We're 648 days away from opening ceremonies at the London Summer Games, but the city is already offering visitors a sneak peek at Olympic Park, venues and a wide range of Games-inspired arts and cultural events.
Sports fan or not, this is a great time to plan a trip to London. The city already welcomes more than 14 million visitors each year, said Sally Chatterjee, CEO of Visit London.
“The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games provide an enormous opportunity for us to showcase London to an even larger international audience,” Chatterjee said. “And for those who want to get a head start, there are many sports venues that can already be visited, including Wembley Stadium, the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club and Lords Cricket Ground.”
There is a lot of sprucing-up going on right now in preparation for the more than 9 million Olympics fans who will be visiting for 17 days during summer 2012.
The 2012 Olympic Park is being built on 500 acres in a formerly rundown part of London’s east end, and will contain the Olympic Stadium, an aquatic center, a Pringle-shaped velodrome, a handball arena and the Olympic Village, which will house many athletes. After the Games, the park will be renamed Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
The construction site itself is off-limits to the public, but guided walking tours and bus tours currently take visitors through nearby neighborhoods and historic areas and to spots that offer great views of the work in progress.
There are several tours to consider. On weekends, the Olympic Delivery Authority offers free hour-long bus tours of the Olympic Park Site. Tour Guides Ltd., meanwhile, leads two-hour walking tours at 11 a.m. each day for £8, or about $12.70 (£9 after Jan. 1, 2011). And Urban Gentry, which offers private tours focusing on art, food and fashion, will soon have a tour devoted to the neighborhood around the Olympic Park. “We want visitors to meet some of east London’s creative community, visit artists’ studios and get a behind-the-scenes looks at some of legacy for 2012 in the form of the amazing architecture,” said Urban Gentry founder Kevin Caruth.
Many Olympic events will take place outside the official Olympic Park site in existing sports venues and open spaces. For example, Hyde Park will be used for the triathlon and for marathon swimming. Lord’s Cricket Ground will host archery competitions, and equestrian events will take place in Greenwich Park. These and many other sites are available to visit and tour before the Games begin.
Men’s and women’s soccer finals will be held in the new, 90,000 seat Wembley Stadium, which has a sliding roof and is about six miles from downtown London. (The first Wembley Stadium was also at this site and was the venue for the 1948 Olympic Games and for the 1966 World Soccer Cup.) In addition to attending a regular sport or entertainment event here, visitors can take a 90-minute tour of the stadium that includes the England changing room, the players’ tunnel, and famous sports trophies and artifacts such as the torch that started the 1948 Olympic Games. Shorter, 60-minute tours are also available. See Wembley Stadium's website for prices and more information.
Wimbledon, the grass-court tennis venue famous for being the site of the Wimbledon tennis tournament since 1877, will host the tennis competitions. Prior to the games, visitors can attend other tennis tournaments and visit the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, which has a collection of historic tennis attire and artifacts, a film about the science of tennis and an unusual tour led by a ghost-like image of John McEnroe.
The Olympic Games aren't just about sports — they're also about showcasing a host country’s arts and culture.
When the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games ended in September 2008, the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad began. Most of the major projects underway are designed to roll out U.K.-wide in the months and weeks leading up to the Games.
Events will include a World Shakespeare Festival scheduled to kick off on Shakespeare’s birthday (April 23), elaborate outdoor art installations (complete with three 30-foot, hand-crocheted lions), a traveling island, major concerts, film and poetry festivals, fashion events, circuses, carnivals and more. More information about these projects is on the Cultural Olympiad website, where there’s a calendar of upcoming events.
If you do visit London for an Olympic preview before the 2012 Summer Games kick off, you may decide you want to return for the Games themselves. If you do, the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games has an invitation for you. The group is seeking volunteers, or “Game Makers,” willing to help out.
“Volunteers from the U.S. will have to meet a set of U.K. immigration rules and be available for interviews and training before the Games begin,” said Jean Tomlin, the committee's director of human resources.
You’ll need to agree to find your own place to stay, but you will get free public transit tickets to and from the Games during your volunteer stint — and plenty of Olympic-style adventures.
“Anyone interested will have to move fast: the deadline for applying to volunteer is midnight on Oct. 27,” Tomlin said.