Kat is Traveling: A Londoner's Guide to Exploring Covent Garden
by Kat Redmond
Covent Garden is perhaps one of the most popular areas to visit in London and for a very good reason. There is so much to see and do here, from historical sights you can see for free to luxury shopping experiences, it has something for everyone!
Covent Garden is a truly fantastic area to spend some time in during any trip to London but you might just find that one day is not enough to explore the area (and especially not long enough to sample all of the amazing food!) With this in mind it is definitely worth considering making your base one of the many hotels near Covent Garden for your trip to London. There are so many perks to this, such as the close proximity to Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square and Bloomsbury as well as being right in the heart of the West End, making it so easy to get back to at night after seeing a show.
Uncover the history of the Seven Dials
If you’re interested in history then there’s a story about nearly every corner in the Covent Garden area but even if you’re not you can’t help but notice this unusual-looking junction… after all how many times do you see seven roads converge together? The layout of this area was designed by Thomas Neale in the 1690s to produce triangular plots of land for building houses. At this time the rent of a property was charged on the amount of its facade facing the front of the street and so the triangular layout allowed for higher rents to be charged. It was hoped that affluent people would be attracted to come and live in the area due to the recent development of the Covent Garden Piazza but it was not to be and the area deteriorated to the point where it was described by both Charles Dickens and the poet John Keats as places frequented by the ill and the poor. There is also an Agatha Christie novel The Seven Dials Mystery set in this area and, although it is now a rather fancy shopping area, it is still considered a place of great historical significance.
Explore picture-perfect Neal’s Yard
The sundial and star layout of the Seven Dials area was what first attracted medical practitioners and astrologers to this area of the city in the 17th Century. Neal’s Yard still retains some of its history through the presence of the original Neal’s Yard Remedies organic healthcare store, which has been here since 1981 but nowadays it is also known for its brightly decorated shops and trendy independent eateries. These include the hugely popular Homeslice where, in the vein of New York’s famous pizzerias, you can buy your pizza by the slice. A word of warning that it always seems to be busy (even when I was there on a Sunday afternoon!) so it is best to make a reservation or be prepared to wait.
Family-friendly fun at the Transport Museum
If you think the London Transport Museum doesn’t sound particularly exciting all you need to do is look at the queues out the door and the mass of children inside to realise you’re about to enter one of the most interactive and engaging museums in the city! This is even coming from somebody who uses London transport almost every day and experiencing the frustrations that unsurprisingly brings.
However, I have to say that after visiting the Transport Museum I might just have a new-found appreciation for the ways that we get around our city. The museum traces the history of London transport right through to the present day.
It covers buses, taxis and cars, the underground and overground trains as well as some of the associated issues. Some of the most fascinating parts include how the underground stations were used as air raid shelters in the blitz and my personal favourite anecdote that when they first installed escalators at a London underground station they have to employ a man specifically to ride them up and down to show the public they were safe to use!
Covent Garden is the home of indulgent shopping with many luxury brands and designers owning shops in the main arcade area. However it is not all extravagance, there are also some real gems in the form of quirky independent shops such as (my personal favourite) Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop.
Benjamin Pollock’s is one of the oldest toy shops in the whole of London and you can feel the history as you enter through the red facade and climb the staircase up to the main shop.
Step back in time in one of Covent Garden’s oldest shops
Inside you can find retro and vintage toys such as magic lanterns, puppets, music boxes and theatrical items… Benjamin Pollock was in fact a maker of toy theatres back in the 1880s.
Although the shop has existed since 1841 it has relocated many times and only been in its current home since 1980. Still it was one of the first shops to open after the Covent Garden Piazza rennovation so it is one of the longest running shops here and honestly even if you’re not in the market for old-fashioned toys it is worth visiting just for the chance to step back into the Victorian era.
Find a lunch spot away from the crowds
If all of that shopping, history and culture finds you working up a midday appetite then you’re ideally located for a tasty lunch in the capital. When it comes to food options here it can be quite hard to find somewhere that offers some kind of respite and quiet away from the intensity of the main piazza, which is what I personally appreciate in a lunch spot!
If you’re looking for the same then I’d recommend Peyton & Byrne, which describes itself as a modern British bakery. It is reasonably priced for such a tourist-focused area of London and not only do they do delicious savoury dishes such as pies and gourmet sausage rolls with a variety of salad options but their cake selection is also incredible! However, before you rush into any decisions you might want to save yourself for what is coming up next…
… and then indulge your sweet tooth
The opportunities for a sweet treat in this area of London are so endlessly tempting that you might just find yourself coming back again and again… or maybe just skipping meals to opt for a cupcake instead! A couple of highlights include the television-famous chocolate shop Choccowoccydoodah who have just opened a flagship store in Covent Garden (meaning we no longer have to go to Brighton to get our chocolate fix!)
Or you might choose to treat yourself to a little taste of Paris. The renowned French macaron specialist Ladurée has a shop and restaurant in Covent Garden where you can truly treat yourself. If you are purchasing macarons to take away they are served in beautiful gift boxes that make them the ultimate luxury gift, the only problem really is that they are far too tasty to give away! Whilst a little on the pricey side these really are the real deal when it comes to Parisian patisserie.
Take some time out in a hidden city park...
When the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden gets a bit too much there are a couple of rarely frequented small parks in the local area that are lovely to take a time out in. On the eastern side of Covent Garden you have the pocket-sized Drury Lane Gardens. Hidden off a little backstreet it is so quiet here that you’d hardly know you were just 5 minutes from crowds of enthusiastic shoppers, there is a playground and even a basketball court for kids young and old! Alternatively, if you’re looking to get back to nature you might choose to stop by The Phoenix Garden on the north-western side of the area. This is a less cultivated space maintained by local volunteers with a pond and lots of greenery to encourage urban wildlife.
This is really just a snapshot into the many activities in the Covent Garden area and my favourite thing to do when I’m in this part of the city is just wander around the little backstreets and see what hidden gems I can discover… there is always something unusual waiting to be discovered!
Soak up the glamour at the London Film Museum
Whilst the London Transport Museum is a well-known and frequented museum in Covent Garden the London Film Museum, just around the corner, seems to often be somewhat overlooked. The current exhibition which the whole museum is dedicated to, is a large collection of James Bond memorabilia including the largest official collection of vehicles used in the James Bond movies. If you time your arrival correctly you can shimmy on to a tour by one of the museum guides which is included in the price of your ticket and gives you much more information as well as some interesting anecdotes about the movies.
About the author
Kat started blogging in 2015 during a year-long trip around Australia. Since then she's been all over the world, squeezing in as much travel as possible around her full time job in digital marketing. Her blog, Kat is Travelling, includes destination guides and tips for solo female travel on a budget.