- By Suman Tarafdar
Whether you’re a native of London or just here on a quick visit, it is hard to resist the myriad charms of Covent Garden. With an unbeatable location — Westminster to its west, the Thames skirting its southern edges, Covent Garden, with its storied past, has been at the core of what is now London — a cool blend of shopping, theatre, restaurants, bars, history and culture.
The Royal Opera House, a favourite haunt of Sherlock Holmes, is right at the centre of Covent Garden.
Starting life as a garden for neighbouring Westminster Abbey, at some point it transitioned from being ‘the garden of the Abbey and Convent’ to ‘the Covent Garden’. During the reign of Henry VIII — he who broke with the Pope, had multiple marriages and got quite a few of his wives killed — the king granted the area to the Earls of Bedford in 1552. Successive earls ordered the building of fancy houses, to be sold to the rich. That’s how the first of its type Italianate arcaded square of England came up, to be emulated right across the city, following the latest trends of modern town planning in Europe. The centrepiece of the project was the large square, which had a significant influence on modern town planning as the metropolis grew, acting as the prototype for future squares such as the Grosvenor Estate.
The first open-air fruit-and-vegetable market, which gave the area its best-known identity, has a mid-17th-century vibe. Yes, this is where George Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle sold flowers. You might remember her from the 1964 film, My Fair Lady, where Audrey Hepburn played her so memorably. By the next century though, it was known as the hangout zone for the gentlemen of leisure (and pleasure), going by Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, the ‘essential guide and accessory for any serious gentleman of pleasure!’ It is here that Sherlock Holmes came on the trail of the thief who stole the Countess of Morcar’s famed jewel, the Blue Carbuncle. But Holmes was in the area for pleasure too — the Royal Opera House, a favourite haunt of his, is right here.
Indeed, The Royal Opera House, for the first 100 years or so of its history, was a theatre accorded exclusive rights – along with Theatre Royal on Drury Lane — to present spoken drama in London. The first ballet was presented in 1734. It has been the home of The Royal Opera since 1945 and the Royal Ballet since 1946. Incidentally, Covent Garden is licensed for street entertainment, and performers audition for timetabled slots in a number of venues around the market, including the North Hall, West Piazza, and South Hall Courtyard.
A new Neoclassical market building, where most of the buzz is centred, was designed by architect Charles Fowler.
Residents, tired of the “disreputable” reputation (though the locality was dominated by taverns, theatres, coffee-houses even then); the authorities decided to revitalize the neighbourhood with cultural and art centres. In 1830, a new Neoclassical market building, which is at the heart of Covent Garden today, was designed by architect Charles Fowler. Today, while the main market has shifted, a shopping centre— the Apple Market has replaced it, full of trendy stores. Think Godiva, Pylones, Laduree, Dior, Penhaligon’s and the like. At the centre of Covent Garden is the Piazza, originally designed in the 1630s as London’s first square.
Surrounded by a wonderful shopping area, including the covered central market, charming streets and colourful Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden is one of the trendiest shopping spots in London. Add lots of cafés and pubs, each outdoing its neighbour in the quirky-cool quotient, and you get the idea. Just about every global brand has an outpost in Covent Garden —including when it opened in 2010, the largest Apple store globally. The area is a shopper’s paradise; expect to run into locals and tourists alike. The oldest restaurant in London, Rules, which was founded in 1798, is still operational, as is J. Sheekey, an oyster bar and fish restaurant founded in 1893. Covent Garden was also the neighbourhood where some of London’s earliest coffee shops opened, such as the Old Slaughter’s Coffee House, which ran from 1692 until 1843. The parts of Covent Garden around this luxury haven, besides the neighbouring theatre district, are at the heart of this vibrant neighbourhood. By 7:30 pm, the theatres and opera houses are pulsing.
Surrounded by a wonderful shopping area, including the covered central market, charming streets and colourful Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden is one of the trendiest shopping spots.
