LONDON — It feels as if summer has arrived as I make my way to Duke of York Square in Chelsea for an afternoon at the British Antiques Dealers Association's annual fair, the largest in the United Kingdom, showcasing the kind of art and antiques found in the stately rooms of TV's Downton Abbey.
I pass sidewalk cafés where throngs of Londoners in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops are enjoying bright sunshine and atypical mid-March temperatures in the 70s.
If there's this much excitement in March, I can imagine what it will be like in June, when the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebration kicks off, along with the 21/2-month-long London 2012 Festival, which will usher in the Summer Olympics beginning July 26. Add to that the recently opened, sure-to-be-an-instant-success Warner Bros. studio tour "The Making of Harry Potter."
If ever there was a city set to star in its own giant extravaganza, it's London in 2012.
Hail to the queen's tenure
Queen Elizabeth II is only the second monarch in British history to have spent 60 years on the throne (Queen Victoria was the other), so expect her to get more than a rubbery chicken banquet for her service.
Celebrations in her honor will be held across Britain, and on this trip, I was one of 35 international travel writers invited to Buckingham Palace to learn what those celebrations will entail.
Trying to act as if I do this sort of thing every day, I wander through rooms where the queen has entertained heads of state for more than a half-century, before accepting a glass of wine and sitting down to hear about the royal plans from members of her household staff.
Exhibitions at Windsor Castle, about 20 miles west of London, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, Scotland, will feature art from the royal collection. At Buckingham Palace, a display of the monarch's diamond jewelry will doubtless have some visitors salivating. Among the items to be shown: the magnificent coronation necklace and earrings and the crown worn by Victoria at her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
The highlight of the festivities will come June 3, when a flotilla of 1,000 boats — including a Hawaiian war canoe and a re-creation of a gilded Elizabethan-era barge — will muster on the River Thames for the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant.
As the queen makes her way down the Thames in her royal barge, bells will ring in hundreds of churches across London.
Harry Potter lives on
The saga of the boy wizard has ended in theaters and in books, but Harry Potter and company will live on in the Warner Bros. studio tour "The Making of Harry Potter," which opened last month.
In the cavernous Leavesden Studios north of London, the movie's locations come to life: Hogwarts' dining hall awaits an onslaught of hungry students, Severus Snape's potions bubble in his laboratory, and all sorts of mischievous mayhem awaits in the Ministry of Magic.
As you make your way through Harry's world of wizardry, cauldrons begin to stir; pens begin to write, candles float and jaws drop. Yes, it is that spectacular.
With commentary by actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, visitors are transported to Hogwarts' start-of-term Chocolate Feast and the Yule Ball, a spectacle of silvery ice and snow. They can learn how to play quidditch, visit the Creature Shop to see how Lord Voldemort's snake-like face was created, and even be photographed riding a broom through the magic of the green screen.
Plan to spend the better part of a day here, especially if you have Potter-obsessed children.
Let the Games begin
On July 26, London will become the first city in the history of the modern Olympics to host the Games three times, having previously hosted in 1908 and 1948.
As in most Olympic cities, some of the venues in the 500-acre park on the city's East End will remain as a legacy of the Games. Those will include the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium; the dramatic Aquatics Centre, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid; and the tomato-red steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor, the largest piece of public art in Britain, which will be used as an observation tower (a restaurant will be added after the Games).
Those fortunate enough to have tickets to the opening ceremony or any of the events will be in for an exciting time. None of the other Olympic Games has offered anything like beach volleyball on the Horse Guards Parade, down the Mall from Buckingham Palace.
If you don't have tickets, don't fret. You don't need them for a majority of the 1,000 events that are part of the London 2012 Festival, running from June 21 to September 9. The festival, the largest of its kind ever put on in the U.K., is part of the nationwide Cultural Olympiad.
Designed to showcase Britain's role as a cultural mecca, the festival will combine theater, music, dance, film, sculpture and performance art, bringing in artists from around the world.
At the Globe Theater on the South Bank of the Thames, the ambitious Globe to Globe project will stage all 37 of Shakespeare's plays and one poem, each in a different language and performed by a different international theatrical company.
The Olympics bring together people of every country regardless of politics, and the Cultural Olympiad will do the same. At the Globe, The Merchant of Venice will be performed by an Israeli company, and a Palestinian troupe will stage Richard II.
The Festival's offerings will range from mainstream (Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis at the Barbican Centre) to the semi-avant garde (screenings of Sir Alfred Hitchcock's mostly forgotten silent films) to the downright outré (Bee Detective, a children's murder mystery play, in which the action is spoken and signed for the hearing impaired, and the audience is enclosed in a simulated beehive.)
A guaranteed crowd-pleaser will be the 33-foot-high puppet of Lady Godiva, the 11th-century noblewoman famed for her ride through the town of Coventry clad in nothing but her long tresses to protest a tax levied by her husband.
The (presumably clothed) puppet will be powered by 50 people on bicycles making the trip from Coventry, in the English Midlands, to London.
Let the Games begin.