While Cupid and romantic gestures normally take centre stage on St. Valentine’s Day, we’re here to show some love for the city we call home: an ode to London, one of the world’s great cultural capitals.
Whether you want to illuminate your evenings with rising stars at the National Theatre, or clear your mind with a walk along the River Thames, London has something to warm everyone’s hearts, from the history buff to the foodie, theatre-lover to art connoisseur.
To celebrate its rich and limitless culture, we’ve rounded up our favourite ways to fall in love with London, today and always.
1. Discover unique heritage sites
To love London is to love London’s history, and with two thousand years under its belt, this city has a lot to share.
From UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Maritime Greenwich, Westminster Abbey and Kew Gardens, to preeminent landmarks of Trafalgar Square, Tower Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral, the majestic monuments and buildings certainly throw light upon the history of London.
When it comes to cultural history, however, it’s the stories of ordinary people in ordinary places that are most enlightening. Look off the beaten track for little-known wonders, such as Britain’s smallest police station in Trafalgar Square, the icon of Modernist architecture 2 Willow Road, or a taste of the darker side of London’s history (infamously south of the river) at The Ferryman’s Seat or Cross Bones Graveyard.
2. Trade for wares at a London Market
From Portobello Road to Spitalfields, Borough to Broadway, London is famous for its markets. They are a cultural staple with histories longer than most of the city itself, though they have vastly changed over the years.
London Bridge’s Borough Market started over a thousand years ago, after the construction of the first medieval bridge over the Thames. The road which is now Borough High Street was once a vital passageway between London – the walled city on the north bank of the river – to the ports and towns of the south. The market was conceived as a place for farmers, bakers and fishermen to sell their wares to travellers. Now, it’s a foodies’ mecca: “an institution of international renown” where you’ll find street food, produce and restaurants from a variety of cuisines.
Greenwich Market’s beginnings are similar with its start as a market for livestock, meat, fish and animal produce in the 14th century. Now it’s London’s only historic market within a World Heritage Site – Greenwich Maritime – and is known for artisan crafts and street food.
3. Explore London’s greenery and the River Thames
Parks are an essential aspect of London’s culture. They create pockets of greenery, giving Londoners space to reflect, exercise, walk dogs and meet friends while connecting with nature.
London is very green: 47% of Greater London is green space, 33% of which is “natural habitats within open space” according to Greenspace Information for Greater London.
The emphasis on parkland within the city dates back centuries, with the eight Royal Parks being a core aspect of city life since the Tudor period. The Royal Parks were originally Church property until King Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries and seized the land, turning much of it into private hunting ground. The parks gradually became open to the public after Henry VIII’s reign, and now they are open for all to enjoy.
The River Thames and its surrounding canals are another refreshing source of natural inspiration within the city. There’s not much better than a Sunday stroll along Regent’s Canal, or through Little Venice – and if you’re feeling adventurous, the Thames Path walk will guide you from the beautiful Cotswolds countryside to the Thames Barrier in Greenwich, with plenty of sights to see along the way.
4. Experience The World Stage
Since the Elizabethan era, London has been the epicentre of performing arts in the UK. Shakespeare’s legacy is still making waves in the city, not least at the famous Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames, which he helped open in 1599. The theatre’s third reconstruction has two stages – one open-air and one indoor – with a year-round calendar of world-class performances.
Beyond the south bank, London’s performing arts scene is booming: from plays and musicals to ballets and operas, the capital is spoilt for choice when it comes to theatre. Head to the West End and Soho for big-name musicals, the National Theatre for world-class plays on three separate stages, and smaller theatres like Orange Tree, Lyric or The Cockpit for off-beat, independent and fringe shows.
In the summer, be sure to check out one of London’s open-air theatres. There’s one in Regent’s Park with productions of musicals, Shakespeare plays and more, and an outdoor opera theatre in Holland Park. It goes without saying that the open-air performances at The Globe are a delight on summer evenings, with tickets for as little as £5 in the ‘peasant’ stands!
5. Embrace the vibrant art scene
London’s art scene is diverse, wide-reaching and, for the most part, free. Explore art from the Middle Ages to today in galleries ranging from national institutions – such as the National Gallery, Tate Modern and Tate Britain, and Royal Academy of Arts – to smaller contemporary exhibitions on Mayfair’s Cork Street and in the East End.
On a day when it isn’t raining (or even when it is, this is London after all), step outside and soak in the vast array of public art that can be found in all corners of the city. The Royal Academy of Art’s Walking Tour is a great place to start: it takes you from Piccadilly Circus to Regent’s Park, Westminster to Battersea, with a fascinating range of sculpture along the way.
Many of London’s famous landmarks also feature intricate sculptures and engravings. Though you might be hard-pushed to make out the details of Edward Hodges Baily’s statue of Lord Nelson, you can always get up-close and personal with Maggi Hambling’s expressionist Oscar Wilde near Charing Cross…
With all of these treasures right in our backyard, how will you choose to celebrate London’s one-of-a-kind culture?
Tell us your favourite way to paint the town red in the comments below.