Michael Webb says pass on the hype and huzzahs and opt instead for a post-Olympics London still basking in the glow of the international limelight.
There’s a chorus of stories about the excitement of London during the Olympic summer. If you’re a sports fanatic, and love crowds, chaos and heat waves, then hop on over. If you’d rather enjoy the city at its best, you should wait until mid September, when the madness will be over, along with the road detours and interminable immigration lines.
I decided to go at the end of May, and flew Air New Zealand Premium Economy from LAX to Heathrow. Exemplary service, surprisingly good food and the hard-shell seats, angled for privacy, offered plenty of leg-room, but less comfort than I had hoped. It’s the beta model, with stiff, awkwardly placed controls, and a recliner I had to beat into submission. At a fifth the price of Business one can tolerate a few flaws and it’s far superior to steerage.
Despite the recession, London is awash in money—mostly foreign—and the banksters, sheiks, and Russian mafiosi are snapping up five-star apartments and hotel suites. The challenge is to enjoy the city on a normal mortal’s budget and that’s surprisingly easy to do. The Oyster card offers unlimited rides on the underground, buses, and suburban rail for a maximum of seven pounds a day. Buy one and top it up at vending machines in every station. Taxis are ubiquitous, the drivers know exactly where to go and they are often cheerfully chatty. Leave your American mobile (with its exorbitant roaming charges) at home and buy a cheap model with a prepaid SIM card for fifteen pounds from the CarPhone chain to call local friends and confirm reservations. The great museums are free, and there’s a pub on every second corner, often serving decent, affordable grub.
For a taste of the new, there’s the Shard, a shimmering pinnacle of glass designed by Renzo Piano that out-tops every other building in Europe, and will provide a fantastic panorama of the city when the viewing gallery opens next February. It will be a hot ticket and on-line reservations are already being taken. The twin stations of Kings Cross and St Pancras, glorious survivors of the Victorian era, have been reborn. Kings Cross has acquired a soaring steel and glass concourse that serves as a symbolic gateway to the north of Britain; St Pancras is now the terminal of Eurostar, which whisks you to Paris in less than three hours. The world’s longest Champagne bar flanks the platform, and the gorgeous Gothic tracery supporting the train shed has been impeccably restored. The romantic red-brick station hotel has also been refurbished and the Gilbert Scott restaurant (named for the station’s architect) is one of the best and most atmospheric in London.
At the junction of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, the adventurous Serpentine art gallery commissions a summer pavilion from an architect who has not built in Britain before. It provides shelter for tea and talks, and showcases a unfamiliar talents. This year, it’s the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron, who jointly designed the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. A sunken, cork-lined sitting area contains echoes of the past pavilions and it’s topped with a circular reflecting pool that mirrors the trees and the sky. Close by, in the museum quarter of South Kensington, the Victoria & Albert is offering exhibitions of postwar British design, and the fantastically inventive structures of Thomas Heatherwick. His work is scattered around London, and you can ride a prototype of his new double-deck bus on route 38, which provides a scenic tour of the city from Victoria to Hackney. It’s a classier way to travel than the topless tourist buses and costs far less.
The Olympic site may revitalize East London, building on the pioneering efforts of artists and architects. New attractions abound, but one of the greatest sights is the restored Christ’s Church, Spitalfields, a Georgian masterpiece by Nicholas Hawksmoor. A cable car will carry visitors over the river to Greenwich where Ravensborne College’s jazzy façade complements the Millenium Dome, now rechristened the O2 concert venue. From Stratford you can take the Overground Railway for a scenic tour of north London, stopping at the Imperial Wharf station to see Zaha Hadid’s Gaudi-esque showroom for Roca, a Spanish firm that markets upscale bathroom fittings. The exhibit of vintage plumbing is reason enough to go. And, for a final taste of unchanging London, walk along the Chelsea Embankment and over the Albert Bridge, a freshly painted gem of Victorian engineering.
around the world.