It's notoriously expensive, over-crowded, grubby and bewildering to out-of-towners. So why do so many foreign visitors bother with London?
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine
On Horse Guard's Parade scores of tourists are jockeying for position in front of one of the statuesque sentries, and the chance to take the perfect souvenir snap.
London "is more expensive than Japan"
Moment captured for posterity, they're off - past the Union Jack hats of the souvenir stalls, through the pavement throngs and speedily on towards their next guide book-chosen destination.
The chaotic scenes are mirrored at countless spots across the capital, which has become the most visited city in Europe, ahead of Paris.
Its position is one it may well hold on to, with record numbers of tourists arriving in the UK in recent months. More than half pass through the capital, the lynchpin of the industry.
But London is also the second most expensive city in the world, making a long weekend in the capital as costly as a fortnight away in many European destinations. Can it really be worth the hard-earned wages of its guests?
'Good to go'
Wearing big smiles as they pet one of the beasts at Horse Guards Parade, Lori and Brad Fowle from Niagara Falls, Canada, are enjoying day three of a three-week break.
They have been saving up for their trip for a year, but despite squirreling away $5,000 Canadian (£2,000), the couple are having to stick to a tight budget.
On the tourist trail at Horse Guard's Parade
Instead of a romantic double room in a swanky hotel, Lori and Brad are staying at a £10-a-night hostel, sharing a dorm with six other people. Thankfully none snores.
"We're not eating out or anything, we just grab a muffin for breakfast and we're good to go," smiles Lori, 29. "And we haven't really gone out at night except to wander around. We've just been people watching."
London is "one of those places you just have to go," says Brad, 28, who is also looking forward to trips to Stonehenge and Scotland.
The couple knew it would be expensive but are still shocked by the high prices. Unsurprisingly they are in good company, with many of those questioned by BBC News Online baulking at the costs, while viewing the noise, crowd and hustle as part of the fun.
For Mexicans Hiram and Moises the high prices are a shock
At the Tower of London, Andrea Kossman from Cologne, Germany, has just spent £22.50 on tickets for herself and nephew Port, 11.
"Altogether it will cost 800 euros (£530)," says Andrea of their two-night, three-day trip. Their £90-a-night hotel is "grubby" - certainly not as good value for money as a similarly priced room in Germany.
Passing the Houses of Parliament at the start of a whistle-stop tour of "everything", with her two children, sister and nephew, Toko Tsukamato dismisses the idea that the Japanese find the UK a bargain. After all, Tokyo is the only city that scores higher in the cost of living stakes.
Toko says it's actually more expensive than Japan.
It's worse for students Hiram Delgado and Moises Rodriguez from Monterey, Mexico, who have realised their £16-a-night hostel is more expensive than a good hotel back home.
And Feifan Wang can only grin ruefully as he explains that for the price of one meal in London, he could have 20 in his native China.
The conundrum of maintaining London's popularity despite cripplingly high prices is one which tourism officials are well aware of.
It's not enough to suggest tourists simply go elsewhere in the country. More than 10 times as many visitors come to the capital as Edinburgh, the second most popular destination.
As such, London is the heart of the UK's thriving tourist industry, which, as a whole, saw a stunning 22% rise in visitor numbers between March and May.
American visitors like the Carlsons are crucial to the UK
But people are also watching their money, and expenditure per head is not as healthy as it once was.
"There's been a huge recovery since 11 September and foot and mouth, but people aren't necessarily spending the large amounts of money when they come here which they once did," says a spokesman for VisitBritain.
This has contributed to a tourism deficit. UK residents spent a record £27bn when abroad in 2002, more than double the £11.7bn spent by visitors to the UK.
VisitBritain is working to narrow the gap by appealing to emerging markets such as the "new Russians" and stalwarts like the North Americans.
In the US, Prime Minister Tony Blair appears in an advert encouraging people to make a trip to the UK. Many are heeding his advice and are happy they did so.
Sandra and Steve Carlson, from San Jose, California, are enjoying the sites and although "fries are not the same as we would expect", they have no complaints.
Souvenir stalls remain busy through the year
Other experts, including Thea Sinclair, Professor of Economics of Tourism at Nottingham University, say we would do better to concentrate on EU citizens, who outnumbered North American tourists more than three-to-one last year.
