In just about any of London's neighborhoods, you'll find layers upon layers of history to discover — and Covent Garden is no exception. Today, it's one of the city's liveliest areas with outdoor cafes, stylish shopping and entertainment of all kinds — from the Royal Opera House and all the theaters to the energy of street performers and musicians. The area also has some very unique accommodation options which you can discover at HostelBookers.
The name Covent Garden originated in the Middle Ages when vegetable gardens covered 40 acres of what's now London's West End. This was the Convent Garden of the Abbey of St. Peter at Westminster, which over time became Covent Garden. The area has been associated with vegetables and flowers ever since. Known mostly to Londoners who frequented the markets there, Covent Garden got its worldwide acclaim from the 1964 film "My Fair Lady," which depicted the poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle in the market at Covent Garden.
Covent Garden sits at the heart of London's Theater District, with the Royal Opera House, Theater Royal Drury Lane, Adelphi Theater, Wyndham's Theater and so many more located nearby. So how did this vegetable garden become an elegant neighborhood? In 1540, King Henry VIII dissolved all of the England's monastic properties and handed over a large chunk of Westminster's veggie patch to John Russell, the First Earl of Bedford.
In 1630, Russell commissioned architect Inigo Jones to build houses on the land that would be appropriate for gentlemen of the aristocratic class, creating today's Russell Square. The large piazzas in Italy, which he visited on his European travels, inspired him. He wanted to bring the concept of the Italian piazza to London, so he created the first open square in England at Covent Garden. Locals still refer to it as the "Piazza."
Despite its elegant homes, Covent Garden has always been known for its markets and entertainment. As early as 1642, the first Punch and Judy shows appeared in the Piazza. And 1663 witnessed the founding of the Theater Royal on Drury Lane, the oldest operating theater in London.
St. Paul's Church — not to be confused with its larger cousin St. Paul's Cathedral — has watched over all the activity in Covent Garden's Piazza. Also designed by Inigo Jones and built in 1632, it has become known as the actors' church. Inside you'll find numerous memorials to actors and writers. Step into its quiet interior for a peaceful moment away from the energy and excitement of the Garden. And if the weather cooperates, stop to enjoy a bit of natural beauty in the garden behind the church.
The Piazza's open space lended itself well to open-air performers, but it also hosted fruit and vegetable markets. After the Great Fire in 1666, which destroyed many of the markets in the east end of the city, Covent Garden once again became one of the most important sources for fruit and vegetables in the city. Eventually, the city fathers decided to spruce up the Piazza by erecting an iron and glass structure, designed by Charles Fowler in the 1830s, over the central part of it. It became so popular that additional markets began to appear around it. And so it went until 1974 when the market moved east. By the 1980s, Covent Garden had been transformed into the chic shopping, dining and entertainment area that it is today.
Even today you'll find street performers, artists, and musicians entertaining the crowds around Covent Garden. Soak up the sun — when it's out — at an open-air café or browse the markets to do some serious shopping. You'll soon discover the Apple Market, dedicated to handmade arts and crafts, in the center of the covered area of Covent Garden. Along each side you'll find wonderful shops to explore on both the ground and upper levels, offering everything from clothing to gourmet food stores and British specialties. And if your feet begin to hurt, you'll find plenty of little restaurants and cafes within Covent Garden at which to rest them.
But don't stop with Covent Garden, itself. The streets around it and the Piazza are just as colorful. Floral Street, Long Acre and Neal Street are particularly fine for shopping. You'll find classic British pubs interspersed with familiar names. Be sure to stop at the Lamb & Flag on tiny Rose Street, which opened its doors in 1623. If you love riding the classic double decker buses and the Tube in London, stop in the London Transport Museum just off the Piazza to learn about their charming histories.
For a splash of color, you've got to visit Neal's Yard, tucked away near Seven Dials. It's brightly painted buildings and fun shops will surely brighten up any dreary London day. And even if you're not a shop-til-you-drop person, you'll love just strolling the streets around Covent Garden, causing you to exclaim, "Isn't it d'loverly," just as Eliza Doolittle did.