You may have heard the name City of London, and it might have conjured images of well-known places. The Tower of London, Buckingham Place, Harrods, The Shard, Westminster Abbey and so on. Actually, none of these places is located in the City. What do you mean!? you may ask. Let me show you what I mean with this ultimate travel guide to the City of London.
The ultimate travel guide to the City of London
What is the City of London?
The City of London, also known as the Square Mile, is the oldest part of London. This is where the Romans first settled and founded Londinium in 50 AD. By the way, if you like historical fiction, get a copy of London by Edward Rutherfurd. It weaves the story of a few families with that of London since Roman times to the present.
The City of London is part of Greater London, which is made up of 32 boroughs and the City. The City of London’s Corporation is Britain’s oldest local government. In other words, it elects its own Lord Mayor and members of the governing bodies (the Court of Common Council, the Town Clerk and the the Court of Aldermen.)
Please include attribution to citifocus.co.uk with this graphic.
Where is the City located?
The City lies on the north bank of the River Thames, between the Temple Bar memorial and the bottom of Tower Hill. Although the City maintains the Bridge Tower through its charity Bridge House Estates, the City doesn’t include the Tower of London.
The Temple Bar, one of the eight gateways to the city, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. It first stood where Fleet Street and the Strand intersect. It was removed in the 19th century and taken down to the countryside. In 2004, it was restored and placed in Paternoster Square.
What’s there to see and do in the City of London?
Loads! For one, it’s one of my favourite places to roam around. Some streets are very quiet and tourist-free, no pushing through crowds here like you might have to do in, say, Westminster. Moreover, I find the mix of ultra-modern architecture and medieval churches and Roman remains fascinating. Modern buildings, which spring up like mushrooms, have wonderful nicknames, like the Can of Ham or the Gherkin.
The Temple complex of buildings house two of the Inns of Court, the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple. Located between Fleet Street and the Embankment, this is where the members of the legal profession have their offices. The name comes from the original owners of the land, the Knights Templar. Incidentally, the Temple Church, the famous round church that the Templars built in the 12th century, is located here as well. The Inner Temple Gardens provide a lovely place to rest.
Victoria Embankment runs from Westminster Palace to Blackfriars Bridge. It’s a road as well as a river walk.
Blackfriars, Southwark, Millennium and London bridges connect the City with the South Bank.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is a symbol of London. You must visit it at least once in your life. Walk around to Paternoster Square to see the Temple Bar Memorial and maybe grab a bite.
The medieval church of St. Olave (8 Hart St.) survived the Great Fire of 1666. It’s the final resting place of noted diarist Samuel Pepys.
St. Bride’s on Fleet St. is known as the journalists’ church. Sir Christopher Wren redesigned it after the Great Fire.
St. Andrew Holborn (5-7 St. Andrew St.), a medieval church with Roman foundations, was rebuilt by Sr. Wren after the Great Fire.
London’s oldest parish church, St. Bartholomew the Great, dates from 1123. It’s right next to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and Smithfield Market.
The medieval church of St. Giles Cripplegate on Fore St. is slap bang in the heart of the Barbican.
One of Sir Wren’s most expensive churches, St. Lawrence Jewry (Gresham St., next to the Guildhall) got its name form the nearby Old Jewry Street, where a Jewish community lived in medieval times.
It is said that a true Cockney must be born within earshot of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside
Founded in 675 AD, All Hallows-by-the-Tower on Byward St. is London’s oldest church. The Undercroft Museum has some original Roman pavement.
St. Dunstan-in-the-East (St. Dunstan’s Hill) is not a church anymore, sadly. Originally built around 1100, the bombs of the Blitz destroyed most of it. Now, a tranquil garden surrounds the ruins. I recommend coming here for a breather, maybe bring a picnic.
The Bank of England is the central bank of the UK. Not only that, it has a museum where, among other things, you can learn about the history of banknotes.
The Guildhall, the seat of the local government, has some gems that you should visit. For example, the City of London Police Museum, the Roman Amphitheatre, the Great Hall and an art gallery. More about the Guildhall here.
If you want to learn about the history of this fascinating city, head to the Museum of London (150 London Wall, Barbican). Everything you need to know, and more, is here.
In order to get a glimpse of Roman London, book your visit for free at the London Mithraeum to see the Roman Temple of Mithras.
Where to get amazing views
The Great Fire of London of 1666 cut a wide swathe of destruction. In order to celebrate the rebirth of London from its ashes, The Monument was built. The view at the top of the 311 steps up narrow circular stairs more than make up for the effort.
One of the buildings with a silly name is the Walkie Talkie, whose official name is 20 Fenchurch Street. At the top sits the Sky Garden, a public garden with breathtaking 360-degree views of London.
A little shorter than the Sky Garden, Garden at 120 is another public garden in the area. Whereas the Sky Garden is more like greenhouse, this is in the open air.
The Royal Exchange
The Royal Exchange dates from 1571, although the current building is from 1844. You won’t see any City types shouting “buy!” “sell!” here. Nowadays, they come here to shop for luxury goods or to enjoy a meal or a drink. Do come in and admire the spectacular central courtyard.
Leadenhall Market on Gracechurch St. is one of the covered markets so particular to London. Look up and spot the dragons, or griffins, which part of the crest of the City of London. Also, Leadenhall Market was used as a film location for the Harry Potter films.
The Financial District
The City, as well as other areas of London, got badly damaged during the WWII bombings. However, the city arose quite literally from the ashes. Now, you walk around and see beautiful historic buildings that survived shoulder to shoulder with magnificent new constructions. I do encourage you to simply walk around, look up, read the plaques to get a sense of the City of London.
Architecture lovers should to look out for some amazing buildings (and creative naming!), like Lloyd’s of London (1 Lime St.), the Can of Ham (70 St. Mary Axe), the Gherkin (30 St. Mary Axe), the Walkie Talkie (20 Fenchurch St.), Heron Tower (110 Bishopsgate), the Cheesegrater (122 Leadenhall St.), the Scalpel (52-54 Lime St.)
Fun facts to complement the ultimate travel guide to the City of London!
- The Old Bailey, nowadays the Central Criminal Court from England and Wales, started as a prison. The country’s last beheading took place outside in 1820.
- The Freedom of the City is a tradition that started in 1237. Nowadays, this honour is bestowed upon a valued member of the community, but in the past it meant that the citizens of London were free to trade independently.
- The City has about 8,000 permanent residents. However, around half a million people come in to work every day. It receives more than ten million tourists a year (but I promise it’s quiet!)
- The City of London is the oldest continuous municipal democracy. The ancient rights and privileges that predate the Norman Conquest (1066) inspired the City’s constitution. Moreover, the City’s form of government led to today’s parliamentary system.
- Fleet Street was the hub of Britain’s newspaper establishment. Every major newspaper had their head offices here between the 16th and the 20th centuries. St. Bride’s church is the “spiritual home of the media”
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