London and the Downfall of the Global City

I like London. I mean, I don’t love London. But then again, I don’t hate it. And I supposed that the previous statement pretty much sums up my feelings towards London: “meh.”

When I was younger, I dreamed of living in a city like London. In fact, I dreamed of living in London. I wanted to live in a global city, a place so full of international culture that one could simply wander down any street and be rewarded with whatever their heart desired. I imagined being able to crave any sort of food and being able to head out and get it. I wanted to live somewhere that any variety of tongues could be heard on the train, on the streets, and in the shops. I craved a city that embodied not only their own culture, but that of the entire global community.

However, on my recent visit to London I came to the realization that I don’t want to live somewhere like London.  Because as much as I love multiculturalism, as much as I love variety and the global community, I love a place with a strong identity.

Colour is a beautiful thing, and even the mix of a few can create a beautiful mosaic, but I guess that the problem with the global city is that everything becomes grey. I think that a sentiment of placelessness is something of a norm in London.  As I wandered the streets home from a night shooting photography I couldn’t help but look around at the scene and think I could be anywhere.  Subway and MacDonald’s fast food restaurants line the streets along with Turkish kebab joints and Indian curry spots.  Even the pubs, it seems, are more likely to be pouring Foster’s and Budweiser than anything local.  As the thoughts placelessness strike my mind, a red double-decker bus whizzes by a equally painted phone booth as if they are trying to convince me otherwise.

I spent the week in London trying to figure out what this famous city’s defining figure is, but I couldn’t.  Beyond the obvious landmarks of Big Ben, the London Eye, Parliament, Buckingham Palace and the Tower Bridge, lays a city that lacks something.  It’s amazing to me, how a city that really does have everything can actually be missing something.  How can the world’s most famous city possibly be one without an identity?

London may be a center of culture, but whose culture?

At the end of the day, I’m glad for my time in London.  It made me realize that I don’t need to be in that massive center.  I don’t want watered down versions of a 1000 cultures, I’d rather have the authentic taste of just one.

I look up at the night sky as I closely approach my hostel.  Even at night the sky is grey.

“I don’t want London,” I say to myself in complete certainty. “I want something with a little bit more colour and a little less grey.  Maybe somewhere like Lisbon…”

Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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  1. There is something in the air…. I recently posted an article about London, that generated some interesting discussion. But, on the whole I agree with you.

    Ask most people who live in London what they like about it, and “it’s so close to other cities in Europe” will always crop up.

    So then I ask, why not live in one of the better cities that are just across the water?

    I’ve been to London multiple times, and not convinced I’ll ever go back. There are just too many better places around, I think London has had it’s day.

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    • Nate – The truth was that the first time I was there I loved it. But then I kind of got over it. It’s not like I hate London or anything, I enjoy it. I just don’t really have any feeling for it at all… it’s: meh.

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  2. I disagree. It’s looking at other cities with rise tinted glasses I think. So many cities are global these days. If you don’t like multiculturalism that’s fine but to say that a city has no culture because it’s multicultural? Go to many places in the world, including Lisbon, Paris etc and you’ll find global food chains and bars selling mainstream beers just as much as in London. You do realise that the craft beer scene in the UK is booming and there are countless pubs selling all kinds of good local brews. London, an easy target for those who want to be cool by being “different”. If you didn’t connect with the city that’s fine, we are all different, but I find your criticisms very weak.

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    • @Paul – It’s not just the food chains mate. It’s the lack of feeling like I’m anywhere. Maybe it’s the weather, but it was just dull to me. I didn’t feel like I was anywhere in the world. When I was in Paris I felt like I was in Paris, when I was in Lisbon I felt like I was in Lisbon. It’s not that London is an easy target either, I don’t get satisfaction out of being different. Other global cities like New York and Paris I really enjoyed. But London… London just felt colourless to me.

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  3. I have always wanted to go to London, not to live but to visit and stay for some days because the city fascinates me. After reading your article I really want to go there and experience what it is really like. Thanks for sharing with us.

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    • @Rashmi – Don’t get me wrong, I don’t HATE London or anything. I just really don’t feel any emotional attachment to it I guess. The first time I was there I loved it… so I hope you will love it too.

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  4. I have to disagree with your comments Brendan. Firstly, don’t get me wrong – I completely acknowledge that not all people connect with all cities in the same way, and if you and Nate for example, don’t particularly connect with London, that’s cool. I do however disagree with some of the points that you have raised.

    London, being a truly global city, certainly is a mulitcultural mixing pot, but I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that this is at the expense of its own culture. Would you raise the same criticisms about cities like New York, or many American, Canadian, Australian cities for example? I know what you mean about it being a great experience to go travel to a place that is more monocultural, but I think, as a place to live, this would get dull after a while.

