London in 2013 has more arts, culture and entertainment hubs than any other capital city, writes Felix Lowe
It's no surprise that London is often called the cultural capital of the world. Given the peerless array of historic and iconic entertainment centres across the city it's a hard task singling out the very best.
Imagine London as a chess board whose pieces are those major venues that give London its cultural trailblazing reputation. There are all manner of pawns dotted around the city, excellent venues in their own right, but often serving just one purpose and moving in one direction. What we're interested in outlining here are the kings, queens, bishops, rooks and knights of London's entertainment scene - establishments that move in a variety of ways and deliver both consistently and commercially.
Take the Royal Albert Hall, for instance. Well worthy of its regal status, the eye-catching Grade I-listed giant oval amphitheatre presides over Kensington Gardens and is one of London's most versatile venues. Classical music, rock concerts, jazz, opera, dance, theatre, circus acts, banquets, balls, awards ceremonies and even sporting events such as Masters Tennis all take place in the RAH, perhaps best-known for the world famous BBC Proms series that features more than 100 classical concerts over two months every summer.
Much to the delight of the traditionalists, the RAH can hardly be described as cutting-edge. For pushing the boundaries, while maintaining a constant high level of both classic and conventional events, Londoners have two cultural heavyweights in the Southbank and Barbican centres.
The Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall overlooking the Thames; Barbican Hall, home to the London Symphony Orchestra
Perched beside the Thames near Waterloo Station, the Southbank Centre may not display the same architectural elegance at the Royal Albert Hall (the '60s 'brutalist' concrete structure is not to everyone's taste) but it sure makes up for it with a diverse programme of events that covers virtually every art form.
The Royal Festival Hall is the Centre's main stage, offering classical and orchestral music, world music events and even electronic outings; Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room host regular recitals, dance performances and choral concerts; the Hayward Gallery consistently exhibits important and influential artists and collections, while the British Film Institute - which sponsors the annual London International Film Festival - is a mecca for movie buffs of all genres and ages.
Often seen as the Southbank's principal rival, the Barbican Centre has been described by the Queen as "one of the wonders of the modern world". Granted, the multi-faceted performance and arts venue may not be London's prettiest building, but its archaic futurist style is quite intriguing. Situated in an area badly bombed during World War II and open 363 days a year, it offers the most diverse programme of any London venue.
Barbican Hall is home to the London Symphony Orchestra, while the Barbican Theatre, previously home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, welcomes top international productions. There's a second theatre called The Pit, three cinema screens, the Barbican Art Gallery, the new-commission Curve Gallery, and a host of smaller exhibition spaces within its labyrinthine corridors.
London's biggest purpose-built concert hall since the Barbican makes up part of the new award-winning Kings Place complex at King's Cross. While it still has a lot of ground to catch up on its older, more illustrious competitors, Kings Place is a growing hub for music, art, dialogue and food, and is fast gaining a reputation as one of the city's best new performance venues. Two orchestras - the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - are based here in the stunning wood-lined 420-seat auditorium. There are also two art galleries and some appealing public spaces, which become heavily animated during the annual Kings Place Festival. The venue also boasts invaluable media contacts: it shares a building with the new offices of the arts-heavy Guardian and Observer newspapers.
The award-winning Kings Place complex; interior of the palatial Royal Opera House at Covent Garden; Sadler's Wells in Clerkenwell
Lambasting the ill-fated Millennium Dome was one of the things papers like the Guardian did best - and who would have thought that a project so reviled as this New Labour own-goal would go on to become one of London's most versatile venues? Attracting the biggest bands and singers on the globe, the O2 Arena in Greenwich is now officially the world's busiest music arena. And it's not just music concerts from the likes of Pink, One Direction and Plan B taking centre-stage: the cavernous venue, which can sit up to 20,000 per gig, this year hosts some of the funniest comedians in the business, including Eddie Izzard and Micky Flanagan. The O2 also hosts numerous sporting events - from indoor International Polo to the annual ATP World Tour Finals - and it was one of the main London 2012 venues outside the Olympic Park.
Before the rise of the O2, London's biggest arena was at the opposite end of town. Built in 1934 and originally housing a swimming pool that was used during the 1948 Olympics, Wembley Arena is a large and versatile venue that still hosts big-name pop and rock concerts, some of the UK's best-known comedians, TV shows such as 'X Factor', 'Dancing on Ice' and 'Strictly Come Dancing', and an array of sporting events, from boxing to basketball. During London 2012, Wembley Arena hosted the Olympic badminton and rhythmic gymnastics competitions.
Next door, the recently refurbished Wembley Stadium welcomes its second Champions League Final in three years this May. The 90,000-capacity venue not only hosts all of England's home games, the FA Cup Semi-Finals and Final, and Playoff games, it also hosts the rugby league Challenge Cup Final, two annual NFL International Series games and a cluster of concerts from top music acts. Playing catch-up in this respect is Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, London's biggest club stadium, which now welcomes major bands such as Muse and Green Day.
The giant Grade I-listed oval amphitheatre of the Royal Albet Hall; the O2 Arena rose from the ashes of the maligned Millennium Dome
When it comes to classical music, opera, ballet and dance, London is teeming with specialist multi-purpose venues. The traditionalists have the ornate Grade II-listed London Coliseum in the West End (main picture), home of the English National Opera, as well as the palatial Royal Opera House, which rises above Covent Garden, and through several reconstructions (the latest in the '90s) has welcomed major stars of the classical music world since 1858.
A short bus ride away from the West End, Sadler's Wells in Clerkenwell has a balanced mix of both contemporary and classic performances. It's the home of Matthew Bourne's ground-breaking ballet company, New Adventures, and is also universally accepted as London's go-to venue for dance.
Finally, a round-up of London's best multi-purpose venues wouldn't be complete without a nod to one of the capital's most accessible (and central) open playgrounds: Hyde Park. More than just a vast green space free for all to roam, Hyde Park is one of London's primary outdoor music venues, hosting each summer the Wireless Festival, Hard Rock Calling, the popular Proms in the Park event and, returning for a second time this year, a BBC Radio 2 Live event.
Blur played here as part of their reunion in 2009 and also headlined an Olympic closing concert last August, adding to a list of the Hyde Park's illustrious performers through the years that includes Pink Floyd, Queen, Luciano Pavarotti and Elvis Costello. Every winter, the area of the park near the Serpentine Lake holds the festive Winter Wonderland, while Hyde Park and the boating lake will also host the 2013 ITU World Triathlon Finals on the top of a successful showing in the Olympics.
Hyde Park hosts numerous open-air rock concerts throughout the summer; Wembley Stadium is the biggest sporting venue in the UK