Time out: three spas and salons in Covent Garden

With so much going on in our neighbourhood, spas feel less like a treat than a necessity – if you’re planning a big night out they can prep you for it, and if you’ve spent a hard day shopping they can help soothe it away. In many cases they can be an attraction in themselves, with half- or full-day packages that make ideal gifts.

Although we were sad to see the Sanctuary Spa close in May 2014 – it was one of the oldest, in business for 36 years and with a long list of famous fans – but there are still plenty of great options nearby, from relaxed independents to big-name institutes to Thai specialists. Pair them with a workout in our fully-equipped gym – free to use for guests – and you’ve got the perfect wellness package.

Relax Covent Garden

Situated just off popular shopping street Long Acre, Relax does a very informal, very accessible take on spas, with a colourful downstairs lounge for pop-in massages and a series of luxurious treatment rooms upstairs, clustered around a waiting area that looks out over the St Martin’s Court development (so you can people-watch and plan which shops to hit afterwards). Massage offerings range from powerful sports sessions to classic, relaxing Swedish techniques. The Ultimate Relax Experience, coming in at £210, includes an aromatherapy facial, a full body massage and a manicure or pedicure.

  • Address: 7 Mercer Street, WC2H 9QJ
  • Walking time: 8 minutes
      Landmarks on the way:

    • Bedford Street and Southampton Street, built on the site of Bedford House (demolished 1705) and the subsequent Bedford Estate.
    • Rose Street, home to the historic Lamb and Flag. A small cobbled street that once extended further south, but was cut off by the construction of Garrick Street in the 1860s.

Thai Square Spa

While most modern spas offer at least one Thai-inspired treatment, Thai Square, a gorgeous retreat in an old Covent Garden warehouse, offers in the region of 50 – so if this is the style you prefer, this is where to come. Naturally, treatments use plenty of aromatics and spices – ginger, lemongrass, jasmine, cinnamon, black pepper – and many, if Thai Square is to be believed, date back centuries (as long as it works, we’re not too bothered). There’s a fair amount of hype around the Golden Maharani Facial Treatment, which uses a face-pack made with genuine 24-carat gold. There’s also a wide range of massages and basic beauty services, and the decor is lovely throughout; we’re particularly taken with the big copper baths in two of the fourteen treatment rooms.

  • Address: 25 Shelton Street, WC2H 9HW
  • Walking time: 8 minutes
      Landmarks on the way:

    • Bedford Street and Southampton street, built on the site of Bedford House (demolished 1705) and the subsequent Bedford Estate.
    • Covent Garden market
    • Floral Street, renamed in 1895 in reference to the trade in flowers at Covent Garden, and now lined with upmarket shops
    • Pineapple Dance Studios

Aveda Institute

The Aveda name dates back to the mid-70s, and today it’s one of the world’s most recognised names in organic hair and beauty, specialising in plant-based products, committed to fair trade and against animal testing. Its London salon and spa has a huge staff of 70 from 23 nationalities. As you’d expect, there’s a focus on hair treatment and styling, but also really like their pricing structure for body treatments – pick a main massage and add on extra mini-sessions, from ayurvedic eye treatment to reflexology, for £20 each. There’s also a men’s grooming section, which sells itself as “a merging of traditional barbering and holistic well-being”. Boys?

  • Address: 174-177 High Holborn, WC1V 7AA
  • Walking time: 11 minutez
      Landmarks on the way:

    • The southern section of Wellington Street, connecting to the Strand, was developed following the burning of the original Lyceum, which stood across the street’s current path, in 1830.
    • Royal Opera House
    • Bow Street, once home to the headquarters of the ‘Bow Street Runners’ – London’s first professional police force. It was a minor street until it was extended north onto Long Acre in 1793.

Tutored tastings: Wine, whisky, cheese and chocolate

There’s a bit of a paradox to Britain’s foodie revolution: the more exciting produce we’re exposed to, the more aware we are of the gaps in our knowledge. Cheese or wine lovers we may be, but few of us can claim to be cheese or wine experts.

