With its centuries of history and stream of modern attractions, London is the world’s most popular city with good reason, says Chris Peacock
It says a lot about a city that despite being one of the most expensive places in the world to visit, it can still lay claim to being the top tourism destination on the planet.
London may come with an ever-rising price tag, but it was hailed as the world’s most popular tourism destination for the second year running in 2015’s annual MasterCard Global Destinations Cities Index, which gives an in-depth ranking of the 132 most traveled cities across the globe.
Some 17.4 million international visitors came through the UK capital in 2014, up 3.5% from London’s previous record of 16.8 million. The city also came tops for total visitor spend, seeing travelers part with a grand total of $19.27bn. This record pace looks set to continue, with a projected 18.82 million visitors for 2015, spending more than $20.2bn.
What is it about this city that consistently captures the imagination of travelers the world over? Perhaps more than anything, it’s London’s historic and cultural assets that are proving the key drivers of international tourism — courtesy of the city’s well-preserved and high-density architecture, iconic landmarks, centuries-old narrative and world-class collection of museums, galleries and theaters.
According to figures from London & Partners, the city’s official promotion company, London is the most Googled city in the world for art galleries, museums and performing arts. In fact, the three museums most frequently searched for online are in London, with the Science Museum at the top, followed by the Natural History Museum and the British Museum — ahead of New York’s MET and DC’s Smithsonian.
“Culture is the leading reason why visitors come to London and it’s vital to the city’s economy, contributing an estimated £7.3bn ($11.09bn) per year,” says Gordon Innes, chief executive of London & Partners. Further research from the organization shows international visits to London’s museums and galleries rose by more than 19% in the last four years, with the majority from the US.
Agents are finding London’s history and culture remains its core appeal. “London has a long, rich, history that’s evident everywhere, together with magnificent museums, shopping, theater and excellent public transportation,” says Melanie Hibbs, owner of Oyster Travel, CA. “No matter how many times you go, there’s always something new to see and experience.”
Tourism numbers and spend might be on the up and up, but London is certainly not resting on its laurels. A near endless stream of new openings, launches and major developments are scheduled for 2016, from attractions and hotels to restaurants and events. Read on for a rundown of the latest news…
London offers many of the world’s most recognizable and visited museums, galleries and theme parks, from the British Museum and London Eye to Madame Tussauds and the Tate Modern. Current exhibitions include Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age at the Science Museum (until March), and The Crime Museum Uncovered at the Museum of London (until April).
Arguably the city’s best new family attraction in recent years, Shrek’s Adventure opened in the summer as an interactive walk-through experience celebrating the beloved green ogre. Situated at the Grade-II listed County Hall, next to the Sea Life London Aquarium and London Dungeon, Shrek’s Adventure draws visitors into a fairytale world featuring characters and sets from the films with the help of 4D animation and special effects.
London’s art world received a boost in October, when British artist Damien Hirst launched a major new gallery in Lambeth showcasing more than 2,000 pieces of art. Designed by the team behind the revamped Tate Britain, the Newport Street Gallery includes pieces by Francis Bacon, Picasso, Jeff Koons and street artist Banksy.
The large number and range of places to stay in London means visitors are consistently spoiled for choice, particularly at the luxury end of the market, where virtually every major hotel brand is represented.
Significant openings over the past 12 months have included a Mondrian on the South Bank, featuring a 56-seat screening room; Soho’s Ham Yard Hotel, a bold Kit Kemp-designed property with its own theater; and The London Edition in Fitzrovia, housing a restaurant from the Michelin-starred Jason Atherton.
When it comes to headline hotels for 2016, the opening of the first European Nobu property in east London will take some beating. The five-story, 156-room hotel in the creative hub of Shoreditch will house a 16ft high statement restaurant, landscaped gardens, a striking exterior of angular balconies and layered glass, and rooms centered on a central bathroom.
The Nobu will find itself in competition with several other new upscale hotels, namely the Great Scotland Yard Hotel — where a top-end room costs £10,000 ($15,127) a night, the Armani-designed Admiralty Arch Hotel on The Mall and the much-anticipated Peninsula Hotel overlooking Hyde Park.
When the coveted Michelin Guide 2016 was published in September, London gained an impressive seven new stars, with the city’s biggest winner, the nine-cover sushi restaurant The Araki, scooping two. The restaurant, run by the renowned sushi chef Mitsuhiro Araki, charges £300 ($455) a head for its 11-course omakase menu.
