Napoleon once mocked the British as a nation of shopkeepers. If he turned up in London today he might decide they're a nation of chefs too.

Certainly the city is a shopper's dream. Take a walk along the broad footpaths of Oxford St and Regent St in the West End and you can't help noticing how well dressed everyone seems to be. Maybe the recession's had an upside for bargain hunters. Sales are on everywhere this northern summer, and even the everyday prices compare well with Auckland's best.

But there's more than shopping in the Big Smoke. There's the history, the food, the arts, the architecture, the food, the people, the nightlife ... and the food.

The French may disagree, but London must be a world beater for the variety of cuisine in this most cosmopolitan of cities.

Try mezze at the exotically furnished Momo, a lively North African restaurant just off Regent St. Or there's Bumpkin in Notting Hill, a stylish gastropub that serves traditional English nosh at reasonable prices but several notches up the quality scale from the average boozer.

It would be easy to base a short holiday around restaurants alone, though I chose to see a few other attractions and decided Shanks' pony was a good way to keep control of the expanding waistline.

Walking's also a great way to get to know a city like London and pick up a few small facts that might serve well in pub quizzes.

Small fact one: The Victorian Langham Hotel was the first to install hydraulic lifts.

On this trip I was a guest of the five-star Langham, there for celebrations to mark the completion of a spectacular £80 million ($203 million) refurbishment.

London Mayor Boris Johnson was there too. True to his campaign to tame the city's traffic, he turned up on his bike for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, milk-blond hair all over the place. He then charmed guests by getting straight to the point: "I declare the Langham Hotel well and truly refurbished." Snip. "How's that then?" Spot on.

The Langham opened in 1865, claiming to be Europe's first grand hotel. It boasted 600 rooms and was the first hotel in London with air-conditioning. It was the first to introduce electricity too, in 1879. The hotel is mentioned in several Sherlock Holmes stories and guests have included Oscar Wilde, the Duke of Windsor and Mrs Simpson, and Dylan Thomas.

Today it has 380 guestrooms and suites, including the rather smart Infinity Suite - a luxurious 236sq m apartment that features "an ultra-deep, constantly overflowing infinity bath in the master bedroom's en suite bathroom".

Actress Sienna Miller was living it up in the Infinity Suite at the time of our visit, but we were more than happy with a standard guestroom and its Langham Blissful Bed. As an Australian colleague remarked: "It's like sinking into a giant souffle." Just the thing to beat jetlag.

As you'd expect, the staff are friendly and eager to please without being obtrusive. The concierge's desk is a mine of information and the doormen are ever-cheerful.

But the Langham's best treats are edible. Like the traditional afternoon tea of pastries, scones and sandwiches in the grand Palm Court.

Dining in the hotel's elegant Landau restaurant is also an experience to remember. How's this for a posh nosh?

A dainty amuse bouche with a glass of Laurent-Perrier to wake the tastebuds.

Pressed Landes foie gras and smoked duck terrine with parmesan marshmallows, pear chutney and brioche accompanied by a 1996 Chateau Cerons Bordeaux.

Guernsey sea bass, Nicoise olives, tiger prawn cannelloni with basil and tomato broth, accompanied by a 2007 Les Fumees Blanches.

Grilled fillet of Castle Mey Angus beef "Rossini" and a 2003 Chateau la Croix des Moines, Lalande de Pomerol.

Strawberries and lemon pavlova matched to a 2007 Telmo Rodriguez Moscatel.

Time to crawl off to the Blissful Bed.

Small fact two: London is one-third green space.

Strolling along Oxford St is a pleasure now traffic is restricted to buses and taxis. It makes for a more relaxing time as you browse among the big department stores - Selfridges, John Lewis, Debenhams, House of Fraser to name a few. Designer stores can be found in the side streets - names like Kurt Geiger and Ted Baker.

There's more in Regent St: Hugo Boss, Brooks Brothers. Even the venerable Liberty store surprises with labels such as Passarella Death Squad and Acne. For the kids, Hamley's is probably the world's best-known toy store. And the Carnaby St boutiques are just around the corner. All that and I haven't mentioned Knightsbridge.

But there's always a nearby sanctuary from the ringing tills, small green oases such as the Georgian Hanover Square, or the vast Regent's and Hyde Parks, both an easy walk from Oxford St.

Small fact three: the Tate Modern is Britain's second biggest tourist attraction, after the British Museum.

Nearly five million people visit the Tate Modern every year, an amazing figure for a gallery dedicated to art from 1900 - works by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Francis Bacon and Jackson Pollock, much of which might be considered an acquired taste.

One reason for its popularity could be the building itself, a converted power station with its giant turbine hall that apparently could house 1200 double-decker buses stacked seven high. Another could be its position on the South Bank of the Thames, or Bankside, easily reached across the elegant Millennium footbridge near St Paul's Cathedral or by ferry from its sister gallery, Tate Britain.

Another reason might be that it's free - as are the Science Museum and Natural History Museum in South Kensington - although a small donation is expected and admission fees are charged for one-off exhibitions. Or it could be that it shows off one of the world's greatest art collections.

Bankside is a magnet for tourists also keen to visit the historic Borough food market, see a play at the replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre or a show at the Royal Festival Hall. Which brings us back to food: the Skylon Restaurant inside the Festival Hall complex overlooks the Thames from its floor-to-ceiling windows. It's a great refuelling stop for lunch with its modern European menu or could finish off an evening of classical music in style.

Then it's past the strangely unsettling street performers to the London Eye, billed as the world's tallest observation wheel at 135m. All of London is spread out below as you circle gently for half an hour in a perspex bubble: north toward the British Museum, south to the Houses of Parliament and beyond, east to St Paul's Cathedral and Canary Wharf and west past Buckingham Palace.

Hop on, hop off bus tours, or even the much-maligned Tube, are great ways to get round all the main attractions, but the Eye gives a panoramic overview of how grand historic masterpieces such as St Paul's and Tower Bridge can sit happily among more controversial modern structures such as the Swiss Re headquarters, nicknamed the Gherkin, and Boris Johnson's City Hall.

Small fact four: 1.75 million tonnes of building material will be carried to the site of the 2012 Olympic Games by boat.

Another relaxing way to take in the extraordinary organic growth of London, and where ancient meets modern, is to get on the river. Tour boats run from Westminster down to the Thames Barrier, passing kilometres of waterside apartment developments of all shapes, sizes and architectural merit, Greenwich - with its Observatory, Wren's Royal Naval College and park - and the massive Canary Wharf business zone.

For all the talk of recession, new structures seem to be sprouting everywhere and cranes dot the skyline in all directions. Prince Charles will keep railing against the monstrous carbuncles.

But London's still swinging. And that's another small fact.

George Butler travelled to London courtesy of Langham Hotels.