Thankfully some people can, and they’re willing to share their knowledge. Here’s a selection of local classes that’ll help you train up your taste buds…

Cheese at Neal’s Yard

You’ll have to jump on the train for this one, but it’s only a short run from Charing Cross to London Bridge – and at the other end lies the Borough Market warehouse of legendary cheesemongers Neal’s Yard Dairies, who have been plying the city with amazing cheese since the 1970s. Their two-hour cheese lessons are serious business, ranging from the basics of home production to themed tasting sessions – as autumn approaches, they’re running a series of Winter Warmer classes that will focus on muscular, seasonal cheeses paired with porters, old ales and barley wines.

  • Address: 6 Park Street, SE1 9AB

Whisky at Milroys of Soho

Milroy’s was founded in the mid-60s, and its little shop on Greek street is crammed to the rafters with whiskies from around the world – some 700 varieties, according to the website. Its experts run both scheduled and private tutored tastings in the on-site cellar, including a beginner’s session (“How to Taste Whisky”), one for the experts (“Fine and Rare Whiskies”), a lesson on pairing whisky and cheese and an in-depth look at Bourbon. There are also occasional visits from producers, so if you’re a fan of a particular distillery it pays to keep an eye on the Milroys events page.

  • Address: 3 Greek Street, W1D 4NX

Wine at Vinopolis

Since opening in 1999 this huge wine attraction has become one of the South Bank’s big draws, pulling in tourists and Londoners alike. It isn’t the most intimate wine tasting you’ll find in the city, but it’s incredibly comprehensive and scales well – prices start at £27 for a self-guided tour, which includes a 15-minute introduction to tasting and seven tokens (good for three to four glasses, depending on what you’re drinking). With multiple tasting and education zones, more than 100 wines to try and interactive panels to help you choose the right one, that’s enough to keep you busy. For something deeper, you can book a tour with one of the expert guides from £60.

      • Address: 1 Bank End, SE1 9BU

Chocolate at Hotel Chocolat

Cocoa fiends love the Hotel Chocolat brand – the only one in Britain to own its own plantation, the Rabot Estate in St Lucia – and its Covent Garden location offers two-hour courses that turn a favourite treat into something much more. You’ll learn how to get the best flavour out of choc, how nuances of the production process affect the taste, and what to look out for when sampling different varieties. If you’re more interested in production, the 90 minute ‘Bean to Bar’ class will show you how to make your own bar – and naturally, you get to take it home to enjoy later.

    • Address: 4 Monmouth Street, WC2H 9HB

Social eating: where to share a table of ‘small plates’

It’s nice to be sociable, and never more so that when food’s concerned – there’s something about ordering together and sharing everything that brings a table to life. And it isn’t a pleasure that’s confined to one food culture; there are versions of social eating from the Mediterranean, from Spanish, from the Middle East, from China… you get the picture. Here in the West End, we’ve got many of those styles covered just a short walk away. These are some of our favourites.

Barrafina for tapas

Don’t arrive at Barrafina hungry – or if you do, make sure it’s bang on midday, when the place opens. The fabulously authentic tapas bar – modelled on Cal Pep in Barcelona – has only 20 or so stools and takes no reservations. In other words, you can expect a queue, though there are drinks and nibbles available to tide you over. Once you reach the front, it’s a marvel of simple cooking and kitchen choreography, with chefs turning out vibrant pan con tomates, crispy-gooey tortillas and meat and fish specials (including plenty of offal, if your tastes go that way) from behind a small L-shaped bar. It isn’t relaxing, but it’s a real experience – and every bit worth the wait.

  • Address: 54 Frith Street, W1D 4SL
  • Walking time: 13 minutes

Sofra for meze

There’s a great sharing tradition in Middle Eastern food, and Sofra, just around the corner off Aldwych, serves a wide range, with a particular focus on Turkey. We love the lamb with aubergine puree – tender chunks of grilled meat on a soft, smoky puree, with natural yogurt and garlic to give it a tangy edge – but you’ll want to try 90% of the menu, so bring as many friends as you can, order generously and get stuck in. There’s also a good-value set menu that offers eight small meze plates plus a main for £14.95 (£11.95 before 6pm).

