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Things to do in London besides the Olympics

Aug. 1, 2012 at 10:07 AM ET

via Condé Nast Traveler /
London's Emirates Air Line cable car crosses the Thames in high style.

The Olympics are taking over London this summer, but that's not all there is to do in town. Read on for our picks of the city’s top summer festivals, exhibits and events that have nothing to do with the games.

Emirates Air Line

There were concerns that the U.K.'s first urban cable car wouldn't open in time for the games, but it made its first public trip June 28. The system soars 295 feet above the Thames and transports up to 2,500 pedestrians and cyclists per hour between London’s Docklands and the O2 arena. Designed by London-based Wilkinson Eyre, who also designed the temporary basketball arena for this year’s games, the line offers passengers spectacular views of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Gherkin, the Thames Barrier, and the Olympic Park. (Ongoing)

World Shakespeare Festival

This is the largest Shakespeare festival ever mounted — in the U.K., thousands of artists from around the world will take part in almost 70 productions. Catch the Bard’s greatest plays in various theaters around London and at the newly revamped Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. (Productions through November; related exhibits through December)

London Pleasure Gardens

London is reviving a 200-year-long tradition of communal public spaces called pleasure gardens. This summer, you'll find one of these cultural destinations sprawling across the waterside docklands in East London. This vast post-industrial space, which opened at the end of June, has been transformed into an urban festival ground, complete with cafés and bars, a floating cinema, illuminated fountains, a sculpture garden and a pop-up hotel. (Ongoing)

Harrods Toy Kingdom

Harrods has just opened its much-hyped, 26,000-square-foot Toy Kingdom, which is broken up into kid-wowing interactive worlds: a circus, an enchanted forest, an intergalactic science lab, a toy-filled canyon lorded over by a giant dragon, and of course a candy counter. (Ongoing)

'The Tanks: Art in Action' at Tate Modern

Three cavernous underground oil tanks have been transformed into unexpected new spaces for a three-month series of art and events. Don't miss cross-disciplinary work by emerging and established artists that includes performances, films, installations, family days and more (July 18–Oct. 28).

Summer Music and Film at Somerset House

One of the highlights of every London summer is the open-air music and film series hosted in Somerset House's beautiful, 18th-century courtyard. This year, the eclectic musical selections range from the urban soul of Jill Scott to the epic electro-pop sounds of M83 (through July 19); Somerset House is also part of the free BT River of Music festival, which showcases continent-themed stages at venues along the Thames (July 21–22). The film series includes the U.K. premiere of Walter Salles’ "On the Road" and the first U.K. screening of Hitchcock’s newly restored "The Birds" (Aug. 16–27).

The Thames Festival

This two-day fest along the banks of the river celebrates the city’s main waterway with music, dance, singing and art; races on the water; and a night carnival and fireworks display. This year the festival falls on the last weekend of the Olympics, so expect it to be more spectacular than ever before (Sept. 8 and 9)

London Design Festival

The LDF turns 10 this year, and it's going all out for the occasion. Its central hub is once again the grand V&A museum, which plays host to talks, exhibitions, and installations throughout the week. Events also take place in various design districts around town and in major public spaces, such as a sound portal in Trafalgar Square, where five musicians will perform concerts in a rubber structure designed to block out street noise and provide pure acoustics. (Sept. 14–23)

Open House London

For 20 years, Open House London has been giving architecture fans the chance to tour hundreds of buildings across the city that are not normally open to the public. This year’s offerings include Norman Foster’s celebrated Gherkin, London’s City Hall, Richard Rogers’ Lloyds building, and boat tours to the imposing Thames Barrier. The Open House weekend is Sept. 22 and 23, but if you can't make it then, the same organization hosts year-round architecture tours by boat, bike or foot.

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