The architectural stars of the area are all around. The Square is still the heart of this bustling cosmopolitan locality. London’s famed West End theatres are here and every evening overflow with theatregoers. The Theatre Royal on Drury Lane is a landmark, having been witness to a diverse range of performances, from Shakespearean plays to the comedy of Monty Python! A Grade 1 listed building, it is now owned by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. What are the chances of running into him there?
At the centre of Covent Garden is the Piazza, originally designed in the 1630s as London’s first square
The auditorium of the Royal Opera House is the largest of London’s Victorian theatres.
Designed by E.M. Barry, it was built in 1857 and rebuilt in 1922. The horseshoe structure is modelled on the theatre design popular for Italian opera houses of the 19th century.
St Paul’s Church was the first building in the area; its construction commenced in July 1631, on the western side of the square. Other major attractions include the engaging London Transport Museum, Freemasons’ Hall, the Adelphi Theatre, The Courtauld Gallery, London Film Museum, National Portrait Gallery, and many more. Around the main Covent Garden core is a quiet, leafy residential zone, the quintessential old-fashioned London behind the Strand Palace Hotel, with narrower streets, large, airy homes, and a few new-age apartment blocks.
There is a lot to do in Covent Garden itself. Kick-off your day at the cobblestone square of Covent Garden Piazza, where talented street performers entertain the pedestrians, as you explore the striking columns of St Paul’s Church dominating the western side of the square, before heading into the market building opposite, which houses the food and flower traders who had established a popular trade in the area. Most of the buzz is centred around this striking Neoclassical building.
The London Royal Opera House, taking up a corner of the Covent Garden Piazza, is home to the Royal Ballet, the Royal Opera and the ROH Orchestra. Tickets for the guided backstage tours, as well as Royal Opera and Royal Ballet performances, have to be booked in advance but the building is open during the day.
The scene of action at Covent Garden
Lined by a sweep of world-class stores, Covent Garden is London’s hottest shopping destination, a unique blend of global and independent brands.
The contemporary shopping centre, the Apple Market, which replaced the main market, is full of trendy stores of brands such as Godiva, Pylones, Laduree, Dior and Penhaligon’s.
The Alkemistry, 22 Floral Street
A new name, Alkemistry’s range of jewellery is exclusively curated from global women designers and crafted from gold, diamonds and precious gemstones.
For Art’s Sake, 17 The Market Building
The brand’s first standalone retail store, designed by ALEKSA architecture atelier, reflects its penchant for eclectic style: decadent blue velvet furnishings and brass fixtures that elevate the statement-making glasses. The store has a selfie station, audio that will take you through the shopping choices, a concierge and tax-free shopping.
Jo Malone London, 10-11 King Street
Discover bespoke fragrances along with candles and sumptuous bath and body care products from this London brand that has gone global. Visit the Tasting Bar to experience a tailored scented experience.
Sure, Covent Garden is a veritable definition of a cosmopolitan downtown of a global capital, but look closer and you will find it abounds in character too. Starting life as a vegetable patch and orchards for neighbouring Westminster Abbey, at some point it transitioned from being ‘Convent Garden’ to Covent Garden.
Kurt Geiger, 1 James Street
Kurt Geiger’s flagship store in Covent Garden is often termed as “a temple to footwear”. A huge ‘shoe chandelier’ hangs outside, marking out the store for passers-by and shoppers. The store stocks over a thousand different designs.
Mariage Frères, 38 King Street
Hidden away within a five-storey Georgian townhouse, Mariage Frères is home to the world’s largest tea collection. The London iteration of France’s oldest teahouse also has a restaurant that uses tea in every dish, a retail space and a museum. The sprawling Comptoir de Thé on the ground floor has the longest tea wall in the world, with close to 1,200 rare teas, displayed apothecary-style.
Radley, 37 Floral Street
Lowell Harder, an Australian native moved to London in the 1970s and set up a brand of handbags and accessories. Personified by its Scottie dog logo sporting a red bow, it embodies British playfulness and style.
