East London a taste of 21st-century Britain

  • By Rick Steves Herald Columnist
  • Friday, June 22, 2012 6:06pm
  • LifeSports

One look at London’s skyline and it’s clear that the city is shifting east. Once a run-down wasteland, East London now glistens with gardens, greenery and state-of-the-art construction.

Skyscrapers punctuate the skyline while a tangle of new Tube lines makes it a quick and easy trip from the center of town.

Much of the revitalization is thanks to the 2012 Olympic Games, which will take place July 27 to Aug. 12. But even after the summer games are safely tucked away in the record books, their legacy will live on in East London.

While definitely not Jolly Olde England, this area — stretching from the Olympic Park south to the bustling Docklands district — offers a break from quaint, touristy London and a refreshing look at the British version of a 21st-century city.

The gleaming new Olympic Park is located about seven miles northeast of downtown London in an area called Stratford.

In preparation for the Olympics, this area has been gutted and rebuilt. A half-million trees were planted, and 1.4 million tons of dirt cleansed of arsenic, lead and other toxic chemicals — a reminder of this site’s dirty industrial past.

Olympic Park is huge, bigger than Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens.

It’s also quite beautiful, laced with canals and tributaries of the Lea River. At the heart of the complex is a gaggle of ultramodern construction, including the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium.

Even after the Games are over, Stratford will continue to evolve as a tourist destination and a symbol of modern-day London. While some buildings, such as the basketball and water-polo arenas, will be dismantled, others will gain a second life.

For instance, Olympic Stadium will be refitted to become a more intimate venue with 60,000 seats while the velodrome will be turned into a center for community use.

The commercial zone, Stratford City, will serve as the biggest shopping center in Europe, while the Olympic Park area will be converted into a public space called the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

The Orbit will remain as a visitor attraction, providing fine views over London from its observation decks.

Though some parts of the park will likely be closed over the next year or two while this conversion takes place, you can still get a great view of the area along the Greenway, a 500-yard-long berm that sits at the park’s southern perimeter, and its View Tube, a covered shelter with a lookout tower.

Just south of Stratford the Docklands is another reinvigorated East London neighborhood.

Until a generation ago, local surveys ranked it as one of the least desirable places to call home. It’s said that for every Tube stop you lived east of central London, your life expectancy dropped one year.

These days, the Docklands is a thriving center of business and my nomination for Europe’s most impressive urban development. Wandering around this area — filled with skyscrapers, subterranean supermalls, trendy pubs, and peaceful parks with pedestrian bridges looping over canals — is like discovering a slick, futuristic version of Manhattan with an English accent.

Despite its modern vibe, the Docklands retains remnants of the past. You can still see the 19th-century brown-brick warehouses that were once used for trading sugar and rum. Today they host a row of happening restaurants along with the excellent Museum of London Docklands, which takes visitors on a fascinating 2,000-year walk through the story of commerce on the Thames.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

&Copy; 2012 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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