Londoners have strong opinions on visitors to the capital, but what do they make of us and our city? Isabelle Aron finds out. Portraits Andy Parsons
Tourists have a bit of a bad rep in this city. But for all the (selfie) stick we give them, they’re a huge part of London life. Want to know why Covent Garden’s so damn busy? Because 19.88 million people from overseas came to London in 2016, making it the second most visited city in the world. (Bangkok scooped the top spot, but it does have tropical beaches nearby.)
People have long flocked to London for its hedonism, shopping and culture. (In 1900, the Charing Cross Turkish Baths – complete with a chiropodist – was a hotspot for visitors.) Tourists are as much a part of the city as locals.
We weary Londoners take so much of our brilliant city for granted. We try desperately to avoid ‘tourist traps’ and barely bat an eyelid at the views as we rush along the South Bank. But tourists see things with fresh eyes, appreciating all the stuff we forget to. They celebrate the things that give London its identity – from Beefeaters and double-decker buses to amazing parks and free museums. Plus, they bring a huge amount of cash into the capital (£11.9 billion last year, to be exact).
So forget the stereotypes about escalator etiquette and giant rucksacks on the tube – we’ve spent years having our say about tourists. Now it’s time to turn the tables. We headed to London’s biggest landmarks to find out what tourists had to say about us and our city.
Perhaps most surprisingly, none of them seemed to think that Londoners were rude, although maybe they were just being polite. Either way, speaking to visitors highlighted how lucky we are to live in such a vibrant city. Tourists clearly have a lot of love for London – so it’s time we started showing them some back. Even when they’re standing on the wrong side of the escalator…
Alicia and Jon, USA (pictured above)
Is London how you expected it to be?
‘I’m from New York, so I have high standards for cities and I’m like, “Wow! I’m really impressed with London.”’
Got any big plans while you’re here?
‘We’re going to Sketch tonight – I think that’s a must-do. I want to check out the bars in east London because the vibe is like Brooklyn.’
Have you found Londoners rude?
‘It’s hard to top the rudeness of New Yorkers.’
What about our public transport? Does it measure up to New York’s?
‘We took the subway. I was surprised by how narrow the cars are. I figured it would be a bigger, er, tube.’
Josephina and Francisco, Argentina
How does London compare with Buenos Aires?
‘London is less crowded, much less noisy. We’ve walked around the sights like St Paul’s Cathedral and it seems quiet to us.’
Is the city what you expected?
‘I was expecting more big buildings, very tall buildings, more office buildings. Instead, all the buildings are very low.’
Have you seen the Shard? That’s about as tall as our buildings get.
‘I thought it was going to be taller.’
Vladimir and Nadia, Russia
What did you think a stereotypical ‘Londoner’ was like before you came here?
‘I used to think Londoners were very closed people, lacking emotion – you know, like in “Downton Abbey”? But when we came here I saw that Londoners like to laugh at themselves. For example, in Trafalgar Square, among the buildings in classic style, we saw the [David Shrigley] thumbs-up sculpture. It’s very interesting.’
Has London lived up to your expectations?
‘I think it’s been better. We can’t believe all the museums are free – it’s wonderful. We’ve been to the National Gallery three times and we’d like to go again.’
Carolina and Mariana, Brazil
Have you noticed anything weird here?
‘The food. Your beans taste sweet to me. In Brazil, beans are one of my favourite lunch dishes, but ours our salty. And there are the same restaurants and chains everywhere – Costa, Nero, Starbucks, Pret – it’s weird.’
Have you tried fish and chips?
‘Yes. I love fish and chips but I don’t like pie. I don’t like that brown sauce.’
‘Yes. It’s disgusting.’
What have you done so far?
Did you enjoy the Emirates Air Line? It’s something Londoners never really do...
‘Yeah, it was a nice ride.’
Stefan and Lillemor, Sweden
You’ve just eaten at Angus Steakhouse. How was it?
‘The food was okay. I came here ten years ago after my sister got married. It was better then. It’s very salty. It’s not like that in Sweden. Our meat is much better.’
What have you got planned for your trip?
‘We’ve come to see the Meatloaf musical – I’m a big fan.’
Any surprises here?
‘The telephone boxes. We got rid of them 20 years ago in Sweden when we got mobile phones. We also went on one of those bicycle cab things.’
‘Yes. I think it’s probably a bit dangerous.’
Lena and Theresa, Germany
You’ve just been to Buckingham Palace. Did you enjoy it?
‘It’s smaller than I expected. It’s actually a bit underwhelming.’
Kerry, South Africa
Did you have any ideas of stereotypical Londoners before you came?
‘I thought: stiff upper lip, prim and proper. Actually, Londoners are warm and friendly.’
What do you think of our public transport?
‘Amazing. In South Africa, our buses are normally stuck on the side of the road not working, and it’s too dangerous to catch trains. Here it’s safe to walk around at half-three in the morning.’
Found anything a bit odd?
‘Your self-service tills. You have to put the money in and do it yourself… I don’t think we’ll ever have that in South Africa, people will fight it.’
Inspired to go exploring? Check out London’s top attractions.