London Olympics city break

Planning a trip to the English capital for the 2012 games?

London Olympics city break

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.
‘Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary’, Porter Gallery, V&A, Cromwell Road, SW7 2RL. +44 20 7907 7073.
‘English Flower Garden’, various venues (Chiswick House, House of Commons, Southbank Centre).
Geffrey Museum, Kingsland Road, E2 8EA. +44 20 7739 9893.
Horniman Museum, 100 London Road, SE23 3PQ. +44 20 8699 1872.
Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP. +44 20 7405 2107.
Spitalfields International Food Festival, various venues. +44 20 7375 0441. Jul 21-Sep 9.
Lollibop Festival, Regent’s Park, Chester Road, NW1 4NR. +44 844 248 5113. Aug 17-18.

Food & Drink

Happily, if you’re attending the Games themselves, 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 is a recently opened American barbeque 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 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, 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 in Bethnal Green is as good as anything in the centre of town. The menu from chef Nuno Mendes features ‘creative contemporary’ dishes that draw on the food of his native Portugal, but with Japanese, Thai and South American flavours thrown in.

A recent opening a few stops on the Central Line north-east of the Olympic Park is Provender, 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.

Duke’s Brew & Que, 33 Downham Road, N1 5AA. +44 20 3006 0795.
Mien Tay, 122 Kingsland Road, E2 8DP. +44 20 7729 3074.
Tayyabs, 83 Fieldgate Street, E1 1JU. +44 20 7247 9543.
Vijante, Patriot Square, E2 9NF. +44 20 7871 0461/
Provender, 17 High Street, E11 2AA. +44 20 8530 3050.

Nightlife & Music

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 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 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 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. (Warning: may contain ukuleles.)

For a real slice of London’s musical history, though, punk legends PiL are playing The Forum 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 everyone from Elvis Costello to The Spice Girls), expect these veterans to put on an acerbic, snarling show, perfectly out of step with the prevailing Olympic spirit.

For clubbing aficionados, it’s probably best to avoid superclubs like Fabric and Ministry of Sound this time round. Eastern Electrics on Clapham Common is our tip for a hedonistic night out, touting itself as London’s answer to Barcelona’s Sonar festival. Crazy P, Joy Orbison, Tensnake, Julio Bashmore, Kerri Chandler feature amid deep house, disco, tech-house and funky bass sounds.

Although the line-up’s yet to be announced, it’s worth keeping an eye on the BT London Live series of events, which will feature live music acts at outdoor venues alongside big screens showing the sporting events. And you’ll find updated listings for any week’s gigs and club nights at

Wynton Marsalis Swing Symphony, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS. +44 20 7638 8891. Jul 25-26.
George Benson, Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, SW7 2AP. +44 20 7589 8212. Jul 28.
Eddie Vedder, Hammersmith Apollo, 45 Queen Caroline Street, W6 9QH. +44 844 844 4748. Jul 30.
PiL, The Forum, 9-17 Highgate Road, NW5 1JY. +44 844 847 2405. Aug 11.
Eastern Electrics festival, Clapham Common, Windmill Drive, SW4 9DE. +44 20 7926 9000. Aug 4.
BT London Live, various venues.

Theatre & Dance

Outdoor theatre is always regular fixture over the summer months in London. At Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre you can catch both the classic musical ‘Ragtime’ and Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. 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-deal 16th-century experience we’d recommend a trip to Shakespeare’s Globe where you can see ‘Richard III’, ‘Henry V’ and ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ in July and August. You can stand in the Yard like the Elizabethan hoi polloi, or take the aristocratic route and get a seat to look down from the galleries.

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: it’s a superb production of the Stephen Sondheim musical about the murderous barber of Fleet Street – starring two figures well-known from British stage and screen, Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton.

At the Palace Theatre, meanwhile, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ is an all-singing, all-dancing homage to the 1952 Gene Kelly film. Set in the 1920s it boasts flappers, film stars and aviators in immaculately choreographed (if rather splashy) routines.

For dance purists, the roster of world-class performances at Sadler’s Wells is always worth a look. British choreographic phenomenon ‘Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words’ is set in Chelsea in 1965, and tackles a struggle for power and sexual domination behind the façade of privileged domestic order. A critical and commercial success when it was at the National Theatre in 2002, it’s on for a limited run until August 5 at Sadler’s.
‘Ragtime’, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Inner Circle, Regent’s Park, NW1 4NR. +44 20 7907 7071 Until Sep 8.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Inner Circle, Regent’s Park, NW1 4NR. +44 20 7907 7071. Until Sep 5.
‘Richard III’, Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT. +44 20 7401 9919. Until Oct 13.
‘Sweeney Todd’, Adelphi Theatre, Strand, WC2R 0NS. +44 20 7492 9930. Until Sep 22.
‘Singin’ in the Rain’, Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, W1D 5AY. +44 844 412 4656. Until 2013.
‘Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words’, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Rosebery Avenue, EC1R 4TN. +44 844 412 4300. Until Aug 5.


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 probably the exhibition of ‘Olympic and Paralympic Posters’ at Tate Britain (near Pimlico tube station), designed by 12 major artists including Tracey Emin, Martin Creed and Gary Hume. Rachel Whiteread – a winner of the prestigious Turner Prize in 1993 – will be creating a new work of art for the façade at the Whitechapel Gallery main entrance, inspired by the decorative ‘tree of life’ motif that’s part of the original architecture.