Also in Mayfair, fellow Japanese establishment Umu, with its slightly more modestly priced £115 ($174) kaiseki menu, secured two stars, bringing the total number of double-starred restaurants in the city to 11.
Another spate of soon-to-be-acclaimed restaurants is on its way for 2016, including two vast Jamie Oliver eateries in King’s Cross. A row of derelict early Victorian buildings is being converted into a sprawling 17,500sq ft dining complex comprising a waterside pub with a roof conservatory and outdoor terrace, and a restaurant spread across eight lower level arches.
Jason Atherton, another prolific London restaurateur, has added Sosharu on Clerkenwell Road to his portfolio. The 75-seat informal restaurant serves tapas-style Japanese food. His most recent venture, Social Wine & Tapas, opened in the summer off Oxford Street, featuring a wine shop, bar and restaurant.
Continuing London’s run of blockbuster shows and musicals, highlights for 2015 included a London stage for the Broadway hit Kinky Boots, a Kenneth Branagh telling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and a celebrated performance of Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet.
Looking ahead, the book-film-theater adaptation trend is here to stay, with penned theatrical versions of Finding Neverland, Brokeback Mountain and The Hunger Games. One of the most anticipated productions is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in July, based on an original new JK Rowling story, following an adult Harry as an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic and a father of three.
Brokeback Mountain is set to make its stage premiere in London under the direction of producer Tom O’Connell, who has previously worked on productions of Beautiful Thing, Ghost Stories and The King’s Speech. Venue and dates have yet to be announced.
Other West End news includes a limited Glenn Close appearance as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard at the English National Opera in the spring, as well as rumors of Al Pacino in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and a Christmas opening of Disney-classic Pinocchio at the National Theatre.
While New York is known for rolling out the latest trends and Paris and Milan cater to all things luxury, London takes its strength from its cultural diversity, with a crop of young, upstart designers making their sartorial presence known throughout the city.
Up and coming British designer Simone Rocha opened her first store in London in the fall, on Mount Street in Mayfair, with a 1,500sq ft retail space on two floors, alongside outlets by Marc Jacobs, Roksanda and Celine. The 28-year-old, the daughter of renowned designer John Rocha, has quickly become a hit with A-listers, dressing stars such as Keira Knightley and Rihanna.
London is no stranger to global names, either, with a string of international designers having descended on the city in recent months. Canadian-born Erdem Moralioglu launched his first stand-alone store on South Audley Street, American Alexander Wang opened his first European flagship with a massive 6,700sq ft retail space on Albemarle Street, and British/Turkish Cypriot designer Hussein Chalayan unveiled his label’s first outlet on Bourdon Street.
From New Year’s Eve fireworks on the South Bank and the Chelsea Flower Show to London Fashion Week, Wimbledon tennis and Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland, there’s no shortage of world-famous events taking place in the UK’s capital each year.
New for 2016 is London’s first Lumiere light festival, held from January 14-17. The free-to-attend spectacle takes place across more than 20 locations, with artists commissioned to create works showing iconic landmarks in a new light.
Other major one-off events include Museums at Night (May 11-14), a series of special after-hours events at London’s top museums; Open Garden Squares (June 18-19), when the city’s most secret and stunning gardens open their gates for one weekend only; and Ride London (July 30), when more than 70,000 cyclists explore the closed roads of Central London, riding past landmarks such as Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London.
Also, don’t miss the return of Swan Lake at the Royal Albert Hall (June 1-12), by the English National Ballet. The Derek Deane production is the largest of its kind, with a cast of 120 performing to Tchaikovsky’s classic score.
Capital cruise: London is set to create a new cruise terminal at Greenwich, capable of handling 55 ships a year when it becomes operational in 2017. Several cruise lines, including Azamara, Holland America and Seabourn, have welcomed the news and have already proposed including it in forthcoming itineraries. londoncitycruiseport.co.uk
London Tribute: Starwood Hotels’ latest independent brand, Tribute Portfolio, has signed its first London property in the 91-room Great North Hotel next to King’s Cross station. The franchise enables independent hotel owners to pay 4-6% of room revenues to Starwood in exchange for access to its group booking system and loyalty program. gnhlondon.com
Aspire debut: The first independent pay-in lounge has opened at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 for all passengers, regardless of airline or flying class. A three-hour pass for the Aspire Lounge & Spa is £35 ($53) for advance bookings or £40 ($60) for walk-ins. Facilities include food and drink service, rest pods, quiet work areas and Bliss spa treatments. executivelounges.com