    You say that you looked around and saw Starbucks, McDonalds, kebab shope etc and could have been anywhere, but to be fair this is the case in most of the developed world. I remember going to Milan for example, and when you step outside of the main train station you are faced with no less than 3 McDonald’s in view! Even on the beautiful streets of Paris, there are McDonald’s and Starbucks restaurants scattered between the gems of the city.

    I would suggest venturing outside of the centre. The West End and Zone 1 are, to be fair full of tourists and, even as a local, it could get very frustrating however there are so many areas where you will not find tourists. There are hidden gems just around the corner from tourist hell holes. Go to an English pub that’s not on the main drag and converse with locals about politics, football and life over a pint of real ale (of interest, the craft beer scene has really taken off in the UK in recent years, and there are lots of great local ales to sample – in fact, I’d suggest that you’ve got a better chance of trying something uniquely English in a pub in London than uniquely of “country x” in many other European cities). Every city will have the standard beers on tap, plus the one local beer which is more likely than not owned by a big brewer.

    As for Nate’s comment about “it being close to other European cities”. Of course it’s used as an example of one of the many reasons why living in London is great – just because one loves to travel and live in a city that facilitates that, does not mean that they don’t also love living in that city.

    What I think is that perhaps for people from Western, English speaking countries, London does not seem as exciting as other destinations becuase it’s very familiar in many ways. I remember when I first got to London after 3 months of travelling around Europe, I found it to be rather “meh”, but once I started exploring, venturing out, and getting to know locals (and foreigners who call the city home), I discovered a city that never stopped amazing me until the day I left almost 3 years later. Perhaps London is not the best city in the world to satisfy a desire for adventure and “something new”, however to spend a not insignificant amount of time in, I think it is one of the best in the world.

    My advice to you next time you are there, meet up with some fellow travellers who have been living there for a while and get them to show you their London. I think (hope) you will be pleasantly surprised.

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    • Hey Paul, thanks for your comment.

      I do have to say, I was in London with a couple locals and definitely got out of Zone one quite a bit, so I don’t think that was the case either.

      As for the other global cities, not all of them. I do feel the same way about Toronto for the most part though. However, I loved New York although I though I would dislike it. When I’m in New York I feel a power to it, and there is no doubting where I am. In New York, the shops might be selling foods originating in other parts of the world, but it’s New York. New York delis on every corner, New York pizza, food trucks, etc. New York doesn’t feel like a watered down version of the world to me. It feels like New York.

      London, for me, just didn’t appeal to my sense of inspiration.

      Like I have said before. I don’t hate London at all. I just feel really apathetic to it.

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  5. I truly believe that London is a place you need to spend a bit more time in to get it’s true flavour. Like A LOT of Antipodeans, I moved to London after uni and lived there for four years. Me and everyone else I know hated it at first but then we fell into the rhythm of the city and eventually came to love it. Now I’ve left I’m counting down until I go back there for the Olympics later this year…

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    • Simon – I guess we’re opposite. Haha, the longer I spent in London and the more I got to know it the more I felt apathetic to it. I think that maybe if you live there you start to fall in love with the people and make friends too so your experience changes because of them and not the place itself.

      That being said, I would love to be in London for the Olympics, I think that it will be amazing!

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  6. As a girl born and raise in London – I would say that I am one of the fans. I have however left England to live and travel overseas, but each time I visit London I am fascinated by the history and the lack of sun! As you move out to the suburbs, thats where it really goes downhill. London itself – I feel is a fun place for a tourist, although, I am aware of cities with more of an identity

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    • @Solo – I think that for tourists it could be great for a couple days… but then what’s left of it? I was looking at it as a place to live and something just felt bland. But yes, I agree with you, it’s a great place for a couple days for general tourism!

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  7. We have some strong London advocates in this post. I loved London and its international aspects, but I get where your coming from. London doesn’t particularly capture the reality of other English areas. But I still feel its very unique and has it’s own flavor.

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    • @Elise – I’m glad that people have stood up for London. I hate reading articles where the comments are all “I agree, I agree”. It’s good to shake things up a bit 😀

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  8. I think you bring up an interesting dilemma – when I’m in a city in the US I enjoy how we have access to everything (especially cuisine!). When I’m in Mexico, I enjoy the strong sense of place. But then I wonder if maybe I can’t really perceive that sense when I’m home.

    I haven’t been to London yet, but I certainly plan on going.

    And I think its great to identify the places you don’t love- it’s a big planet- more time to go to new places.

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    • J – Yeah, I guess that it’s that sense of place that I was really missing in London. I like knowing where I am haha.

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    • @Ross – I’m not really making too many friends in the UK am I??? Haha.

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  9. I’m with you on this one Brendan. London = meh. We gave it a shot, but nope. Glad we aren’t the only ones.

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