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The British capital is alive and well and culturally more vibrant than it has been in years.

 

The sounds of Brit-pop and techno pour out of Victorian pubs, experimental theater is popping up on stages built for Shakespeare's plays, upstart chefs are reinventing the bland dishes British mums have made for generations, and Brits are even running the couture houses of Dior and Givenchy. In food, fashion, film, music, and just about everything else, London now stands at the cutting edge, just as it did in the 1960s.

 

If this sea of change worries you more than it appeals to you, rest assured that traditional London still exists, essentially intact under the veneer of hip. From high tea almost anywhere to the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, the city still abounds with the tradition and charm of days gone by.

 

Discovering London and making it your own can be a bit of a challenge, especially if you have limited time. Even in the 18th century, Daniel Defoe found London "stretched out in buildings, straggling, confused, out of all shape, uncompact and unequal; neither long nor broad, round nor square." The actual City of London proper is 1 sq. mile of very expensive real estate around the Bank of England. All of the gargantuan rest of the city is made up of separate villages, boroughs, and corporations -- each with its own mayor and administration. Together, however, they add up to a mammoth metropolis.

 

Luckily, whether you're looking for Dickens's house or hot designer Vivienne Westwood's flagship store, only the heart of London's huge territory need concern you. The core of London is one of the most fascinating places on earth. With every step, you'll feel the tremendous influence this city exerted over global culture back when it was the capital of an empire on which the sun never set.

 

London is a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, it's a decidedly royal city, studded with palaces, court gardens, coats of arms, and other regal paraphernalia, yet it's also the home of the world's second-oldest parliamentary democracy (Iceland was the first).

 

Today London has grown less English and more international. The gent with the bowler hat is long gone; today's Londoner might have a turban, a Mohawk, or even a baseball cap. It's becoming easier to find a café au lait and a croissant than a scone and a cup of tea. The city is home to thousands of immigrants and refugees, both rich and poor, from all reaches of the world.