What's so cool about London?

Sharon Stephenson investigates whether London still deserves its 'Cool Britannia' status.

With crap weather, dirty streets and a whopping tax just to drive into the city centre, can London still be called the capital of Cool Britannia?

It takes 30 hours, two sleeping tablets and 12 time zones to get to London. Within hours of arriving, I lose two-thirds of my currency, get stuck on a train with rioting Millwall fans and, despite the fact that it's spring, begin to resemble a human popsicle.

Outside Earls Court tube station, I'm accosted by a drug dealer.

"You want skunk, love? How about coke or pills?"

I tell him I'm already off my head for swapping Wellington's summer for this miserable, drizzly day.

The last time I was here, London was deeply infatuated with itself as the capital of Cool Britannia. Tony Blair had just taken up residence at No 10, artist Damien Hirst was busy suspending sharks in formaldehyde and Brit-pop bands like Blur and Oasis ruled the airwaves. The austere Time magazine even anointed London the coolest city in the world.

But by mid-decade, the bubble seemed to have burst - Blair wore out his welcome, "It" bands imploded, and the market struggled as the rest of the European Union embraced the euro.

Today, with the economy melting faster than Arctic ice, is the London of Boris Johnson and Amy Winehouse still synonymous with everything hip? Or is the only cool thing about it the temperature?

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I arrange to meet a friend, a born-and- bred Londoner, in one of the city's chicest post codes, Notting Hill. We go to a cafe where they charge me A$10 for a hot chocolate. I remark that any drink at home costing this much would have vodka in it.

"Ah, but you wouldn't be drinking it in a city that never stops buzzing with the movers and shakers of the world's fashion, art, music and creative industries. Anyone who's anyone is based here."

He's got a point. The barista tells us we've just missed fashion designer and Beatle daughter Stella McCartney, who lives around the corner. If we hang around long enough, we might see supermodel Kate Moss, that litmus paper of cool, popping in for a latte.

It's an area that, despite the recession, drips money and people who own large chunks of Devon.

REVAMPED SOUTH BANK

We stroll along the revamped South Bank, once a desolate warren of old warehouses, lock-ups and junkies huddling under the arches of Waterloo Station.

In the past few years, a magic wand has been waved over this stretch of the Thames and its hinterland. The area is now a big, fat show-off, where suits, joggers and the city's beautiful people, equally, enjoy the breathtaking views: on our short stroll, we see three separate fashion shoots in progress.

Visiting London and avoiding the London Eye is like going to Italy and not eating pasta - do-able but just plain silly. Like the now thankfully wobble-free Millennium Bridge, the world's largest ferris wheel symbolises the new-look London that sprang up in the frenzy of the millennium.

There are certainly cheaper ways to see the city, but about 10,000 punters line up each day to soak up the visual bling - the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and St Paul's Cathedral - that are laid out beneath you like a quilt.

We ignore the Oxo Tower and its designer shops filled with things I really, really want and instead head for the Tate Modern.

The younger sibling of Tate Britain is probably as famous for the sheer spectacle of its building - a former power station - as it is for its art collections. About 5.2 million visitors each year don't have to go anywhere near their wallets to see works like Picasso's The Kiss and Matisse's The Snail, along with some of the world's finest surrealist collections from artists such as Dali, Magritte and Miro.

An article I read over breakfast one morning calls London the official cultural capital of the world, with seven of the top 40 most-visited art galleries and museums in the world.

Ignore the fact that Paris' Louvre and the Pompidou Centre actually took out the top two spots and instead focus on the Tate Modern, which tops the English list. If you're like me and are easily impressed by statistics, then having seven of the world's most- visited galleries must surely count for something in the cool stakes?

EAST END

We spend a couple of days soaking up the East End, an area of London I'd previously not lingered in. And with good reason: when I lived here, the region was better known for its poverty, dodgy pubs and even dodgier inhabitants.

But as the cool pendulum has swung east, so people have been drawn in by the shiny modernity of the Docklands, the avant-garde boutiques of Spitalfields and Hoxton, and Whitechapel galleries such as The White Cube, where singer Lily Allen's ex-boyfriend Jay Jopling decrees what's cool in the art world.

The locals might dress as though they left the house in a hurry, but my fashion-forward friend remarks that the passer-by whom I label a "bag lady" is, in fact, dressed in a Balenciaga dress that probably cost more than my monthly mortgage payment.

We run the gauntlet of the tikka touts who ply Brick Lane, the promised land for those who like to stretch their tastebuds. Along with our vegetable masala, we get a running commentary on how the 2012 Summer Olympics is turning the once grey, immigrant-heavy East London into a giant construction zone as world-class sports venues, complexes and shops are built.

"It will change the character of the place, but I suppose you have to move with the times," says the London-born Pakistani owner.

A schlep out to the wasteland that is North Greenwich proves worth it when we stumble upon the British Music Experience, one of the capital's newest attractions that showcases what the Poms have always excelled at - popular music.

They've barely taken the bubblewrap off when we visit two days after the official opening. But this British music hall of fame, housed in the ridiculously large O2 (or Millennium Dome, as it was previously known), takes visitors on a journey through the good, and not so good, British music of the last 60 years, from George Formby to Amy Winehouse.

Tapping into the Noughties obsession with interactivity, visitors get to push all sorts of buttons: I indulge my inner rock chick when I get virtual guitar lessons from Scottish musician KT Tunstall and then embarrass myself by busting a move on the dancefloor.

There's nothing remotely cool about my efforts, but this exhibit alone is worth the price of the airfare.

Ask most locals and they'll tell you that Cool Britannia was little more than an embarrassing construct of Blair's spin doctors they're glad has gone the way of their previous PM.

But cast aside the marketing slogans - and London's meteorological and expense woes - and you wind up with a city that's instrumental in creating more trends than probably any other in the world.

Walk the streets and you feel the whole world is represented here, while London's glorious, fractious energy gets into your veins more effectively than any chemical the Earls Court dealer could have supplied.

And what could be cooler than that?

Sharon Stephenson travelled to London with the assistance of Air New Zealand and Visit Britain.

The Dominion Post/stuff.co.nz

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