Savour the happening character of London's East End in the midst of the 2012 Olympic Games
I go back to London often. I lived there for almost a decade before to moving to Vancouver and I miss the swarming monstrosity after a few months of separation. Unlike its pretty exported image - behatted princesses taking tea, Harry Potter vanishing at King’s Cross, Shakespeare unlacing bodices backstage at The Globe - London is an edgy, unpredictable and, lately, often grumpy city.
The Euro crisis is weighing down headlines. Londoners are disenchanted with the 2012 Summer Olympics, July 27-August 12. Yet the indomitable London urban culture is thriving in spite of it all. The London street food scene is on fire, offering cheap eats for the growing number of unemployed 20-somethings and visitors like me who are on a budget. East London's traditionally working class and immigrant neighbourhoods are filling with young creatives, becoming destinations in their own right, with or without the Olympic Stadium.
It’s this concoction, not dissimilar to the dissonances in the perfect Pimms Cup, that makes modern London well worth the trip.
Alice and Hugh, a pair of British Bulldogs, wait patiently for the Olympic Torch to arrive. (Image: London 2012 Media Gallery)
Getting to London
It’s easier than ever to get there. Virgin’s showboating CEO Richard Branson just launched a London - Vancouver route. Once in Heathrow, it’s time to break out that e-book you neglected while watching Iron Lady on the flight.
Heathrow operates at 99% capacity on a daily, pre-Olympic basis with 1,305 arrivals and departures per day. Passport Control is chronically understaffed; it took me 1.5 hours to make it through mid-week in June. I hear this is completely normal.
How to cope? Make the most of the 1,000 volunteers - dressed in pink uniforms - to help you navigate the airport during the Olympics. Or take a nap: No. 1 Traveller in Terminal 3 rents rooms by the hour as does Yotel in Terminal 4. Although I don't consider it a true Heathrow experience unless I dine in Ramsay's Plane Food in Terminal 5.
Londoners eating street food scored on Brick Lane's food cart sand the Sunday UpMarket at the Old Truman Brewery. (Image: Flickr user GarryKnight)
East London Entertainment and Eats
Londoners are constantly moaning about the Olympics - from the inevitable congestion to the official food sponsors (McDonalds) and the price of a pint at Olympic Stadium (£7.20 - more than twice the national average). Except for the school kids involved in the torch relays, every city dweller saved up their meager cache of optimism for The Queen's Diamond Jubilee street parties in early June. It rained. Now they’re grumpy.
The 2012 Summer Olympics take place in London's East End. So here’s what a grumpy East Londoner does to feel better: they go to too many pubs. Classic, must-visit East London pubs include the Dove (Hackney), Palm Tree (Mile End), Carpenter’s Arms (Bethnal Green) and King Edward VII (Stratford), a cozy refuge tucked away near the Westfield Olympic shopping complex.
Next, a true Londoner recovers with a big, late breakfast. Sure, the Full English is still a valid option. But the hip, see-and-be-seen Londoners will be found grabbing creative, discount bites at London’s street food markets.
On weekends, you can catch London’s best roaming street carts at Brick Lane in East London. Favourites include Rib Man’s thick pork sarnies and Brit pork rolls served with a generous squeeze of “Holy Fuck” sauce. Big Apple Dogs is another budget-friendly favourite. These gourmand haute dogs are handmade in London, and inspired by New York dogs. Options include a smoked pork-and-beef "Big Dog," a gourmet frankfurter and "the Pimp Steak" - all beef with paprika. At £3, they're £2.90 less than the price of a mainstream dog in Olympic Stadum. Make your pick and take a seat on the curb with the rest of the cheerfully recovering masses.
If you're keen to get least one East London historic experience under your belt, wander through the collection of artifacts in Hackney Museum. You'll get a feel for what happened to East London during WWII. The museum also charts the immigrant neighbourhood's waves of new inhabitants, generaton by generation.
Hungering for East London entertainment? Head to a concert in Dalston's Cafe Oto. A home for up-and-coming, non-mainstream musicians, Oto has live music seven nights a bustling bar that stocks craft cider, wines, and oddly, a Japanese booze line up: sake, shochu, plum wine and Japanese whisky. At this rate you'l probaby need another Brick Lane pork bun the next morning...
Westfield Stratford City, the official shopping destination for the London 2012 Olympic Games and the largest mall in Europe (Image: Westfield)
Embracing the London 2012 Olympic Games
For those who already have London 2012 Olympic Games tickets, there’s absolutely nothing to be grumpy about. Here’s what you need to know about the main venue, 80,000 seat Olympic Stadium, in the new 500-acre Olympic Park built in London’s East End.
Olympic planners chose London’s East End in an effort to gentrify the hood with the tourist crush. Plus, London has only one possible direction it can expand and that’s east. The East End was formerly London’s breadbasket. It suffered the most during the WWII bombings. It transformed into an industrial wasteland, and a working-class immigrant neighbourhood with pockets of artsy inhabitants (Dalston, Hoxton, Shoreditch) from 1950 to present day.
As part of the Oympic planners' efforts to gentrify, you’ll also find Europe’s largest shopping mall, Westfield Stratford City, which was constructed for the 2012 Games in addition to Olympic Park.
Over 70% of London’s Olympic visitors will pass through Westfield shopping centre. A high-speed train from King’s Cross will deliver 25,000 spectators per hour to Westfield Stratford City where they can disembark into the massive retail complex and make their way to the park. Westfield boasts over 300 shops with all the big Brit names (John Lewis, TopShop, Marks and Spencer, Jaeger, Office, Links), 50 restaurants (Banger Bros, Chip + Fish, Pret, Eat), three hotels and 17 cinema screens.
While it’s possible to shop your way through the Olympics and miss all the sporting events, make sure to venture out into the sunshine and see the stadium sights. After taking in a game or two, wander around the surrounding East End neighbourhoods.
There are free East London tours for those who prebook with London Greeters service. London Greeters offer resident-led tours covering the five East London boroughs, as well as Camden and Central London.
London is an ancient city of ghosts, where Roman ruins lie under tube stations. You'll appreciate the mega sports complex all the more when you've placed it in its proper context.
Helpful hint: If you don't yet have sporting event tickets keep an eye on the official ticket resale site or attend free, unticketed events like the torch relay, marathon, triathalon or open water swimming competitions.