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London is a massive, multicultural, cosmopolitan city with a population of nearly 8 million people. Greater London extends over 600 square miles and is divided into 33 boroughs. These range from wealthier areas such as Chelsea and South Kensington to poorer Hackney or Lambeth. However, each borough has a diverse mix of people, cultural activities and markets, all of which make London an incredibly exciting place to be. Ten years ago, many locals and tourists were unsure where to go out to eat as London was not renowned to be one of the best culinary capitals in the world. However, this has all changed and there are some fantastic restaurants to suit all tastes and pockets. From South Indian vegetarian dosas to jellied eels or fish and chips, the range is incredibly diverse. In addition, some remarkable new galleries and cinemas have opened in the last years...from the magnificent Tate Modern south of the Thames to the giant IMAX screen near Waterloo Station. There is something for all ages, and many events can be booked ahead over the internet. London has both an incredibly successful financial district and is home to many offices and retail outlets. There is always plenty to see and do, from paying a trip to the brand new Greater London Assembly building to an antique market in Camden Passage. You may want to take advantage of the extensive public transport network, but become well informed of any current delays, as the system isn't quite as efficient as in other European cities. London not only has some excellent theatres (with many film stars coming from The States to perform live on stage), but also some unusual music venues. These range from old religious buildings (Union Chapel in Islington) to The Roundhouse, a former train depot in Camden. Check out the many parks and gardens, from Greenwich down by the Meridian to Hampstead Heath in the north; both offer magnificent views over the capital by day or night.
Summers tend to be moderately warm and pleasant with occasional hot days and less rain than other seasons. However, the weather can be quite unpredictable, so visitors should plan for all eventualities. Winters are usually wet and cold, although average temperatures can be considered mild when compared to mainland Europe. Snow is infrequent.
British currency is the pound sterling (£). Notes are divided into denominations of £5, £10, £20 and £50. Coins come in denominations of £2, £1, 50p, 20p, 10, 2p and 1p. ATMs are commonplace and the cheapest way to withdraw cash. Most machines accept Visa, MasterCard (including Cirrus and Maestro), American Express, and Diners Club. Foreign currency can be changed at banks and bureaux de change, although it is the best to use a high street bank as their rates are usually better than bureaux de change and they charge less commission.
English is not only the national language spoken in London but also the most important one, considering the fact that there are more than 300 different languages spoken in this multicultural city. In many parts of the city English is only a second language. Actually, the English spoken today in London is a mixture of foreign words, the typical south eastern accent and the traditional cockney dialect. It is a moving language that is constantly influenced by new trends and other language groups.
Due to the many nationalities living in London, there are a lot of different religions colliding. The largest religious groups are, nevertheless, Christian. The Anglican Church, which is the country’s official church, has still a lot of members throughout London. About 56 % of the Jewish community of Great Britain is concentrated here. Also over 52 % of Great Britain’s Hindus live in London. Besides, there is a large Islamic community settled in the city, most of them Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Arabs and Turks are a minority group. London also has a high number of Buddhists and Sikhs communities.
The VAT in London is 17,5 % on most goods and services excluding food, books and children’s wear. In most of the cases tourists have the right to claim back the paid taxes when they have lived in Great Britain less than 365 days before the purchase and if they have left the country within 3 months after purchasing the goods. Unfortunately, not all shops take part in the Tax Free Shopping. Most of the shops have a minimum price limit of £75. On request you can get a special form (VAT 407) which you have to present to the tax office together with the purchased goods. After a confirmation of the tax office the form needs to be sent back to the shop where the product was bought. Then you will get the tax back. The whole procedure can take 8 to 10 weeks.
It is common practice to tip hotel service personnel such as luggage handlers and door attendants. Service charges are included in some restaurants and are clearly stated on menus. However, it is standard to add 15 percent. Tip taxi drivers about ten percent of the total fare.
The international number for Great Britain is +44. There are two numbers for London: 0207 for all connections in the centre and 0208 for all calls in the outer city ring.
The old red telephone boxes were replaced by more functional phone boxes which can be used with coins, telephone or credit cards. Telephone cards can be purchased in most kiosks and magazine shops with £1, £2, £4, £10 or £20. The cheapest time for calling is after 8 pm.
Going online is actually no problem in London. If you have a laptop you can easily use the internet from a hotel room or choose one of the numerous internet cafes. Essential for the use of a laptop is an adaptor for the normal telephone cables. Internet cafes are for example: Buzz Bar, 95 Portobello Rd; Cyberg@te, 3 Leigh St; Bethereds, 39 Whitfield St, easyEverything, 9-13 Wilton Rd; Tottenham Court Road 9-16 Tottenham Court Rd; Oxford Street 358 Oxford St; ect.
Major banks are usually open from Monday to Friday 9.30 am to 4.30 pm), and some on Saturday until 1pm. All banks are closed on Sundays. The post office at Trafalgar Square is open Mo to Fr until 8 pm. Shops are usually open between 9 am and 6 pm, sometimes even longer in the evenings. Some shops and supermarkets are also open on Sundays.
London, like any western European capital, is a relatively safe city. The biggest problem, as in any big town with many tourists, is the presence of pickpockets. So, it is important to make sure that valuables are properly concealed. Pickpockets are usually active on public transport and around busy locations where tourists are distracted, such as Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. If you are alone, avoid walking though parks after dark and take taxis to the outer boroughs rather than walk down unlit streets. Another big problem in London is car crime, so make sure that doors are locked when driving and that valuables are well hidden. Don''t leave anything in your car dashboard unattended.
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