In former times one spoke confidently of national character. Let us first determine what the English national character is--polite, practical, oriented to the preservation of age-old traditions--and then we will see that in London. Well, not anymore, perhaps, since central London is now mainly inhabited by people of non-English stock.
Then there is the London of urbanists. One of them, the Dane Steen Eiler Rasmussen, characterized London (without intending any offence) as "the scattered city." The "Great Wen" spreads out horizontally over a vast territory, unlike the concentrated Continental cities, whose identity is largely bound up with the restricted territory marked out by their former system of walls.
In reality our understanding of cities is probably subjective. Interestingly, the German philosopher Leibniz developed his idea of perspectivism by alluding to prints of cities. Some show a birds'-eye view, others one of the main city gates, still others the markets where citizens gather. All these represent the city, but none exclusively so.
During the sixties I was fortunate to live in London for four years. I can tell you what my London is. Above all, it is a configuration of green squares, such as Mecklenburg Square, where I hung out when I lived in a building there, or the great open space of Hyde Park, where I would read looking out at the Serpentine. London was also the Wren churches in the City (not the same as the city), and of course the great museums, where I spent much time. I was attached to the University of London, in "godless Gower Street," so that was important. Nearby was Dillon's Bookshot, not the sad relic it was now, but a continuing source of education in itself. Finally, there were certain pubs in Earl's Court.
A couple of years ago an impecunious friend, a freelance writer, showed me a list of spots, his "must" in London. At the age of forty he was fulfilling his dream. Good for him. But I recognized hardly any of his "musts." He was planning to see a different city than the one I knew. Paging Dr. Leibniz!
Despite all the changes over time, and the differences of perspectivism, there is a LONDON. As the saying goes,s there'l always be a London. Perhaps it is like that legendary boat of Greek antiquity, the Argo. In the course of many years journeying, its timbers, all of them, were gradually replaced. But when the ship finally came back into port it was immediately recognized. The boat's form, and with it, its spirit remained.
Some things I suppose can only be the fruit of experience. Sample London, if you haven't already, and see what I mean.