  • Address: 36 Tavistock Street, WC2E 7PB
  • Walking time: 4 minutes

Yauatcha for dim sum

It may not be cheap, but this Michelin-starred Soho spot puts a modern, brilliantly presented twist on the Cantonese tradition of bite-size delicacies. You’ll find crowd-pleasers like soft-shell crab and prawn toast alongside more niche – but very authentic – offerings like chicken feet in black bean sauce. The two dining rooms are chic, low-lit, and packed with young, chatty diners, so although this is top-end dining, it still has the energy and exuberance of the best social eating. And if you haven’t filled up on dim sum, there’s also an amazing patisserie counter whose exquisite creations could pass for sculpture (though then you wouldn’t get to eat them).

  • Address: 15-17 Broadwick Street, Soho, W1F 0D
    • Walking time: 17 minutes

    Terroirs for French-inspired plates

    This isn’t the first time we’ve mentioned Terroirs, so we’ll keep it brief – its menu of small plates, cheese and charcuterie borrows from France, Italy and Britain, and is perfect for sharing, particularly over a bottle from the unmatched wine list.

    • Address: 5 William IV Street, WC2N 4DW
    • Walking time: 4 minutes

    Three brilliant BBQ joints in Soho and Covent Garden

    Rewind 10 years and London’s BBQ joints were few and far between – in 2004 only one of our three choices, Bodean’s, existed, and it had only been in business for two years. Restaurants that served US food tended to be unfocused and formulaic, churning out easy versions of popular dishes for undiscerning punters. The art of real BBQ – the big smokers, the carefully guarded dry rub recipes, the precise temperature control, the long cooking times – was barely recognised, let alone practised.

    What changed? If you ask us, the growth of pop-ups and food trucks helped; it allowed people with passion and knowledge to get a start in the industry and begin opening up new dining trends. That’s roughly Pitt Cue’s story, and as businesses like it grew in influence, they set the scene for bigger investments like Big Easy. Either way, good BBQ is now all over town, and we’re lucky to have three of the very best within walking distance.

    Bodeans

    Sat on a corner in the heart of Soho, this BBQ and rib joint comfortably pre-dates the trend for hipster junkfood – you’ll struggle to find a trace of irony anywhere. There’s table service downstairs and a livelier fast-food-style diner upstairs, with US sports channels on the TV. Is it the best BBQ food in London? Probably not, but it has earned its keep in a demanding part of town, and continues to thrive despite the flood of BBQ newbies in the neighbourhood. Plus it’s perfectly located for a post-pub feed in Soho, and, unlike at Pitt Cue Co, it doesn’t take a minor miracle to get a table.

    Address: 10 Poland Street, W1F 8PZ
    Walking time: 20 minutes
    Landmarks on the way:

    • Zimbabwe House, designed by Charles Holden, who did extensive work for London Underground (including its headquarters in St James’s Park
    • National Portrait Gallery
    • Leicester Square

    Big Easy

    Housed in an old power station, this reinvigorated version of a once rather uninspiring brand earned an approving review from the Guardian critic Jay Rayner when it opened – and if the fiercely carnivorous Rayner tells you a meat-focused restaurant is good, you listen. Their revamp consisted of hiring both staff and equipment from the US: over came Kenny Callaghan and Pete Daversa, from New York’s Blue Smoke and Hill Country Barbecue Market respectively; close behind them came a set of real-deal smokers. Relaxed and quiet it ain’t, but that isn’t what BBQ is about – on flavour and authenticity, Big Easy delivers the goods. Even better, it’s literally just around the corner from our front door.

    Address: 12 Maiden Lane, WC2E 7NA
    Walking time: 3 minutes
    Landmarks on the way:

    • Vaudeville Theatre
    • Maiden Lane is a former bridleway marking south side of Covent Garden

    Pitt Cue Co

    Pitt Cue began life as a food truck on the South Bank, making the leap to a ‘proper’ restaurant around two years ago. We’ve put proper in quote marks because this is some of the most casual sit-down dining in town. With only 30 seats it’s strictly first-come-first-served, and things get decidedly crowded in the ground-floor bar, where there’s some space to prop yourself up by the wall. Ribs are the clincher here, and they come up beautifully, rich and slow-smoked with that elusive ‘bark’ on the outside. If ribs aren’t your bag there’s pulled pork and brisket too, but the menu offers little else except a range of sides (beans, mash, sprout tops). They stick to what they’re good at, and no wonder – they’re very good at it indeed.

