The 2012 London Olympics promises to be a spectacular event. London has a tantalizing assortment of spectacular events, exhibits, and experiences that will satisfy everyone. The key to getting the most out of this experience is a little pre-planning. Looking at map is a bit deceptive: London is huge. After more than a dozen trips to London, I have found that conquering one area of London and maximizing that visit is the best approach. Although there are so many components to London, I have created my own categories of favorite British delights: History, Gardens, Art, Ale, Entertainment, Shopping, and Tea.
As it is impossible to see or experience everything on one visit to London, let alone when attending the Olympics, here is my personal top-10 list of the best London experiences to complement an Olympic adventure.
Visit the Tower of London
It took me four trips to London before I finally ventured to the Tower of London. I was so impressed that I tell all of my clients and all of my friends that The Tower of London is a must for any first-time visitor. The Tower of London tours are led by an affable yeoman warder, who takes you to the various parts of the tower, explaining the historical significance of each area and the ghosts that haunt the tower. Many people were beheaded at the Tower of London, and there is a bit of otherworldliness around the building. This is where so many people were held and beheaded. Best of all, this is where the crown jewels are displayed. London is a modern city, but this bit of time travel you cannot miss! Admission starts at approximately $33. Open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sunday/Monday. Open 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Sunday Tube Stop: Tower Hill.
Enjoy a Spot of Tea
English tea is the most pleasurable way to engulf yourself in the whole British experience. Scones, jams, clotted cream, sandwiches with tasty fillings, and zesty lemon curd are gloriously presented along with warm tea. Taking the hour or so to enjoy a full English tea is well worth the time and the money. This experience is both satisfying and refreshing. I have enjoyed tea in many fine establishment throughout London, but I have two favorites: Fortnum & Mason and Harrod’s. I always combine my afternoon of tea with shopping for jams, biscuits, and other treats to bring home. The traditional afternoon teas will set you back over $60 per person, but this is worth every morsel.
Fortnum & Mason: This classic 300-year-old Piccadilly establishment is a treasure trove of delectable British treats. The selection of teas, jams and other goodies is remarkable. Pick up a selection for generous gifts as well as for your own consumption. As for the newly renamed the New Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon, this was the first place I ever enjoyed tea, and I make a point of returning there every visit. Everything is prepared beautifully and it is absolutely delicious. Tube Stop: Piccadilly.
Harrod’s: Everyone has heard of Harrod’s, and taking tea there is a great excuse to enter this historic shopping extravaganza. As the tea rooms are on the fourth floor, there is ample time to browse through this expansive masterpiece. I love to go into the pet department to bring home a special treat for my dog! Once you arrive to one of the three fourth-floor tea rooms, relax. You are now royalty. The afternoon tea at Harrod’s is a fabulous treat with an assortment of teas available. On the way out, make sure you stop by the food court and pick up some treats for the evening. Harrod’s has their own quality brand of marmalades, chocolates, jams, and more. If you want to bring a special gift home, then Harrod’s is the place. They have bundled many of their treats into charming, easy-to-bring-home packages. Tube Stop: Knightsbridge.
Seek Out Opulence at Hampton Court Palace and Gardens
Most tourists flock to Windsor Castle to get a taste for how the royals live. Although Windsor is lovely, the real show-stopper is Hampton Court Palace. Most commonly associated with Henry VIII, Hampton Court boasts opulent interiors combined with 60 acres of the most magnificent gardens in all of Great Britain. Between the sensuous art exhibits, the live Tudor cooking demonstrations, and the most famous maze in the world, Hampton Court is a lovely way to spend a real English day! Admission starts at approximately $27. The easiest way to get to Hampton Court is by train via Waterloo Station.
Take a Breather and Visit Leighton House and Holland Park
Although Victoria Park, Hyde Park, and Trafalgar Square will be broadcasting the Olympic Games on big-screen televisions and attracting huge crowds, Holland Park may be the perfect, more serene spot to hang out with the locals and enjoy an al fresco lunch. Just a five-minute walk from Holland Park is London’s best-kept secret and my favorite place in London: Leighton House. Built by accomplished Victorian painter Lord Frederic Leighton, Leighton House is astonishing. The walls leading to the famed Arab Room are adorned with breathtaking William de Morgan tiles. Throughout the home, gorgeous Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The Pre-Raphaelite Painters are Britain’s most cherished Victorian rebels. Fodder for scandal, contemporaries of the French Impressionists and innovators in art and design, this is where the handcrafted movement began. With the highly anticipated Dakota Fanning movie “Effie,” The Pre-Raphaelites should soon be all the rage. Be one stop ahead of the crowd and enjoy this treasure! Admission to Leighton House is approximately $8. Open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. every day but Tuesday. Tube Stop: Holland Park.
