Heading to the British capital to soak up some Olympic spirit? You can’t go wrong with our guide to all the city’s hottest happenings. By Alan Rutter
It wasn’t long after London won the bid to host the Olympic Games that the grumbling started. The British are nothing if not pessimistic and everything from the infrastructure of the capital to the cost of the opening ceremony has been critically assessed at some point over the past four years.
There are undoubtedly going to be stresses involved in putting on the biggest sporting event in the world. An already-packed city will be flooded with visitors from all over the globe – an estimated 450,000 staying visitors, plus 5.5million day visitors over the course of the games. Londoners are expecting traffic to grind to a standstill, public transport to be even more overloaded than usual and hordes of visitors to clog up the centre of town while gawping at the landmarks.
But the fact is, London as a city has withstood far worse in its history and Londoners – far more welcoming than they might appear – have gradually come round to the idea. They know that this will be a chance to celebrate the capital’s position as a global hub and show off everything that’s great about the city. And, running alongside the sporting events themselves, we’re getting to enjoy the mammoth outpouring of art and performance that is the Cultural Olympiad. The specially programmed series of events (which has been going on all year) is designed to complement both the games and the vivacious arts and culture scenes that already thrive in the capital.
For visitors, the games offers an opportunity to explore London – but, since millions of others will be doing the same thing, it pays to have the inside track on avoiding the crowds and picking out the experiences that are really worth having, rather than the tourist-traps. Here’s Time Out’s expert guide to making the most of a trip to London around the time the Olympics are on…
To get into the Olympic spirit, the exhibition ‘The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games Medals’ being held at the British Museum (44 Great Russell St, WC1B 3DG. +44 20 7323 8000. britishmuseum.org) is well worth a look. Tracing the process of medal production, from the mines of Mongolia through to the Royal Mint in Wales, the exhibition also features objects from previous Olympic Games.
Over at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Cromwell Rd, SW7 2RL. +44 20 7907 7073. vam.ac.uk) is another exhibition that’s part of the Cultural Olympiad, if less obviously linked to track and field. Thomas Heatherwick is one Britain’s most innovative designers, and the ‘Heatherwick Studio’ exhibition showcases his work over two decades in architecture, sculpture, furniture and product design.
If the weather’s too nice to be indoors (sunny days do occasionally happen in London), then have a hunt for one of the English Flower Gardens (various venues (Chiswick House, House of Commons, Southbank Centre)), an outdoor installation in various London locations by ceramic artist Paul Cummins. Cummins has created a ‘garden’ of individually hand-thrown ceramic blooms mounted on metal rods, each design chosen because of a historical relationship with its setting – Chiswick Gardens, the House of Commons and the Southbank Centre.
Away from the major institutions, London has many smaller museums that deserve attention – and are less likely to be heaving with people during the Olympic fortnight. The Geffrye Museum (Kingsland Rd, E2 8EA. +44 20 7739 9893. geffrye-museum.org.uk) is handily located for a stop-off between town and the Olympic Park. Chronicling the changing styles of English homes from 1600 to the present day, the Geffrye displays furniture and objets d’art in a series of period rooms – its beautiful herb garden is also well worth a stroll in.
But for a truly esoteric experience, head south of the Thames to the gloriously eccentric Horniman Museum (100 London Rd, SE23 3PQ. +44 20 8699 1872. horniman.ac.uk). The ornate building is set amid 16 acres of landscaped gardens, with great views of the capital; the exhibits, meanwhile, are mainly anthropological, with a brilliantly macabre natural history gallery; check out the overstuffed walrus – the Victorian taxidermist had never seen one before, and it shows. For families, there’s a nature trail, weekend workshops and the chance to get hands on with exhibits. It’s easy to get to the Horniman using the new east London section of the Overground rail line (coloured orange on the tube map), parts of which offer great views of the capital at rooftop level – worth a trip in its own right.
If you’re looking for something central, Sir John Soane’s Museum (13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP. +44 20 7405 2107. soane.org) is near Holborn station, on Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane was a celebrated architect of the Georgian era (he designed the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery), and this perennial Time Out favourite is his former townhouse, a warren of rooms filled with fascinating artefacts – from paintings to classical sculpture, and from architectural drawings to a sarcophagus in the basement. (Groups should book ahead.)
