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 overnight guests, 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 this will be the perfect 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 will be 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, 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, and for an insight into one of the more iconic aspects of the sporting festivities, the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games Medals exhibition at the British Museum (+44 20 7323 8000, www.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.
For a truly esoteric experience, head south of the Thames to the gloriously eccentric Horniman Museum (+44 20 8699 1872, www.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 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.
Food and 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.
Dukes Brew Que (+44 20 3006 0795, www.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 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 (+44 20 7729 3074, www.mientay.co.uk) is our choice for excellent fare on a budget – whether a simple, spicy salad or a sea bass with chilli and lemongrass.
Similarly authentic is Tayyabs (+44 20 7247 9543, www.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 in Bethnal Green (+44 20 7871 0461, www.viajante.co.uk) 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.
Theatre and dance
Outdoor theatre is always a regular fixture over the summer months in London. At Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (+44 20 7907 7071, www.openairtheatre.org) you can catch both the classic musical Ragtime (until Saturday September 8) and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (until Wednesday September 5). Or for something more family-oriented, 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 delights 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 (+44 20 7401 9919, www.shakespeares-globe.org). 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.
At the Palace Theatre, meanwhile, Singin’ in the Rain (+44 844 412 4656, www.reallyuseful.com) is an all-singing, all-dancing homage to the 1952 Gene Kelly film. Set in the ’20s, it boasts flappers, film stars and aviators in immaculately choreographed (if rather splashy) routines.
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, which runs from Thursday July 12 to Wednesday August 15 at Tate Britain (+44 20 7887 8888, www.tate.org.uk). The show features posters designed by 12 major artists, including Tracey Emin, Martin Creed and Gary Hume.
Just across the Thames from St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tate Modern’s cavernous Turbine Hall (+44 20 7887 8888, www.tate.org.uk) will host the 13th in its series of widescreen installations, the work of London-born, Berlin-based artist Tino Seghal from Tuesday July 17 until the end of October. 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 Dhs78 million diamond-covered skull (until Sunday September 9).
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 the 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.
Need to know
Etihad flies direct from Abu Dhabi to London Heathrow, with returns costing from Dhs4,430.
Where to stay
Located in the heart of hip Shoreditch, this hotel is ideally placed for nipping into town or out to the Olympic Park, and is surrounded by restaurants, bars and shops.
Rooms from Dhs558. 81 Great Eastern Street, www.hoxtonhotels.com (+44 20 7550 1000).
Conveniently located for the Olympic Park as well as for the arty attractions on the South Bank.
From Dhs225 for a double. 12 Osborn Street, Algate East, www.cityhotellondon.co.uk (+44 20 7247 3313).
This traditional bed and breakfast offers some very reasonable room rates, particularly given its central location.
From Dhs550 for a double. 83 Gower Street, www.arosfalondon.com (+44 20 7636 2115).
Abu Dhabi to london
Flight time: Seven hours 25 minutes.
Time difference: Three hours behind the UAE.
Dhs1 = 0.17 British pounds.