    Address: 1 Newburgh St, London W1F 7RB
    Walking time: 20 minutes
    Landmarks on the way:

    • Zimbabwe House, designed by Charles Holden, who did extensive work for London Underground (including its headquarters in St James’s Park
    • National Portrait Gallery
    • Leicester Square

    See something different: where to catch indie and up-and-coming musicians

    London’s well-served for major music venues, but if you’re anything like us you don’t always want a major gig experience – sometimes you want to walk out of the door and be surprised by someone you’ve never heard of, without paying big-ticket prices or booking months in advance.

    While our neighbourhood isn’t quite as steeped in music as, say, Camden (though that’s only a few stops on the Northern Line from Charing Cross) we’ve got a clutch of dedicated live music bars in the area, including one that dates back to the 40s and proved central to the punk explosion. They might be a little cramped, but they’re places driven by love of music, love of musicianship and a hunger for new talent. We think you’ll like them.

    Ain’t Nothing But

    Get ready for a tight squeeze. Now over 20 years old, the tiny, juke joint-styled Ain’t Nothing But continues to feel out of place in the nowadays rather manicured Carnaby Street area – and it’s all the better for it. Regular events include Blues and Burlesque on the first Sunday of every month, and the consistently hectic open invitation Blues Jam every Monday, when queues snake down Kingly Street. The bar keeps jumping until 1am throughout the week (when there’s usually a bit more room to move) and 2.30am on Fridays and Saturdays.

    Address: 20 Kingly Street, W1B 5PZ
    Walking time: 20 minutes

    Landmarks on the way:

    • Zimbabwe House, designed by Charles Holden, who did extensive work for London Underground (including its headquarters in St James’s Park)
    • National Portrait Gallery
    • Leicester Square

    100 Club

    Behind this unassuming doorway on Oxford Street (at number 100, hence the name) lies one of London’s most venerable venues. It started life in 1942, when the restaurant that originally occupied the space started to hire live acts. A deep association with jazz – and specifically swing – followed, and saw several huge US names play here, including Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong. From the early 1970s it became one of London’s key punk venues, hosting The Sex Pistols, The Clash and countless lesser-known acts. That eclectic mix continues today – the 100 Club remains a dark, unpolished basement joint where you can see anything from rock to jazz to (yes, really) classical.

    Address: 100 Oxford Street, W1D 1LL
    Walking time: 20 minutes
    Landmarks on the way:

    • The southern section of Wellington Street, connecting to the Strand, was developed following the burning of the original Lyceum, which stood across the street’s current path, in 1830
    • Royal Opera House

    12 Bar Club

    Appropriately enough, this 25-year-old venue sits in the heart of ‘Tin Pan Alley’, aka the raft of guitar, bass and drum shops on Denmark Street – in fact, Andy Preston of Andy’s Guitars is a co-founder. The 17th Century building has been a stable, a forge and a carpenter’s shop, and now offers a small performance space with an even smaller balcony and a funky, sign-plastered bar area. With a 3am licence from Monday to Saturday (12.30am on Sundays), it gets through several bands every day, with the focus on the alternative – think punk, indie rock, folk and blues, with the occasional secret gig by a big name. A small, buzzy cafe at the front is open until 7pm Monday to Saturday.

    Address: 26 Denmark Street, WC2H 8NL
    Walking time: 13 minutes
    Landmarks on the way:

    • The southern section of Wellington Street, connecting to the Strand, was developed following the burning of the original Lyceum, which stood across the street’s current path, in 1830
    • Royal Opera House

    September at The Strand: Making the Most of the End of Summer Sunshine

    Good news! Any overseas visitors to the Strand Palace Hotel this September are in for a late summer treat, with the weather set to take a positive turn. Indeed the Met Office has quoted ‘temperatures generally above average, particularly across central and southern parts where it could be very warm’ – code for shorts out, sunnies on and a blessed sigh of relief that the brollies can go back into storage… well, for the majority of the time anyway.

    And with the sun (supposedly) shining, we’ve teamed up with the Hotel Direct Events Guide to bring you all the latest events well worth checking out in the sun this month.