Grab a Bite
Wagamama: Wagamama is one of my top suggestions, as they serve both healthy vegan food as well as spicy entrees laden with flavorful meat or seafood. There are entrees and side dishes including a variety of soba noodle dishes. Drinks are also a wide range from raw juice drinks to Diet Coke. I could enjoy a healthy meal while my husband could indulge in some spicy and flavorful cuisine. The interior is minimalistic, and there is also take-out in case you want to enjoy your meal at one of the many beautiful London -arks or in your hotel room. Prices are between $5 and $20 depending on the size of the meal. There are 27 locations throughout London.
Pret a Manger: Pret a Manger offers fresh, quick and affordable take-away fare for everyone. From my favorite poached salmon and watercress on artisan to the avocado and herb salad wrap, Pret a Manger is scrumptious. In addition, they offer sushi, salads, soups, and yummy pastries, all made on the premises and all fresh. There is not a trip to London where I don’t stop there at least a half-dozen times and take away a tasty meal. Prices are between $5 and $15, depending on the ingredients. There are locations everywhere, including the train stations.
Take a Day Trip Into the English Countryside
London never felt foreign to me until I ventured out into the English countryside. One of my first excursions out was an escorted bus trip to Bath. This Georgian town was made most famous by Jane Austen. The elegant gray buildings and ancient Roman baths are fascinating and beautiful, and it felt like I had traveled back in time. There are many tour companies that offer day trips into Bath and perhaps attach a stop to Stonehenge and the enchanting Cotswolds. This is a great way to get away from the Olympic crowds and find a little bit of quiet beauty. The cost usually starts at $120, and it’s a great way to get in a lot of sightseeing in a short period of time.
Bounce on the Inflatable Stonehenge at Various London Parks
Artist Jeremy Deller created Sacrilege, the life-size, inflatable Stonehenge. Imagine how fun it would be to bounce around this iconic English symbol! Sacrilege has traveled through Great Britain and will be set up at 14 different parks between July 21 and August 12, 2012. This is a must, especially for those who didn’t schedule time to take an excursion to the real Stonehenge or those who just want to enjoy a bit of British whimsy!
Visit the Victoria and Albert Museum
The V&A, as it is affectionately known, is a treasure trove of British decorative arts and design. This is where history comes alive! For example, the costume gallery is currently featuring “Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950,” which includes gowns designed for the queen and Princess Diana, as well as designs from trendsetters such as Zandra Rhodes and Alexander McQueen, as well as many others. In addition to the many floors of visual abundance, there is a remarkable cafe in the Morris, Gamble, and Poynter Rooms. This cafe was the first museum restaurant in the world and features lovely food in an incredibly gorgeous environment. A must! Admission is free, but there is a charge for special exhibits. Open 10 a.m.-5:45 p.m. daily. Tube Stop: South Kensington.
Hang Out at a Local Pub
There are so many favorite and famous pubs, and the first time my friends and I went to London, we went out of our way to find the perfect pub — we were a bit underwhelmed. Over the years, I have discovered that the perfect pub is the one closest to where you want to stop and relax. Peek into a pub that looks inviting, preferably one with some locals, and sit down and enjoy a pint. Yes, the beer is often served warm, but this is not where you order a Bud. Instead, order up a Speckled Hen or a Nut Ale. Perhaps enjoy some typical pub food, such as a ploughman’s lunch — bread, cheese, and cold meat — or fish and chips or even a shepherd’s pie, a tasty meat pie topped with whipped potatoes. Cost starts at $5 and goes up from there!
Enjoy the Last Mile Festival at London Pleasure Gardens
I have often read about the Pleasure Gardens of the 18th and 19th century, of the abundant artistic delights and lively evenings spent at the dining venues. I can still imagine the Pre-Raphaelites carousing the food and entertainment stalls in search of their latest “stunner.” So I was thrilled when the announcement that The London Pleasure Gardens was opening up for the Olympics. Free to enter, with a combination of free and paid events throughout the area, revelers will encounter food vendors, cabaret, special theatrical performances, and the centerpiece of the complex, the Dome. The Dome promises an original circus and spectacular cabaret shows. Open July 28-August 12, 2012. Tube Stop: Pontoon Dock.
What did not make the list but are some of my favorite sites include: Green Park, especially on a Sunday morning; Westminster Abbey; Tate Modern for modern art enthusiasts; Tate Britain to see works by William Turner as well as the Pre-Raphaelites; and the London Zoo. I also find that One Fine Stay is a great service to find unique accommodations.
Georgia Makitalo is a travel professional focused on fan vacations including the Summer Olympics. She is also an enthusiastic Anglophile, having gone to Great Britain over two dozen times and counting!
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