For most of its 2,000-year history, the City was London. Standing roughly within the outline of the walls erected by the Romans, the City still manages its own affairs, and maintains its own police force and archaic traditions. Throngs of suited business people, on a mission to make money, pack the district during the week, while at the weekend the imposing streets are quiet and many of the shops are closed. The City has been the site for many of London’s most daring modern buildings, but the winding passages, evocative street names and churches tucked in between the towers are reminders of the area’s long history and a great contrast to the buzzy cut-and-thrust of one of the world’s most important financial centres.
The City’s rich past isn’t readily accessible through its buildings. It has been devastated twice: in 1666 the Great Fire devoured four-fifths of the City, and in the Blitz of 1940–41 it was pounded by bombs night after night, leaving one-third in smoking ruins. St Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren’s greatest work, stands at the western boundary of the City, and was miraculously unharmed by wartime bombs. As a result of the City’s sky-high real estate values, the area around it – particularly the ancient market site known as Paternoster Square – has been intensively developed. There are several Wren churches between St Paul’s and the river; and north of the Cathedral is the great block of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, founded in 1122.
Smithfield meat market is a striking confection of iron and plaster, the last of the great markets still on its original site, and best visited early in the morning. North of here is Clerkenwell, an area massively regenerated from the 1980s on, as its disused warehouses were turned into modern flats and lofts. Today, Clerkenwell is vibrant and trendy, the district ripe with gastropubs, smart restaurants and web businesses.
To the northeast of Smithfield is the Georgian Charterhouse Square, with gas lamps and cobbles; and, to the left, St John’s priory, founded by the crusading Knights of St John. Just southeast of here is the modern Barbican Centre, the City’s only residential complex, which also contains a renowned concert hall, theatre and galleries. Also by the ruins of London Wall is the Museum of London. It traces the city from its earliest beginnings, and holds more than a million objects, making it the world’s largest urban history museum. Craft guilds were enormously important in medieval London, and the 15th-century Guildhall is a good place to glimpse their past. A flavour of the the City’s trading past remains in the main shopping thoroughfare, Cheapside, behind St Paul’s. On this old street stands the church of St Mary-le-Bow, home to the famous Bow bells, which define a true Londoner, or cockney: you have to be born within earshot.
The triangular intersection known as Bank is dominated by the Bank of England. The Stock Exchange, just along Threadneedle Street, has changed enormously since 1986, when the ‘Big Bang’ led to radical changes in trading practices. The real cut and thrust of trading takes place at the London Metal Exchange in Fenchurch Street and on the dealing floor in the Royal Exchange at Cornhill. One of the first and most dramatic of the new buildings to go up in the City in the late 1980s was the Lloyd’s of London building in Lime Street, designed by Lord Richard Rogers. Beside this highly modern building is the cream and maroon Victorian building, Leadenhall, once a wholesale poultry market, now a handsome commercial centre, popular with city workers at lunchtime. Broadgate was overhauled at the same time as the adjacent Liverpool Street station. It’s one of the most ambitious developments in the City, with 13 office-block buildings around three squares.
The distinctive 30 St Mary Axe building is a city icon, a 40-storey tapering glass tower designed by Lord Foster, known as ‘The Gherkin’. The best view of the whole area is from the top of the Monument, in Monument Yard, designed by Sir Christopher Wren to commemorate the Fire of London. Further east, there are several historical churches and reminders of the City’s past, such as Billingsgate Market, lining the lanes around the riverfront. East of the Monument, encircled by a now-dry moat, is the fairy-tale Tower of London, the City’s oldest structure, begun by William the Conqueror in 1078.