Photo: Tower Bridge © Tomas1111 | Dreamstime.com
London received close to 19 million international visitors in 2015, once again topping the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index, an in-depth ranking of the most traveled cities across the globe. It seems there’s no better introduction to the history, culture and distinct charm of Europe than a trip to London. After all, who can resist the chance to view the morning Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, take a ride on the London Eye, cruise down the Thames under the famous Tower Bridge, stroll one of London’s glorious parks, visit the Tower of London’s jewels and check out the theater scene in the West End, which easily rivals Broadway as one of the finest in the world?
Actually, a good chunk of travelers visiting London forego quite a few of these enticements, focusing first on their business trip. The city thrives thanks to tourism and two other pillars of its economy, technology and the life sciences. A recent study by the programmer community website Stack Overflow found London hosts more tech talent than any other major city in the world. Estimated at 70,000 professional developers, the city projects the tech workforce will grow by 22 percent over the next decade.
Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft all established research and development hubs in the U.K.’s capital city, with Amazon announcing at the 2015 London Technology Week the completion of its move to London, adding 2,000 employees to the city. Google is close to unveiling its £1 billion (about $1.5 billion) European headquarters in 2016 near the St. Pancras International rail station, home to the Eurostar, the high-speed train to Paris. Other tech clusters like Tech City and Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in the eastern part of the city and Croydon to the south are fueling the latest startups. The U.K. government is also chipping in, investing £830 million (about $1.25 billion) this past year to build a super-fast broadband. Also boosting this sector: 23,000-plus students in London are pursuing computer science degrees at local universities.
“London is a hotbed for tech talent. With Europe’s fastest-growing tech hub and some of the world’s leading universities, London-based businesses can benefit from access to an unparalleled talent pool,” says Boris Johnson, mayor, London, adding that “five years since the creation of the Tech City project, the capital’s booming tech sector has gone from strength to strength and continues to be a leading source of jobs and growth for the London economy.”
An influx of venture capital money helped spur the tech economy. Prospective entrepreneurs are allowed to enter the U.K. to secure funding and make arrangements to start their businesses before transferring to a Tier 1 Entrepreneur Visa, which allows non-European Union members to establish or take over a business in the U.K. In most cases, individuals applying for a Tier 1 Entrepreneur Visa must have access to at least £200,000 (about $300,000) of investment funds. The initial visa is granted for 40 months and can be extended an additional two years.
In the latest Global Location Trends report by IBM, London is the world’s leading city for foreign investment, generating 11,300 jobs in the city in 2014. The financial tech sector has been the recipient of the latest round of venture capital. Rising stars like Funding Circle, which raised £150 million (about $225 million) in its latest deal this past April, have excited the ranks of enthusiastic investors. Funding Circle is a peer-to-peer lender, allowing individuals and institutions to bid online to lend money to small businesses.
The life sciences sector also pushes to the forefront thanks to a new cancer center debuting in 2017. Set inside the Royal Masonic Hospital in Hammersmith, which closed in 2006, the new facility will house a support staff of 2,000 leading health care professionals. The hospital will be the first private facility in the U.K. to offer proton beam therapy, a type of radiation that uses sub-atomic particles to attack cancer cells, resulting in less damage to surrounding tissues than conventional radiotherapy.
Similar to Tech City, the city recently rolled out MedCity, a medical research and development cluster that has already become Europe’s largest center for biological research. Many of its employees graduated from local universities, where close to 50,000 students a year major in medicine. In fact, London comes in second after Boston in generating medical research papers.
The obvious lure for the American traveler is English is the official language, eliminating communication barriers. Driving is another matter, sticking to the left, not the right side of the road. That’s why taxi drivers remain so beloved in the city. Once work is over, visit one of four UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. Or wander over to the Science Museum, recently dubbed “the most Googled museum in the world,” to check out Puffing Billy, the oldest steam engine, built in 1813. Roald Dahl’s whimsical tale of candy maker Willy Wonka is now a musical directed by Sam Mendes, bringing in the crowds to the West End. Starting in April, two floors of the Saatchi Gallery will display more than 500 pieces of memorabilia from The Rolling Stones’ personal archive, which now spans a 50-year career. Really, what more enticement do you need to take a trip across the pond?
