Try to get a window seat when you fly into London. Heathrow is the world's busiest international airport and with luck your plane will spend a few minutes circling over this mighty metropolis. Gazing down at the stately buildings, elegant parks and rows of Victorian terrace housing, it's impossible not to marvel at this urban powerhouse - once described by the statesman Benjamin Disraeli as "a roost for every bird". Daunting but never disappointing, London feels surprisingly welcoming for a hectic city of 7.5 million people - principally because it remains a patchwork of neighbourhoods, from the well-heeled avenues of Mayfair, where the plane trees in Berkeley Square date back to 1789, to the bohemian streets of Notting Hill, known for its trendy boutiques. Already gearing up to host the 2012 Olympics, the UK capital is home to world-class cultural and historic attractions (not to mention some brilliant shopping).
Following the River Thames is the key to enjoying London. Get your bearings on the South Bank, a waterfront promenade curving between Westminster and London Bridges. Here you can look across at familiar icons such as the Houses of Parliament and St Paul's Cathedral, and get an aerial perspective from the London Eye, 135m-tall Ferris wheel. Other draws include the Tate Modern, a former power station-turned-art museum and a reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Among London's many heavyweight museums, the V&A in South Kensington stands out. Devoted to art and design, it houses formidable collections that include a splendid new jewellery exhibition. There's also an excellent cafeteria with magnificently decorated ceilings, and a clued-up gift shop. More good shopping can be found in the West End at the revamped department stores Liberty and Fenwick, the food emporium Fortnum & Mason, and in the quirky Burlington Arcade, which opened in 1819. As summer approaches, the London area warms up to host several spectacular events, including the Chelsea Flower Show (May 21 to 23), Royal Ascot horse racing (June 16 to 20) and Wimbledon (June 22 to July 5). This is also the time to go strolling in the Royal Parks and to visit Kew Gardens in the year it celebrates its 250th anniversary.
Breakfast When done well, the British breakfast is a sublime way to start your day - and there's no better place to appreciate its pleasures than Claridge's (www.claridges.co.uk; 00 44 207 409 6307), the capital's most distinguished five-star hotel. Served amid the art-deco splendour of The Foyer, the menu features award-winning ingredients from Daylesford Organics, produced on Lady Bamford's Staffordshire estate. A set English breakfast costs US$45 (Dh165). Lunch Tucked under the arches beside London Bridge railway station, Borough Market (www.boroughmarket.org.uk) is a vibrant whirl of stalls piled high with foodie treats. Open Thursday to Saturday, you can pick up a hot snack if you fancy coriander pancakes, an ostrich burger or buttery Breton pastries. Buried in the middle of the marker is Fish! (www.fishdiner.co.uk; 00 44 207 407 3803), a lively open-air restaurant serving just that, including the national favourite, fish and chips with mushy peas ($26; Dh95). Dinner With its colourful, low-slung furniture and artworks by Damien Hirst, St Alban (www.stalban.net; 00 44 207 499 8558) exemplifies the style and confidence of London's buzzing restaurant scene. Close to Piccadilly Circus with generously-spaced tables and an assured atmosphere, it's an ideal spot to meet friends for a leisurely catch-up. The menu is "modern eclectic," with Mediterranean leanings - including chicken cooked in a Basquaise style ($27; Dh99) and a Seville orange cake ($11; Dh40).
Budget Applying the no-frills philosophy of low-cost airlines to overnight stays, the easyHotel chain offers clean and basic accommodation for as little as $36 (Dh132) for a double room. Choose from four central London locations, including one close to Victoria Station. The earlier you book the better the price, but remember to pack your sunglasses - there's an awful lot of orange. EasyHotel, multiple locations (www.easyhotel.co.uk; no telephone). Mid-range Quiet and traditional, the four-star Academy Hotel occupies five townhouses set amid the Georgian calm of Bloomsbury. With 49 rooms and two courtyard gardens, it's a good choice for a cultured break. A double room costs from $219 (Dh804) with breakfast. The Academy Hotel, 17-21 Gower Street, London (www.theetoncollection.com; 00 44 20 7631 4115). Luxury With flamboyant interiors, a swimming pool and an unbeatable West End location, the 50-room Haymarket Hotel is one of the hottest places in town. It's spacious rooms and a winning design pair nicely with a trip to one of the top theatres close by. A double room costs from $419 (Dh1539) per night. Haymarket Hotel (www.haymarkethotel.co.uk; 00 44 207 470 4000).
Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Heathrow cost from $510 (Dh1,875), including taxes.
London: the Autobiography by Jon E Lewis ($13; Dh48) tells the story of Britain's capital in the words of those who have passed through it over the past 2,000 years.