The light and airy atmosphere of Covent Garden has made this market and theater district into a favorite area for young artists and visitors (underground station: Covent Garden). As its name suggests, this was once the site of a convent garden; today, it’s a center for professionals and artisans. Furniture designers, architects, or hair stylists live and work in these buildings which Inigo Jones originally designed for the upper classes.
Center of Covent Garden is the market hall, built in 1828 by Charles Fowler, and notable for its Georgian elegance. For a good three hundred years, this was London’s largest fruit and vegetable market, until activities were relocated in 1974 to Nine Elms south of the river. Today, it’s been restored into a mall with an assortment of small boutiques, arts and crafts shops, bookstores, cafes, art galleries and restaurants. In addition, every Saturday, the stalls of the Jubilee Market on the piazza before the market hall offer more arts and crafts products for sale.
Inigo Jones laid out this Italianate piazza in the 17th century; today, street performers earn their pennies here between the market hall and the diminutive St. Paul’s Church. The Earl of Bedford, so the story goes, commissioned Jones to build a chapel no more ornate than a barn; Jones, accordingly, built him “the most elegant barn in England.” Although it burned down in 1796, it was rebuilt to the original design; today, it’s known as the actors’ church. Particularly noteworthy is the pretty churchyard at the back, which is open at lunchtime.
The southeast edge of the piazza was once home to the Floral Market, which inspired George Bernard Shaw’s 7912 play Pygmalion. This is the story of the Cockney flower-girl Eliza Doolittle of Covent Garden, whom Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, bets he can transform into a well-spoken and elegant member of society. Shaw’s comedy of nature and nurture was successfully turned into the musical My Fair Lady. If you would like to experience the color and bustle of an original flower market today, go one Saturday morning to the Columbia Road Market (underground station: Shoreditch), as Shaw’s market is now occupied by the London Transport Museum. The museum is well-designed, particularly for children, and presents many aspects of the history of the tube and the buses. Also worth seeing is a collection of old Art Deco posters. Next door you can view photographs, programs, sets and costumes of the London stage in the Theatre Museum.
In the next street parallel, on the corner of Bow and Floral Streets, is the Royal Opera House. Built by Barry 150 years ago – two previous opera houses had burned down – this theater stages productions with prominent guest artists together with the royal opera and ballet ensembles. Tickets are hard to come by, but you can always try to get hold of one of the 100 or so standing-room tickets by standing in line at the box office a couple of hours before the evening performance. Two streets further on, between Drury Lane and Catherine Street, are the classical columns of the Theatre Royal, built by Nash in 1820, which has seen many plays by Oscar Wilde, as well as more than 2,000 performances of My Fair Lady. One street further on is Neal Street; you can sample the pleasant and busy atmosphere of the West End in its boutiques, cafes, pubs and courtyards.
Going south, you’ll come to the Courtauld Institute Galleries (entrance on the Strand, underground station: Aldwych or Temple) where Somerset House has since 1990 maintained a small but excellent collection of French Impressionists (the most important collection of its kind outside France), as well as 19th- and 20th-century British artists. The exit at the rear leads you down steps to the Thames Embankment, where to your right looms Cleopatra’s Needle, nearly 70 feet high (20 m), weighing 20 tons and around 3,500 years old; Egypt’s Sultan Mohammed Ali presented this obelisk to the British royal family in 1819, but it was not set up until 1878. Before its erection, various contemporary objects were interred beneath it for the edification of posterity: a photograph of Queen Victoria, a hairpin, a copy of the Times, and a train timetable.