That's where the likes of Jane Smith, from Dumfries, come in. Jane, who was queuing at the London Eye - Britain's top tourist attraction - with her two daughters, has forgone her annual pilgrimage to the sun for a holiday on home turf.
"It's definitely been worth it," she says, "and not as expensive as I thought."
As for why so many foreign visitors remain determined to make a trip to London, the answers are as varied as the city itself.
Some are wealthy, some are poor and foolhardy, others save for the trip of a lifetime. But few seem to have anything but good words for the city, its people, sights, crowds and hustle.
Add your comments to this story using the form below:
Overpriced, grubby and bewildering? Rubbish, London is tops. My first visit to London was 41 years ago and I still visit as often as I can, I just avoid the worst tourist hot spots. Can anything beat Tate Modern, for example?
Tom Cleary, Ireland
Funny, this is how I feel about the tourists who visit NYC...
Cindy, NYC, US
I moved from London a couple of years ago and miss it terribly. Huge, crowded, dirty, expensive and exhausting to live in, but nevertheless one of the best places I know in the world.
Raluca, Brit in the States
I love London. I've visited at least six times and always find the citizens to be welcoming. My ancestors come from England, Ireland and Scotland, so it is like "going home". The museums are excellent value. Walking the streets and reading the blue signs on buildings indicating a former famous resident is fun to do and it's free. Don't knock London- it's the best. Worth every pound.
Paul Hollingsworth, US
Good to visit, horrible to spend any length of time in...much like any large city I suppose.
London has an atmosphere about it which is unique, nowhere on Earth has that buzz or liveliness, except perhaps New York. All tourists love going to London and never say they thought it wasn't worth the money.
I returned to England after two weeks in California last Saturday. I tried to imagine the first impressions our American cousins would get. Result - congested, expensive, dirty, inefficient, sloppy and ungracious service. Oh dear.
Sue Watts, England
I am an American and have visited London twice. Although expensive, it is the greatest city in the world. Aside from splurging on a couple of West End plays, my husband and I are content to buy a couple of sandwiches, take them to a park and people watch. We love London and cannot wait to go back.
Don't bother spending money on all the touristy sites - do one tour bus to 'see it all' and get your bearings. Then mooch around Knightsbridge, Hyde Park, Soho, the South Bank, Hoxton, Greenwich, and Brixton - et voila, a complete snap shot of London for the price of £4.20.
Would Shakespeare be remembered if he had spent his whole life in Stratford? Or Samuel Johnson in Lichfield? London is the place where those with talent or ability can excel.
John Standish, UK
"It's notoriously expensive, over-crowded, grubby and bewildering to out-of-towners." I thought you were talking about New York, but I still had a good holiday.
I live near London and appreciate the expense. But many of the attractions, including some of the best museums and art galleries in the world, and spectacles such as the Changing of the Guard, are free. There is plenty to do in London on a tight budget.
Nice to see so many tourists in London, but how many come back a second time? I commute to London five days a week and hate the place. It's noisy, dirty, smelly and the people are, generally, ignorant.
London is not the only place in England to see. It has its sights, but its not a fair reflection of this country. If you come to England, come and see the rest of us.
Scott Anderson, Bristol, UK
London is the greatest city on earth. It is the hub of all the best and worst the world can offer. It has a greater influence than any other city on every corner of the world. Love it or hate it, you simply can not ignore it.
Our Canadian cousins visited here in May and told us of their shock at the prices they were charged in London. The up side for us of course is that on our return visit to them next month we should find that our pound goes a long way.
It's okay to be expensive, so long as you are giving value for money. My impression is that we - the UK in general, and London in particular - are not.
Lucky tourists - they get to leave after a fortnight. The rest of us poor sods will be stuck here until we retire, die or flee.
Anthony Cody, London, UK.
I think we all need to recognise tourists are our guests and as such we should extend our hospitality, be kind and make their visit to the capital as nice as possible. It all helps to build bridges between peoples and races which is what we're after - isn't it?
I am completely baffled by why so many tourists flock to our outrageously overpriced city. I can only think it must be for the beer, which is undoubtedly the best in the world.
Adam, London, UK
Ever been to Norway on holiday? Now that's a place that is expensive. Two beers and a pizza was £30.
Anthony Firmin, England
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