In common with fellow European heavyweights Berlin and Paris, England’s capital is an underachiever when it comes to football: the city's combined total on 19 top-flight titles is only one clear of both Manchester United and Liverpool FC.
But with Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham all threatening a major football renaissance for the capital, there has never been a better time to visit for a game – and the quaint charms of Fulham, the East End fun of West Ham United and the capital’s many lower-league outfits all have their appeal, too.
And if you’re in town for the football, you’ll stay for the… well, where to start? World-beating museums, a range of restaurants reflecting the 200-plus different nationalities that call the city home, West End theatre, brilliant nightlife and enough history to keep culture vultures like Arsene Wenger happy all season round? There really is something for everyone.
Relatively new visitors may be overwhelmed by the pace, bustle and expense of the capital, but with a little planning you can have a great couple of days here without breaking the bank. A stroll along the South Bank of Thames from Westminster to Tower Bridge is free and covers off many of London’s finest attractions: the iconic Parliament buildings and Big Ben, the National Theatre and BFI Bar (a great place to watch the world go by), the London Eye (£16 buys you a half-hour ride on the giant observation wheel and a truly spectacular view) and the Tate Modern – where most of the art is free and there’s always something interesting going on in the Turbine Hall. From here you can venture toward St Paul’s Cathedral (Westminster Abbey is back by the Houses of Parliament) or kick on to the Tower of London and HMS Belfast. London’s parks are also a delight in summer.
Museum enthusiasts and arts fans are spoilt for choice in London, and most displays are free – although you’ll pay around £10 for the major showpiece exhibitions of artists like Gaugin or Picasso. Try the British Museum, Tate Britain in Pimlico, Natural History Museum or Science Museum for a truly memorable experience.
The West End, meanwhile, runs around 40 shows at any one time – from highbrow theatre in tiny venues to glitzy musical showstoppers; while the IMAX in Waterloo boasts the biggest 3D screen in Europe. Soho and Covent Garden, meanwhile, have enough clubs, bars and boozers to sate any appetite – from 13th-century real ale houses to the poshest cocktail bars packed with the beautiful people.
More adventurous London visitors should explore outside Zone One. Try the truly crazy nightlife of Brixton (or see a band at the wonderful Brixton Academy); hit the curry houses of Brick Lane, or mix in with the North London rich set in Primrose Hill (great for a summer’s day visit) or Islington.
Whatever you chose to do – and please don’t try to do everything – London will leave you wanting to come back for more.
London is well-served by major airports. Heathrow, a half-hour Tube ride west of the centre, is one of the world's busiest (and can feel like it, too, being a former military airfield on a cramped site in a residential area). Gatwick, a half-hour train journey south from Victoria, isn't much smaller and is particularly popular from Europe. Cheap-flight airlines tend to arrive at Stansted (30 miles north-east) and Luton (35 miles north), both served by fairly fast train services, while the closer but much smaller London City Airport tends to serve the business community.
Visit London highlights the many things to do in the city and has a presence at all the airports. You might also check Time Out, London's venerable weekly listings magazine, for things to do on a daily basis.
The Tube, the world's oldest underground railway, is a very quick and easy way of getting around the metropolis. Buses are many and regular (and frequently 24-hour, unlike the Tube), and give a better view of London's endlessly revealing architecture.
It would be too hard to pick one thing – so consider buying a ticket for the many hop-on, hop-off tourist buses, whose microphone-wielding guides which will explain the city's history to you and other tourists. Don't be shy.
SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT
Take a water-bus from central London – say, the Westminster Millennium Pier – down the river to Greenwich, a World Heritage site where museums surround a pleasant park with a view of Canary Wharf over the river.
Explore London with our interactive map – click, drag and zoom
OUTSIDE THE TOP FLIGHT
The club-collecting football visitor will love London: besides the five top-flight clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea, Fulham, Tottenham and West Ham – see separate club guides), there are eight capital clubs further down the Football League, plus dozens of non-leaguers. London is often described as a collection of villages rather than one sprawling metropolis, and several of the "village teams" are well worth a visit.
