For London, this is a big year. An Olympic year. The London Olympics 2012 are from July 27 to August 12, and this has meant $14.5 billion in public-sector works to get ready.More London travel:
But what does it mean for tourists who aren't going to the Games? The city's industry is starting to fear that the Olympics may actually affect them adversely, as has been the pattern elsewhere - "normal" tourists stay away, concerned about inflated hotel room prices and the strain on public transport.
And there's such a big population in the UK that even Londoners are complaining they can't get tickets to Olympic events. But it means that before and after the games, those "normal" tourists will benefit from the massive facelift, refurbishment and general "getting ready".
Both encompass enormous histories, and are wonderful buildings. British coronations and other landmark royal events have been held at Westminster Abbey since 1066 - right up to the wedding of Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, in April. There are the graves of 17 monarchs and superb stained glass and textiles. It is open six days a week - an adult ticket costs £16 ($24.50).
With one of the biggest cathedral domes in the world, St Paul's Cathedral as it is today is the fifth cathedral on this site (the first dating to 604).
It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1675 and 1710. A £40 million ($61 million), 15-year restoration program is now complete. And here's the tip - if you are up to it, try the 259 steps to the Whispering Gallery, which runs around the interior of the dome. Whisper against its walls and be heard on the opposite side.
·See westminster-abbey.org, stpauls.co.uk.Churchill War Rooms
This has become one of London's most-visited attractions. As World War II raged, prime minister Winston Churchill and his cabinet met in this extensive network of rooms and tunnels underground. And the rooms from which they ran the war during air raids are exactly as they left them in 1945. There is a good audio tour, explaining in detail the operations and life underground, and in the map room, past the scramble phones, the wall maps still show the thousands of pin holes that charted naval convoys.
·iwm.org.uk/churchill.Cruising the Thames
Cruise boats run all day from pier to pier, generally from 10am. It's a good way to see a lot of London, down this historical main artery of the River Thames. And stick this in your diary: on the afternoon of June 3, perhaps 1000 boats - one of the biggest flotillas ever on the Thames - will gather in preparation for the Queen to lead the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant. Among them will be Thames barges, working and row boats, historic boats, wooden launches and steam vessels.
It surely is one of the most distinctive landmarks on the River Thames, but the trick is also to climb to 42m for good views. These High Level Walkways were originally opened to let people across the river when the bridge was raised, which happens about a thousand times a year.
·towerbridge.org.uk.Harrods, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols...Belstaff
Selfridges has just about everything you can imagine, Harrods is famously fancy and must-see and, while you are in Knightsbridge, walk on down to Harvey Nics. But, if you want to see a bit of history dragged into today, head down to the Belstaff store in Conduit Street, W1. Why? Belstaff, an English brand founded in 1924, was once best known for its waxed cotton motorcycle jackets, but it has updated, become super-cool and is now worn by Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Prince Harry.
On the motorcycle front, Long Way Round's Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, and the likes of Top Gear's Richard Hammond have taken over where Steve McQueen left off. Belstaff is cool and interesting. (Yes, for girls, too.)Regent's Park
The 164ha of Regent's Park was designed in 1811 by architect John Nash. There are lovely walks, a boating lake, rose garden and a bandstand. The high spot is Primrose Hill, on the north side, with views over the London skyline. (Try it at sunset.) And the area is chockers with pubs, cafes and restaurants.
·royalparks.gov.uk/the-regents- park.aspx.Kew Gardens
The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew have, in their earlier guise of Kew Park, been open to the public since 1840. The 121ha gardens are a UNESCO world heritage site, with superb flowerbeds, glasshouses and galleries. They open at 9.30am daily. Closing times vary. As a guide, adult entry is £13.90 ($21.30). Guided tours leave the Victoria Plaza Visitor Centre at 11am and 2pm. Kew Gardens is in Richmond.
·kew.org.Royal College of Music
Not only does it have a free museum of musical instruments but its uber-talented students give concerts, which are mostly free and in various rooms within this historic building in Prince Consort Street, near the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington. The rooms echo with the sound of cellos and brass instruments, and voices warming up, and the four-hand arrangement (two pianos, two players) of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor was a treat for £10 ($15.30).
A short train ride from the centre of London, Windsor Castle is the world's oldest and biggest lived-in (albeit occasionally) castle. It is open all year, with access to the State Apartments, St George's Chapel, Queen Mary's Dolls' House, and exhibitions. For 2012, there's an exhibition called The Queen: Sixty Photographs for Sixty Years. There's also a new tour on which visitors can climb 65m to the top of the Round Tower. A great view of the castle, Windsor Great Park and the pretty Thames Valley. An adult ticket for entry to Windsor Castle is £16.50 ($25.30).
There are more pubs and bars than you can shake a stick at.
But for something different - hot cocktail bars - these four will give you a taste of the scene:
Experimental Cocktail Club. People don't really head to London's Chinatown to go drinking - but this is one of London's hippest bars. For, behind an unmarked door at 13a Gerrard Street, Chinatown, is a speakeasy world of music, cocktails and frivolity. It's open from 6pm to 3am. See experimentalcocktailclublondon. com.
Candlelight Club. The speakeasy scene provides an interesting undercurrent in London, and this clandestine bar is classic 1920s style, lit only by candles. Live 20s jazz, bespoke cocktails and guest "mixologists" inhabit this den. It's open from 9.30pm to midnight. Call 07768 628788 for the location - they keep it secret. See thecandlelightclub.com.
Zetter Townhouse. Tony Conigliaro has a big reputation for creating cocktails, drawing on old recipes for tinctures, bitters and herbal remedies. And he's put it to good use behind the apothecary- style counter here. And, of course, Zetter Townhouse is in Clerkenwell, the heart of Dickensian London and once known for its gin distilleries. Drinks creator Tony champions modern classics like The Twinkle and Smoked Old Fashioned, but there are also infusions and homemade cordials. Zetter Townhouse is at 49 St John's Square, Clerkenwell, EC1. See www.thezettertownhouse.com .
Absinthe Bar. The taste of the green fairy. It opened in July, serving the likes of Morning Glory Fizz (Absinthe La Clandestine, whisky, egg white, Angostura bitters and soda). It's at Brompton Bar & Grill, 243 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge. See bromptonbarandgrill.com.Pubs. Good old London pubs. Real history, real nostalgia, real ale. They are in most back streets and on many corners, and British pub food has come into its own. Bangers and mash as an artform. There are some historic crackers along the River Thames - the Captain Kidd, named for one of the river's most famous pirates, or The Prospect of Whitby, which dates back to the 1500s and was the haunt of smugglers, pirates and prostitutes.
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