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March 12, 2012

The Unofficial London 2012 Summer Olympics Guide to the East End

Museum of the Docklands near Canary Wharf (courtesy, Museum of London)

Walking down from Canary Wharf through the Isle of Dogs on a crisp winter afternoon last month, it was hard to imagine that this part of London will, in mere months, become the center of the sporting and cultural galaxy with the arrival of the 2012 Summer Olympics. Yes, construction cranes dot the skyline, workers scurry to complete renovations to the Cutty Sark exhibit over in Greenwich, and vendors are starting to hawk overpriced London 2012 Olympics regalia. But the overall impression I got was of a city that's still busy with other affairs. In fact, a palpable British restraint hangs over getting too excited about the event until it actually starts; for now, there's moaning to be done about cost overruns, the ability of the Tube to handle all those visitors, and the fact that Brits just don't do extravaganzas.

Let's face it, though, London is used to tourists. Millions upon millions each year. But those same tourists aren't quite so familiar with the side of London where the Olympic events will take place. The London Olympic Stadium is located in the east London borough of Newham, which is a world away from the tony Kensington or Notting Hill neighborhoods with which so many North Americans tourists are familiar. The East End has historically been the poorer, working-class side of this sprawling capital city, a place that was blackened by factory soot in the Victorian era and leveled by German bombers during World War II.

The growth of London's new financial center, Canary Wharf, in the '90s and noughties has certainly brought some luster to the area, although it was the stated vision of the London 2012 Olympics planners that this global showpiece would offer a permanent legacy of East End revitalization. Of course, the Summer Olympics is merely a three-week television spectacle for most of us, while the many spectators who do attend will simply make the longish commute from central London and return back to their swank hotels and apartment rentals after the medals are handed over. However, if you do get the chance to visit and have some time between events, there are lots of local highlights that will give you a better sense of place than just fluttering placards of Olympic rings and London 2012's retro-bizarro mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville.

Several worthwhile museums dot the area close to London's Olympic Park, including the hands-on Ragged School Museum, which offers a glimpse into what life was like for London's East End poor in the 19th century. The Ragged School mostly caters to school and group tours but does open to the public on Wednesdays and Thursdays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., as well as on the first Sunday of each month (2 p.m. to 5 p.m.). For the historically inclined, you should also plan a visit to the free Museum of the Docklands, which charts London's history as a maritime and trading hub from Roman times through to the modern era (across the Thames, Greenwich's National Maritime Museum is also worth a visit for a look at Britain's storied maritime legacy).

Despite its rep as a crowded megalopolis, London is packed with green spaces where you can escape the hubbub—including throughout the East End. At the popular Mile End Park, for example, you will find all sorts of climbing equipment and flying foxes on which kids can channel their inner gymnast. There's also a private go-karting track nearby, where you can subvert the Olympic spirit by having 50-mph machines do all the running (eat that, Usain Bolt). If you're visiting with younger kids, head up to Hackney City Farm, where you can ooh-and-ahh over goats, pigs, ducks, and rabbits. The farm even sells its own eggs and honey.

Talking of food, London's a veritable stew of world flavors. East End neighborhoods like Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, and Mile End offer worlds within a world that reflect the ethnic makeup of the area's various immigrant groups. Monica Ali's eponymous 2003 novel put Brick Lane in Whitechapel squarely on the tourist map. Unsurprisingly, given the novel's tale of Bengali-meets-British culture clashes, South Asian curry houses here are some of the capital's—if not the country's—finest. The Punjabi-flavored Tayyabs is a firm favorite, as is the Indo-Chinese-style Mai'da just off Brick Lane. If you want something a little more traditional, try the Palm Tree pub, a lovely old-school boozer perched on the banks of Regent's Canal in Mile End. While you're digesting your delicious victuals, you should also browse the area's eclectic second-hand thrift stores and galleries for that perfect (and totally non-commercialized) London 2012 Olympics souvenir. Spitalfields Market is worth a look for everything from fresh cheese to cutting-edge fashion to quirky local events.

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