Things to Do in London
Walking into Harrods Food Hall is like entering Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, with row after row devoted to candy, chocolates and doughnuts. Food courts serve dim sum, sushi and practically any other item you’d want to eat. Grab a stool at Morelli’s Gelato Fountain and dig into the luscious sundaes and ice cream floats. Then head up to the fourth floor to see the cute kittens and dogs in the pet store.
The country’s most popular museum since the 1750s is The British Museum. You could easily spend a day if not a week here viewing the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles from the Pantheon, the treasures of a seventh-century Saxon ship, giant heads from Easter Island, totem poles from Canada, mummies from Egyptian tombs and so much more. Just as fascinating are the Churchill War Rooms, the wartime bunker that sheltered Winston Churchill and his government during the German Blitz of World War II.
CHECKING IN WITH JEREMY GORING
Fourth-generation hotelier, The Goring
How does a hotel like The Goring, built in 1910, stay relevant when every upscale brand in the travel industry features a lodging in London?
Irrelevance is the new relevance! We love to surprise. Being a small, independent hotel, we can delight our guests in ways others wouldn’t dare.
What special services at The Goring truly enhance your guests’ stay?
The stunningly attired footmen provide daily magic carefully tailored to each individual guest. We make it about you, not about us.
As London continues to thrive, what do you find particularly exciting about the city these days?
Every time I arrive at work, I am excited not to have been run over by van drivers.
The city is so vast, you must have coveted spots to escape the crowds. Can you divulge your secrets?
To escape the crowds, get down to Cornwall. Otherwise, I recommend Maltby Street Market for a jolly good feed (get there early), or hiding away in The Goring’s Nook and Cranny next to the roaring fire.
What one classic London sight or museum do you still enjoy visiting, and why?
Buckingham Palace. It is unique in that you are walking around a working palace rather than a relic, in the footsteps of hundreds of world leaders, kings, queens and dignitaries. All this while surrounded by one of the most important art collections in Europe.
London: Just the Facts
Time Zone: GMT
Phone Code: Country code: 44 City code: 20
Currency: British pound
Entry/Exit Requirements: U.S. citizens must have a passport valid for the duration of the stay. No visa is required for stays less than 90 days.
Official Language: English
Key Industries: Tourism, technology, life sciences
London Info to Go
Heathrow Airport lies 15 miles west of central London and is easily reached by taxi or public transport. Cost by taxi is typically £45–70 (about $87–105) and takes approximately one hour. Much faster is the Heathrow Express, a 15-minute train ride. Tickets are available online, at the station or on the train. The Express Standard class single fare costs £26.50 (about $40) on board or £21.50 (about $32) in advance.
Where to Stay in London
The Goring As it enters its second century, The Goring is the only 5-star luxury hotel in London owned and run by the family that built it. Just behind Buckingham Palace, the 71-room hotel is within strolling distance of the Royal Parks. Beeston Place $$$$$
One Aldwych Overlooking the Waterloo Bridge near Covent Garden, One Aldwych exudes high style with its two-story lobby, spacious suites and restaurant Indigo. Savor comfortable beds, floor-to-ceiling windows and rainforest showers in guestrooms. 1 Aldwych $$$$$
The Savoy After being closed for three years for a £220 million (about $330 million) refurbishment, this circa-1889 grande dame sparkles. Many of the 268 guestrooms boast views of the Thames and the London Eye. Strand $$$$$
Restaurants in London
Al Hamra Restaurant In the Mayfair neighborhood of Shepherd Market, narrow streets are packed with bistros, pubs and Lebanese and Turkish restaurants. Al Hamra is one of the best, serving tasty Middle Eastern fare. 31-33 Shepherd Market, Mayfair $$$
The Anchor & Hope You feel like you could run into Charles Dickens at this classic gastropub in Waterloo. Expect reasonably priced British specialties like a steak pie for two. 36 The Cut $$$
Duck & Waffle Located on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower, the eatery’s view of London matches the quality of the food. A perfect meal for that special night out. 110 Bishopsgate $$$$