London: Capital of the world

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Halfway through Europe's most glorious century, the 19th, Eugne Guinot opined "in Europe there are two capitals: Paris for the winter and Baden-Baden for the summer". This month I have visited both. However lovely the German spa town may be, it does not have the qualities of scale, diversity, wealth and culture that defines a great capital (and no, it wasn't just that I was there in the wrong season). The French capital has a stronger claim, yet it has been comprehensively out-pointed in our survey of civic greatness. London is the world's capital, and ex officio capital of Europe, the northern hemisphere and, let's speculate, the solar system.

To get a sense of the reality behind the numbers, take a cross-section through the ultimate global village starting at the antithesis of Heathrow: London City Airport. The Docklands airport is a small gateway to the capital that is a pleasure to use. It is also, thanks to the UK's openness in aviation, a battleground between British, Belgian and French airlines. And it is an excellent example of re-using the docks that enabled London to wrest, in the 19th century, the title of global capital from Amsterdam. Alone of the capitalistic capitals (New York, Tokyo, Frankfurt... ), London has a "downtown" airport that is within easy reach of the financial centre or, for the past decade or so, centres.

The skyscraping money factories of both the original City of London and the young pretender, Canary Wharf, decorate the skyline as you glide west aboard the Docklands Light Railway. This driverless train network is another exercise in reinvention, turning obsolete 19th-century railway workings into people-movers for the 21st century. On the south side of the Thames stands Greenwich, resplendent in its status as one of the four Unesco World Heritage Sites in the capital, and just upriver lies Deptford where Peter the Great, as an Imperial work-experience candidate, learned how to open Russia to the world.

Before you reach the Tower (another Unesco site), and the fragments of the Roman wall around the core of the city, descend to street level to wander through Whitechapel and Spitalfields. These areas were traditionally where minorities from Jews to Huguenots arrived from Europe in search of tolerance.

A good definition of a "Londoner" is "a person from somewhere else"; a better definition is "a tolerant person...". Londoners put up with a great deal in their daily lives, not least coping with a constricted capital that has not enjoyed the benefits of mass clearance of the metropolitan arteries (as Baron Haussmann did in Paris) or a tidy grid (which keeps Manhattan moving). Half-century-old buses stutter along streets laid down by the Romans nearly two millennia ago, while beneath the streets the world's original and most extensive Underground railway ticks along to its own eccentric clockwork.

What London lacks in transport facilities, it more than makes up for spiritually; Church of England worshippers with lofty aims can choose from St Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Southwark Cathedral, which celebrates Shakespeare. Four hundred years ago the genius was part of the industry of human happiness based south of the river an ironic location, given the suffering on the south bank of the Thames. The "dark, Satanic mills" of Blake's "Jerusalem" were the flour mills of Lambeth, and in Victorian times, Dickens walked these streets to chronicle the dark side of London.

Now, the South Bank thrives once more thanks to innovations such as Tate Modern (the world's most successful art venue of the 21st century), a revitalised Festival Hall and the London Eye. Artistically, the Eye's magic circle complements perfectly the Westminster Tower (colloquially Big Ben), though the tourist flow between the two is impeded by Baghdad-style fortifications installed after the invasion of Iraq.

Visitor numbers to London were hardly dented by the murderous attacks on the Tube in 2005 and are holding up well despite the weak dollar. Some deft 19th-century purloining of treasures from abroad have bestowed London with magnificent museum collections, while 21st-century no-frills airlines import millions of travellers from the continent to Europe's most alluring or, at least, easiest-to-reach city.

Easy to reach, difficult to comprehend: to see how much more there is to fathom, wander down the basement of Stanfords, the map and travel guide shop in Covent Garden (and venue for some of our researches). You can walk across the full extent of the city in about 10 seconds flat, because a giant map of the capital is printed on the floor. The anarchic patchwork is the result of two millennia of settlement, centuries of political and ecclesiastical intrigue, an anachronistic monarchy and episodes of city planning varying from inspired to risible. In its glorious muddle, London comprises all that is good, bad and plain daft about humanity. For all its flaws, it remains Britain's window on the world and the most successful city on the planet.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions