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London orientation: where to go

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Although the majority of the city’s sights are situated north of the River Thames, which loops through the centre of the city from west to east, there is no single focus of interest. That’s because London hasn’t grown through centralized planning but by a process of agglomeration. Villages and urban developments that once surrounded the core are now lost within the amorphous mass of Greater London.

Westminster, the country’s royal, political and ecclesiastical power base for centuries, was once a separate city. The grand streets and squares to the north of Westminster, from St James’s to Covent Garden, were built as residential suburbs after the Restoration, and are now the city’s shopping and entertainment zones known collectively as the West End. To the east is the original City of London – known simply as The City – founded by the Romans, with more history than any other patch of the city, and now one of the world’s great financial centres.

The East End, east of the City, is not conventional tourist territory, but has recently emerged as a bolt hole for artists and a destination for clubbers – and of course, in its far eastern reaches, the East End is now home to the Olympic Park. It’s worth exploring south of the Thames, too, from the London Eye, in the west, to Tate Modern and beyond. The museums of South Kensington are a must, as is Portobello Road market in trendy Notting Hill, literary Hampstead and Highgate, in North London, either side of half-wild Hampstead Heath, and Greenwich, in South London, with its nautical associations, royal park and observatory. Finally, there are plenty of rewarding day-trips in West London along the Thames from Chiswick to Windsor, most notably to Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle.

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