England, the toppermost

Stonehenge at dawn: A highway has been redirected to restore a sense of tranquility to the mysterious prehistoric circle of monoliths in Wiltshire, England.
Stonehenge at dawn: A highway has been redirected to restore a sense of tranquility to the mysterious prehistoric circle of monoliths in Wiltshire, England. (English Heritage)

Five jolly good new reasons to get back to Britain.

Posted: February 24, 2014

It's official . . . ish. London has claimed the title of the world's most popular tourism destination.

The United Kingdom's Office of National Statistics recently announced that the capital drew 4.9 million visitors between July and September 2013, up nearly 20 percent from 2012. London's total number of tourists for 2013 has not yet been tallied, but the figure is projected to hit 16 million, likely edging out Paris, its main rival.

While the French are demanding a recount, you should be booking your ticket to Britain. London has already proven it knows how to party, having rolled out the red carpet for the Olympics, Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, and Will and Kate's royal wedding bash.

But if you think the home of Big Ben has reached the bottom of its bag of tricks, think again. 2014 is shaping up to be yet another banner year for London and beyond. Read on for five great reasons to head back to Merry England this year.

Olympic Park opening

Whether or not you had tickets to the events at London's Olympic Park in 2012, you've certainly never seen it as you can this spring. Several of the world-class sporting venues in Stratford (as in "East London," not "upon-Avon") are opening for public use in this athletic oasis, rechristened Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park after you-know-who.

Beginning in March, you can take a dip, or a dive, at the Aquatics Centre, or satisfy your need for speed at the Velodrome and a variety of other cycling venues. From April 5, visitors will also be able to ascend the DNA-like spiral of the ArcelorMittal Orbit for views from 260 feet up.

Thanks to the so-called Javelin Train, the park is only a six-minute ride from St. Pancras Station in central London. Not even Usain Bolt can move that fast.

For information, visit http://queenelizabetholympicpark.co.uk.

The Bard's 450th birthday bash

April marks 450 years since William Shakespeare's debut on the world's stage (that is to say, his birthday) - although no one could have predicted when little Willie drew his first breath that he would become the most famous poet and playwright of all time.

In addition to celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 26 and 27, London is hosting events in Shakespeare's honor throughout 2014. Book tickets to the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition "Shakespeare: Greatest Living Playwright," through Sept. 28; tour Middle Temple Hall, where Twelfth Night was first performed in 1602; experience Shakespeare's London with London Walks; visit the archaeological remains of the Rose Theatre, where Henry VI: Part I and Titus Andronicus were performed; and see a stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre, premiering July 1.

The Shakespeare Globe complex ( www.shakespearesglobe.com) in London also recently opened the 350-seat Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, an indoor, candlelit Jacobean theater adjacent to an open-air replica of Will's famous playhouse alongside the Thames.

For general information, see www.shakespearesbirthday.org.uk and www.visitlondon.com.

Britain rocks

Stonehenge has a new look. No, bored Brits have not rearranged those monolithic slabs, but the highway that once detracted from this ancient monument has been redirected, so the 21st century no longer intrudes upon the timeless mystery and grandeur of the site.

A $45 million visitor center opened in December, providing interactive exhibits and a display of prehistoric objects, including antlers that were used to dig trenches on-site and rock tools that shaped the great stones. One case holds skeletal remains excavated nearby, alongside a lifelike re-creation of the man.

The star of the show remains the stone circle itself, which visitors reach via a short shuttle ride from the welcome center. Without the roar of passing traffic, you can ponder its meaning in peace. Esteemed burial ground? Alien landing strip? Crude predecessor of Legoland? You decide.

www.english-heritage.org.uk/stonehenge. Adults $25, children $15. Reservations required.

World War I centenary

A century ago this year, the "Great War" broke out in Europe. To commemorate the lives of those who fought and died in World War I, venues around the United Kingdom are planning exhibits, lectures, concerts, and theatrical performances.

One of the most anticipated dates is the July reopening of London's Imperial War Museum ( www.iwm.org.uk), which contains the most comprehensive WWI collection in the world. Its revamped First World War Galleries will include a Mark V tank and a Sopwith Camel biplane, love letters, souvenirs from the front, photographs, films, and a re-created trench featuring a "soundscape" that conjures a sense of the troops' daily lives.

Other London highlights include "The Great War in Portraits" at the National Portrait Gallery, through June 15; "100 Years Later: Conflict, Time, Photography" at the Tate Modern, Nov. 19 to April 6, 2015; and "Forgotten Fighters: The First World War at Sea" at Royal Museums Greenwich, Aug. 1 to Aug. 1, 2015.

For details, visit www.1914.org.

An affair to remember

British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, best known for The Phantom of the Opera and Cats (not to mention his improbable eyebrows), has unleashed a new theatrical extravaganza in London. Stephen Ward the Musical ( www.stephenwardthemusical.com) may not have the same ring to it as the titles of Webber's earlier productions, but it's got everything you could want from a drama: sex, lies, and spies.

It tells the story of England's scandalous "Profumo affair," which centered on the relationship between John Profumo, secretary of state for war in 1960s Great Britain, and a showgirl named Christine Keeler, reputedly the mistress of a Soviet naval attache. Stephen Ward was the man who introduced Profumo and Keeler, a liaison that eventually led to the downfall of the Conservative government. Stephen Ward is scheduled to run through May 31 at the Aldwych Theatre. Tickets from L15 ($25).

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