What's new in Britain and Ireland for 2011

Once a gritty harbor, the Docklands is today's London, filled with gleaming skyscrapers and a busy modern-art-filled people zone.Rick Steves
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

After weathering volcanic ash, wicked winter snow, and rough financial storms last year, Great Britain and Ireland are hoping for a smoother 2011. Fortunately, there's a lot to look forward to.

On April 29, the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton takes place at London's Westminster Abbey, followed by a public appearance and reception at Buckingham Palace. Expect exuberant crowds if visiting during this time. Several companies, including London Walks, are offering royal wedding walking tours featuring the wedding venues and the couple's favorite haunts.

London is also prepping for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and visitors can take guided tours of the construction zone that will become the Olympic Park. This site is handy to visit in conjunction with a trip to the built-to-the-hilt Docklands district, for those who want to see a modern side of London beyond Big Ben. Filled with skyscrapers, art, and people, the Docklands is an easy stop on the way home from Greenwich, as both destinations reside along the same DLR (Docklands Light Railway) line. Seeing all three — Olympics site, Docklands, and Greenwich — make for a great day trip to London's thriving east.

Restoration projects are ongoing at some of London's top sights. Lady Di's former home, Kensington Palace, is under renovation through mid-2012. During this time, its regular exhibit of historical artifacts has been replaced by a cheesy Enchanted Palace theatrical show not worth the 12.50 GBP ($19.30 USD) entrance fee. The overpriced Dali Universe exhibit, once located prominently next to the London Eye, is currently being moved and downsized ... making it easier than ever to avoid. A multi-year expansion continues at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Tate Britain will likely begin renovation work this spring.

London's airports are also being spiffed up. Heathrow's oldest terminal, T-2, will be closed until 2013 during its 1 billion-pound renovation. Gatwick Airport's renovation is complete, and its two terminals are conveniently connected by a free, two-minute monorail ride.

Eurostar's monopoly on the Chunnel tunnel expired at the beginning of 2010. Air France has announced plans for competing high-speed trains between London and Paris, with service starting possibly in 2011. Germany's national railroad hopes to run its high-speed trains to London by the 2012 Olympics.

Outside of London, travelers will find new — or greatly improved — sights. In February, the Royal Shakespeare Company returns to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford after a three-year renovation. If planning a visit, book your room and play tickets well in advance.

In the Beatles' hometown, the new Museum of Liverpool will open this summer, filling a big, splashy, white building on the harborfront next to the Albert Dock. The museum will feature exhibits on the technological and cultural history of the city.

York's top archaeological sight, the Yorkshire Museum, reopened last year after a major facelift at a relatively minor price tag, thanks to employees who pitched in with renovations to help keep costs to a mere 2 million pounds. The museum's new exhibits focus on prehistoric, medieval, and Roman times.

While most Waterford Crystal is manufactured elsewhere (by cheaper labor), the finest glass craftsmen work here at the new Waterford Crystal Visitor Center, where they create special-order pieces.

Across the sea, the Irish capital of Dublin continues to expand its public transportation system, with the light rail's red line now extending to the hip O2 Theatre (nicknamed The Point), the country's top live-music venue. The beefed-up Dublinia exhibit has emerged from renovation with three floors of Viking and medieval history, including a huge, well-done model of medieval Dublin.

Down south, the Waterford Crystal Visitor Center has reopened in a brand-new facility in downtown Waterford. The new space offers a more intimate experience than the old factory, which was much larger and located outside of town. During the one-hour tour, visitors are encouraged to ask questions of glass blowers and crystal cutters.

In County Clare, a new rail line has been completed, connecting Limerick (via Ennis) and Galway for the first time in decades. This is a big plus for those staying in Ennis and relying on public transport.

In Northern Ireland, Belfast has adopted an "iLink" transit smartcard system, similar to London's Oystercard. And the city's excellent Ulster Museum — intriguing for the British bias it injects into its Irish history exhibits — has reopened after a $27 million remodel.

Like many countries, the UK and Ireland are struggling financially. British Prime Minister David Cameron announced dramatic spending cuts and an increase in the Value-Added Tax from 17.5 percent to 20 percent (which likely means higher prices for travelers). Meanwhile, Ireland's much-vaunted "Celtic Tiger" economy is long gone. But regardless of these problems, infrastructure and tourism improvements continue, making this a fine year to visit Europe's most popular isles.

( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at , or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)