The Boat Race
Taking place on either the last Saturday of March or the first Saturday of April, the Boat Race is an annual rowing competition between teams from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. The two "eights" race up one of the nicer stretches of the Thames, from Putney Bridge to Chiswick Bridge. First held in 1829, the event now attracts thousands of people to the riverside. Although the race itself only lasts around 20 minutes, it does provide a perfect excuse for a free day out in West London, and the chance to ensconce yourself in one of the several fine pubs that line the route. The choice spots are generally considered the Star & Garter, 4 Lower Richmond Rd., SW15 (tel. 020/8788-0345; www.thestarandgarter.com; Tube: Putney Bridge/Train: Putney), which overlooks the start and is so popular it actually sells tickets in advance through its website, and the Ship, 10 Thames Bank, Ship Lane, SW14 (tel. 020/8876-1439; Train: Mortlake), right by the finish line. Wherever you choose to perch, arrive early because the prime spots soon fill up. For more information and to check exact dates and times, visit www.theboatrace.org.
The London Marathon
Held every April, the 26-mile London Marathon (www.virginlondonmarathon.com) winds its way from Greenwich and Blackheath in the southeast of London, across the river at Tower Bridge and west toward The Mall and Buckingham Palace. The annual event shames even the laziest local into struggling out of bed and the route is always lined with huge crowds cheering on anyone mad enough to attempt the race -- especially anyone dressed in a ridiculously impractical costume. If you wish to take part, you need to apply up to 8 months in advance, and must usually be sponsored by a charity. Then it's just a question of waiting to see whether you're selected by the massively oversubscribed lottery. A word of warning: due to the size and duration of the event, many roads in Central, East, and Southeast London are closed for much of the day, and so plan accordingly.
The air of genteel respectability, the punnets of plump strawberries, the frequent bad weather, and the general failure of the local talent to win anything . . . few events are more English than the Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis Club -- or "Wimbledon" for short. The world's oldest Grand Slam tennis tournament takes over Southwest London for two weeks each June and early July. Tickets to show courts are incredibly hard to come by: Unless you're lucky enough to bag a corporate ticket, you need to enter the public ballot via the official Wimbledon website. Entry to the ballot is normally opened up the August before the next tournament and closes in December -- and as you would expect, it's always massively oversubscribed. During the tournament itself, 500 tickets are released daily for Centre Court and Court 2, another 500 for No. 1 Court. It has become something of a tradition in itself for eager fans to camp outside overnight to be first in line. See www.wimbledon.org.
General Spectator Sports
Cricket -- After years in decline, the national summer sport has enjoyed a resurgence of late. The England team is performing well, and a new, shorter form of the game known as "20/20" attracts a younger, livelier audience. Now is a great time to catch a game, whether a county or cup match, or one of the annual international "Test Matches" in which England play against Australia, Bangladesh, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, or the West Indies. Matches take place at Lord's Cricket Ground, St. John's Wood Rd., NW8 (tel. 020/7432-1000; www.lords.org; Tube: St. John's Wood), in Northwest London, and at the somewhat less prestigious Oval Cricket Ground, Kennington, SE1 (tel. 020/7820-5700; www.thekiaoval.com; Tube: Oval), south of the river.
The cricket season begins in March and ends in September. Lord's and the Oval generally each host at least two international matches in summer, with the full 5-day test matches being followed by a shorter One Day International. Tickets for all matches can be purchased via the grounds' respective websites. For all the latest news and details of forthcoming international matches, check the England & Wales Cricket Board website, www.ecb.co.uk.
Football -- From mid-August through mid-May, soccer dominates London like no other sport, often monopolizing both the front and the back pages of local and national newspapers. On any given weekend, thousands of teams -- from local pub sides to the international stars of the Premier League -- can be found kicking a pigskin around a field. London's biggest clubs (Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham Hotspur) pull in tens of thousands of fans each week, and even second- and third-tier clubs regularly play to crowds of 15,000 or more.
Tickets for the top matches can be very expensive, and are hard to procure. Matches in the lower divisions are not only more affordable, but also frequently attract a noisier and more passionate crowd -- and are a real introduction to London weekend life. For example, a trip to watch Queen's Park Rangers (QPR), Loftus Road Stadium, South Africa Rd., W12 (tel. 020/8743-0262; www.qpr.co.uk; Tube: Shepherd's Bush), or Brentford, Griffin Park, Braemar Rd., TW8 (tel. 0845/345-6442; www.brentfordfc.co.uk; Train: Brentford), won't break the bank: Expect to pay between £15 and £25 depending on the match. At most smaller clubs, you can pay at the turnstile, although check the club website to make sure.
Matches traditionally kick off at 3pm on Saturdays, although the demands of TV have transferred several to Sundays or even Monday evenings. Details of forthcoming fixtures can be found in any (literally any) newspaper or online at websites such as BBC Sport (http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport) or Football365 (www.football365.com).
Rugby -- Although doomed to be forever overshadowed by football, rugby union (the unarmored forbear of "American Football") is an attractive option for anyone determined to take in a sporting event. There are fewer clubs active in the city -- and certainly none that can match attendances with even second-tier football clubs -- but a match at the majestic national stadium, Twickenham, 200 Whitton Rd. (tel. 0870/143-2400; www.rfu.com/TwickenhamStadium; Train: Twickenham), is an experience you won't forget.
Tickets for the annual Six Nations Tournament (during February and March; visit www.rbs6nations.com) are like gold dust, but HQ (as Twickenham is known) also hosts numerous exhibition matches and friendlies from the Army vs. Navy and the Sevens Tournament in May, through to the Autumn Internationals series in November against the Southern Hemisphere powers. To check dates and purchase tickets go to the RFU website (www.rfu.com), which has details of forthcoming matches. Expect to pay around £10 to £20 for tickets to exhibition matches, and anywhere from £60 to £120 for major internationals.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.