“What’s your favourite city in the whole world?”
One of the beautiful things about travel is that we all experience it differently. The above question crops up pretty frequently among travellers, but some can instantly name their personal favourite that holds a special place in their heart, while others would struggle to give it a proper answer, debating the relative merits of their top few choices for hours on end. Myself, I’m one of the former kind – there’s no doubt in my mind that London, England is my favourite city, and will likely retain that title even as I continuously discover more places around the world.
People have historically questioned why someone who was born in the Grace Hospital in Vancouver, spent his formative years in Beijing, and carried on his journey as a young adult in Toronto would be so enamoured with London, a city thousands of miles away from anywhere my roots may lie. And I’ve historically struggled to provide a satisfying answer, mostly phrasing my responses with vague notions like “I like football (soccer) and London has lots of it”. Eventually, I tended to resort to a canned response along the lines of “there’s just something about London that I love”, which probably only confused people further. (I never used the term “je ne sais quoi”, because that’s kind of an obnoxious thing to say, but it’s exactly what I’d be thinking.)
So this is a post straight from the heart, in which I attempt to explain precisely what lies behind that je ne said quoi factor that makes London so damn appealing in my eyes. After all, as the place where I document my travels and experiences, this blog wouldn’t be quite complete without it. I don’t expect everyone to agree with how I feel – I’d be surprised if anyone is as much of a die-hard city dweller as me, to start with – but I’d simply like to put my thoughts on this matter into words, once and for all.
London Is World Class
As one of only two Alpha++ World Cities as ranked by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network (no prizes for guessing the other one), London is a world-beater in many regards. It’s easy to understand intuitively how clusters of human population – in the form of cities – contribute to rapid civilization growth, and there’s perhaps no better example of that than the British capital.
Sightseeing is of course the most obvious example. London’s attractions draw in millions of tourists per year, and Central London alone can occupy travellers for days on end. After all, the zigzag on a map that begins near Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament (with its signature clock tower, Big Ben), darts across Westminster Bridge towards the London Eye, and connects to St. Paul’s Cathedral via the South Bank, is perhaps the world’s most classic tourist trail.
But there’s so much more than that. When you think of the world’s shopping hotspots, for example, Oxford Street and Harrod’s are top of mind. The City of London, the storied "city-within-a-city" originally founded by the Romans, is a key player in global finance (though its role is certain to diminish in light of Brexit). Meanwhile, London’s infrastructure was what “set the standard”, and as much as people love to complain about the Tube, the world’s oldest underground railway continues to serve Londoners incredibly well 154 years later.
Education? Depending on the program, UCL (shout-out!), LSE, and Imperial consistently figure near the top of global rankings, and of course Oxford and Cambridge are just a short train ride away. Big fan of football, the kind where the ball is round? Emirates Stadium and Wembley are iconic sites, and there’s a few other ones strewn about the city I guess 😉 Fine dining? A total of 79 Michelin stars to dazzle the palate. You get the idea.
It’s not the case that London is the best of the best in every regard – Paris, New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts might have a few choice words to say when it comes to some of the things I’ve listed – but at least for me, London is remarkable for being consistently outstanding in every single way that matters to me. That certainly puts it right into the mix when it comes to thinking about my favourite place in the world. But many other cities also meet these criteria, so what sets London apart?
London Is International
People often mistake me for a full-blooded Anglophile because I love London so much. The truth is that while there are some things I love about British culture, there’s also a fair bit that I don’t particularly care for. But that’s exactly the point – British culture isn’t what London is all about. Instead, people of all nationalities, cultures, and ethnolinguistic backgrounds live, work, and play in London, and thousands more flock there every year to add to the multicultural ranks.
As Canadians we know all about multiculturalism, and as someone who grew up at the crossroads of two very distinct cultures, London’s international vibe resonates particularly strongly with me.
Sure, much of the backdrop as you explore London will take the form of betting shops, pubs, and red double-decker buses. But go out to a bar on any given night, and chances are you’ll meet people and hear stories from so many places around the world that you’ll quickly lose count. While it might not be such a keenly felt phenomenon here in the Americas, London remains one of the most aspirational cities to live in for millions of people in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Students, professionals, those seeking a better future for their family… people from all walks of life entrust London with their hopes and dreams.
Note that I’m not painting a picture of London as some kind of bastion of inclusivity and tolerance. We know Londoners, like most places around the world, have plenty of work to do in that regard – hell, I’d confidently say that we’re a lot farther along that path here in Canada.
