I AM A LONDONER, and a desperate, geeky lover of my city. But even under the most sophisticated microscope on earth, I couldn’t locate my interest in the Olympics. And I’m not alone.
On a normal day, the population of London exceeds 7 million. On a normal day during the Olympics, it may exceed 900 billion. At least, that’s how those of us dreading the Olympic madness feel.
If you’re also in the “Olympics? Big deal!” camp, there’s a multitude of fabulously cool alternatives…
1. Go relax in a park.
London is the greenest city in the world. There are more than 3,000 parks and open spaces. On a sunny day, the larger parks offer deck chairs for rent if you’d rather not sit on the grass. Or, bring a blanket and have a traditional English picnic, complete with an English summer favourite, a Pimms cocktail: Pimms and lemonade with a floating heap of chopped summer fruit.
In the West, the vast Hyde Park is a favourite. If you can’t score tickets to one of the concerts — Madonna and McFly being the biggest names this summer — just lounge under a tree at the entrance. Sound travels.
A more relaxed alternative is the affluent Regent’s Park. If you’re in trendy (and, during the Games, crowded!) East London, take a break from shopping in funky Shoreditch boutiques in Victoria Park. If you’re in the sunny south, Battersea Park is a favourite stop for families, dogs, and groups of friends.
St James’s Park has a particularly attractive spot next to its pond, where you will spot some wild swans. Be careful not to harm or be harmed by them: As many an Englishman will tell you, all swans are property of Her Majesty the Queen, and can “break a man’s arm.”
2. Find laughter at a comedy club.
Comedy in London is abundant and often free. Hundreds of comics, seasoned and starting out, get behind a mic every night of the week. Comedy clubs such as The Comedy Store, Amused Moose, and Comedy Café host big names and up-and-comers, but most of London’s comedy happens in traditional pubs and basement bars with dodgy sound setups.
If you want to add a little spice to your trip you can even have a go yourself: Contact the Cavendish Arms in Stockwell, South London and ask for a 5 minute spot. It’s the friendliest, most welcoming open mic night in London.
Warning: Sit in the front row and the comedians will talk to you during their set.
3. Enjoy an open-air movie.
Something about having no roof brings magic to the movie experience. Not only do people picnic and sip wine, but the crowd whoops and cheers when Louise shoots the rapist cowboy, when Indiana Jones grabs his hat, or when the opening bars to “Singin’ in the Rain” skip out of the behemouth speakers.
Tickets are already on sale and venues range from Trafalgar Square to a rooftop in Shoreditch to parks all over the city.
4. Ditch public transport and be a pedestrian.
You, a map, and some walking shoes. It’s cheaper, greener, and the best way to not become crushed into a diamond by the Games crowds.
Transport for London has warned that in some stations, during the busiest times, it will take an hour to board a train and that bus lanes will be taken up by diplomatic cars. Pedestrians will rule the Games.
5. Spend a day in the Southbank.
Under the looming London Eye and the postcard scene of the Houses of Parliament, the Southbank is the place for culture, coffee, and those all-important “London snaps.”
The Southbank centre, one of the largest arts centres in the world, is a hub of workshops, theatre, music, and dance. Grab a drink and catch a symphony. It also has free wi-fi and an abundance of sofas and tables, if you want to stop for coffee and a Tweet.
Along the riverbank, as well as stunning views of St Paul’s cathedral and bridges lined with those darling red buses, there are more restaurants, cafes, bookshops, and bars than you can shake a stick at. Don’t shake a stick though — you might knock one of the skateboarders off as they tirelessly try to land those mad tricks.
The National Theatre runs tours of its stages for just £8, including the history of this landmark London theatre and a stroll backstage to play with some props.
If you’re feeling flush, take the elevator to the top of the OXO Tower and enjoy a meticulously crafted cocktail with a panoramic view of the city. At night, it’s more than romantic. It’s glorious. (Don’t look at the prices, it might spoil the view.)
6. Get cultured in a museum…the more offbeat the better.
You know what’s fun? Googling “London ‘noun’ museum” too see if it exists. Sure, there are the old faithfuls — music, art, contemporary art, imperial war, maritime, film. But there’s more.
London museum culture runs so deep, it’s like Google in building form. If you could go to a museum on anything, what about the Cartoon Museum? The Fan Museum? The Fire Brigade Museum? The Childhood Museum? What about just going to someone’s house? Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English writer, is receiving visitors, as is Dr. Freud, in his house in affluent Hampstead.
7. Immerse yourself in the cafe culture.
London’s café culture has exploded in the last decade. Londoners feel entitled to a decent coffee, and so should you. For sheer knock-your-socks-off quality try The Espresso Room on Great Ormond Street, Caffe Vergnano on Charing Cross Road, and either branch of Monmouth — the tiny, charming Monmouth Street branch in Theatreland, or the old warehouse branch in Borough market.
For cafes with atmosphere, maybe even somewhere to read, write your travel journal, or catch up on some emails, try Sacred on Ganton Street, with its incense, huge range of fruit teas, and free wi-fi. A welcome respite from the madness of nearby Oxford Circus, as well as the Olympics!
Another favourite is Drink, Shop & Do in Kings Cross. This area, once known for cheap hotels and cheaper prostitutes, is slowly climbing upmarket. A bright vintage café set in an old Victorian bathhouse, every bit of furniture, crockery, cutlery, and art is for sale. Just try to resist the range of moist and creative cakes such as passion fruit sponge and macadamia nut cheesecake.
A classic, Bar Italia in Soho serves wonderful coffee and is only closed between 5am and 7am. Staffed by expert baristas, after you tell them twice, they never forget you or how you like your coffee. Bar Italia has a special place in London’s history: The café culture started with its opening in 1949. A tiny patch of Italy in London, it’s a great place to stop for a reviving espresso after a night in a club, and wait for the tube to open.