About ten years ago, I met up with a friend in London and we spent a few days doing the most touristy things: we bought tea at Fortnum & Mason, ate bangers and mash (weirdly, there were potato chips on top and the memory haunts me still), posed for tasteless off-with-her-head photos at the Tower of London, hunted for the biggest price tag at Harrods and affected our best posh accents as we pretended to ask for directions to the tiger of lore.
We also spent at least forty-five minutes looking for the famous “Covent Garden”, walking back and forth across Covent Garden market in search of… an actual garden. For the uninitiated, Covent Garden is a neighborhood around a covered market – this was an innocent, literal-minded mistake born of poor research. It seems it did used to be a garden, yes, but about 400 years ago.
I know Covent Garden well now, because until last month I worked just minutes away from it. I’ll miss being in the area every day: it’s pretty and not too crowded, studded with great cafes and bakeries and restaurants and shops… so now I pass this knowledge on to you. Note: not all of these recommendations are technically in Covent Garden, but they are all within a 10-15 minute walk of it!
Covent Garden market itself is worth a visit, with a caveat: beware the humans. If you’re like me and allergic to throngs, choose your visiting hours wisely. The market is always prettily decorated, especially at Christmastime (and at Christmastime, there’s also mulled wine…), more often than not occupied by talented musicians, and there are a number of interesting albeit touristy artisan kiosks worth perusing in the “Apple Market”: think hand-made housewares, soaps, etc.
Like movies? Brand new ones, and old ones too? Movie marathons? Movies that can only be liked ironically? Movies that have won all the awards? Movies so bad that other movies get made about how bad they are? The Prince Charles Cinema, just beyond Leicester Square at the edge of Chinatown, has them all, including a regular showing of the infamous The Room. Check out upcoming series on their site – and their shockingly reasonable prices. I’ve seen both Lawrence of Arabia (well, part of it – turns out screening 70mm prints is a lost art) and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion there (dragged a delighted Brit with me, which was half the fun), and there could be no more glowing endorsement than this. A warning, though: whoever designed the downstairs cinema was on some serious @#$% at the time because the seats dip in the middle. The front rows are HIGHER than the middle rows (why!?), so the view is challenged from around row C through around row L…
For a quick and quirky bit of culture, hit up the Camera Museum, partway between Covent Garden and the hulking British Museum. It’s a TINY showcase of photographic equipment and history, and, like many establishments in London, is also a cafe and shop.
Stanfords is one of my favorite bookstores in London – it’s all travel and maps and travel- and map-related doodads, both of the decorative and utilitarian variety, and is my first stop whenever I’m planning a trip or hike. It’s also great for gifts…
There’s a Narnia-like escape from the city in the Phoenix Garden, a pocket park hidden behind the blocks to the west of Shaftesbury Avenue. Seating is tucked into flower bushes and entangled with vines. Birds sing. Harried workers sprawl. It’s lovely.
Bonus: If you’re a freemason, headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England is right there on Longacre. If you’re not, enjoy the sight of besuited grown men carrying suitcases that probably contain very fancy robes and let your imagination run wild with conspiracies. Also, there are free public tours of the space if you are so inclined (I never was).
On the Bab: Fresh and light but filling Korean food, the perfect spot for a casual date or post-drinks meal. It’s tiny and often full, but the turn-over is quick!
Farmstand: Hearty and wholesome is the vibe here, a great spot to take veggie friends looking for a bit of novelty. (They have meat as well, but even the biggest meat-lover might find it hard to resist the coconut daal…)
Redemption: Continuing with the veg theme, these guys serve up interesting and filling salads (but call them “buddha bowls” – allow me a tiny eye roll please).
falafel guys: OK so I don’t remember what the name of this falafel stand is, but it’s delicious and most days it’s in front of this Rosa’s Thai (which is also good for a tasty-and-cheap lunch/dinner). They now take card as payment, and for 50p extra you can add cauliflower or eggplant (that’s aubergine, to you Brits) or both, for a pound, to your wrap or salad.
Seven Dials Market: If you’re willing to shell out for what is really just a very expensive food court, there are loads of interesting options in the newly-opened Seven Dials Market. I highly recommend the overpriced-but-delectable CHEESEBURGERS and TRUFFLE FRIES at Truffle, but there’s also pasta, ramen, Venezuelen fried chicken, calamari, steamed buns, a cheese bar… behold.
Speaking of cheese (there’s no better segue than a cheese segue), who doesn’t love a cheese shop? Neal’s Yard Dairy is about as good as you can get for a London fromagerie (I really miss France, OK?)
food subgenre – pastry:
I could generally take or leave packaged cookies and candy, but find it a Herculean feat to resist pastry and fresh bread. Descended from an actual baker, can I blame genetics for my built-in bakery radar? Anyway, if you’re looking for the nearest cream puff I’m a better bet than Google. My bakery picks near Covent Garden: St. John’s Bakery (filled doughnuts), the café at the back of Arket clothing store (cinnamon rolls) and, head-and-shoulders above the rest, Bageriet, a Swedish Bakery down a delicious-smelling alleyway off Longacre.
As I said, I worked in this area, and my coworkers and I went through an awful lot of hot caffeine. We especially appreciated: Monmouth, which also serves up the most amazingly fudgy brownies, Jacob the Angel, which also offers tasty but pricy salads and sandwiches at lunchtime, The Black Penny (great weekend brunch, too), Drury 188-189 (another one for tasty-but-pricy lunch), and Rosie & Joe, a little cart in the front yard of St. Giles in the Fields Church.
I’ll always have a soft spot for our office’s cozy local, The Cross Keys, but there are several pubs on every block in this area (and, let’s be honest, most of London), so you’re spoiled for choice depending on need and preference. I have three special-treat places to recommend, though, all of which are great for meeting a friend or a date: 10 Cases, a delicious, reasonably-priced and atmospheric little (like, really little) wine bar; Milroy’s of Soho, with its friendly whisky bar and shop serving drams and hosting regular public tastings (book ahead) on the ground floor and its incense-filled cocktail bar, The Vault, behind a bookshelf and down the stairs; and Lowlander, a “grand cafe” with a veritable tome of strong Belgian beers.
There may not be a literal Covent Garden anymore, but there’s no shortage of reasons to visit this part of London to eat, drink, and watch.