Just across the Thames from St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tate Modern’s 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 expect to 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 the archetypal ‘Young British Artist’ 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, cut-up cows and that £14 million diamond-covered skull.

Meanwhile in Kensington Gardens, next to Hyde Park, the Serpentine Gallery 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, make sure you take in the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion itself – this year designed by world-renowned architects Herzog & de Meuron and firebrand Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

Less modern is ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’ at the National Gallery, which takes as a its starting point three Titian paintings – ‘Diana and Actaeon’, ‘The Death of Actaeon’ and ‘Diana and Callisto’ – all inspired by Ovid’s epic poem ‘Metamorphoses’. The exhibition is a collaboration with the Royal Opera House, where three new ballets inspired by the paintings will be performed. And, of course, the Olympic Park itself is packed with newly commissioned art. Large-scale 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. You’ll also find work by: Monica Bonvicini (the giant silver letters ‘RUN’ – apparently inspired more by the Velvet Underground song than by the athletic feats taking place nearby), Carsten Nicolai (‘lfo Spectrum’ – a fence shaped like a soundwave) and Studio Weave (‘The Floating Cinema’) among many others.

And while it’s not a work of art as such, 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 genius 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.

‘Olympic and Paralympic Posters’, Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1P 4RG. +44 20 7887 8888. Jul 12-Aug 15.
Rachel Whiteread, Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, E1 7QX. +44 20 7522 7888. Until Dec 30.
Tino Sehgal, Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 9TG. +44 20 7887 8888. Jul 17-Oct 28.
Yoko Ono, Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, W2 3XA. +44 20 7402 6075. Jun 19-Sep 9.
‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN. +44 20 7747 2885. Jul 11-Sep 23.
‘Damien Hirst’, Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 9TG. +44 20 7887 8888. Until Sep 9.


Hoxton Hotel
Located in the heart of hip Shoreditch, this is ideally placed for nipping into town or out to the Olympic Park, and is surrounded by restaurants, bars and shops.
£99-£249. 81 Great Eastern Street EC2A 3HU (+44 20 7550 1000/

City Hotel
Not exactly a boutique option, but this is conveniently located for the Olympic Park as well as for the arty attractions on the South Bank.
£40.00-£359.00 a double. 12 Osborn Street, Algate East E1 6TE (+44 20 7247 3313/

This bed and breakfast offers some very reasonable room rates, particularly given its central location and the swish, nicely designed interiors.
£95-£295 a double. 83 Gower Street WC1E 6HJ (+44 20 7636 2115/

Rough Luxe
The name of this King’s Cross hotel captures its style – a rough-round-the-edges luxury feel, with artfully distressed furniture, torn wallpaper and signature works of art.
£189-£289 a double. 1 Birkenhead Street WC1H 8BA (+44 20 7837 5338/

If you’ve got tickets for events away from the Olympics Park (the big football matches at Wembley, for example, or the archery at Lord’s Cricket Ground), then this Paddington hotel could be a good bet. It’s ‘retro-futurist’ in style – all metal floors and panelling and ‘pod-style’ bathrooms.
£95-£230 a double. 160-162 Sussex Gardens W2 1UD (+44 20 7723 1026/

London travel tips

• If you’ve got tickets to a Games event in London, you’ll also get a one-day Games Travelcard which will entitle you to travel anywhere in Zones 1-9 on public transport for free. Note that this doesn’t include the Heathrow, Stansted or Gatwick Express trains, or any kind of taxis.

• The nearest stations to the Olympic Park are Stratford (on the Central Line for tube access, and on the Overground Line), Stratford International (from outside London) and West Ham (on the Hammersmith & City, District and Jubilee tube lines).

• An Oystercard is essential for traveling around on public transport. It’s a plastic smartcard that you buy once, and then can load with either pay-as-you-go fares or Travelcards. The Transport for London website ( has fare details. Remember to touch your Oystercard on the circular yellow panels as you enter and exit stations.

• If you’re a confident cyclist, the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme (better known as Boris Bikes, after Mayor Boris Johnson) allows you to pick up a bike at one of the blue parking points distributed throughout central London, and drop it off at another. You can pay with a credit card, or (if you’re planning to use them often) sign up for a membership key.

• On the tube, some basic points of etiquette can avoid unnecessary friction with the locals. Let passengers off the train first at stations (or they may well walk straight through you) and stand on the right-hand side of escalators (people walk on the left). Also note that drinking alcohol (and smoking) is illegal on the tube.

• Londoners are still worried that the Olympics will bring traffic to a standstill – and this could affect buses, as some of the special lanes that normally allow them to keep moving have been allocated to transport for Olympic competitors. There are coaches and park-and-ride routes to getting to the venues (see for details).

• If you’re traveling into central London, avoid the weekday rush hour if you can – as the millions of Londoners getting to and from work make the public transport system uncomfortably busy. The nastiest periods are around 7.30-9.30am and 5.30pm-6.30pm.

• Remember to check how far your journey is on foot before leaping on to public transport. The tube map bears little relation to real-life geography, and you may be much closer to your destination than you think (or, conversely, much further away).

More travel information can be found on the official website,

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