With the Olympic and Paralympic Games fast approaching and the Queen’s Diamond Jubliee celebrations gaining momentum, the eyes of the world are on London in 2012. Carrie Drage turns the spotlight on the city to reveal the opportunities available for groups.
A vibrant, multicultural, 24-hour city, London is brimming with history, heritage and culture, with no less than four World Heritage Sites, more museums than Paris and the world’s most popular modern art gallery. It might be one of the world’s most expensive cities, yet with over 200 free attractions to exploit, there is nowhere else in the world that you can do so much for so little! Added to that, next year London will become the first city in history to host the Olympics three times, and there are plenty of opportunities to make the most of this once in a lifetime Olympic opportunity without actually attending the Games themselves. Read on to find out how.
London’s cultural scene
London has some of the world’s greatest museums and art galleries, many of which are free to enter.
One of the world’s oldest and finest museums, the British Museum, was founded in 1753 to display the ‘cabinets of curiosities’ bequeathed to the nation by physician, Sir Hans Sloane. Over the years, the collection has expanded and now numbers some seven million objects, which represent over two million years of human history and culture.
In the City of London, a warm welcome awaits groups at the Bank of England Museum, where interactive displays and exhibits reveal the Bank’s history from its foundation in 1694 to its modern roles to keep inflation low, issue banknotes and keep the financial system stable. Visitors can even handle a real gold bar! Cinema presentations are available free of charge to groups of between 15 and 50 people.
To discover how the history of modern conflict affects us all, from the front line to the home front, visit the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. Spread across six floors, exhibits here range from military vehicles and aircraft to photographs and personal letters, film and sound recordings to some of the 20th century’s best-known paintings. The permanent exhibition dedicated to the Holocaust is particularly moving.
The Churchill War Rooms, housed in the secret World War II headquarters below Whitehall, is another branch of the Imperial War Museum. Once the nerve centre of Britain’s war effort, the historic rooms have been left exactly as they were in 1945. Also housed within the site is the Churchill Museum.
Moored on the Thames, just a short walk from London Bridge, the World War II cruiser, HMS Belfast, also forms part of the Imperial War Museum group. A walk around its nine decks will provide insight into what life at sea would have been like for her 950-strong crew during major campaigns.
To discover the secrets of science, technology and medicine, there is nowhere better than the Science Museum in South Kensington. Here, you can step inside James Watt’s extraordinary workshop to learn about the first hero of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, visit the interactive ‘atmosphere’ gallery to explore the science of the atmosphere and experience a space mission in Legend of the Apollo 4D.
Occupying the north side of Trafalgar Square, The National Gallery houses one of the finest collections of Western European paintings in the world, with artworks dating from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century. Adorning its wall are masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Picasso.
The neighbouring National Portrait Gallery holds over 1,000 portraits from Elizabeth I to David Beckham. Artists featured range from Holbein to Hockney, and the collection includes work across all media.
Tate Britain, located riverside at Millbank, houses the national collection of British art from 1500 to the present day. Special attention is given to Blake and Constable who both have dedicated spaces within the gallery, while the Turner collection is housed in the specially-built Clore Gallery. Earlier this year, work began on a project to improve gallery spaces, upgrade visitor facilities and open up the first floor of the gallery to the public for the first time since 1927. It is expected to be completed in 2013.
Situated on the South Bank, its sister site, Tate Modern, was created from a disused power station and is celebrated as much for its industrial architecture as its art. The vast turbine hall houses large-scale installations and there is also a fine collection of surrealist art. In summer 2012, the first stage of a new development will open, with a focus on two enormous oil tanks that have been transformed into art spaces to showcase major new installations, film, performance, sound and discussions.
Located on the site of the former Hendon Aerodrome, the Royal Air Force Museum presents a collection of over 100 aircraft, alongside aviation and wartime memorabilia, to document the history of flight from the earliest balloon to the latest Eurofighter. Highlights include a sound and light show that takes you back in time to the Battle of Britain and the Aeronaut’s Gallery with interactive experiments that explain the scientific principles of flight.
Meanwhile, home to the weird, wonderful and just plain bizarre, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, based at the Trocadero centre in Piccadilly Circus, contains more than 700 curiosities from all around the world. Set over five floors, it has everything you can imagine (as well as plenty more you can’t!) including 75 million-year-old dinosaur eggs and real Amazonian shrunken heads, plus you can even check your weight against the world’s fattest man.
