A SMALL HISTORY
Covent Garden is one of the most vibrant and exciting areas of London, full of shops, cafés and restaurants, theatres and the famous Royal Opera House. The area spreads north of The Strand from Drury Lane westwards to St Martin’s Lane and up to the top end of Shaftesbury Avenue. There has been a settlement there since Anglo-Saxon times in the 7th century. At the beginning of the 13th century, the area was a ‘garden’ to Westminster Abbey, with arable land and orchards – hence becoming known as the ‘garden of the abbey and convent’. In 1654 a small fruit and vegetable market opened that grew into a famous one – remember Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady? I remember it as a market from my childhood. It grew so big, and there was so much traffic congestion in the area, that the market was relocated in 1974 to the south of The Thames at Nine Elms, near Battersea, and is really just a market for wholesalers now and not nearly such a romantic setting.
COVENT GARDEN TODAY
You won’t find any fruit and vegetable stalls in Covent Garden now, but there’s a daily craft market, which is always fun to look round and you’ll find some lovely things – jewellery, handbags, paintings, all kinds of crafts.
It’s an area I go to regularly – not only because I love it (and indeed lived in the area for the first two years of my life, so it’s sort of ‘home’) but because it’s so convenient for me to get there from SW London where I live: a short train journey to Waterloo station, then a walk across Waterloo Bridge, and I’m there – right into the heart of what is probably my favourite part of central London. Crossing Waterloo Bridge you get a good view of the London Eye and Houses of Parliament to the west and St Paul’s Cathedral and The Shard to the east.
I’m generally just heading into Covent Garden in the evening to meet friends, but one can easily spend a whole day there – and if you do, here are some ideas of the best places to go and things to do.
Coffee houses selling brilliant artisan coffee have become big business in London over recent years. There are lots of places to choose from. But I’m loyal to just two or three favourites and will head to one of these as soon as I’m in the area and fancy a coffee. My first choice has for a long time been New Row Coffee in New Row, that runs off St Martin’s Lane. It has a new owner since I first discovered it and has been renamed The Espresso Room, but I was in there yesterday morning and they still have the same great coffee. They have two other ‘branches’ – FreeState Coffee in Holborn and The Espresso Room in Bloomsbury. Also, if you’re a coffee lover, then you can’t miss going to Monmouth Coffee in Monmouth Street.
This was one of the first coffee houses of the current fashionable kind, opening its doors in 1978 and roasting beans on the premises until 2004. They serve great coffee and snacks. They’re really friendly too: I turned up one evening a couple of years ago, filling in some time, and they were starting to close up, but invited me in if I didn’t mind them cleaning around me while I drank my coffee!
Some of my very favourite places to eat anywhere are housed in this small area of London. There are far too many restaurants and cafés for me to give you a comprehensive overview of what’s there, but my favourites are ones I go back to again and again. Top of my list are Barrafina (photo above) in Adelaide Street, which is the most wonderful buzzy place with amazing Spanish food. A bar wraps round an open kitchen so you watch food being prepared; there’s no booking and thus often very long queues, but in the evening I try to get there soon after 5pm when they open for an early supper. I’ve been a few times on my own – these open kitchens are great for solo diners – but with friends too. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable. You’re made to feel very welcome and you’ll eat some of the best food in London. You can snack on just a couple of tapas or order more – so it suits any time of day or hunger.
Also on my ‘top’ list is long-time favourite, Joe Allen, an American-style restaurant housed in a basement in Exeter Street. I’ve written about it on the blog many times (click here) and it does one of the best pre-theatre menus I know. I’m there often and have been a regular for at least 15 years! I just love the place. Their sister restaurant Orso, serving Italian food, is great too.
Other places I like are Balthazar and The Barbary, which are quite expensive, for more reasonably priced food Carluccio’s and The Real Greek. I used to go to Wahaca a lot for Mexican food but was put off by one experience and haven’t been back … but I should try it again because it was once a favourite – especially their tequila mojitos! What I do like is their van on the South Bank, under Waterloo Bridge right by the Royal Festival Hall. Stop off for some street food and one of their burritos. Another good place for a snack or great pastries is Paul Bakery in Bedford Street. This branch of the famous French bakery opened in 2000 and was a regular haunt for me for sometime on Saturday mornings when I used to meet my parents there for breakfast. For great ice cream, try Scoop in Short’s Gardens, just off Neal Street.
Perhaps the most famous restaurant in Covent Garden, and serving real traditional English food, is Rules in Maiden Lane. Opened in 1798 by Thomas Rule, it’s the oldest restaurant in London. It’s many many years since I’ve been; it used to be a place my parents took me for a treat. They serve game, classic pies like steak & kidney pie, oysters and traditional English puddings for dessert. It is very expensive but for the true traditional English dining experience, it’s the only place to go.
Covent Garden may offer some of London’s best food experiences but of course it’s also famous for the Royal Opera House. Tickets can cost nearly £200 but you can also get cheap ones for about £15 if you’re willing to sit on a bench or stand or have a restricted view. Just to be inside the auditorium is a brilliant experience in itself.
Once inside – and you’ll need a ticket for a ballet or opera – you can get a fabulous view out across the Piazza from a balcony off the bar area.
You’ll find the (slightly cheaper) English National Opera at the Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane. Remember there are always returns and last-minute deals here and the ROH, so it’s always worth trying if you’re keen to get a ticket but haven’t done so in advance.
Covent Garden is part of London’s Theatreland, expanding out along Shaftesbury Avenue to Piccadilly Circus. There are lots of theatres along The Strand and around Aldwych; the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Though not strictly in the Covent Garden area, only a short walk across Waterloo Bridge will take you to the National Theatre and Royal Festival Hall. The only cinema I know of is the Odeon’s Covent Garden branch at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue, but a bit further along the same road (and not really Covent Garden) is the Soho Curzon.
The London Transport Museum just off the Piazza is a great destination with kids. Just on the periphery of the area you’ll find great galleries: the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House, the National Portrait Gallery (one of my favourite galleries) and the National Gallery.
TAKE A WANDER
Right in the heart of Covent Garden you’ll find the Piazza with Apple Market and Jubilee Way running across (and covered, so great if it’s raining) with the craft markets; there are plenty of shops and cafés and restaurants. There are always some live performers too to sit or stand and watch, including often opera singers on the basement part of the Piazza under Jubilee Hall. Just hanging around in the area is fun in itself.
Long Acre runs from Leicester Square up to Drury Lane. About halfway up you’ll find Covent Garden Tube station. There are lots of great shops along Long Acre but my favourite by far is Stanfords, famous for its maps and guides.
For this enthusiastic traveller, this is just the perfect shop to find books about travel. There are not only guides and maps but they’re really good at organising fiction set in other countries. I love to buy novels set in whichever place I’m heading to for a holiday and this is just the place to find what I’m looking for.
Neal Street & Neal’s Yard
If you’re exploring Covent Garden you just have to wander down Neal Street. It’s not quite as quirky as it used to be and most of the independent shops have gone, but it’s still a great street to take a wander down.
Here, you’ll also find the entrance to Neal’s Yard.
The weather was a bit grim yesterday when I took the photo above, but this courtyard is such a pretty place to hang out and eat some healthy food or have a coffee from one of the cafés. This is very much ‘healthy’ London: famous for its alternative therapy rooms and Neal’s Yard Remedies.
It’s also the place to go to for great cheese – some of the best cheese you’ll find in London. Neal’s Yard Dairy used to be in the yard but has moved just outside into Short’s Gardens for more space. There are also branches in Bermondsey and Borough Market.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to Covent Garden – do let me know of any favourites you have!
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