    Theatre

    With hundreds and thousands of buses and tubes crossing the city every hour, nothing worth seeing is more than a half hour’s trip away from the Strand Palace: great news, then, for theatre buffs who will be interested to know that the open-air stage production of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ returns to the Regent’s Park Inner Circle Theatre this September. Touted by The Times as “a terrific retelling of Harper Lee’s classic” and a 5 star rating to boot, this 10-show-a-week play is well worth the 4 stop tube ride from Charing Cross to Baker Street.

    Nearer to home, and for those nights where shelter might be welcomed, The Telegraph insists “you’ve just got to go” to Urinetown. Ok, so the name might sound less than attractive, but you could be first in line to see this hit new musical (a Tony award-winning Broadway success) open on the 29th September, just a 10 minute walk away.

    Film

    Check anyone’s top 10 list of things to see in London, and you can be pretty sure Leicester Square is on there. This is where many of the premières, from each of the Harry Potters to the latest BFI blockbuster will be screened. However, for something a little off the beaten track, we recommend heading over to Southbank, specifically to ‘The Scoop’ at More London. For it’s here that there’ll be open air screenings of cult and critically acclaimed films, from The Truman Show and E.T. to Life of Pi – some of which you may have seen, but certainly not with such a breath-taking backdrop as this. With showings from 3-26th September, it’s a short train ride from Charing Cross to London Bridge or, if you’re feeling romantic, why not take the ferry from Embankment to London Bridge City pier?

    Music

    Keeping the outdoor theme alive this September is the BBC’s Proms in the Park, which coincides with the world famous Last Night of the Proms. You could find yourself bobbing up and down with a straw hat and a Pimms for £38, well worth it for the entertainment which is headlined by funk and soul legends Earth, Wind and Fire – how much more thematic could you get for an outdoor event in the month of… well… do you remember?

    If you’re not planning to be in town on the 13th for the last night, don’t worry. There’s a BBC Prom in the Royal Albert Hall on each of the preceding nights, to which there’ll always be a ‘prommers’ ticket available to queue (standing room only) for just £5. How much more eclectic does it get than Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil, followed by pop sensation Paloma Faith? All only one bus number 9 away from outside the front of the hotel.

    Dance

    Of course, it goes without saying that the Royal Opera House is just a few minutes’ walk away from the hotel. Should you miss The Proms, fear not: you can get your operatic fill with Leiser & Caurier’s production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville or perhaps Verdi’s Rigoletto.

    Alternatively, world class ballerinas are in town for the critically acclaimed Manon which runs from 26th September to the 1st November. For more of an assorted ballet mix, check out a former Royal Ballet dancer-led troupe known as BalletBoyz who bring you their show: the TALENT.

    And for outside entertainment? Why, just pop over to Covent Garden market before the show and witness everything from dance, to world-class street magic and illusion. In short, London is the place to be for end of summer talent and events this month.

    Walking route: Borough Market via Dickens’s Southwark

    Ask most Londoners how to get from the Strand to Borough’s vibrant food market and they’ll probably point you straight down the South Bank. That’s a great walk, but if you head just a little deeper into Southwark there are some fascinating old streets, hidden parks and funky little pubs to explore – and far fewer tourists. You’ll also see signs of Southwark’s close association with Charles Dickens. It’ll take around 50 minutes walking at a normal pace, so allow 60-90 minutes if you want to stop and look around (or take a break for refreshments).

    1. The Strand to the South Bank

    Starting from the hotel, head across Waterloo Bridge. Take the steps down to the South Bank and head east, passing the National Theatre down a tree-lined riverside walk. This is the only bit of the South Bank we’ll do, and it brings you to Gabriel’s Wharf, a pleasant cluster of restaurants and boutique shops just off the river. You’ll see it on your right. Go in and take some time to browse around, then continue to the street on the other side. Turn right again – we’re going to double back on ourselves slightly.

