You’re booked for an early-morning July flight to the United Kingdom. You got your tickets for the gymnastics program months ago, thanks to your quick web surfing. You watched The King’s Speech for the hundredth time to try and understand British customs. Now what?
If you are attending the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England, check out our tips and tricks to help you navigate jolly ole England and make your Olympic experience a golden one.
1. Find the best way to get around
A good transportation option for tourists is to buy a London Travelcard, which gives access to buses, trams, and the Underground (London’s subway system, known as the Tube). If you are staying for a week or more, the Travelcard is the way to go. See www.londonpass.com.
The most common transportation in London is the Underground. If you’re going to frequent the Tube, you can buy an Oyster card at any of the stations as an easy way to store your travel credit. When you tap your card to get on and off the Tube, the price of your ride will automatically be deducted. If you are staying in London for a short time, this is the best option because you can add what money you need to the card. Go to oyster.tfl.gov.uk/oyster/entry.do for more details.
For a scenic ride around London, check out Barclays Cycle Hire. You can take a bicycle, ride it, and then return it at the nearest docking station. You pay an access fee and a fee for the amount of time you have the bicycle. See https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/cycling/.
But the true London traveler walks the streets. There are things and places a tourist cannot truly experience without walking to them among the crowd while smelling fish and chips in the air.
2. Study up on your surroundings
Although the Olympic Games are typically centered around one city, several events of these games take place in other parts of the United Kingdom. Even so, London itself is massive. With the Olympics spread out across the country, some tourists may find it difficult to visit all the sites they want to see. You can maximize the amount of time you have and the number of sites you see if you study the location of the event you’re going to attend.
For example, St. James’ Park, just north of London in Newcastle upon Tyne, will host some of the football (soccer) games. If you attend a game there, you might want to stick around for Newcastle’s famous nightlife. Or you can visit Chinatown, right across from St. James’ Park.
The Olympic Park, where the majority of the events will be held, is in Stratford, London. The location is home to the recently opened Westfield Stratford City, one of the largest shopping centers in Europe. Right across from the shopping center, Stratford’s Cultural Quarter has many art venues and restaurants. Because Stratford is farther away from the main tourist attractions in London (Westminster Abbey, Birmingham Palace, the London Eye, etc.), wait until you have a good chunk of free time or an event in venues like Hyde Park, Earls Court, or the Mall before making the trip.
3. Check out the London Festival
Take a break from the Olympic sports events to experience cultural London. In conjunction with the Olympic Games, London is hosting a “Cultural Olympiad,” with events in music, art, dance, film, theater, and more. The Festival begins on June 21 and runs until September 9, so these events are a great way to fill your time if you are staying in London before or after the Olympics. Many of these events are free, including the Official London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Poster Display at the Tate Britain and “To Be or Not to Be,” a presentation of 50 actors bringing Shakespearean dialogue to life.
Other festivals and series have joined up with the London Festival as well. The World Shakespeare Festival will feature nearly 70 productions. Thespians from around the world will perform the legendary playwright’s work in locations throughout England.
BBC’s Music Nation is uniting orchestras and other musical groups from around the UK to perform timeless pieces, such as Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, as well as contemporary music. Even pop culture icons have made their way into the festival with a special live show based on the television series Doctor Who.
With so many options, there is bound to be a performance or display to please everyone. Go to festival.london2012.com to search events.
4. Learn your London lingo
People from the United States and the United Kingdom may both speak English, but there are some not-so-subtle differences in vocabulary. Check out this London lingo:
queue = line
timetable = schedule
lift = elevator
ogling = staring
way out = exit
rubbish bin = trash can
diary = planner
codswallop = nonsense
chips = french fries
jumper = sweater
biscuit = cookie
cinema = movie theater
holiday = vacation
conk = nose
busking = performing for money
5. Don’t forget about free events
Don’t want to pay outrageous prices for admission to Olympic events? Don’t worry. There will be some free Olympic events on the streets of London. From July 28 to August 1, crowds will pack London’s streets for the cycling road races at the Mall and the time trials at Hampton Court Palace. The free Triathlon event at Hyde Park will also take place from August 4 to August 7. Don’t forget about the attractions at the London 2012 Olympic Park. The southern part of the park will contain riverside gardens, cafés, and bars; the northern part will contain a habitat for plants and animals.
Screens with live coverage of all the events will be set up in Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park, and Victoria Park. They will also showcase live music and other entertainment.
There are also many free things to see in London outside of the Olympics, wherever your passion lies. Most of London’s museums have free admission. Visitors are invited to evensong services at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.
Food lovers should check out the outdoor Borough Market. Bibliophiles can pore through the British Library. And for art lovers, museums abound in London. For starters, visit the Tate Modern and National Gallery of Art.
Be careful to plan for crowds and lines (or as a Londoner would say, queues). Plan ahead for where you want to go, and don’t forget to take a breather in one of London’s idyllic parks.
6. Take home a memory
You won’t want to leave London without a few souvenirs. For the best bragging rights, you should get something with the London 2012 Olympic logo. There are a variety of products with the logo available—shirts, hats, keychains, stationery, towels, even rubber ducks— at official London 2012 shops. There are also shops at Heathrow and Stansted Airports and other locations, so you can pick up something on your way in or out of the country.
As for other London souvenirs, go for the extraordinary. That Will and Kate shot glass may have made you swoon in the gift shop, but there are many unique clothing items, accessories, or household items that will fit easily into your wardrobe or home. Get your double-decker bus keychain, but then hit up the markets (especially Portobello and Camden) for souvenirs no one else will have.
Finally, keep a journal. The memories of your experience will be the best thing you bring home, and a journal will ensure that you don’t forget a thing (plus it’s more cost effective than shipping a teapot). Write down funny things you hear, paste in your event tickets, draw pictures of your surroundings, and never forget your time in London.