In the second-tier CHAMPIONSHIP, Queen's Park Rangers are technically one of the richest clubs in the world, owned by a couple of chummy billionaires: diminutive Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone is the majority shareholder, with some of the club also owned by Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, who regularly swaps positions with Man City owner Sheikh Mansour atop the FourFourTwo.com Football Rich List. Contrary to expectations, Rangers haven't really thrown around silly money, but are pushing strongly for promotion to the Premier League, making games even more enjoyable at their tight, atmospheric 18,000-seat Loftus Road ground in Shepherd's Bush, West London (nearest Tube: White City).
The Championship also has two teams south of the River Thames. Crystal Palace – named after a sadly defunct exhibition building which ended up bestowing its name on the local area – have had a few newsworthy spells in the top flight, but are currently fighting to stay in the second tier against a background of money problems. The 26,000-seat Selhurst Park is a nicely peculiar architectural mix – new stands at either end, rather rickety ones along the side. The nearest overground stations are Selhurst, Thornton Heath and Norwood Junction.
Millwall, based in the rough-and-ready dockside area of Bermondsey, is somewhat unwelcoming, with a notorious following: not every Lions fan is a hooligan, but there aren't many who don't join in with the club anthem of "No-one likes us, we don't care". The somewhat brutal breezeblock new Den (capacity 20,000) might also be filed under "one for the collectors". The club have only ever spent one year in the top flight, but they're currently pushing for another crack and would love to ruffle up the big boys once again. If you fancy it, the nearest overground station is South Bermondsey.
Dipping into the third-tier LEAGUE ONE in 2009 was something of a shock for Charlton Athletic: they'd spent the majority of their history in the top two divisions and had been a solid Premier League side until Alan Curbishley's departure in 2006. Their 27,000-seat ground The Valley is the biggest London ground outside the top flight – and the Addicks fans cherish it, having seen it closed between 1985 and 1992. Much of it has been rebuilt since, and it retains a pleasing mix of history and modernity. The Valley is, as the matchday announcer proudly notes, in South-East London (nearest overground station is Charlton).
By contrast, Brentford haven't graced the top flight since 1947 (or the second since 1954). That's not to say there's no joy to be had at the 12,000-capacity Griffin Park, not least as it famously has a pub on each corner of the ground, with notably friendly locals. With all-seater regulations only covering the top two divisions, the Bees haven't had to bother, so there's a terrace at either end – and one of the side stands is named after a fan who watched his team for 89 years. Not non-stop, you understand. Clearly visible to cars on the raise M4 and planes landing at Heathrow, Griffin Park is in West London (nearest overground station Brentford).
Over to the East of London are two contrasting teams living in West Ham's heartland. Famous old under-achievers Leyton Orient were founded in 1881, moved to Brisbane Road in 1937 and have spent just one season in the top division, back in 1962/63. The 9,000-capacity ground (officially named the Matchroom Stadium) has been substantially renovated in the last 15 years, funded by the sale of land in the corners to property developers, lending the ground a slightly odd look exacerbated by the peculiarly flat-faced new West Stand facing the old 1950s East Stand, now covered with bolted-on plastic seats. Nearest Tube is Leyton.
Further out towards Essex – far enough, indeed, not to have a London postcode – is the much newer club of Dagenham & Redbridge. Its origins can be traced to several amateur clubs founded as far back as the 1880s but the current identity was created via a merger in 1979, another in 1988 and another in 1992 (now acknowledged as the current club's founding date). In 2007 the Daggers were promoted to the Football League, and three years later reached the third tier. The 6,000-capacity Victoria Road ground is unsurprisingly neat, newish and compact; nearest Tube is Dagenham East, but it takes the thick end of an hour from central London.
Greater London's only representatives in the fourth-tier LEAGUE TWO are Barnet. Like the Daggers, they've spent most of their existence in non-league; they were founded in 1888 and reached the League in 1991 for a decade which included saw them spend a season in the third tier. They returned to the League in 2005 but have in honesty struggled since. Their 6,000-capacity Underhill Stadium is an underfunded hotchpotch of small stands mostly better to visit than to inhabit; like a lot of clubs, they're trying to either renovate or move against perennial problems with planning permission and funding. Nearest Tube is High Barnet, or overground New Barnet.
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