London is such a large and varied city that it's easy to get lost, both in planning a trip and in the city itself. I have to recommend making your home base in Covent Garden - a gorgeous pocket in the center of the city that has everything you'll need during your stay!
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**Post updated, April, 2019
Finding the perfect home base for your trip to London is hard - and made harder by the fact that some of the most desirable areas have few hotels, as they are already filled with housing, parks, palaces - the usual! For us, you can't beat Covent Garden!
Various factors go into picking a hotel for a lengthy vacation, but location within the city you’re hoping to learn to get to know has got to be #1. While walking in London is easy, and the Tube is extremely accessible, you definitely want to make sure that you're picking a location that is both central to what you want to do and desirable in and of itself. Many tourists looking for a high end experience end up in Mayfair ($$$$) or Westminster (thinking they’re near the sights) only to find that St Paul’s is not even remotely walkable and it’s quite a journey to the inevitable London Eye trip. From Covent Garden, we spent many an evening having a relaxing, after-hours drink in the City, then strolling along the Thames after a long day shopping at Fortnum's. All on foot (with the caveat, of course, that are huge walkers). You’re about a 20-minute walk from St Paul’s and a 24-minute walk from Westminster Abbey. You can tour the two greatest royal wedding locations all on foot - what more could you ask for? Additionally, taking the Heathrow Express, getting to the airport is about as easy as it can ever be from Central London - the Express drops you at Paddington Station, and then I'd recommend a quick cab ride over to Covent Garden.
History of Covent Garden
If you're anything like me, the first thing I started asking when my husband and I decided to stay in this area was "Covent?" What on earth does that mean?
Well, if you can imagine, this area - now the heart of London's theatre district, used to be owned by Westminster Abbey (think Pillars of the Earth) and used as an orchard and farming district. Londoners called the region "the garden of the Abbey and Convent," and within a few short centuries, that first "n" was nowhere to be found! With the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the king instead gave the land to the Earl of Bedford, whose descendants commissions Inigo Jones to construct townhouses.
Covent Garden Market Shopping
Covent Garden itself (the former fruit and veg stalls, which were redeveloped in the end of the 20th century) is an incredible structure. Certainly worth seeing, even if you aren't a shopper, it is the nucleus of the area, and also home to a number of restaurants, coffee shops, and pubs on the nearby streets, as well.
The structure itself and surrounding streets have amazing shopping - from classic, luxury mainstays like Chanel and Dior to great English names like Mulberry, if you're looking for a relaxed shopping experience, look no further. A recent favorite of mine is The Cambridge Satchel Company, which offers a variety of simple, tasteful leather bags, generally around $150-$250. Walking just outside the confines of the Garden, you'll find Eileen Fisher, H&M, and Barbour, among many others.
West End Theatre
In our recent 10-night stay, we saw 5 shows, often with same-day ticket purchases. What is better than eating dinner, seeing a show, grabbing a drink, and being able to walk back to your hotel? I must particularly recommend The Mousetrap - a London classic. We attended the 27,297th performance. Personally, I’d pair The Mousetrap with dinner (before or after at The Ivy, see below)- and remember - don’t spoil the ending! If you're lucky enough to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the Palace Theatre is easily walkable. Check out the blog post on trips and tricks for seeing Cursed Child in London.
Dining Options in Covent Garden
Covent Garden overflows with dining options, all the way from The Ivy to Pret. But first, a very important note of caution for first timers - unless you’re going to a show, avoid arriving at a restaurant in this area from 6-7. Shows start at 7:30, and many an unsuspecting American attorney (oh wait, at least just these two), has wandered around Covent Garden at 6, unable to get into any restaurants and eventually finding one with completed harassed waitstaff trying to get everyone else out to their 7:30 show. A personal favorite of mine is The Ivy. Yes, I know it’s no longer David Beckham (or his modern day equivalent)’s favourite hot spot, but it’s still a very nice restaurant and, if it were a hot spot, I at least still couldn’t get in. Her Majesty, not a frequenter of restaurants, dined here in 2017. So go, have a wonderful dinner, visit a London landmark, and then amble across the street to The Mousetrap, just in time for the show!
No shortage of boozers here! We happened upon a tiny little pub, Savoy Tup, right off the Strand toward the Thames, looking out on the back of The Savoy. It doesn't have much seating area, but everyone is drinking outside anyway.
If you’re feeling more traditional, don’t forget about Ye Old Cheshire Cheese (obviously they don’t have a website). They have a delicious lunch (not cheap, but you if you need your fill of lawyers - you’ll find them here), but definitely pop by for a pint and soak in the atmosphere. I always pretend to be Dr. Johnson, myself, while I sit next to the roaring fire. It's not as touristy as you might think - in fact J.K. Rowling even gives it a little plug in The Silkworm, one of my favorite mystery novels. Additionally, The George (pictured below), on The Strand, was a hit with the Husband!
Covent Garden has its own tube station, of the same name. DO NOT TAKE THE STAIRS. Enough said. Charing Cross Station is a 10 minute walk along the Strand. From there, you're easily connected to a number of the large London train stations, from which you can catch trains for any day trips you might be planning. Additionally, Waterloo Station is easily walkable (on the other side of the Thames). For more on day trips from London - check out the post on visiting the U.K. by train.
Hotels in Covent Garden
We loved The Waldorf Hilton Covent Garden. Located on a little crescent off of the Strand, it has nice, clean rooms, door attendants, and was extremely quiet in the room at night. We opted for a fairly large room, as we had such an extended stay. There was a kettle in the room (always important, in my opinion!!) stocked with tea and instant coffee. As a thoughtful touch, they brought us a few little treats, including a bottle of 🍷.
If you’re looking for the high end luxury experience in this area, check out The Savoy. Now owned by Fairmont, it’s unforgettable luxury (with a hefty price tag).
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