Visiting Covent Garden
Covent Garden is a well-known and much visited area of London. In the 1200’s, the land here was owned by Westminster Abbey and was known as “the garden of the Abbey and Convent.” (The second ‘n’ being dropped some centuries later) Eventually the land was given to the Earls of Bedford who hired architect Inigo Jones to design grand residential buildings and a market in the centre of the area, as well as the church of St. Pauls (not to be confused with the Cathedral!) – which still stands today.
In the 1600’s, the area was known for its fruit and vegetable market but by the end of that century, this part of London fell into disrepute. All the wealthy residents moved out and Covent Garden was overrun by taverns, coffee-houses, brothels, and theatres. The area became known as a hot spot for scoundrels, rakes, and cads, as well as thieves and pick-pockets! Notably, it was here in Convent Garden that one of the most famous actresses in London’s history made her stage debut – Nell Gwynne. [For more information on Nell, join one of our Westminster walking tours!]
In the early 1800’s there was a drive by Parliament to restore the reputation of Covent Garden and the huge neo-classical building that stands there today was erected in an effort to organise the market. Today that building is referred to as the ‘piazza’ and it still holds market stalls as well as a number of shops, restaurants and cafes.
Where Exactly is Covent Garden?
Covent Garden is on the eastern edge of the West End. It’s located between St. Martin’s Lane and Drury Lane. Areas nearby include Holborn and Leicester Square. It’s very centrally located and within walking distance to many famous London attractions, including Trafalgar Square, St. Martin’s in the Fields and Piccadilly Circus. We recommend using this Google map for directions to Covent Garden from anywhere in London.
The closest Underground station is Covent Garden (Piccadilly line) and Leicester Square (Northern + Piccadilly lines). Covent Garden is also within walking distance from Temple (District + Circle lines).
Today, the area has expanded. The centre of Covent Garden is entirely pedestrianised and is covered in cobbled stones. The streets north of the piazza are also part of the Covent Garden area and they are full of shops, bars, restaurants, entertainment and theatres. Today the area is mostly associated with shopping and dining, but also with street performers; Magicians, jugglers, musicians and living ‘statues’ line the cobbled streets around the centre piazza every day of the week! Oftentimes these performance artists can attract huge crowds – and the biggest shows take place in front of the church of St. Pauls, near the piazza.
Today there are two markets operating – The Apple Market which sells hand-made crafts and antiques, and the Jubilee & East Colonnade Market which sells a huge variety of bric-a-brac, clothing, and various other bits and pieces.
It is estimated that Covent Garden draws in crowds of around 44 million every year – so expect large crowds, particularly when the weather is good!
What Should I Do There?
For those who have come to London hoping to shop, you will not be disappointed in Covent Garden! Aside from high street stores with recognisable names, there are also privately run boutiques, off-beat shops, hidden corner stores down cobbled alleyways, and even one of the best cheese shops in London! (Neil’s Yard Dairy – www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk) The Jubilee & East Colonnade Market also provides shopping for those hoping to haggle and catch a bargain.
The open piazza is a great place to relax in the sun. For those lucky enough to grab a table, a number of bars have upstairs balconies at the piazza which allow views of the skyline, as well as any performances taking place in front of St. Paul’s church. Many of the restaurants there have al fresco dining for those wanting a bite to eat in the (rare!) summer sun.
Covent Garden is child friendly and it’s possible to buy an ice cream cone and simply sit on the edge of the piazza for some good old-fashioned people-watching and taking in the street performances.
On the edge of the ‘West End’ district, Covent Garden is host to numerous theatres and world-famous productions (at the time of writing, this includes War Horse and Matilda). It is also home to the Royal Opera House, and the London Transport Museum (great for lovers of London and those who appreciate the Tube).
Visitors should also consider a walk up to the area known as Seven Dials. This is north of the Covent Garden piazza and is a charmingly small junction where seven roads meet at a tiny roundabout with a circular pillar that bears six sundials (not seven – as the pillar itself acts as the seventh!) standing right in the centre. The roads that meet here are nice for a wander and it’s possible to sit/stand on the pillar itself.
In Sketches by Boz Charles Dickens described the experience a visitor to Seven Dials would have: ‘The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time…at the entrance of Seven obscure passages…will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time…’ It’s pretty much the same today!
Covent Garden in Popular Culture
Seven Dials was the setting for an Agatha Christie Mystery – appropriately titled The Seven Dials Mystery.
Eliza Doolittle, the main character in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady was a Covent Garden flower seller and Alfred Hitchcock’s film Frenzy is about a Covent Garden fruit vendor who becomes a serial killer and is set primarily in the market.
The first recorded performance of a Punch and Judy (a traditional puppet show) show in Britain took place here in Covent Garden in May of 1662 and was written about by Samuel Pepys in his famous diaries.
When Should I Go?
The Markets at Covent Garden are open 7 days a week. The majority of shops in the area are, as well, although on Sundays smaller shops may close and others will lock their doors early.
Crowds really pick up around mid-day but if you are hoping to catch a street show, your best bet is to visit in the afternoon. The weekends tend to be busier, but also with a wider variety of shows!