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Only in London: 10 things that make our city so unique

Chris Waywell
Written by
Chris Waywell

Unique details make this city special. And they're captured in 'Bleeding London', for which hundreds of Londoners snapped all of the capital's 58,000 streets. Alongside our pick of photos from the project, Chris Waywell gets to the heart of what matters.

You name it, we got it

We Londoners face an occupational hazard. At some point someone will smirkingly quote you Dr Samuel Johnson’s 'When a man is tired of London, he’s tired of life' like they’re telling you to stop moaning or something. When Johnson penned the Great London Cliché, the city had 750,000 inhabitants. That’s the size of Leeds. Fuck knows what he’d have made of giant African land snails in markets, hip hop karaoke, bike polo, Holi festival, Sink the Pink, BYOB bars and restaurants serving cans of fish. But it’s all testament to London’s belief that anything can be interesting, revealing and enriching, and that there’s an audience out there waiting to Instagram it. Take that, 'Doctor' Johnson (it was an honorary title: he couldn’t do liposuction, or anything).

ONLY IN LONDON: Visit Cross Bones Graveyard, where a spontaneous shrine pays respect to the city’s deceased prostitutes.

Something for nothing

There are plenty of reasons why London, not Paris, is the most-visited city in the world. Two of those reasons are the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, both of which are free and epitomise something amazing about London. They’re big and full of works important enough to put on the front of a Penguin Classic, yet you can go to them as often as you like, for no money. As you can with Tates Modern and Britain, the V&A, the British Museum and Balham’s Sewing Machine Museum. By contrast, the Louvre in Paris is free just one Sunday a month, and it turns into something resembling Black Friday at the Sodom and Gomorrah Ikea.

ONLY IN LONDON: Drop into Sir John Soane's Museum (free, naturally), a nineteenth-century home-turned-museum packed with curios.

Stuart Fero

Pubs, glorious pubs

Before the internet, there was the pub. London boasts such beauties as Ye Olde Mitre in Ely Court, hidden away off Holborn Circus, where you can have a pint beside a cherry tree Queen Elizabeth I danced around. Or Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, whose pews have been warmed by the bums of Johnson (inevitably) and Dickens. The London pub is as varied as the London drinker. It’s part arts centre, part mother and part theatre (and invented 'pub theatre' too). London’s craft beer revolution is helping to give the pub back its sense of self-worth. With a frothy glory once more pouring from its pumps, the dark days of WKD promotions appears a frightful dream. They’re still closing at a depressing rate, mind you, so get 'em in!

ONLY IN LONDON: Play the inimitable game of 'London skittles' at the Freemasons Arms in NW10: essentially lobbing a piece of wood at other pieces of wood.

The love of lavs

This city is toilet-fixated. There’s an art gallery in the ladies at Hackney’s George & Dragon pub, while former lavvies are now home to bars and cafés like Attendant, WC Wine and Charcuterie and The Convenience. The loos of the Princess Louise in Holborn are so spectacular, they’re listed: well worth hanging around in.

ONLY IN LONDON: Got a penny to spend? Take a tour of London’s greatest public toilets.

Black magic

The world of black cabs is a strange one. You take a bloke from Bexley, stick him on a Honda Dylan with a photocopied page from the 'A-Z', send him off for three years, and when he returns, he’s stuffed so much information into his hippocampus that his brain has got bigger. 'The Knowledge' is unique to London, a literally mind-boggling attempt to learn the city by heart that mocks sat-navs and smartphones. In an era where Londoners get excited at the news of a blobfish café coming to town, these people might be the nearest to geniuses this city’s got left.

ONLY IN LONDON: Test yourself against 'The Knowledge' at the London Transport Museum.

The endless menu

For centuries, London had one contribution to the world of gastronomy: eels. Then we invented fish and chips. Pointlessly, as everyone loves going out for eels, all jellified and covered in a weird parsley reduction. But herein lies the secret of London’s amazing eating experience: we happily accept that our finest dining need not be homegrown. So we glory in steamed buns at Bao and Dishoom's bacon naan. We tuck into tapas at Barrafina and modern European at 10 Greek Street. From Little Korea in New Malden to Little Portugal in Stockwell, London just keeps adding to its collective menu. Having said that, we’re confidently staking Time Out's cash on eels being the next street-food craze.

ONLY IN LONDON: Go to M Manze's (87 Tower Bridge Road) for jellied eels served with pie and mash. Then head to Bermondsey’s world-on-a plate food markets Ropewalk, Druid Street or Spa Terminus for everything else under the sun.

Mo Corbett

Going underground

As well as being the world’s first, London’s underground stands out because of its scale, its genre-defining visual language and its fascinating lore. Even if we sometimes hate using the tube, we love the announcements, the mood-lightening notice boards and the sinister disused stations. Why do names like 'City Road' and 'Strand' create such a frisson? They’re former stops in the city of dead commuters.

ONLY IN LONDON: Have some Blitz with your spirits in a recreated 1940s tube carriage at subterranean Soho bar Cahoots

Talking shop

Without boasting too much about all the international fashion designers, bloggers and models who are always telling Time Out that London has the very best shopping in the world, let’s start at the top. We have Liberty, Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason and Harrods, the sort of shops that combine unparalleled choice with democratically British service, for which people travel from miles away to experience. But it’s not all department stores. We have a street devoted to suits in Savile Row, and another for shirts (Jermyn Street), a yacht chandler miles from the sea (Arthur Beale in Shaftesbury Avenue) and the shop that invented the bowler hat (James Lock in St James’s Street). Beat that, Bluewater!

ONLY IN LONDON: Pretend you’re a London city gent and pick out a fancy brolly to go with your bowler at James Smith’s Umbrella Shopp on New Oxford Street.

Doing it ourselves

'London: global playground for the rich,' they tell us; here on the ground, we do things differently. There’s a wave of hyper-local DIY culture (join Walthamstow’s Blackhorse Workshop to use all the wood- and metalworking tools, or learn how to fix up your ride at London Bike Kitchen in Hoxton). There are community-owned pubs - the Antwerp Arms, in Tottenham, is one. Brixton’s even adopted its own currency to keep money in the area.

ONLY IN LONDON: Get your hands on a David Bowie Brixton Pound note (he was born there), then splash your cash in the Village.  


If you’ve read this far, God bless/help you. It should be clear that what really makes London special is Londoners. We’ve got iconic landmarks, 2,000 years of history, Pearly Kings and Queens, an actual Queen, and roads called Old Fish Street Hill and Stew Lane. We’ve got problems: can we continue to flourish and experiment if London gets ever more expensive? But everything that is great in the capital - from city farms to soundsystems to Lewisham Micro Library - is here because someone created it or imported it or adapted it, confident that Londoners would embrace it. That’s a great thing, so give yourselves a pat on the back. Then figure out where London takes it from here...

ONLY IN LONDON: Date for the diary: see the Pearly Kings & Queens in all their finery at the annual Harvest Parade on September 27.

Want more fun things to do in London? Here are 41 great things to do this week.

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