Covent Garden is an area of London that has remained relatively unchanged over the years compared to the rest of the city. It boasts a number of classic and even listed buildings that are protected, which might explain why the fabric of the area has been unaffected by modern times bringing with it glass office buildings and skyscrapers. The original character of Covent Garden remains, but any visit will suggest that this is really a tourists’ stomping ground as opposed to a place still for Londoners.
The heavy footfall is predominantly visitors from around the UK and across the world. Many of the larger groups of school trips and walking tours hog the pavements walking at a speed that would leave many a Londoner sighing. There are also a great number of hotels in Covent Garden which provide a great base to explore the rest of central London.
In the Piazza, which is the main square, the contemporary Apple Store contrasts brilliantly with the original cobbled streets. The market building in the centre has stood there since around 1830 – one of the few places in the city where a market has not just survived the recessions and financial hardships, but thrived. The London Transport Museum has also occupied one of the old market buildings on the corner of the piazza since 1980.
The surrounding roads prioritise pedestrians on the whole, with cars as guests catering to the number of “outsiders” that flock to the area. Most true Londoners know to avoid central London on weekends and only venture in if you really have to. Liv and I were in town as part of a collaboration with Hotels.com and really wanted to uncover some hidden gems for locals and visitors.
Unexpectedly, the day was dry but with a chilly, unforgiving wind. The travel professionals that we are, we chose to get off at Leicester Square and walk just a few minutes into the heartland avoiding the lift at Covent Garden station itself and any potential queues.
It can also be pretty overwhelming walking straight out into the main strip of Covent Garden with its unregulated pedicabs (aka rickshaws for the rich or stupid) blasting out music with their tacky lights and often dodgy riders. Probably not too far off the Red Light District that used to be associated with the area in the 18th Century.
If you’re looking for a part of London with almost too much choice for food and drink, with an overwhelming list of restaurants, bars and pubs, this is definitely a place to try. Mr Fogg’s Tavern is one on the list and part of a group of quintessentially British bars with six locations across town teleporting you back to Victorian London.
At the Tavern location, Sunday roasts are on offer at a very reasonable price for central London (£15 for meat, £10 veggie – with all the trimmings), which made it even more appealing as a first stop when food was our priority.
The decor is reminiscent of a Dickensian parlour with string Punch and Judy-like puppets, quaint ornaments, a giant wooden ship and some Union Jack bunting. The stuffed animals were a slightly creepy touch but easy enough to ignore.
The drinks list is not to be ignored either. They have high shelves stocked with a selection of spirits as well as affordable (well, London affordable) beers and wines. For £34 you can also get the roast with unlimited free-flowing (alcoholic or mocktail-style) punch and gravy for an hour and a half. It was tempting us but we noted the details down instead for a future Sunday when we don’t have work the next day.
The bearded waiter, host and all-round entertainer could have been too much for a delicate Sunday morning but he was attentive and checked on all the tables in between shouting random things out and ringing a bell.
Stepping back into the 21st Century, we ventured out into the reality of today’s London. A Jamaican Patty shop (like more flavoursome Cornish Pasties) is situated beside a vintage London hat maker’s shop.
One of our local spots in Richmond, Petersham Nurseries, also now has an outpost in Covent Garden. Like the Richmond location, it combines a garden centre with a homeware and furniture shop that apparently also serves up some great quality food in the restaurant. It was looking suitably festive inside although it was only the second weekend of November.
Round the back there is also a cut through, taking you past the green outdoor seating of the restaurant, decorated with lots of foliage, that leads to Long Acre. This is where many of Covent Garden’s large clothes shops can be found.
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The Royal Opera House, Liv’s former place of workplace, was also looking good with its refurbished transformation offering people the ability to pop in and look around or experience smaller performances for free as well as the usual paid opera and ballet ticketed shows. Covent Garden was where we’d had a number of early dates when we were dating, so being here will probably always have some happy memories.
One of the newest Vegan spots in town, By CHLOE, has found its way over here from LA and New York. I can vouch for their food being tasty, if a little overpriced, but the Instagrammable interior was let down on this visit by the vegan hot cocoa we ordered (£3.30) which I have to honestly say was not nice and nothing like chocolate or cocoa I’d tasted before. We only ever buy Almond Milk at home now after doing Veganuary but the whole hot, tasteless concoction was what let this drink down.
It was too cold for us to get the photographic ice cream cone wrapped in candy floss from Milk Train for the ‘gram, but we went past the pop-up, helped a woman take a picture of her ice cream to make her daughter jealous, and realised that a cafe we’d had a lunch date in years ago was soon to be the new, larger home of Milk Train.
What’s a visit to London without some culture, and where better than Somerset House? The giant Christmas tree was up, the rink was in and families with children, couples and groups of friends went round in laps on the ice. But we were here to check out the prints, tapestries and sculptures of South African artist Athi-Patra Ruga.
They were colourful and provocative and although Somerset House is not quite Covent Garden it’s near enough. I love that it’s always pretty quiet inside. The exhibition Of Gods, Rainbows and Omissions is on until 6 January 2019.
There are a number of cafés and also a Fortnum & Mason festive pop-up but we opted for Hej Coffee to make up for our bad hot chocolate earlier and grabbed some pastries to have at home. The Swedish spot does some irresistible sweet treats and they all seem to be between the £1 and £3 mark.
A breezy stroll over Waterloo Bridge at “golden hour” showed that it is possible to love this city with its mix of the old and new, seeing and experiencing new things with each visit, but also know when the right time is to head home.
~ J ~