London - Around Town : Covent Garden (part 1)

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Covent Garden is a popular destination for Londoners and tourists alike. At its heart is the capital’s first planned square, laid out in the 17th century by Inigo Jones and recently completed by the addition of the imperious, pearly white Royal Opera House. In spite of such grandeur, there is still a local feel to the surrounding streets and lanes, especially around Neal’s Yard and Endell Street. To the south of Covent Garden is another recently developed institution, Somerset House, which contains the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery. To get the full impact of the imposing riverside setting, enter from the Embankment side.

Covent Garden Architect

Inigo Jones (1573–1652) designed Covent Garden as London’s first planned square. The low roofs and classical portico of St Paul’s Church were influenced by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1518–80). As set designer for royal masques, Jones was responsible for introducing the proscenium arch and moveable scenery to the London stage.

  1. The Piazza and Central Market

    For 300 years, Covent Garden was a fruit, vegetable and flower market – immortalized by Lerner and Loewe’s hit musical My Fair Lady. In 1980 the Victorian halls, with their lovely iron and glass roofs, were transformed into a vibrant, modern-day market place, surrounded by cafés and bars and enlivened by regular street entertainment.

    • WC2

    Covent Garden piazza and central market

    Clowns in Covent Garden

    Shops and cafés in the former market area
  2. Royal Opera House

    London’s impressive premier music venue is home to both the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet Companies. The present Neo-Classical theatre was designed in 1858 by E M Barry and incorporated a portico frieze recovered from the previous building, which had been destroyed by fire. The Opera House has recently spread its wings into the lovely Floral Hall, once part of Covent Garden market and now housing a champagne bar .

    • Bow Street WC2

    • Open to visitors 10am–3:30pm

    • 020 7304 4000

    Royal Opera House
  3. Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery

    Founded in 1932 for the study of the history of European art, the Courtauld is part of Britain’s oldest institute for teaching the history of art. Located in the North Block of Somerset House the gallery rooms are particularly strong on Impressionist paintings. Each Tuesday at 1:15pm there is a free talk on one of the paintings in the exhibition.

    • Strand WC2

    • Open 10am–6pm daily

    • Admission charge

  4. Somerset House

    Once a grand riverside palace, and later home to the Navy Board, Somerset House is now partly occupied by the Civil Service. A large amount of the building, though, is open to the public. Aside from housing the Courtauld Institute, there are the new Embankment Galleries which put on a varied programme of exhibitions spanning design, fashion, architecture and photography.

    • Strand WC2

    • Open 10am–6pm daily

    • Admission charge

    Somerset House
  5. Seven Dials

    Also known as “Covent Garden’s hidden village”, this characteristic street layout was created by Thomas Neale (1641–99), MP. The sundial at the central monument has only six faces, as Neale’s original scheme included only six streets. Nowadays, it is known for its unusual mix of shops and leisure and entertainment venues, including restaurants, spas and four theatres.

    • WC2

  6. Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop

    Established in the 1880s, this independent, family-run shop specializes in toy theatres, theatrical gifts and traditional toys for both children and adult collectors. The colourful range on offer includes marionettes and puppets, musical boxes and paper dolls.

  7. London’s Transport Museum

    Some of the most innovative British designers have worked for London Transport, and their posters and furnishings are on display here. See vehicles that have served the city for two centuries. The bookshop sells souvenir model buses, taxis and goods displaying the distinctive London Underground symbol .

    • The Piazza WC2

    • Open 10am–6pm Mon–Thu, Sat & Sun; 11am–9pm Fri

    • Admission charge

    London’s Transport Museum
  8. Neal’s Yard

    This delightful enclave is full of colour, with painted shop fronts, flower-filled window-boxes and oil-drums, and cascades of plants tumbling down the walls. This is alternative London, with wholefoods and such alternative therapies as Chinese medicines, walk-in back rubs and acupuncture. Visit Neal’s Yard Remedies and test out their wonderful body creams and shampoos, then sample British cheese at Neal’s Yard Dairy round the corner in Short’s Gardens.

    • Neal Street WC2

    Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden
  9. St Paul’s Church

    Inigo Jones built this church (known as the actors’ church) with the main portico facing east, on to the Piazza, and the altar at the west end. Clerics objected to this unorthodox arrangement, so the altar was moved. The entrance is via the west portico while the grand east door is essentially a fake.

    • Bedford Street WC2

  10. Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

    Drury Lane is synonymous with the London stage and this glorious theatre explains why. It has a splendid entrance, with magnificent stairways leading to the circle seats. The auditorium is large enough to put on the biggest musical extravaganzas, including South Pacific, My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly and Miss Saigon. The first theatre on this site was built in 1663 for Charles II whose mistress Nell Gwynne trod the boards.

    • Catherine Street WC2

    • Guided tours

    Theatre Royal, Haymarket
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