moving to London for its location, dynamism and the perception that property in the capital is a relatively safe investment. This influx of the super rich means that luxury shopping and services in the city are without doubt some of the best in the world.
Hurlingham Club, an exclusive sports and social club in London
10) FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)
London is a fast paced city with a seemingly overwhelming choice of things to do and an always-open culture where shops serve customers late into the night and also on Sundays. As a result it’s quite common to suffer from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) in this mega metropolis.
When you’re visiting London, try not to get too swept up in that mentality and try to enjoy the city at the speed that suits you. Once you take a closer look, you’ll see that not everybody is rushing around; people are taking walks in the parks or unwinding in the pub. As long as you don’t get in the way of people who actually have somewhere to go, you should be able to enjoy a slower pace, even in this crazy city.
*Rebecca Henderson is a Londoner, and has, at times, been known to consume a few too many drinks.