    2. Gabriel’s Wharf to Southwark tube

    You’re now on a street called Upper Ground, and the big building next to you is London Television Centre, where several major entertainment shows – including The Graham Norton Show and Have I Got News For You – are filmed. Cross the road and head down Coin Street, walking beside the Coin Street Community Builders estate. At the end, turn right onto Stamford Street and take the first left onto Cornwall Road, passing the cool, beer-savvy White Hart pub. The next two streets on your left – Whittlesey and Roupell – are gorgeous Georgian terraces. Walk down one or the other, then take the first right, passing the King’s Arms (another great beer pub) and proceeding south until you reach The Cut. Turn left and continue to Southwark tube station.

    3. Lord Nelson to Mint Street Park

    Directly opposite you is The Ring, so called because it stands on the site of a former boxing arena. It’s a good – though not exceptional – pub for beer, and serves great hot dogs (though you’ll want to keep your appetite for Borough). We’re continuing east, across Blackfriars Road and down Union Street. Look out for the dog and pot sculpture on the corner – it commemorates a popular blacksmith’s sign that stood there in Dickens’s time, and is one of several references to the writer and his era we’ll come across. Carry on past The Lord Nelson (a basic range of drinks, but a fantastic, funky interior), turn right down Suffolk Street then left onto – here’s another Dickens reference – Copperfield Street. Initially unassuming, the road later narrows, and features some more period terraced houses and a pretty old church; look out, too, for the old painted sign at the end advising you to “Commit no nuisance”. At the end, turn right and enter Mint Street Park.

    4. Marshalsea Road to Borough Market

    After a quick wander through Mint Street Park well – a very pleasant, rolling patch of green between main roads – cross Marshalsea Road and proceed down it until you reach Disney Street on your left. Head down there and you’ll find the well-hidden Little Dorrit Park. ‘Marshalsea’ was the name of the debtor’s prison where the Dickens family was sent in 1824, inspiring scenes in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit. To see what remains of it, cross the park and turn right down Little Dorrit Court, emerging onto Borough High Street. Take a right then a left onto Angel Place – the old wall that lines it marked the prison’s south boundary.

    Now go back to Boundary High Street and head north. You’ll be at Borough Market in a few minutes – and having just walked two miles, you should

    Craft Beer Co has arrived in Covent Garden

    We posted about our favourite local beer pubs a few months ago, but things change fast in this part of town, and now there’s a new kid on the block. And not just any new kid: we’ve been joined by Craft Beer Co, whose bars deliver a jaw-dropping selection of beers on both keg and cask.

    The new Covent Garden site is the company’s sixth – others are in Brixton, Clapham, Clerkenwell and Islington, with one more out in Brighton – and wisely doesn’t mess with a winning formula. Its long bar boasts 30 keg and 15 cask taps, and staff are quick with recommendations and samples. Those cask taps say it all; despite the name, this isn’t a place that’s entirely devoted to new-school, US-influenced brews. It’s about beer in all its glorious variety, and CAMRA card-carrying ale purists will find plenty to enjoy too.

    Add in a big range of bottles and a spirits and everyone’s happy – with the possible exception of wine drinkers. Opening hours are generous too, with the doors open until midnight Sunday through Wednesday and until 1am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

    It’s not what you’d call cosy, though there’s plenty of space across two floors, with a small on-street outdoor area too. You may still have to battle for a table, as the West End location attracts passing tourists and casual drinkers as well as beer pilgrims; inevitably, it’s a less exclusively hipster-y crowd than you find at, say, Brixton or Islington. If you find serious beer nerds a bit of a bore, that could prove to be a good thing.

    With all that beer to choose from you’ll need some food, and it comes courtesy of Forty Burgers, with a short-but-sweet menu that ranges from no-frills to all-out taste assault (‘Heat’ features both blue cheese and hot sauce; ‘Elvis’ features peanut butter and fried banana). There’s also a veggie alternative with halloumi and mushrooms. They pimp their fantastic skin-on chips too – try them topped with bacon dust or parmesan and truffle oil.

    Address: 168 High Holborn, WC1V 7AA
    Walking time: 9 minutes

    Learn a skill, have some fun: one-day courses in Covent Garden

    One of this year’s buzzwords in travel circles is “experiential”. The definition is a little hazy, but it refers to travel that enriches you in some way – think cooking lessons with local people instead of topping up your tan by the pool. With that in mind, we’ve been looking at some of the coolest, quirkiest courses in our neighbourhood. Whether you’re into flowers or street art, these experiences that’ll take your visit to another level, leaving you with unique skills and memories to take away. If you take one, tweet us at @strandpalace and let us know how you got on.

