From the summer Olympics to the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking, several major events will make Great Britain and Ireland popular destinations in 2012.
From July 27 to Aug. 12, London will host the Summer Olympic Games. Leading up to the games, visitors can see the Olympic Stadium and other major landmarks from the View Tube, a covered shelter with a lookout tower and cafe that sits at the Olympic Park's southern perimeter. From here, visitors also can stroll along the Greenway, a 500-yard-long sidewalk atop a berm, providing other viewpoints. Blue Badge guides continue to lead Olympics-themed walking tours, though you won't see any more of the park itself than you would on your own.
Brits are already partying, though. This year marks the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, commemorating 60 years of Elizabeth II's reign. Museums will host special exhibits, and various events and pageantry will take place the first week of June.
As always, restoration work continues to keep visitors to London on their toes. At the Tate Britain, much of the museum's permanent collection will be stored away in 2012, though you can still see a few key paintings and the J.M.W. Turner collection. After a two-year renovation, Kensington Palace will reopen in late March with a new permanent exhibit, "Victoria Revealed," which showcases the life and times of Britain's longest-ruling monarch.
Barclays Cycle Hire, London's citywide bike-rental program, is now up and pedaling. The bikes, known locally as "Boris Bikes" (named after mayor and cycle enthusiast Boris Johnson), are available for rent from stations scattered throughout the city.
Though most of the Olympics action takes place in London, the rest of Britain is also preparing for an onslaught of tourists. In Greenwich, the Cutty Sark is slated to reopen in spring after a five-year restoration. The new display space allows visitors to walk above and below the suspended ship in which Sir Francis Chichester sailed solo around the world.
Visitors to the south of England will find a few changes along the tourist trail. Dover Castle has new exhibits that bring its secret World War II tunnels to life, including a look at the command center for the 1940 evacuation of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk and a 30-minute guided tour of a re-created WWII hospital ward.
At Stonehenge, construction of a long-awaited visitors center, designed to blend in with the landscape, may begin in April. Since the highway next to the stones will be closed, visitors will park farther away and ride a shuttle to the site.
Trendy Liverpool opened the new Museum of Liverpool, which details the town's history. Blackpool, a coastal resort for workaday Brits, is nearing the end of its own, lengthy redevelopment. Its promenade has been spiffed up with new tram lines, landscaping and a wedding chapel, and Merlin Entertainments (the force behind Madame Tussauds and the London Eye) has refurbished the landmark Blackpool Tower. While the town is still really cheesy, it's a nicer cheesy.
At Hadrian's Wall, two formerly so-so sights have received a major grant and substantially improved their offerings. At the Roman fort Vindolanda, armchair archaeologists can sift through ancient dirt at an ongoing "dig." The Roman Army Museum now uses engaging video clips to explain both the structure and the lifestyles of the military force that built the famous wall.
Across the Irish Sea, relations continue to heal between Ireland and Britain, and Catholics and Protestants. In 2011, Queen Elizabeth II became the first British monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland since it broke away from Britain in 1921. In Northern Ireland's Derry, a curvy new pedestrian bridge over the River Foyle has been dubbed the "Peace Bridge" because it links the predominantly Protestant east side with the mostly Catholic west bank.
Several sights will commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Titanic's maiden -- and only -- voyage. In the modest port town of Cobh, the ship's final anchorage (and the last chance to get off), the Queenstown Story will include beefed-up coverage of the Titanic. In Belfast, a $150 million visitors center opens March 31 on the site where the ship was built. The high-tech attraction holds the world's best collection of relics from the ship's short but opulent existence.
Finally, if you're a first-time visitor to Dublin, a free service called City of a Thousand Welcomes arranges short meetings with local volunteers over a cup of tea or a pint of beer to help you get oriented to the city.
This is a big year for Great Britain and Ireland. While traveling here will come with more crowds, it will also offer unforgettable experiences.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows that can be seen locally on WNED-TV.