London Olympics city break

Planning a trip to the English capital for the 2012 games? Discuss this article

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© ITP Images

It wasn’t long after London won the bid to host the 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 5.5 million 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 London’s position as a global hub, and show off everything that’s best 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 a 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…

Around Town

To get into the Olympic spirit, and for an insight into one of the more iconic aspects of the sporting festivities, the exhibition ‘The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games Medals’ at the British Museum 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 & Albert Museum 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, 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 is on Kingsland Road in Shoreditch, 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.

But for a truly esoteric experience, head south of the Thames to the gloriously eccentric Horniman Museum. 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 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 artifacts – 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 will be celebrating the diversity of the local restaurants, bars, cafés and street food, while over in Regent’s Park, the Lollibop Festival is ideal for kids aged 0-10 – with theatre, BMX riding, cookery and arts workshops, and discos.

‘The London Olympic and Paralympic Games Medals’, British Museum, 44 Great Russell Sreet, WC1B 3DG. +44 20 7323 8000. www.britishmuseum.org.
‘Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary’, Porter Gallery, V&A, Cromwell Road, SW7 2RL. +44 20 7907 7073. www.vam.ac.uk.
‘English Flower Garden’, various venues (Chiswick House, House of Commons, Southbank Centre).
Geffrey Museum, Kingsland Road, E2 8EA. +44 20 7739 9893. www.geffrye-museum.org.uk.
Horniman Museum, 100 London Road, SE23 3PQ. +44 20 8699 1872. www.horniman.ac.uk.
Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP. +44 20 7405 2107. www.soane.org.
Spitalfields International Food Festival, various venues. +44 20 7375 0441. www.alternativearts.co.uk. Jul 21-Sep 9.
Lollibop Festival, Regent’s Park, Chester Road, NW1 4NR. +44 844 248 5113. www.lollibopfestival.co.uk. Aug 17-18.

By Alan Rutter
Time Out Dubai,

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