The Shop at Petersham Nurseries, 27-28 King Street
Petersham Nurseries, renowned for its individual style and simple elegance, offers handpicked collections of homeware, furniture and gifts.
Tiffany & Co. Style Studio, 13 James Street
The Tiffany & Co. Covent Garden Style Studio is a concept store that welcomes shoppers to create unique jewellery pieces with unexpected combinations.
The neighbourhood is full of diverse options for all kinds of diners — from cafes to fine dines, Asian eateries to steakhouses.
Balthazar, 4-6 Russell Street
This Covent Garden spot is an offshoot of the Manhattan favourite, offering all-day brasserie dining — simple French food served with style. Expect bistro classics — creamy fish pie and escargots in garlic butter.'
Cinnamon Bazaar, 28 Maiden Lane
Another outpost of British chef, restaurateur Vivek Singh’s Cinnamon, this one’s décor reflects the colours and atmosphere of a bazaar. The top choice here — the lamb rogan josh shepherd’s pie.
Clos Maggiore, 33 King Street
Styled on the beautiful country inns in Provence and Tuscany, it is easily one of the prettiest restaurants anywhere. Nicknamed 'the fairy room', it has a conservatory where a meal can be had beneath a canopy of cherry blossoms, which hides a glass roof, through which you can gaze at the stars on a clear day. Head Chef Marcellin Marc combines the freshest ingredients with a passion for enhancing inherent flavours in Provence-inspired dishes.
Cora Pearl, 30 Henrietta Street
Sumptuous upholstery, slow-moving ceiling fans and drinks served in antique glasses will transport you to another grander time. The food is classy and occasionally playful.
Frog by Adam Handling, 34-35 Southampton Street
Many locals agree that Adam Handling is London’s best young chef. You can experience his inventive, confident take on British cooking at his restaurant in the heart of Covent Garden. The dishes showcase Adam’s talent for combining technical savvy with the freshest seasonal produce and exciting flavour pairings.
Jidori, 15 Catherine Street
If Yakitori is your favourite, look no further. Reasonably priced small plates are accompanied by Japanese beer (and a karaoke booth).
Joe Allen, 2 Burleigh Street
Nicknamed The West End Canteen, this is a hangout for actors and their ilk; it is famous for steak, cheesecake and the popular Joe Allen hotdog.
Margot, 45 Great Queen Street
Long regarded as London’s top Italian restaurant, the food is smart. Think the Finocchiona Toscana (fennel salami). Most head here for its impressive 300-bin wine list.
Savoy Grill, Savoy Hotel
The classic restaurant, where history has been written and rewritten, Savoy Grill continues its tradition of serving fine-dining comfort food — traditional British fare. Think steak, shrimp cocktail and French onion soup.
Beyond eating and shopping? Covent Garden offers extensive experiences for those looking for the arts and entertainment.
No other urban quarter in the world is home to two top artistic companies — The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet, in addition to more than 20 theatres — St Martin's, Savoy, Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, Garrick, Noel Coward, Playhouse, Wyndham’s, Adelphi...
Head to the museums
The National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Courtauld Gallery are the top attractions in an area swaddled in historical connections. There are some underrated gems — such as the London Transport Museum or the London Film Museum.
The first record of Covent Garden street entertainment dates back to 1662, when Samuel Pepys’ diary notes that a marionette show, featuring a character named Punch, took place on the Piazza. That is the first recorded Punch and Judy show and Covent Garden continues the tradition.
From a secret urban garden to myriad sustainable restaurants to a vertical garden and wondrous nurseries, you can feel closer to nature in the middle of London.
Covent Garden is home to walking tours such as the Guided Coffee Tour (the neighbourhood has London’s oldest coffee bars). The London Cheese Crawl ends here, too, while the Grime and Punishment tour (which delves into the city's gruesome past) passes through. Browse through wonderful markets such as the Jubilee Market and the Apple & East Colonnade Market. Potterheads can gawp at the two contenders for the ‘real’ Diagon Alley here in London: Cecil Court and Godwin’s Court.