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City of London
Bank of England, London (© Roland Nagy | Dreamstime.com)

Introduction

The City is the historical core of London, the dignified heir of Roman Londinium and Shakespearean London. Its boundaries have changed little since medieval times, covering just over one square mile (1.12 sq mi/2.90 km2) of land north of the Thames, between Blackfriars Bridge and Tower Bridge, making it England's smallest ceremonial county. Barely 8,000 people have elected residence in this prohibitively expensive corner of Britain.

Entirely rebuilt in massive grey-stone edifices by Sir Christopher Wren after the devastating fire of 1666, the City enjoys an architectural homogeneity that has disappeared in other British city centres. is now home to the headquarters of many of the UK's top corporations and of Europe's biggest concentration of financial institutions. Some 300,000 commuters burst from the underground every morning, pouring over their grand and solemn offices, ready to make money.

Throughout the 19th century, and until the Second World War, London was the world's preeminent business centre. Today, the Global Financial Centres Index still ranks it on a par with New York City as the leading centre of global finance.

Roaming around the City usually proves to be an awe-inspiring experience for first-time visitors. It is hard not to feel dwarfed by the gargantuan, monolithic buildings, especially at night, in the eerily deserted streets, where it's easy to forget that one is surrounded by 12 million within a 20 km radius.

Guildhall

Unmistakeable by its Gothic architecture, the Guildhall is the only non-ecclesiastical building that survived the Great Fire of 1666. Set right in the middle of the City, it has served as London's Townhall and the seat of the Corporations since the Middle Ages. The Guildhall was first mentioned in documents in 1128. The oldest surviving part is the Great Hall, built in 1411, but repaired and modified many times over the centuries. The day-to-day administration is now conducted from modern buildings nearby, but the Great Hall, ornate with the shields and banners of the 12 main corporations, is still used for official functions, such as the election of the mayor of London.

The Guildhall complex houses the Guildhall Art Gallery, the Clockmakers' Museum as well as the Guildhall Library.

Barbican

Named after an old watchtower, the Barbican Centre is the largest performing arts centre in Europe, home to the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It is also a notorious eyesore in the northern extremity of the City and was even voted "London's ugliest building" in a Grey London poll in September 2003. The Barbican was completed in 1982 and occupies grounds razed by German bombs during the London Blitz in 1940.

Apart for classical music concerts, the main reason to visit the Barbican is for its top-notch Barbican Art Gallery (architecture, design, fashion and photography), and the Museum of London, which retraces the city's evolution through the ages since ancient times.

Bank of England

The financial district is dominated by the Bank of England, a pompous Neoclassical building (built in 1734) taking the whole block between Lothbury, Threadneedle and Prince's St. The bank was established in 1694 to act as the English Government's banker, a function is has retained to this day. Inside, you will find the Bank of England Museum (open on weekdays only ; free admission). Besides the obvious banknotes and coins, its collections include historical documents and photos, classical furniture and statues, and even a real gold bar that can be handled by visitors.

The Monument

From the Bank, take King William's Street to reach the Monument to the Great Fire of London, close to the London Bridge. This 61.5m-tall (202 ft) Doric column was erected between 1671 and 1677. Its height is the exact distance to the site of Thomas Farynor, the king's baker's shop in Pudding Lane, where the fire began. It is the tallest isolated stone column in the world (in comparison Nelson's Column on Trafalgar Square rises to 46 metres). For a small fee (3 for adults, 1 for children), visitors are allowed to climb the 311 steps to the top, and admire the panorama on the City and the Thames, as far as the Tower Bridge.

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