Near the theatre district, this area in London boasts everything from flowers to flashy fashion. Francesca Fearon takes a look around
How to spend a day in Covent Garden, London
With its culture, creative energy and reputation as a place to do business, during the summer months, London becomes a second home to many from the Middle East. This year, with soaring temperatures and sunshine aplenty, it must have felt more than a little like home for some.
The city is fizzing with activity and nowhere more so than Covent Garden, where new shops and al fresco restaurants are rejuvenating what is already a popular part of town, in the heart of the theatre district.
Five-hundred years ago this was pastureland and orchard belonging to Westminster Abbey, until acquired by the Earl of Bedford, who commissioned celebrated architect Inigo Jones in 1630 to design the colonnaded buildings on the north and east sides, creating London’s first residential square.
It became London’s largest wholesale fruit-and-vegetable market in the mid 17th century, and as theatreland grew around it, artists and actors mixing with market vendors and flower girls gave the area a racy, sybaritic reputation. The neo-classical Market Building was built in 1828, but 150 years later it was clear the market had outgrown its grand venue, and the stallholders were moved to Battersea.
8am Floral fun
Many arrive in Covent Garden asking where the market is, only to discover it moved across town in the 1970s. However, a head gardener ensures the area’s planters, market carts and swing seats are decked out with beautiful, Instagram-friendly floral displays. Nearby at the Petersham Nurseries Store (www.petershamnurseries.com) in Floral Court, head florist Nev will help you make a posy using English flowers from the Petersham Gardens, near Richmond. Then step next door into La Goccia or the Petersham, where you can watch the chefs cook your breakfast using fresh ingredients sourced from the family’s organic farm. Menus change daily, and you can buy ingredients in the deli across the courtyard to take home.
10am Culture or cars
The National Gallery (www.nationalgallery.org.uk) and the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House (www.somersethouse.org.uk) are all within a 10-minute radius of the Piazza on foot, but if cars are more your thing than culture, then there is the London Transport Museum (www.ltmuseum.co.uk), which is located in the old Flower Market, or James Bond’s collection of fast cars parked in the London Film Museum (www.londonfilmmuseum.com) in Wellington Street. Here, you will see the Aston Martin DB5 from GoldenEye and the DB10 from Spectre.
Standing proud with a bird’s-eye view across the Piazza is the Royal Opera House (www.roh.org.uk), which has been receiving some TLC lately – with a new entrance opposite the Market Building that echoes the famous iron-and-glass architecture of the Paul Hamlyn Hall, and an all-day cafe. The Linbury Theatre in the opera house will open at year’s end. There is an active list of tours, workshops and demonstrations that visitors can access. The backstage tour (£12 [Dh58]) is a must, but pre-book because they don’t happen every day.
12.30pm Grab a bite
The first Punch and Judy puppet show was staged in Covent Garden. Since then, the area has become a hub for street entertainers, from acrobats to magicians and musicians, so enjoy the spectacle on your way to lunch. A new generation of restaurants and food trucks have arrived to suit all tastes and budgets.
Opening next month in James Street is Wahlburgers from New York, which is owned by the three Wahlberg brothers, including actor Mark – their first restaurant outside the United States. Also soon to open in the historic Market Building is Sushisamba (www.sushisamba.com), with its exotic mix of Japanese, Peruvian and Brazilian cuisine.
Try Frenchie (www.frenchiecoventgarden.com), on Henrietta Street, or the fish restaurant across the road, the Oystermen (www.oystermen.co.uk) for delicious, market-fresh produce. Frenchie, owned by Jamie Oliver’s protege Greg Marchand – has many halal-friendly dishes on its menu (set menu £27 [Dh130] for two courses). For a snack, head to Abuelo (www.abuelocafe.co.uk) in Southampton Street, where a cool-looking Australian-Argentinian couple offer healthyish options and South American coffees. Try the honey-whipped mascarpone with fresh figs, salted pistachios and edible flowers on toast (£8 [Dh39]).
2.30pm A spot of retail therapy
This area of London smells heavenly, especially in Wellington Street, where London’s oldest perfumier, Penhaligon’s (www.penhaligons.com), pumps fragrance into the street. Founded in 1870, this historic perfumery house and royal-warrant holder offers bookable fragrance-profiling to help you discover the perfect perfume for you.
There is more choice around the Market Building, where many beauty and fragrance houses have opened their doors. There’s even a Tom Ford beauty boutique – the first outside of the US. While the Market Building itself emphasises beauty brands (and indulgent chocolate shops), there is plenty of women’s fashion in King Street and menswear in Henrietta Street, and the famous Paul Smith shop in Floral Street. Stroll past David Beckham and Daniel Kearns’ Kent & Curwen menswear flagship to The Shop at the Bluebird which has taken over the old Carriage Hall.
The brightly lit atrium floods this touchy-feely luxury concept store with sunlight: – all the better to check out the Victoria Beckham, Marni and Alexander McQueen lines. Tiffany silver gets personal in its vibrant new style studio (the first in the world) at the other end of Floral Street, on James Street. Doodle an image or your initials on an iPad and it will be machine-engraved on silver while you wait. Browse the playful concept store for modern jewellery and home range or treat yourself to perfume from their vending machine.
4pm Time for tea
That very British ritual has a French interloper as Mariages Freres (www.mariagefreres.com) opens it doors this summer in King Street with the longest tea wall in the world – a choice of 1,000 loose-leaf teas from Japan to Argentina, a tea museum and a choice of teas for breakfast, lunch and tea, along with tea-infused delicacies in their gallery restaurant.
Alternatively head to Balthazar (www.balthazarlondon.com) in Russell Street for tea created in collaboration with Flowerbx (sic) – flower-inspired cakes such as choux pastry anemone and a rose-shaped raspberry-scent mousse – from £30 (Dh145) per person. There is enough food here to see you through to a post-theatre dinner at the Ivy Market Grill.
8pm Dinner and a show
Most restaurants offer a pre-theatre menu from 5.30pm, so that you still have time to the theatre – Petersham is open for post-theatre bites until 10.45pm. Covent Garden is within a stone’s throw of musicals including 42nd Street at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Chicago at the Phoenix and Mamma Mia! at the Novello, however, this autumn’s big ticket will be acting legend Sir Ian McKellan in King Lear at the Duke of York’s.
Before resting your head
It is worth taking a post theatre/dinner mosey down to the Thames River. Walk to the middle of Waterloo Bridge, where you can discover the best views of all the brightly lit landmarks of London, from Westminster to St Paul’s and along to Canary Wharf. Then head to quintessentially British hotel the Savoy (www.fairmont.com/savoy-london) to end the evening in the American Bar, then bed. Rooms cost from £396 (Dh1,908).
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