But the city’s innate attractiveness and its ability to draw people from all corners of the globe can only help to improve things. You only need to take the train an hour in any direction to experience the stark difference between London and everywhere else in the UK, and to realize that “British culture” in London has long taken up a cozy spot in the backseat.
Of course, I do acknowledge that my experience as someone studying in Central London will be drastically different from, say, commuter life in one of London’s outer boroughs. But that brings me to my next point…
London Is Eclectic
There’s just so much to do in London.
Every city has its attractions, from must-see bucket list items to “off-the-beaten-path” “gems” or whatever Condé Nast Traveler is calling it these days. But London is simply on a whole other level. I spent a year living there and probably saw a fraction of what there was to see, and I’m constantly visiting new places in the city even now when I go back. I’m convinced that even if someone lived in London for ten years, they’d be hard-pressed to experience everything the city has to offer.
Of course there’s the obvious stuff that we’ve already discussed: attractions, museums, galleries, theatres, cathedrals, squares, towers, bridges, parks, and riverbanks. But not many people realize, for example, that London also has an incredible network of canals, and walking along the towpath from one end to another is an amazing way of uncovering some of London’s best-kept secrets. (It’s particularly telling that during my year abroad in London, I somehow managed to miss the canals entirely and didn’t even check them out once!)
Once and always a mercantile hub, London’s markets are constantly buzzing, from Old Spitalfields in East London to the multi-storey operation in Camden Market. And if you’re into hiking, London has dozens of walking trails, the longest of which – the 78-mile Capital Ring that circles all the way around the Greater London boundary – I wish you good luck in completing.
And then you have all the neighbourhoods. Beyond Central London, every corner of the city has its own distinct charm, waiting for you to spend a little time to discover. From the quaint coffee shops of Kew that lead the way to the Royal Botanic Gardens, to the modern aesthetic of the patios on Canary Riverside, to Angel's electric feel-good factor... I always find it a genuine pleasure to simply wander around and get lost in a new neighbourhood, and it’s one of my favourite things to do when in town.
London Is Challenging
Like anywhere else, London isn’t all good times. It’s a major city of 8 million people, so there’s bound to be occasions where your surroundings get you down a bit.
First, let’s talk about the weather. It rains a fair bit, but rainfall is generally quite light whenever it occurs, so Londoners aren’t all glumly walking around with umbrellas like the tropes will have you believe. The bright side is that it doesn’t ever get too cold – zero degrees celsius is about as low as it gets – so on the whole, the weather roughly works out evenly in my books.
Then let’s talk about the people. Often times, when people talk about their favourite city, they’ll say something like “oh, I love the people there!” This isn’t really a statement I would make about London: like any major city, being packed into such a densely populated area tends to add a touch of irritability to the average person you see on the street. Londoners have developed a reputation for avoiding small talk, so much so that it’s an unspoken rule to never make eye contact with another passenger when taking the Tube. On the whole, people are of course nothing but polite and friendly, but especially when compared to Canada, there’s definitely a noticeable drop in how approachable the average person seems.
And of course, the elephant in the room. Having sung London’s praises so emphatically, it would be disingenuous of me not to discuss the incredibly high cost of living in the British capital. The fact that Londoners typically denominate their rent in pounds per week, rather than per month, tells you everything you need to know. London is expensive, and in this regard, the sheer variety of things to do here may further squeeze on your wallet. Many Londoners struggle to make ends meet and are forced to move further away from the city centre, and although the excellent public transportation alleviates some of the pressure, the “London premium” remains a harsh reality.
Conclusion – London Makes It Worthwhile
Challenges, of course, are there to be overcome. And as you arrive home and brush the light rain off your coat, grow a marginally thicker layer of skin after that guy on the street barged past you, and prepare to treat yourself to a night on the town after a long month of nonstop hustle, you take a moment to look out over the city as the Overground trains whistle in the background.
You observe the sea of brick-top shingled flats, punctuated by the glimmering River Thames and the distinctive buildings of the City of London. And somehow, as you remark that St. Paul’s Cathedral is still as beautiful as you remember it from when you walked by during your lunch break, the considerable struggles that London throws your way makes the entire experience of living here feel far more worthwhile.
For me, what that feeling boils down to is quite simple. Walking around London, one truly feels as though they’re at the centre of the world. Spend an extended period in the city and that feeling starts to come very naturally. I found it truly special to experience a taste of that when I spent a year in London, and I’m deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to do so. Above all, and despite just having returned from a London trip very recently, I absolutely cannot wait for the next time my travels take me back.