The 2012 Olympics shone a spotlight on London, and in particular the massive revitalisation that is transforming the city’s east. While Olympic sites are undergoing extensive redevelopment and prepare to open to the public in 2013 and 2014, the area has plenty of other attractions showcasing the new East London, and the rest of the capital isn’t lagging behind, with major projects renovating two central areas.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
North Park, the northern section of the newly named Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, is scheduled to reopen on 27 July 2013 – exactly a year after the Opening Ceremony wowed the world. Visitors will be able to enjoy landscaped gardens and some of the Olympic sporting venues, and the park will host a range of summer concerts and festivals, including Hard Rock Calling and the Wireless Festival.
For Easter 2014, the final stage of the £300 million revamp will see the opening of South Plaza, the southern extension of the park. South Park will include the Aquatics Centre, providing arguably the world’s most stylish place to swim, and the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, Britain’s tallest sculpture, giving views across the whole park and beyond.
Until then the best way to get up close to the stadium and park is to take the DLR to Pudding Mill Lane and follow the signs for the View Tube, a series of yellow shipping containers that have been turned into an information centre and cafe, serving up excellent food alongside excellent views.
The View Tube sits conveniently on the Greenway, a bike- and pedestrian-only trail that connects the Olympic site with East London’s creative and cultural hub, Hackney. For years a rundown borough, today the area epitomises the rise of the east, with cool restaurants, bars and shops seemingly opening every day. London Fields and its renovated outdoor pool form a relaxing focus point, with Broadway Market to the south offering boutiques and cafes, and Kingsland Road to the west being the place to head for the best bars and nightlife.
Emirates Air Line & the O2
For a bird’s-eye perspective of all of East London’s redevelopment you’re spoilt for choice. If you have a head for heights and reasonably sturdy legs, Up at the O2 takes you to the top of the world’s largest tent where you can experience unique views of the Thames and all the new buildings along it, not least the ever-expanding Docklands skyscrapers to the west.
For a more leisurely overview hop on the Emirates Air Line cable car at either North Greenwich (next to the O2) or Royal Victoria (next to Royal Victoria DLR). Rising above the river, it offers a panorama across the whole city, particularly the Thames Barrier and City Airport. Right next to the Royal Victoria terminal is The Crystal, an informative, interactive exhibition on urban development in London and around the world.
The rest of London
London Bridge & the Shard
One of the most famous parts of London, the area around London Bridge, was also for years one of its least interesting. Recently though, things have been looking up – literally. The biggest – and tallest – change in the area is the 310m-high Shard, Renzo Piano’s pointy skyscraper and the tallest building in Western Europe. The Shard contains offices, homes, the Shangri-La hotel and, from 1 February 2013, the View from the Shard, three vertigo-inducing galleries giving visitors unrivalled views across London.
Meanwhile, down at ground level, food-lovers’ heaven Borough Market is now firmly on the tourist to-do list, which has had a knock-on effect for the surrounding area, in particular nearby Bermondsey St, where traditional pubs nestle next to reserve-well-in-advance restaurants. A few minutes east of here, weekend buyers at the long-established Bermondsey antique markets now have some great lunch spots to choose from around Spa Terminus, a mini Borough Market for those in the know, with famous names such as Neal’s Yard Dairy and St John’s Bakery setting up business in the arches of the 150-year-old railway viaduct.
The biggest urban regeneration scheme in London, indeed Western Europe, is taking place in King’s Cross, once famous as the city’s red-light district but now halfway through a 25-year redevelopment program. One of the first places to recognise the area’s potential was the British Library, which relocated here in 1997 and is still a highlight for visitors with its exhibitions of manuscripts and books including Magna Carta and handwritten Beatles’ lyrics.
Next door, St Pancras Station is London’s greatest 19th-century neo-Gothic building (yes, even greater than the Houses of Parliament). Saved from demolition in the 1960s, it was restored in the early 2000s and is the terminus for national and international train services. A drink at the Champagne Bar is a wonderful way to enjoy the architecture.
Not to be outdone, neighbouring King’s Cross Station is in the middle of its own revamp, with ugly 20th-century additions to the 1852 building being removed to uncover its original Victorian grandeur. Behind the station, in what had been an industrial wasteland, major work is transforming an area the size of 60 football pitches into homes, offices, bars, shops and restaurants. The arrival of Central St Martins art college has brought a creative energy, helped along by nearby Kings Place arts centre complex. The Regent’s Canal that flows through the area has been spruced up and has the fascinating London Canal Museum on its banks. Be sure to pop into the very helpful Kings Cross Visitor Centre for more details.
An excellent source of information on redevelopment across London is the New London Architecture building in Bloomsbury. Housing temporary exhibitions alongside a permanent and impressive scale model of the capital and its major building projects, it’s a must for anyone with an interest in the city’s future.
This article was published in February 2013 and updated in April 2013.