London: City of landmarks

London is matchless for its impressive range of landmarks. World-wide, few people would mistake the location of Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben or Trafalgar Square, for example. A more recent landmark won the accolade of “the world’s leading attraction” by international travel agents in the World Travel Awards. It is the world’s largest observation wheel, the BA London Eye, standing 135m high beside the River Thames: the country’s most popular paid-for attraction, welcoming 3.7 million visitors annually.

Another landmark is taking shape in North-West London: the massive arch of the new, 90,000-seat Wembley Stadium. Opening in May 2006, it will be a key venue for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, if the city wins its bid. The final decision will be announced by the International Olympic Committee on July 6. If the decision goes London’s way, yet another landmark will become world-famous: an Olympic Park around Stratford in the east of the city, including the most spacious Athletes’ Village in the history of the Games, surrounded by great sporting venues.

Like all great cities, London never stands still. Apoaching the magnificent National Gallery, you no longer dodge London’s traffic, for the north side of Trafalgar Square is pedestrianised – and site of an open-air café and regular entertainment. (And there is less traffic in the city altogether, since a charge, now £8, has been levied to drive in the centre.)

The latest new attraction is a museum devoted to statesman and wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill, opened in February beneath the streets of Whitehall, from where he led the war effort. The Churchill Museum includes his personal artefacts, photographs, posters, documents and film and is highly interactive: you can find out what major event happened on every day of his life, before visiting the underground living quarters and cabinet room.

They say there is a festival celebrating something practically every weekend in London. From the 111th annual BBC Henry Wood Promenade Concerts at the Albert Hall, a feast of classical music (July 15 – September 10) — culminating in the Last Night of the Proms — to Diwali, the Hindu festival of light (November), there’s an outstanding selection of events; you will never be short of things to do.

The array of blockbuster exhibitions includes the annual Turner Prize (October 18 to January 22) at Tate Britain – always good for a bit of controversy. By contrast, the National Gallery is showing the finest work of George Stubbs and his paintings and drawings of horses (June 29 – September 25). A Picture of Britain explores how artists have been inspired by the British landscape at Tate Britain (June 16-Sept. 4). Looking at six regions of Britain through the eyes of artists such as Turner and Constable through to Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, the exhibition comprises 250 works. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is staging a major exhibition on Admiral Lord Nelson & Napoléon (7 July – 13 November) to illuminate the impact of these two great leaders on Europe. One of many events marking the 200th anniversary of the sea battle at Trafalgar and Nelson’s death.

The city’s fashion sense, spawning designers from Mary Quant to Paul Smith, is subject of an exhibition at the Museum of London: The London Look: Fashion from Street to Catwalk (until July 10). Or head for Bermondsey, where colourful, wacky fashion designer, Zandra Rhodes, got it into her head to open a fashion and textile museum – which she’s done with characteristic style.

London has a new Sunday market in the heart of the trendy and ethnic Brick Lane area of the East End. The Sunday (Up) Market is within the 11-acre site of the Old Truman Brewery, within walking distance of Liverpool Street station. Products on sale, from a wide range of traders, include vintage clothes and shoes, hand-made handbags, jewellery, art, lighting, home-wares, accessories, food and drink. The market aims to be a platform for designer-makers and is set to join the capital’s other markets, including Old Spitalfields, E1; Camden Lock, NW1; Greenwich, SE10 and Portobello Road, W10, as ‘must see’ attractions for shoppers.

London’s reputation as a destination for fine food continues to grow. Earlier this year, international magazine Gourmet rated the city as “the world’s best place to eat”, underlining the fact that it has become one of the gourmet capitals of the world.

Haute cuisine now comes from India and the Orient (try Chutney Mary or Yauatcha, the capital’s first dim sum restaurant) as well as from Europe and Britain (head to Lindsay House for modern British, or Rules for traditional English). There’s everything from top-end, five star restaurants, such as Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s, to café-style options such as Masala Zone or Carluccios – and plenty in between.

What could be more English than afternoon tea? The Art Deco Palm Court at London’s Park Lane Hotel has become the latest member of Britain’s Tea Guild, which promotes high standards in the art of afternoon tea. Renowned for its elegant teas since the 1930s, it is the perfect escape from the bustle of the capital’s streets. The hotel has also featured in well-known movies, from James Bond’s Golden Eye to The Poseidon Adventure.

For those on a budget, in the last few years several economy hotel chains have moved into the city. There’s plenty of choice from names such as Travel Inn and Holiday Inn Express. Attractive weekend rates are available at some of London’s best hotels, to attract leisure business once the corporate clients have gone home. Cool and stylish hotels have been opening at a steady rate, from Zetters and Malmaison in trendy Clerkenwell, to The Cumberland on Oxford Street, its spacious lobby more art gallery than hotel reception.

Children find the capital especially exciting and there’s so much for families to do, from a ride on one of the River Thames cruise boats, to a visit to a museum or a trip to a theme park. The latest new attraction for families is a walk-through monkey forest at the London Zoo in Regent’s Park. Billed as an ‘urban eco-safari’, visitors can stroll among a breeding group of black-capped squirrel monkeys in a habitat resembling the Bolivian rainforest, set in the heart of the capital!

For those excited about the possibility of the city hosting the Olympics in 2012, it may come as something of a surprise to discover that more than 60 per cent of the venues already exist. Right across the capital, from Wimbledon to the ExCel exhibition centre in Docklands — the venue for numerous Olympic competitions including boxing, judo and wrestling — the future is already taking shape. London will be reinventing itself for many years to come.

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