A fog has wrapped itself around the city and a slow drizzle has begun as we make our way northeast into the heart of London from the Wimbledon district. But no matter: London is one of the few cities in the world that looks just as beautiful in the rain as it does in the sunlight. The hulking clouds lend a shadowy magic to the skyline, and the raindrops make the city glow ethereally under streetlamps. And so as I alight in front of the stately Rubens at the Palace, a hotel which sits just behind Buckingham Palace, I smile at the sky. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to this city that I love so much, and the graying evening feels like a welcome home.
Inside The Rubens, my friends and I settle into the new safari-chic Leopard Champagne Bar, and I find myself thinking of how much has changed since I was last in London. The city is preparing to host the Olympics for the third time in summer 2012 (It previously hosted the Games in 1908 and 1948), and in preparation, London has undergone a transformation. Of course the sites we associate with London – Big Ben, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, double-decker buses – are still there, but they’re joined by a completely revamped East End. Where previously the area had been largely industrial, it is now home to the glisteningly modern Olympic Park. When the world pours into the city next summer, they will flow en masse into this reborn area, the center of the Olympic experience. London, then, has become a transfixing blend of the old and the new, the conventional and the exquisite.
And that’s why, as we sit down to a high-low meal of champagne with classic fish and chips, it’s easy to see London itself mirrored in the food and drink before us. Just like the efficient waiters in the Leopard Champagne Bar are seamlessly pairing the standard – fish and chips – with the unexpected – an effervescent champagne complement – London itself is seamlessly blending tradition with high-class progress. Even if you’ve been to London before, don’t assume you know it; as the Olympics approach, this is a whole new world.
Now is the time to visit, as the city gears up for the world spotlight. Airfares from major cities across the United States are low through the fall and winter, and the Olympic spirit has already taken hold. The city is abuzz with enthusiasm about the upcoming Games, and you’ll have no choice but to catch the Olympic bug too. Along with the standard London tourist sites, which you should visit if you haven’t been here before, you can take a guided stroll around Olympic Park, check out The O2 (where the gymnastics events and basketball finals will take place), or visit the district of Wimbledon, where the Olympic tennis events will be held in summer 2012. While you’re in the area, take a short journey to nearby Eton, where the Olympic rowing and canoe events will take place, and to neighboring Windsor, which is home to Windsor Castle, the Queen’s frequent weekend residence.
IF YOU GO:
Walk the Perimeter of Olympic Park: You can take a self-guided tour around the perimeter of Olympic Park, but it’s much more fun and informative to join in the Daily Olympic Walk put on by a Blue Badge tourist guide. Click here for more information or to reserve a spot.
Forman’s: While you’re near Olympic Park, stop in to the new site of Forman’s Restaurant. The family-owned company is world-famous for its smoked salmon, and the new location boats the city’s best views of Olympic Stadium.
The British Music Experience at The O2: London’s state-of-the-art concert arena will host the gymnastics events and the basketball finals for the 2012 Olympics, but if you want a preview, take the Tube out to North Greenwich and take a stroll around the building, which also houses a huge entertainment complex, including restaurants, shops and a movie theater. While you’re there, make some time for British Music Experience, an interactive museum dedicated to the Britain’s popular music history.
Eton and Windsor: Twenty-five miles outside London lies the town of Eton, which is home to the famed Eton College as well as to Dorney Lake and the Eton College Rowing Centre, where the Olympic kayak and canoe events will be held. Stop in now to stroll the grounds and see the aquatic course, then take some time to visit the surrounding area. Eton itself is a quaint town that lies across the Thames River from Windsor, which is home to both Windsor Castle (the queen’s frequent weekend retreat) and the Savill Garden (one of the country’s greatest ornamental gardens). Plan to spend a whole day checking out both Windsor and Eton.
Wimbledon: Whether you’re interested in tennis or simply interested in history, plan at least a half day in the Wimbledon district of London. Take a tour of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and see the courts where history has been made and the 2012 Olympic tennis matches will be played. Other London Attractions: For traditional attractions such as Big Ben, the Tower Bridge and the London Eye, and for off-the-beaten-path attractions too, click here for some great tips and links from London & Partners. Free London Attractions: Trying to save money on your travels? Click here for London’s many free attractions.
The Leopard Champagne Bar, Rubens at the Palace,
London Forman’s Fish in East London
The Blue Door Bistro, London
Why not splurge for a night or two on your trip to London? The following hotels, which are part of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, offer the utmost in London luxury, with both traditional and upscale touches. These boutique hotels offer personalized attention and perfect locations, right in the heart of London. Check out their web sites for special offers; they’re often running special offers in the left-hand column, such as the “3 Nights for the Price of 2” deal currently running at The Rubens: