Thousands of people came to enjoy the newly-opened South Park at the weekend. If that wasn't you, and you're planning to visit at some point in the future, let me pass on some hints and tips. You don't really need them, because if you turn up and do the obvious you should have a good time. But you might miss some stuff you'd have enjoyed, and given that your taxes have spent billions on this place, that would be a shame. [100 photos]
Getting here: Unless you're local, it is indeed probably best to arrive from Stratford station. Beware the black signs on the platforms which sometimes direct you via an unnecessarily roundabout route. And avoid turning left into Westfield shopping centre on your way out because there's no ground level exit inside and you'll be forced to walk past lots of shops. Instead walk straight ahead to take the hidden escalator up to The Street, or alternatively turn right past the smokers and approach the edge of the park shop-free. If you have trouble walking you can take the bus, either the 388 two stops to the North Park or the 339 one stop to the South. But it's only a five minute walk direct to the bridge by the Aquatics Centre, which is where QEOP's Information Centre is located.
Maps and trails: If the Information Centre is open, make sure you pop in. Not only are there free maps, but also a series of free trails and guides to pick up which could radically improve your experience of the park. Pdfs are available on the website, but why print them yourself when someone's gone to all the bother of making lavish colour booklets?
» Discover The Park: This is the overview leaflet, with plenty of facts and a fairly decent walking map
» London 2012 trail: If you're interested in the park's sporting legacy, or more particularly if you have children who are, take this one. Then watch out for the greeninformation panels on the tarmac as you walk (or run) around.
» Children's trail: This is a lovely freebie for kids, an "Explorer’s Guide to Adventures in the Park" complete with eight pull-out activity sheets and six stamps to hunt on your way round. Ideal for the school holidays, perhaps?
» Art trail: And this is a lovely freebie for adults, a 48-page booklet with details of all the artworks in the park, plus a map showing the two hour trail that enables you walk round and spot them all.
Also available to take away from the Information Centre is issue 1 of 'The Park' magazine, more a promotional brochure for the legacy sporting venues in the park than a decent read. There are also forms to fill in if you'd like to be a QEOP volunteer (official title 'Park Champion'), helping out with events, customer service or wildlife and conservation. In particular, for those with limited mobility, these volunteers are offering a pilot scooter hire scheme on Fridays and Saturdays - further details here.
Entering the park: Once across the Aquatics Centre bridge and into the park, be aware that almost everything (except food and the Orbit) is to your right. Children may not want to go much further. The highly-interactive splashy fountains are straight ahead, and the rest of the adventure playground is close by. Some of the equipment could get quite crowded on a busy day, so remember there's another, more exciting playground half a mile away in the northern half of the park. Don't overlook the climbing wall on the stadium side, which looks like it's going to be staffed most days so is an ideal spot to entertain any more energetic souls. And Mums and Dads should rest assured that there's a fair bit of seating to rest on while Junior plays, plus a couple of kiosks serving up coffee and brownies (and other stuff) while you wait (menu here).
The Orbit: For many, the main point of visiting the Olympic Park will be to ascend the Orbit. If so, pick your day carefully. There's no point in going up when the sky's grey, not unless you're only in town once, so it's probably best not to book more than a day in advance. Or indeed don't book in advance at all, simply turn up and buy - the cost is the same, and there's almost no chance of tickets selling out. The Orbit was built to withstand Olympic level visitor traffic, and we'll see nothing like that this year. There are three ticket windows, conveniently located beside some cash machines, and opposite a gift shop where you can buy a surprising range of Orbit-related souvenirs. An Orbit t-shirt, some Orbit postcards, an Orbit rubber, all the usual, but also an Orbit paperclip (you can imagine its shape) and several more expensive options. If it's very sunny best time your trip for the morning, else you'll be squinting westward towards the City. And don't expect to come to watch the sunset, or at least not until November, because the Orbit closes at six in the summer and five in the winter. Tickets cost £15 for adults, with just £2 knocked off for local residents (on production of appropriate documentation). I can't tell you if it's worth it, but maybe Ollie's report (or mine from 2012) will help make up your mind.
The Podium: This is the newest building in the South Park, a two storey white structure that's half conference centre and half cafe/restaurant. You won't get into the former but the EastTwenty Bar & Kitchen is open for food and drinks rather longer than you might expect, kicking off "at breakfast time" and apparently staying open until 11pm at weekends. I'd take that time with a pinch of salt - they were certainly closing down by 9pm on Saturday, and I can't believe anyone's going to journey to the heart of a dark park for an evening meal. Nevertheless they were doing a good trade Saturday daytime, from sandwiches to healthy options to plated meals with chips. I'd still bring a packed lunch instead, especially if I had a large family to feed - there's plenty of space nearby to sit and sprawl with a picnic.
The Great British Garden: If you didn't know this lovely corner of the park was there, you probably wouldn't visit. Just north of Carpenters Lock (the hole with the pine trees), a long tarmac expanse stretches off round the back of the stadium. Have faith and walk along it (or, better still, head down the steps to the riverside and follow the shady leafy path instead). Halfway along is one of the treats of the Games, the Great British Garden, a horticultural hideaway created via an RHS competition. The two winners were Rachel and Hannah, and it's their names you'll see inscribed on the (extraordinarily comfy) swing bench. A lot has been packed into this narrow riverside plot, including a human scale sundial with the hours jointly marked for GMT and BST, and a plaited tunnel twined with stems of roses. Even this early in the year the garden is ablaze with colour, and it's not all daffodils, with plenty more planned to bloom as the year progresses. The garden's also the only place in the park from which you can look directly across the river and inside the stadium, not that there's much to see until West Ham move in. Heaven knows why this hideaway isn't signposted but, especially if the weather's nice, make sure you divert out this far.
The other bits most people don't visit: As during the Olympics, most people seem drawn to the main north-south route through the park and tend to overlook the rest. In particular they're missing out on the riverside walks, which are at a lower level than the central promenade and so are easily missed. One follows the City Mill River, overlooking the stadium, but this has limitedaccess from up top to down below. In Summer 2012 these banks were blessed with wild flowers, no longer in evidence, but that'll be because it's April rather than July, and we're promised a floral resurgence later in the year. Elsewhere two paths follow the banks of the Waterworks River, with the parksidebank oddly the quieter. Alas the 2012 Gardens and their world flora have been removed, with the replacement vegetation mostly grass and various shrubs that haven't yet fully grown. Meanwhile 35 polyurethane crayons line the banks on the Aquatics Centreside, a striking artistic intervention that's survived since the Games. There are also a couple of long jetties, which one day'll be ideal for mooring your narrowboat, but for now are used only by the River Lea security patrols.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is enormous, approximately the same acreage as Hyde Park but much thinner, so be prepared to walk a long way to get around. The prettiest end is still the North Park with its meadows and wetlands, including the newly-opened Waterglades near the East Village. But if all you do is wander over from Westfield for a quick look around, there's much in the South Park to enjoy. This may be relatively busy over the next few weeks thanks to novelty value and the school Easter holidays. Whether it'll still be anywhere near as popular on a typical weekend, let alone a Tuesday in February, I have my doubts. But London does seem to have avoided the usual white elephant tumbleweed that an Olympic Park bequeaths, and created an attractive (and dare I say sustainable) legacy facility for locals, Londoners and tourists alike. Visit wisely.