No city does pomp and pageantry and big public events better than London, covering the Mall in Union Jack flags, trotting out royalty in carriages, donning fancy hats and even fancier military uniforms. Think royal weddings and the queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee. Now, imagine 10,500 athletes from 205 countries and 600,000 international visitors added to the mix. Picture 26 simultaneous world championships contested in venues spread across the capital.
That’s what will happen when the sports world arrives next month for the 2012 Summer Olympics. By comparison, four days of Diamond Jubilee festivities will seem modest.
The London Games will show the city at its celebratory best from July 27 through Aug. 12. After all, the event is the culmination of seven years of planning at a cost approaching $20 billion. If everything goes as planned, London will never be viewed the same way again. In the grand tradition of Olympics hosts, it sees an opportunity to reintroduce itself, reinvent its image, and showcase its heritage and its younger, hipper side.
The big beneficiaries? Visitors — during the Games and afterward.
Olympics organizers purposely combined old and new in competition venue design and location. Away from the playing fields, the Mayor of London’s office, museums, and local businesses worked hard organizing events that will highlight British fashion, arts, and contemporary culture for tourists. Today, a proper trip to London covers historic sites along the River Thames and new additions to the cityscape in east London, famed theaters, and shopping on Oxford, Regent, and Bond streets.
“For years, hundreds of years, the number one reason people have stated for coming to London is the culture, the royals, the history, all those things,” said Daniel Ritterband, director of marketing for the mayor’s office. “People who live here realize it’s a cosmopolitan, modern city. That’s what we feel. We want to get everyone else to realize it.”
The Olympic Park is jarringly, determinedly modern. Twisting and towering over east London, the ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture stands between the spiky-crowned Olympic Stadium and the winged Aquatics Centre at the south end of the park. Mayor of London Boris Johnson has predicted the 377-foot-tall Orbit, 72 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty and the tallest sculpture in the United Kingdom, will become an icon of the London skyline. The red steel structure already functions as a futuristic beacon, marking what will be the epicenter of the Games.
From two indoor observation decks atop the Orbit, visitors can admire the award-winning architecture of Olympic venues such as the Velodrome, nicknamed “The Pringle” because of its curved roof. They can see 20 miles on a rare, clear London day. And looking beyond the Olympic Park, the complicated logistics of staging the world’s largest sporting event in a city of nearly 8 million people is apparent.
Since the immense scale of the Games can thrill and overwhelm, it helps to focus on a couple of key areas. Much of the action, sports and otherwise, can be divided between the Olympic Park in the east end and the city’s West End, roughly a section that stretches from Big Ben to Horse Guards Parade to Hyde Park. The Olympic Park will host 13 sports in eight venues. The historic landmarks, parks, and museums near the River Thames and the Mall will be popular spots for taking in the Olympics spirit and touring, especially for visitors without event tickets.
“The main message is that London is still open for business,” said Chris Foy, head of the 2012 Games unit for VisitBritain. “It’s still one of the top tourist cities in the world and that will remain so throughout the Games. There’s fantastic stuff going on around the competition venues, so you can drink in all the atmosphere and the general buzz of being in London during Games time and see some amazing attractions at the same time.”
If one venue perfectly projects the heritage-meets-hip image, it’s Horse Guards Parade. The large parade ground traditionally hosts Changing the Guard and Trooping the Colour military ceremonies. During the Games, it will be home to beach volleyball. Even without a ticket to the matches, visitors can marvel at the transformation of Horse Guards Parade into faux beachfront real estate and enjoy the always festive atmosphere surrounding beach volleyball.
For military history that doesn’t stand on ceremony, the Churchill War Rooms take visitors back to World War II in eerie detail. Just down Horse Guards Road and beneath street level, the museum occupies the maze of Winston Churchill’s once-hidden wartime bunker, including the Cabinet War Rooms where the prime minister and his advisers planned the war effort.
The tour covers an impressively confusing layout with everything from personal living quarters to the Map Room on display. Preserved as it was at the war’s end in 1945, the Map Room still looks every bit a command center with pin-pricked ocean charts tracking ship movements, the Battle of Britain scoreboard, and rationed sugar cubes atop a stack of papers. The free audio tour brings the bunker to life with its reenactments, remembrances from people who lived and worked there, and excerpts from Churchill’s speeches.
It’s a short walk to the postcard landmarks along the Thames — Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey. It’s a longer, though pleasantly pastoral, walk in the opposite direction through St. James Park and Green Park to Hyde Park.
On a typical morning, 350-acre Hyde Park and contiguous Kensington Gardens provide an urban escape for recreational runners and cyclists, as well as horseback riders. During the Games, the largest of London’s Royal Parks will be a popular gathering place for visitors without tickets. Olympics fans can watch the men’s and women’s triathlons and marathon swimming in Hyde Park, as well as live broadcasts of other events on the biggest “Live Site” Olympics viewing screen in the kingdom. All for free. The road cycling and marathon routes will skirt nearby St. James Park, providing more free spectator opportunities.
While athletes swim The Serpentine lake and race around the parks, Kensington Palace and the Victoria and Albert Museum offer refined respites and royal fixes. On the western edge of Kensington Gardens, the recently refurbished and reopened palace will be the future home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Take afternoon tea at the neighboring Orangery, where outdoor seating with garden views can be found.
The Victoria and Albert Museum sits just south of Hyde Park and offers collections dedicated to art and design. Vast and diverse displays of furniture, fashion, and sculpture, to name a few, are best introduced by free guided tours. An exhibit called “British Design 1948-2012” traces British design from the last time the city hosted the Games until today. The Victoria and Albert is one of several London museums showing Olympics-themed exhibits that open before the crowds come or will remain after the masses depart.
The Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace is hosting a large collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s human anatomy studies. The British Museum created an exhibit that highlights the Olympics’ Greek origins and includes 2012 Olympic medals. “The Olympic Journey: The Story of the Games” at the Royal Opera House only lasts the length of the Games, but it will feature unique, personal objects from athletes drawn from the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. Medals since 1896 and torches since 1936 will be highlights.
For visitors who like to mix culture and partying, check out the National Hospitality Houses around the city. Each has different public entertainment and hours. But if past Olympics are any indication, the Irish House at Big Chill House in Kings Cross will welcome crowds early and often. Casa Italia at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre will feature Italian food and wine. And in name and location alone, the Holland Heineken House at Alexandra Palace in North London promises a good time.
If you are interested in venturing beyond the Olympic Park and the West End, Paul Deighton, CEO of the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games and someone who has seen every venue in action, recommends Greenwich Park. The former royal hunting grounds will host equestrian events. And while they are there, fans can learn about British seafaring history at the National Maritime Museum and straddle the meridian line at the Royal Observatory.
From the Games forward, London hopes it calls visitors to its east and west, old and new.