Set alongside the Thames in south east London, Maritime Greenwich was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1997. With connections to Tudor monarchs as well as a rich naval and seafaring heritage, it is a fascinating place to spend some time. A good place to start your visit is at the Discover Greenwich visitor centre, where a permanent exhibition illustrates the history of the site over the last 500 years.
At the National Maritime Museum, stories of naval battles, famous mariners, adventurers and explorers, and the heroic death of Admiral Lord Nelson are vividly brought to life through its galleries and interactive displays. Don’t miss the new Sammy Ofer wing, opened in July, which contains a digital installation, ‘High Arctic’, and a new permanent gallery charting the history of the East India Company.
Also belonging to the National Maritime Museum, the Queen’s House boasts elegant interiors that include the remarkable Tulip Staircase and Great Hall. It showcases a maritime art collection with works by Gainsborough, Reynolds and Turner.
The Royal Observatory, Greenwich is the third site managed by the National Maritime Museum. Here, visitors can stand astride the Meridian line (where OMEGA’s London 2012 countdown clock is installed) and touch a 4.5 million-year-old meteorite in the astronomy galleries. Next door is the Peter Harrison Planetarium.
Built on the site of the Tudor palace where Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born, the Old Royal Naval College was formerly a hospital for sailors before it became the Royal Naval College. Designed by some of the greatest architects of the 17th and 18th century, including Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh, it is known for its magnificent Painted Hall where Nelson’s body lay in state after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Icons of London
From Gothic Westminster Abbey to the extraordinary modern engineering of the London Eye, our capital is home to many iconic structures, both old and new, that can be explored on a visit to the city.
One of the most photographed bridges in the world, Tower Bridge, opened in 1894 as a triumph of British Victorian engineering. Why not treat your group to a tour of the bridge for some of the best views of London from the high level walkways – 42 metres above the River Thames! Tours also take in the Victorian engine rooms below, containing magnificent coal burners and steam engines that have been meticulously maintained. The exhibition ‘London in Black & White: A Photographic Celebration’ will run until June 2012, with images from the London Metropolitan Archives of life, people and places from the late 1800s to early 1940s.
With its world famous dome, St Paul’s Cathedral is another iconic feature of the London skyline. Its interior is no less impressive so why not step inside to uncover fascinating stories about its past. Visitors can admire the intricate mosaics on the cathedral floor, discover the final resting place of the nation’s heroes, including Wellington and Nelson, in the crypt, and climb to the top of the dome for panoramic views across the capital. Multimedia guides are included in the entry price.
On the opposite side of the Thames, the EDF Energy London Eye ranks as one of London’s most popular attractions. The gradual rotation, in one of 32 glass capsules, takes around 30 minutes and offers unparallelled views over London and its many landmarks. A 4D experience is also included in the ticket price.
Another major landmark in the capital is Westminster Abbey, whose oldest parts date back to the year 1050. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1988, together with the Palace of Westminster and St. Margaret’s Church, the abbey has been a coronation church since 1066 and is the final resting place of 17 monarchs. Guided tours can be accommodated during normal opening hours for groups of up to 26 people accompanied by a Blue Badge guide.
Tours of the Houses of Parliament can also be booked for groups during August and September as well as every Saturday throughout the year. These 75-minute Blue Badge guided tours follow the route taken by the Queen when she performs the State Opening of Parliament.
London is also home to a number of highly interactive attractions, which explore the city’s history and the famous figures that have shaped our lives.
Beginning with one of the city’s oldest attractions, groups can come face to face with a host of celebrities from the worlds of music, film, politics and the royal family, as well as enjoy a number of interactive zones, at Madame Tussauds in Westminster. British athlete Jessica Ennis is the latest waxwork addition; she can be seen proudly holding aloft a Union Jack flag.
Alternatively, be transported back to the darkest moments in London’s history at The London Dungeon, near London Bridge, where you will come across a host of vile villains such as Sweeny Todd and Jack the Ripper. A new addition to the attraction is Vengeance, described as a 5D laser ride, which recreates a séance set in Victorian London.
A similar scare attraction is the London Bridge Experience, where real life actors, special effects and animations tell the history of the bridge, from Druids through to the Victorian era. The London Tombs also forms part of the attraction. Set in a former plague pit, it’s here that all your fears and phobias are realised!
Call of the wild
Groups looking to spend a day in the great outdoors won’t be left short of ideas either.