Between mid-July and the end of August, there are also a number of festivals going on, timed to coincide with the games. In east London, the Spitalfields International Food Festival (various venues. +44 20 7375 0441. alternativearts.co.uk. Jul 21-Sep 9.) celebrates the diversity of the local restaurants, bars, cafés and street food, while over in Regent’s Park, the Lollibop Festival (Regent’s Park, Chester Rd, NW1 4NR. +44 844 248 5113. lollibopfestival.co.uk. Aug 17-18) is ideal for kids aged 0-10 – with theatre, BMX riding, cookery and arts workshops, and discos.
Food & Drink
Happily, the patch of east London between the centre of town and the Olympic Park is a culinary playground. There are plenty of Time Out-approved places to choose from, whether you’re looking for a cheap fill-up, or an indulgent dinner out.
Dukes Brew Que (33 Downham Rd, N1 5AA. +44 20 3006 0795. dukesjoint.com) is a recently opened American barbecue joint in the middle of De Beauvoir Town, near Dalston, the East End’s trendiest – if slightly bedraggled-looking – neighbourhood. Expect reasonably priced pulled pork, ribs, sirloin steak and other meaty delights prepared on an imported Cookshack Fast Eddy smoker, for down-home US authenticity. Shoreditch, meanwhile, is home to several great Vietnamese restaurants. It may look rough and ready, but Mien Tay (122 Kingsland Rd, E2 8DP. +44 20 7729 3074. mientay.co.uk) is our choice for excellent fare on a budget – whether a simple, spicy salad or a whole seabass with chili and lemongrass.
Similarly authentic is Tayyabs (83 Fieldgate St, E1 1JU. +44 20 7247 9543. tayyabs.co.uk), down in the old East End of Whitechapel. While tourists tend to flock to Brick Lane for Indian food, Londoners in the know head down to this busy, two-floor Punjab grill for incredibly reasonably priced marinated lamb chops and juicy shish kebabs. Try to go midweek, and book if possible – the food brings the queues.
For a high-end experience, Viajante (Patriot Sq, E2 9NF. +44 20 7871 0461. viajante.co.uk) in Bethnal Green is worth hitting up. The menu from chef Nuno Mendes features ‘creative contemporary’ dishes from his native Portugal but with Japanese, Thai and South American flavours too.
A recent opening a few stops on the Central Line north-east of the Olympic Park is Provender (17 High St, E11 2AA. +44 20 8530 3050. provenderlondon.co.uk), near Snaresbrook tube station. A moderately priced French bistro, it serves up regional dishes alongside the odd classic like steak haché (burger) and crème brûlée. There’s also a front terrace if it’s sunny.
Music & Clubbing
Londoners are rightly proud of the city’s music scene, and it’s a safe bet they will be out in droves this summer taking a break from the round-the-clock sport coverage. Here’s our pick of the events taking place from July 20 to August 19…
For those whose tastes bridge classical and jazz, Wynton Marsalis’ Swing Symphony at the Barbican (Barbican Centre, Silk St, EC2Y 8DS. +44 20 7638 8891. barbican.org.uk. Jul 25-26) features the great American trumpeter and keeper of the ‘swinging jazz’ flame performing with assistance from English megastar conductor Sir Simon Rattle. A performance of Rachmaninoff’s ‘Symphonic Dances’ is also on the bill.
Another legend from the US is at the Royal Albert Hall this summer. Jazz guitarist George ‘The Greatest Love of All’ Benson (Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, SW7 2AP. +44 20 7589 8212. royalalberthall.com. Jul 28) was axeman for Miles Davis, among others, and will be performing smooth classic hits Never Give Up on a Good Thing and Give Me the Night among others.
Raspy-voiced rockers should be aware that Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder is at the Hammersmith Apollo (45 Queen Caroline St, W6 9QH. +44 844 844 4748. hammersmithapollo.net) on July 30. The band will be returning to the UK to play the Isle of Wight festival later in the year but in the meantime this is the chance to catch one of Vedder’s first solo European shows.
For a real slice of London’s musical history, though, punk legends PiL are playing The Forum (9-17 Highgate Rd, NW5 1JY. +44 844 847 2405. kentishtownforum.com. Aug 11) near Kentish Town tube station on August 11. Fronted by Sex Pistols icon John Lydon, backed up by ex-The Damned guitarist Lu Edmonds, Bruce Smith, a former drummer for The Slits, and bassist Scott Firth (who’s played for Elvis Costello and The Spice Girls), expect these veterans to put on an snarling show, out of step with the Olympic spirit.
Managing to combine quirky ambience with superclub clout, Egg’s (200 York Way, N7 9AX. +44 20 7871 7111. egglondon.net) three floors are big enough to lose yourself in, but still feel strangely intimate. House music is the order of the day, with classic nights such as Alwayz Frydays (Fridays) and Breakfast at Egg (Sundays) regularly packing in scores of classy clubbers. Occupying the extreme other end of the hip-to-cheese spectrum is Club de Fromage (O2 Academy Islington, (in the N1 Centre), 16 Parkfield St, N1 OPS. + 44 870 771 2000. clubdefromage.com. 10.30pm-3.30am Sat), London’s biggest pop and fancy dress night, every Saturday at the Islington Academy. Bon Jovi, Michael Jackson and the Spice Girls, plus meat-pie giveaways and air-guitar competitions, make this a fun night out.
BT London Live (BT London Live, various venues. btlondonlive.com) will feature superb live music acts such as Tom Jones, Saint Etienne and The Temper Trap at a range of outdoor venues alongside big screens showing the sporting events. Check out the updated listings at the capital city’s www.timeout.com/london website.
Outdoor theatre is always regular fixture over the summer months in London.
At Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (Inner Circle, Regent’s Park, NW1 4NR. +44 20 7907 7071. openairtheatre.org) you can catch both the classic musical Ragtime (Until Sep 8) and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Until Sep 5). Or for something more family-orientated, down by Tower Bridge at The Scoop you’ll find The Trojan War and Peace – an epic mash-up, featuring a gigantic wooden horse.
Almost inevitably, the Bard is being wheeled out to welcome the world to the capital, and the World Shakespeare Festival is being billed as the Cultural Olympiad’s crowning glory. There’s a wealth of Shakespearean fare on offer, but for the real 16th-century experience we recommend a trip to Shakespeare’s Globe (21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT. +44 20 7401 9919. shakespeares-globe.org) where you can see Richard III, Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew in July and August.
In terms of both ticket sales and bombast the West End’s big-draw musicals are rivalled only by Broadway in New York. From the current crop, our recommendation is Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi Theatre (Strand, WC2R 0NS. +44 20 7492 9930. sweeneytoddwestend.com. Until Sep 22): it’s a superb production of the Stephen Sondheim musical. At the Palace Theatre, meanwhile, Singin’ in the Rain (Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave, W1D 5AY. +44 844 412 4656. reallyuseful.com. Until 2013) is a great homage to the iconic 1952 Gene Kelly film.
And then there’s art, in the truest sense of the word. The Cultural Olympiad has given the London art world a chance to show off its heritage – both historical and modern. The most literal link between art and sport is the exhibition of Olympic and Paralympic Posters at Tate Britain (Millbank, SW1P 4RG. +44 20 7887 8888. tate.org.uk. Until Aug 15, near Pimlico tube station), designed by 12 major artists including Tracey Emin and Gary Hume.
Just across the Thames from St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tate Modern’s (Bankside, SE1 9TG. +44 20 7887 8888. tate.org.uk. Jul 17-Oct 28) cavernous Turbine Hall will host the 13th in its series of widescreen installations, the work of London-born, Berlin-based artist Tino Seghal. Visitors can be greeted by ‘living art works’ in the form of individual guides or presented with a verbal or visual challenge that will require a response, transaction or even a conversation.
In the Tate Modern you’ll also find the first major retrospective of the work of Damien Hirst (now 47 years old). The exhibition includes all of his major hits from the past 20 years – including his spot paintings, shark in formaldehyde and that £14 million diamond-covered skull.
Meanwhile in Kensington Gardens, next to Hyde Park, the Serpentine Gallery (Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, W2 3XA. +44 20 7402 6075. serpentinegallery.org. Until Sep 9) is hosting a celebration of the work of Yoko Ono, now nearly as well known for being a multimedia conceptual artist as she is for her marriage to John Lennon. While you’re there, take in the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion – this year designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron and Time Out Hong Kong cover star Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
And, of course, the Olympic Park itself is packed with newly commissioned art. Conceptual artist Anish Kapoor has provided the event’s most visible aesthetic flourish; his ArcelorMittal Orbit is a twisting, 115m observation tower that suggests the Olympic flame and is Britain’s largest piece of public art. There’s also work by Monica Bonvicini (the giant silver letters ‘RUN’ – apparently inspired more by the Velvet Underground song than by the athletics taking place nearby).
And perhaps Damien Hirst would approve of one of the Olympic Park’s most fetching features: the long grassy ridge that splits the site to the south of the stadium, known as the Greenway, is part of a titanic sewer system designed by Victorian engineer Joseph Bazalgette. Prior to this Olympics, this was by far London’s most ambitious public works project – though, for fairly obvious reasons, we weren’t quite as vocal about that one.