Covent Garden is London’s living theatre, a canvas of the city’s enchanting past and its immersive present. It was once Nell Gwynn’s playground with her King, and home to the oldest theatre in London with its 500 ghosts of theatre past. Eliza Doolittle sold flowers to Mr Henry Higgins outside St Paul’s Church, the first place to host a Punch and Judy show. The culinary creation, the sandwich, was created in a local tavern by John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Alfred Hitchcock was born in Covent Garden, son of a local greengrocer, and Jane Austen lived here for a while with her brother. You could spend weeks exploring. Or you could follow me and see how to do Covent Garden in one day.
Let’s Go Walkabout
Start your day at the Covent Garden tube station. This marks the spot for the most expensive tube ride in London, taking a mere 45 seconds to get to Leicester Square. But don’t head down the lift. We’re staying above ground today.
Walk to Neal’s Yard and take photos of one of London’s prettiest courtyards.
Make sure to catch your spoonful of Diana, Charlotte and George by the graffiti artist Bambi on Monmouth Street. The words “Be as naughty as you want, just don’t get caught,” were often quoted to Princes William and Harry by their late mother.
London’s Most Haunted Theatre
Take a tour of Theatre Royal Drury Lane. London’s oldest theatre and its most haunted. Drury Lane was the first theatre with a Green Room, moving scenery and footlights. Charles II decreed that women should play the female parts in the theatre’s deeds, hitherto against the law. A tunnel, still intact, is inhabited by one of the theatre’s most famous ghosts, the cross-dressing Dan Leno. Apparently, he leaves the smell of lavender in his wake. (NOTE: Theatre Royal Drury Lane is currently closed for renovation.)
The tunnel which connects the theatre to the Nell of Old Drury Lane pub across the road was allegedly used by Nell Gwynn so that she could meet Charles II post-performance. The British premiere of My Fair Lady took place at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, with a newbie actress called Julie Andrews in the leading role.
Pause at Segar and Snuff and marvel at the handcrafted English briar pipes. They also stock snuff blends dating back to Jacobean times. It’s all so very Sherlock Holmes.
Next, and Mrs Watson would approve, tea into Whittards of Chelsea and sample some complimentary brew.
The Actor’s Church
Pop into St Paul’s Church, designed by Inigo Jones in 1631 and one of the inaugural buildings in the Covent Garden Piazza. It’s referred to as the Actor’s Church due to its long association with the theatre community. In 1662, Samuel Pepys recorded the first Punch and Judy show which is still staged here every May. Look for memorial plaques dedicated to Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Vivien Leigh and Boris Karloff.
Walk past Jane Austen’s home at No 10 Henrietta Street, where she lived with her brother in 1814,. Bookworms will want to walk into Cecil Court, which dates to the 17th century and is named after Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Robert Cecil. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived at No 9, and it’s argued that he composed his first symphony here. Other notable residents include John Gielgud, T.S. Eliot and Ellen Terry. Today it’s referred to as Booksellers’ Row due to the volume of second hand and antique bookshops which line the street. It’s said to be the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley – what do you think?
Intrepid travellers should forget the Notting Hill Travel Bookshop and head over to Stanfords instead. The world’s largest map shop and travel book emporium extraordinaire has been trading since 1853. Look for the London floor map which you can stomp over. Grab your morning coffee or a steaming cuppa at the back of the shop.
The narrowest street in London
Next, head over to Brydges Place, the narrowest street in London and measuring just 1 foot 3 inches wide at one point. You might not want to do this after a big dinner. Whilst you’re there, you could down a quick pint in the Marquis Pub, one of Dickens’s favourite drinking establishments. This watering hole was also enjoyed by criminals such as the gentleman highwayman Claude Duval who was captured at the bar. His female fan club begged for mercy, but he was executed at Tyburn in 1670.
Food and drink
London’s oldest restaurant
You could finish your tour of Covent Garden in one day with my favourite pit-stop, a cocktail at Rules. It’s the oldest restaurant in London (1798), and the setting for several Downton Abbey episodes. Charles Dickens, Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier and Henry Irving were fans, it’s made an appearance in novels by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh and in James Bond’s Spectre.
But its most illustrious fan was King Edward VII who would entertain his mistress, Lillie Langtry here. You can sit in the corner from whence he flirted with one of the most beautiful women of the time, and sip a Kate Middleton’s Royal 29 or a Meghan Markle’s Royal 19. Or stick with The Rules, a blend of gin, Dubonnet and bubbles.
Best fish and chips (and gluten-free options too)
Head into Rock and Sole Plaice for a serving of the best fish and chips in town. Get a side of mushy peas and curry sauce. Their gluten-free fish and chips is excellent too.
Afternoon Tea (with gluten-free and vegan options)
Who needs dinner when you can pause for Afternoon Tea, the most quintessentially British meal? There are several places to choose from in Covent Garden: the Ivy Market Grill, Petersham Nurseries (from 17 September), Balthazar, Whittards or for an Indian twist, you could try Cinnamon Bazaar. We opted for Brasserie Max at the Covent Garden Hotel. Don’t be put off by the name. The tea is a British affair, and it’s generously proportioned whilst being delicate and dainty.
We chose a Pescatarian version of the Covent Garden Tea with a selection of sandwiches, cakes and scones. We were asked if we wanted a refill of tea, sandwiches and scones, and were furnished with a doggy bag for the leftovers. The Valrhona chocolate and mint mousse with pistachio praline was my favourite. My companion munched her way through both our choux buns with a chestnut Chantilly.
The Afternoon Tea at the Covent Garden Hotel costs £28 per person (£37 with champagne). There’s a Gentleman’s option with a menu that focuses on savoury foods such as Scotch eggs and steak sandwich, washed down with a glass of Old-fashioned. There are also vegan and gluten-free afternoon tea options.
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