ZSL London Zoo, on the north side of Regent’s Park, houses over 700 species of animals, including zebras, giraffes, lions, tigers and gorillas. Earlier this year, Penguin Beach opened at the site, which has underwater viewing areas for visitors to see the Macaroni and Humboldt penguins diving for food.
On London’s south bank, the SEA LIFE London Aquarium is home to over 500 different species, and there are plenty of opportunities to get up close to the marine life with interactive feedings, diving displays and touch pools. ‘Ice Adventure’ opened at the site earlier this year and houses a number of creatures from the Antarctic including a family of gentoo penguins and a trio of Japanese spider crabs.
More about the natural world is waiting to be discovered at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. As well as a life-sized model of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling and the popular dinosaur hall with its T. rex skeleton, the Darwin Centre is also a highlight at the museum.
On the outer edges of the city, Kew Gardens presents over 300 acres of botanical delights and was designated a World Heritage Site in 2003.
There are more than 20 different gardens altogether, ranging from the Aquatic Garden to the Winter Garden, each containing up to 100 species of plants.
A stately visit
Why not leave the modern metropolis of London behind and discover the opulence of yesteryear with a visit to some of the city’s historic houses, many of which are a treasure trove for art and antiques.
Facing each other at Hyde Park Corner, Apsley House and Wellington Arch are managed by English Heritage and groups can arrange joint tickets and tours here. The former home of the first Duke of Wellington, Apsley House contains most of the ‘Iron Duke’s’ art collection and memorabilia, including medals and an original pair of Wellington boots, and death masks of the Duke and Napoleon are also on display. Wellington Arch was originally designed as an entrance to Buckingham Palace and houses three floors of exhibitions into its past – including a period as London’s smallest police station!
Groups might also be interested in the full day ‘Glitz and Glamour’ package offered by English Heritage, which combines a tour of Eltham Palace and nearby Ranger’s House, with a buffet lunch. Highlights at Eltham Palace include the Art Deco domed entrance hall and medieval Great Hall, former childhood home of Henry VIII. Ranger’s House displays 700 works of art amassed by diamond magnate, Sir Julius Wernher, including Dutch Old Masters, carved Gothic ivories, Renaissance bronzes and silver treasures.
The National Trust also cares for a number of properties within the boundaries of London, including Ham House and Garden in Richmond-upon-Thames. Largely the vision of Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart, the house is an unusually complete survival of the 17th century, which impresses visitors as much today as when it was first conceived. Also worth a visit is Osterley Park and House, near Hounslow, which was created in the late 18th century by the architect Robert Adam for the wealthy Child family.
Whether you’re looking for a sightseeing tour on the Thames or to learn more about the inner workings of some of London’s best known institutions, you are certain to find a tour to suit.
In north-west London, there is the chance to see behind the scenes at the ‘home of cricket’ on a Lord’s Tour. Beginning in the Pavilion, with its legendary Long Room, an expert guide will lead your group on a tour of the grounds taking in the dressing rooms housing the famous ‘honours boards’ and the futuristic-looking J.P. Morgan Media Centre where TV presenters and the written press report on the game. A visit to the MCC Museum, home to the Ashes Urn, also forms part of the visitor route.
Situated in Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House is home to The Royal Ballet, The Royal Opera and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Backstage Tours here give an overview of the building and its history and may include opportunities to see The Royal Ballet in class, a production workshop and the technology used to move around scenery, which can weigh up to 30 tonnes! Tours of the auditorium that focus on the architecture and the story of the current theatre may also be arranged.
Meanwhile, groups that want to view the sights of London from a different perspective might like to book onto one of the many river cruises that run along the Thames. City Cruises runs a sightseeing service between Westminster, London Eye, Tower and Greenwich piers and its new boat, the 600-passenger ‘River Liner’, is due to come into operation in the spring.
Let the games begin
With the countdown officially begun and many venues on the Olympic Park in Stratford now completed, anticipation for the Olympic and Paralympic Games is rapidly building in its intensity.
Although it will have been virtually impossible to arrange your own group travel packages to the Olympics due to a restrictive and complicated ticketing system (that said, the Paralympic ticketing was more accessible), there are three official providers for Games breaks and hospitality packages should you wish to be there. Thomas Cook are selling a range of ‘Games Breaks’ offering between one and four nights’ accommodation, with official tickets to London 2012 events, some meals and transfers also inclusive in the price. Jet Set Sports are providing a similar range of fully inclusive packages, with a minimum of two nights’ accommodation required. The third official provider is Prestige Ticketing, whose exclusive hospitality packages come complete with tickets, fine dining and entertainment inside Games venues.
