London: a spectacular capital

Date Posted: 01/10/2012

After a once-in-a-lifetime summer London is not resting on its laurels, writes Jeannine Williamson.

The Queen’s diamond jubilee and the Olympics may be over, but as London basks in the glory of an unforgettable year there has never been a better time to plan a visit to the capital. GTOs will find a host of new attractions and the legacy of one of the most memorable periods in the modern history of London.

Olympic heritage

The Olympic Park, built as the sporting complex for this summer’s games, will reopen as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in 2013. The 500-acre site in Stratford is being transformed into one of the largest urban parks created in Europe for more than 150 years. The phased development will include the restoration of wetland habitats and venues for a variety of year-round cultural events. A permanent fixture will be the striking ArcelorMittal Orbit, the steel tower built for the Olympics that is the UK’s largest public work of art.

Also built to coincide with the Olympics was the Emirates Air Line, the country’s first urban cable car. Connecting Greenwich and the Royal Docks across the Thames, passengers can enjoy fantastic views of London, including the City, Canary Wharf, Thames Barrier and Olympic Park, during the five-minute journey in one of the 34 cars. Groups can hire cars, which hold ten passengers, for £86 for a continuous round trip, the same price as individual tickets.

Cutty Sark relaunches

This year the Cutty Sark was officially reopened by the Queen, heralding a new chapter in the life of one of the world’s most famous ships. Five years ago the last surviving tea clipper, which is in dry dock at Greenwich, was ravaged by fire and the future of the national treasure initially looked bleak. However, following a painstaking £50 million restoration programme the Cutty Sark has become a unique new visitor experience and groups can now venture both underneath and climb aboard the beautiful three-masted sailing ship.

They will walk in the footsteps of the merchant seamen who sailed her over a century ago and explore the hold where precious cargo was stored on epic voyages. Previously open Tuesday to Sunday, the Cutty Sark is now also open on Mondays and pre-booked groups of ten or more receive special group rates and other benefits.

Spectacular Shard

The Shard, near London Bridge, has already become the latest iconic and most instantly recognisable landmark on London’s skyline, the tallest building in western Europe that towers at a height of 310m (1,016ft). On 1st February the viewing platform will open to the public providing breathtaking 360° views for up to 40 miles across London.

The area will be situated at 244m (800ft), almost twice the height of any other viewing platform in London. Visiting groups will embark on a multi-sensory journey that will end with an unparalleled view over the capital. The platform will be open from 9am to 10pm daily so visitors can enjoy the very different cityscapes by day or night. Advance tickets are now on sale priced at £24.95 for adults and £18.95 for children at www.theviewfromtheshard.com. At present there are no discounts for groups.

Tiger, tiger burning bright

Scheduled to open in April 2013, the £3.6 million Tiger Territory will be the new flagship exhibit at London Zoo in Regent’s Park. The attraction is aimed at informing and inspiring visitors to understand the role they can play in the survival of tigers and help fund the Zoological Society of London’s conservation work.

Groups will go deep into the tigers’ territory for close up encounters of the beauty and ferocity of these magnificent creatures and learn about the plight of the endangered Sumatran tiger where less than 300 left in the wild. London Zoo is home to over 720 animal species and group benefits include discounted admission for parties of ten or more and catering vouchers that can be exchanged at the Oasis Cafe.

Curtain up

A theatre trip is a popular addition to any London itinerary and in addition to tried and tested favourites there is always something new to see. Groups that enjoyed Mama Mia! featuring the songs of Abba will want to book seats for Viva Forever! showcasing the hits of the Spice Girls. Opening at the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End in December, and running through 2013, it is the brainchild of Judy Craymer, who produced Mama Mia!, with a script written by comedian Jennifer Saunders.

Looking further ahead, and sure to be a huge hit with family audiences, the musical of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory premieres in June 2013 at the London Palladium. The book that has inspired two films is being brought to the stage by Academy Award winning film and theatre director Sam Mendes. Tickets for Viva Forever! are now on sale and for both shows there will be discounted admission for groups of eight or more.

October 2013 marks 50 years since the National Theatre Company opened at the Old Vic with its first production of Hamlet starring Peter O’Toole and Michael Redgrave with Laurence Olivier as artistic director. A permanent exhibition, Stage by Stage, on the theatre’s history of the theatre will go on show in the Olivier Circle Gallery at the National Theatre.

Colourful centenary

The Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, dubbed the ‘greatest flower show on earth, celebrates its 100th anniversary next year so visiting groups can expect an extra special event in 2013. The RHS offers group bookings for parties of ten or more.

War museum revamp

GTOs should note that the Imperial War Museum will be closed temporarily for six months from January to June 2013 for a transformation that will allow the IWM to display more items from its collections as well as revamp the visitor experience. Throughout the next two years leading up to the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War in 2014 the museum will create new and larger wartime galleries. In the meantime the museum will reopen next summer with a new family exhibition on spies. The IWM’s other London attractions, HMS Belfast and the Churchill War Rooms, remain open as normal.

Five great group attractions

Kensington Palace: Following a £12 million two-year refurbishment project the former home of Princess Diana includes restored landscaped gardens, four visitor routes to explore and new shops and a cafe. 

Lords Tour: Go behind the scenes at one of the world’s most famous sporting venues with a tour around the home of cricket and the MCC Museum where prized exhibits include the Ashes urn. Private tours at preferred times are available for groups.

National Gallery: The crowning glory of Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery is filled with paintings from the 13th to the 19th century by renowned artists such as Van Gogh, da Vinci, Botticelli, Constable and Stubbs. Admission is free and for an additional cost specialist group talks and tours are available.

Royal Albert Hall: It’s famous as the home of the Proms but the Royal Albert Hall has a year-round concert programme and offers fascinating tours with special rates for groups of 15 or more.

Up at the O2: This exhilarating 90-minute experience will take daring group members on a climb to the viewing platform in the centre of the roof at the O2 followed by a thrilling descent back to base.

Five marvellous museums

Bank of England Museum Glittering gold bars and pikes and muskets once used to defend the bank are among the interesting exhibits charting the history of the UK’s central bank. Admission is free and includes a guide who will explain the bank’s role from its foundation in 1694 to the present day.

British Museum: Spanning over two million years of human history, highlights at this world-famous museum include the Rosetta Stone, Parthenon sculptures and Egyptian mummies. Entry is free and groups enjoy discounted entry to charging exhibitions and special tours.

Museum of London: Packed with objects telling the story of London’s past, at this museum near St Paul’s Cathedral groups can discover prehistoric London, the city under Roman rule and the grandeur of medieval London. There is free entry plus guided group tours and talks. 

Sherlock Holmes Museum: Step back into Victorian times at this atmospheric museum that has been furnished to resemble the apartment of Conan Doyle’s fictional detective and his sidekick Doctor Watson. There is discounted admission for groups of ten or more.

Victoria and Albert Museum: The V&A celebrates art and design with 3,000 years’ worth of amazing artefacts from around the world including furniture, paintings, sculpture, metalwork and textiles. Entry is free and private group tours are available.

Photo credit: The View from The Shard

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