London's Coolest New Attractions
Emirates recently held a test flight over London, but it didn’t involve any planes. The Dubai-based airline is the primary sponsor of a new cable-car service suspended high across the Thames and capable of carrying 2,500 passengers.
As Western Europe’s most populated and dynamic city, the British capital isn’t short on diversions. London’s intoxicating world beat plays out across cobbled alleyways, leafy parks, and gilded avenues oozing with history. And the Thames already has its iconic landmarks, from Tower Bridge to the London Eye Ferris wheel.
But the city isn’t resting on its laurels. London, which just celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with great pomp, is already on to the next big things: new arts venues, parks, and thrill rides like the Emirates Air Line cable car. Even locals are taking notice. These cool attractions are all in the process of being unveiled as London welcomes the world for the Games of the XXX Olympiad.
Many sights are naturally in East London in proximity to the Olympics or make up part of the Games complex itself. Olympic Park, for starters, spreads over 247 acres of parkland in a feat of bioengineering that includes wildlife habitats, a riverside promenade, and trees planted as a hedge against climate change—proof that there’s literally room to grow in this chaotic city. Man-made attractions within the park will also vie for your attention, notably the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a twisting steel tower with a viewing platform.
But not all the buzzed-about attractions are in East London. Near Tower Bridge, in a development called More London, Renzo Piano’s 1,016-foot-high Shard skyscraper has taken shape and set a record as Western Europe’s tallest building. And about a mile to the west, just past the Globe Theatre, the first expansion phase of the Tate Modern—which receives more than 5 million annual visitors—is well under way. Architects Herzog & de Meuron’s addition is a striking latticework brick edifice with two former oil tanks repurposed as performance and exhibition space.
While 2012 is a seminal year for London, the new and improved Tate Modern, like the rest of these attractions, will keep the party going for visitors long after the Olympic Games’ closing ceremonies.
Thames RIB Experience
An already popular outing on the River Thames has just gotten a whole lot cooler, especially if you’re a James Bond fan. The exhilarating 400-horsepower Thames RIB experience, which speeds by some of London’s most iconic sights at 40mph, now features a stand-alone 80-minute James Bond–themed itinerary—with fascinating anecdotes about Ian Fleming and high-speed flybys past the headquarters of the MI5 and MI6 secret service.
Shark Reef Encounter at the London Aquarium
One of the world’s most feared predators has a spiffy new home at Sea Life London Aquarium. At the Shark Reef Encounter, 16 creatures—from sand tiger sharks to bowmouths, grey reefs, and blacktips—sinisterly wend their way through a 65-foot tank dotted with shoals of other less harmful fish. Your encounter involves strolling a 15-foot section of glass walkway above the tank, peering down at the fins below, and interacting with exhibits that chronicle the 450-million-year evolution of the shark.
The Emirates Air Line
London now joins a rarefied group of cities like Barcelona, Medellín, and Taipei that host urban cable cars. This one arches over the Thames River, offering glorious views of East London, Greenwich, and Canary Wharf. Dubbed the Emirates Air Line, for the Dubai-based carrier’s part-sponsorship of it, the $92 million gondola service links the ExCeL exhibition center at the Royal Docks with the O2 arena (formerly the Millennium Dome). It can carry 2,500 passengers an hour in 34 cabins that travel at an altitude of 300 feet, more than half a mile across the Thames.
Tate Modern Expansion
The Tate Modern debuted in 2000 and quickly became the world’s most popular modern art museum, attracting more than 5 million annual visitors. Architects Herzog & de Meuron’s much-needed addition is a latticework brick edifice above two disused oil tanks—huge subterranean spaces that will also be open for live art installations and performances. A second phase of expansion is slated for 2016.
Opening in June at the foot of London Bridge, Renzo Piano’s 1,016-foot-high triangular tower seizes the title of Western Europe’s tallest, cloud-scraping building, with an observation deck that promises 40-mile city views and easy access from high-speed elevators (beginning in February 2013). The glass-encased floors are filled with a mix of offices, apartments, upscale restaurants, and guest rooms at a Shangri-La hotel.
Up at the O2
Brace yourself: Up at the O2 is a vertiginous walk atop the O2 arena (formerly Millennium Dome), which played a starring role in the pre-title sequence of the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough. The excursion lasts 90 heart-pounding minutes and was inspired by similar climbs at Sydney’s Harbour Bridge. Thrill-seekers don bespoke climbing suits, shoes, and safety harnesses to access a viewing platform on the arena roof, walking along a tensile fabric walkway 175 feet above the ground.
The Serpentine Sackler Gallery
A 206-year-old, onetime gunpowder depot built in the style of a Palladian villa in Kensington Gardens has been repurposed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Zaha Hadid as a new cultural destination to complement the Serpentine Gallery. Located yards from the existing gallery, the hitherto Magazine Building will encompass nearly 9,700 square feet of galleries and social space, including a restaurant, as well as a new wing.
The Cutty Sark
Five years after it was engulfed by fire, this three-masted, 19th-century tea clipper has emerged from a $77 million conservation project. The 143-year-old vessel, the fastest merchant sailing ship of its era, now appears to levitate above ground—her hull encased in a web of glass 11 feet above ground and dramatically illuminated at night. The attraction also features interactive displays, which re-create life as it was in 1869, when the vessel first set sail.
The undulating roof of the Zaha Hadid–designed venue was modeled on the fluidity of water and built with three pools to host Olympic swimming and diving events. It’s also in sync with the riverfront environment of Olympic Park and set off by the twisted ArcelorMittal Orbit observation tower.
In eastern London, a new open space on a grand scale will soon rival the old favorites. Olympic Park is among the largest metropolitan greenswards in Europe, comprising 247 acres of lawns, flower gardens, and a riverside promenade. It’s a remarkable feat of bioengineering. Wildlife habitats have been created; “future-proof” trees were planted as a hedge against climate change. “This project marries a strong English tradition of pleasure parks with new green technologies,” says Mary Margaret Jones, senior principal of Hargreaves Associates, the landscape architecture firm contracted to transform this postindustrial wasteland. “Its ecological systems will unwind over time: meadows, wetlands, evolving plant communities. It means a whole part of the city will have a renaissance.” Even in this crowded capital, there’s room to grow.