Alternatively, groups that want to experience the excitement of the Olympics without attending an actual sporting event have a number of other ways to get in on the action.
One of the best ways to experience a side of the Games without actually being there is to take an Olympic Tour with one of London’s knowledgeable Blue Badge Guides. Although there is no access to the actual construction site, the Olympic Stadium at Stratford and other 2012 venues can be seen from a viewing point as part of a tour. There is also the opportunity to take in the history of London’s Royal Docks as you travel towards ExCeL, host to the boxing, judo, weightlifting, table tennis and taekwondo events. A Greenwich tour is equally recommended, with the borough host to no less than six Olympic events. In the world famous Greenwich Park, equestrian competitions will take place against the backdrop of the Queen’s House, while the Georgian façade of the Royal Artillery Barracks at Woolwich will provide the setting for the shooting. A tour will also include the developments taking place on the Greenwich Peninsular, home of The O2, another Olympic host venue for events such as basketball and trampoline gymnastics, where a new skywalk is set to open in time for the Games. Stretching across the breadth of the domed roof, it will include a viewing platform at its centre offering 360-degree views of the peninsula. Visitors will go up in groups of up to 30 alongside a trained guide, with the whole experience lasting around 50 minutes.
Alternatively, active groups might like to get into the Olympic spirit with more energetic pursuits. Fat Tire Bike Tours and The London Bicycle Tour Company operate cycling tours through Hyde Park, The Mall and Horse Guards Parade, home to a range of events from marathon swimming to beach volleyball, while London Sightseeing Runs can provide personalised 2012 Olympic site runs.
Located nearly 20 miles north of the Olympic Park on the edge of the 1,000 acre River Lee Country Park, the Lee Valley White Water Centre opened in April this year and is the only brand new London 2012 venue to open ahead of the Games. Why not test your nerves with a go at white water rafting, canoeing or kayaking on one of two separate courses – the 300-metre Olympic Games competition course, host to the canoe slalom, or 160-metre training course.
Some of the capital’s iconic sporting venues will also be part of London 2012 and tours of these stadiums offer the chance to see behind the scenes. Home to the Championships and soon to be host to the Olympic tennis competition, tours of Wimbledon’s grounds are directed by Blue Badge guides and take in Centre Court, the picnic terraces and press interview room. Admission to its state of the art museum is also included in the price.
One of the venues for the football competition in 2012, Wembley Stadium, with its distinctive arch, is also open for tours. Highlights include a walk through the players’ tunnel and a chance to lift a replica of the FA Cup.
A royal day out – celebrating the Queen’s 60th year
As well as the Olympic and Paralympic Games, 2012 is also the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, a feat only matched by one other monarch – Queen Victoria. In honour of Her Majesty’s 60-year reign, why not visit one of the many royal residences dotted around the capital.
Buckingham Palace opens its 19 state rooms to the public every summer during August and September when the Queen makes her annual visit to Scotland. The special exhibition for 2012 is ‘Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration’, which will show the many ways diamonds have been used by British monarchs over the last 200 years. Look out for the Williamson Brooch set with the finest pink diamond in existence!
Built by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century, the Tower of London has served as a fortress, palace and prison, and is one of the city’s four World Heritage Sites. It is most famous for housing the Crown Jewels, which will be newly-displayed at the Tower from Easter.
Kensington Palace also has plenty for visitors to look forward to with the unveiling of ‘Victoria Revealed’ in March 2012. In the queen’s own words, her story from childhood to old age will reveal her intimate private life set against her regal role, the conflicts this caused and dedication required of her as a person. Set within the very rooms where her history was written, there will be many objects from her life including dresses, diaries, paintings and wedding gifts. There will also be a temporary exhibition, ‘Jubilee – the view from the crowd’ (24th May – 31st October 2012), exploring the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, the only other monarch in history to celebrate 60 years on the throne. The exhibition will draw on personal recollections, newspaper accounts, photographs and film, as well as bring together special loan items associated with her Jubilee year and celebrations.
Groups might also like to visit Kew Palace, former home of George III, which opens its Georgian kitchens for the first time in over 200 years in April 2012, with hosted tours available to palace visitors.