The Very Best of Covent Garden’s Hidden Gems
This month marks the 7-year anniversary of my very first move to London, back in 2012 as a fresh graduate. Over the last 7 years I’ve explored all four corners of the capital and ticked off almost all of my 80 things every true Londoner has done. Covent Garden remains one of the first places in London I visited as a teenager, but since then I’ve discovered that there’s so much more to Covent Garden than the market stalls that first attracted me.
In case you’re visiting from outside London and want to base yourself in the area, here’s a selection of hotels near Covent Garden. There’s so much to do that you can easily fill a few days just in this area alone, so here is my definitive guide to the area, including its lesser-known gems: museums, bars, restaurants, theatres and shops.
London’s West End may have more fame, but Covent Garden’s theatres house some of the city’s best performances, including The Lion King, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, The Play That Goes Wrong and Abba-themed Mamma Mia. On my recent visit we watched John Malkovich perform in Bitter Wheat at the Garrick Theatre as a Hollywood-mogul with a deplorable attitude towards women and getting what he wants (sound like anyone famous?). The theatres are all Victorian-built, so very ornate and intimate, compared to theatres in much of the rest of London.
Covent Garden houses both the Royal Opera House and the English National Opera. Earlier this year I watched the incredible ballet of the Spanish classic Don Quixote, and I already have tickets for Carmen and Onegin in 2020! In summer sometimes they also live stream the performances onto a giant screen in Trafalgar Square, completely free to the public, which is a brilliant way to enjoy a summer’s evening with a picnic.
If you fancy a dance yourself, then try out the hundreds of dance classes at Pineapple Studios. They teach every style under the sun, and I once did a brilliant Bollywood dance class run by my friend Kiran.
The London Transport Museum sits in the south-east of Covent Garden and is a treasure trove for transport geeks. It’s been curated fantastically and charts the history of London from horse-drawn carriages and omnibuses through to the construction of railways and the evolution of the underground – which I have to confess is an engineering marvel. Being the first in the world, they evicted thousands of people, ripped up entire streets and changed the face of the city, making it possible for people to commute in from outer suburbs. It’s also very family-friendly with plenty for children to interact with.Other museums to explore are the London Film Museum, and nearby you’ll also find Sir John Soane’s Museum, Somerset House, the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery.
If you’re less keen on indoor museums and prefer to soak up the area’s history on a walking tour, then check out this two-hour Quirky London walking tour by Insider London, which I reviewed here a few years ago.
Covent Garden has virtually every cuisine on the planet, and I shall not be comprehensively listing every single culinary delight the area can offer here! From famous French brasserie Tuttons to bistro Balthazar, from famous Sushisamba to Italian Cafe Murano, you’ll find these and much more on this helpful website.
Of those I’ve recently dined at: the team behind the hilarious Italian-themed Bunga Bunga in Battersea have opened a Covent Garden restaurant called BungaTINI, which offers pizza-making classes and a pizza-based brunch with bottomless prosecco. I have to say that pizza at my first meal of the day wasn’t quite what my stomach or tastebuds had expected(!), but if you’re hooked on Italian food then this is for you.For a more upmarket experience, Rules Restaurant is famously the oldest in London, serving food since 1798, and definitely a place to try. Book well in advance to get a table, and leave time to first have a cocktail in their atmospheric first-floor bar featuring a leafy indoor courtyard before heading down to the ground floor for your meal of traditional British dishes based on game. The waiters dress as if still in the 19th century and treat you impeccably as you drop a considerable amount of money on your meal. Definitely an experience. I’d encourage you to dress up for the occasion, as we spied a handful of very casually-dressed tourists who lowered the tone, so do take note and uphold the history of the establishment.
On my most recent visit we grabbed a quick pre-theatre bite at The Real Greek, and lots of the restaurants nearby offer affordable set menus timed perfectly to fuel you up for a performance.
My latest find is the south- and west-facing rooftop bar inside the Royal Opera House, which over looks Covent Garden and has both an indoor and outdoor section. The bar doesn’t stock the greatest variety, but is (so far) a little-known haven and welcome escape from the weekend crowds down below in the main square.
Besides that, the Punch and Judy pub above the main market itself is a monument in itself. Its terrace overlooks the square below where the world’s best street performers delight hoards of crowds with their circus skills, magic tricks and classic British humour, innuendoes abound. Covent Garden’s other bars are likewise too numerous to list, but the famous maze-like Porterhouse pub spread over 3 floors and several more mezzanine floors, is an experience in itself.
Radio Rooftop bar on the Strand also gives incredible views over the Thames, so is also one to head for at sunset.
Market and shops
Covent Garden is best known for its market of arts and crafts, and its shopping scene – less commercial than Oxford Street as you head towards Seven Dials and find cute little boutiques as well as famous brands. Apple’s flagship store is of course in Covent Garden, and there were people queueing outside to get their hands on the latest iPhone as we visited. Many of the shops are experience-based, offering flower-arranging workshops, or craft lessons, so there’s plenty to explore other than just shopping.
The spending money for our day in Covent Garden was gifted by Hotels.com, but all views are my own.