    Screen printing at Print Club London

    In action since 2007, this workspace at Somerset House provides education and equipment to amateur and professional printers and designers alike, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You need to be a member to use the hardware, but beginners can sign up for a fascinating one-day course that covers history and basic techniques, and finishes with producing an A4 design to take home. If you’re serious about design or just curious to know how cool posters, tees and tote bags are made, this is the course for you.

    Asian cooking with School of Wok

    The pun may be terrible, but if you’re a fan of Asian food, School of Wok is the place to brush up on your skills and knowledge. It runs scheduled group classes throughout the week, ranging from dim sum to street food to knife skills. If you’d like to see a bit of the area too, try the food tour of nearby Chinatown – you’ll spend a few hours sampling delicacies and shopping for ingredients, before returning to the school to cook what you’ve bought.

    Designing with flowers from New Covent Garden Market

    Floral design school The Academy of Flowers offers a day-long tour and workshop aimed squarely at the tourist market. The days starts at the school’s Covent Garden headquarters at 8am start (stay with us here), then shifts to the wholesale flower market over in Vauxhall, which is at its bright, bustling best in the morning. Course leaders will help you select your own flowers, then it’s back to the academy to turn them into something modern and stylish.

    Dance classes at Pineapple

    Pineapple tends to be associated with serious, even professional dancers, but dig into the schedules and you’ll find several classes suitable for complete beginners – and the calibre of the school means you can be sure of a good instructor. Fleur Murray (who has popped up as a boot camp instructor on The X Factor) teaches a jazz class for absolute beginners, and there’s also a come-one-come-all burlesque session led by Covent Garden-based team Burlesque Baby.

    Street art with Graffiti Kings

    Based over the river in legal graffiti hotspot Leake Street (which is worth a visit in its own right) the Graffiti Kings can organise both group and one-on-one workshops, and they’re more than happy to welcome absolute beginners. The business also does professional commissions, and demand for its services is high – so if you fancy giving this one a go, get in touch with them to discuss your session well ahead of your visit.

    BFI’s sci-fi season: 4 screenings and events we can’t wait for

    We’ve talked about the bfi before in these pages – we love it, and it’s just over Waterloo Bridge. Now the film-lovers’ paradise on the South Bank is gearing up for one of its biggest-ever special seasons, and it’s going to be a serious treat for sci-fi fans.

    The theme is timely, because the genre is set for a cracking summer. For mainstream fans, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy looks like a(nother) critical and commercial triumph – Wired’s reviewer even called it “this generation’s Star Wars”. If you’re into meatier fare, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is coming later this year, with trailers suggesting a brooding, philosophical piece in the vein of Contact, Sunshine or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    While Guardians won’t be part of the Days of Fear and Wonder season, you’re likely to see Interstellar at the BFI IMAX (a short walk south of the main building) when it releases on November 7. And the core programme, running from October right through to December, will feature plenty of classics, oddities and special events to whet your appetite and build up your genre knowledge, including some pre-season outdoor showings at the British Museum.

    The BFI is still finalising the programme, but here are four events worth keeping an eye out for:

    DJ Yoda Goes To The Sci-Fi Movies

    When: November

    There’s no exact date for this yet, but the BFI promises a whole new show from the brilliant, witty cut-and-paste artist DJ Yoda, premiering some time in November. Be quick, because tickets will fly out of the door – Yoda has a passionate following.

    Last Angel of History

    When: TBC

    Afrofuturism is an underexplored corner of the genre, and if you’re eager to know more, British-Ghanaian filmmaker John Akomfrah’s rarely-shown 1996 documentary is a great place to start. Combining interviews, archive footage and surreal narrative sequences, it’s an enlightening, enriching watch with flashes of humour.

    Primer + Q&A

    When: TBC

    The time-travel feature divides viewers: some consider it an underappreciated gem, some think it’s a triumph of complexity over depth. Catching it on the big screen will give you a chance to make up your own mind, and the BFI is laying on a Q&A with director Shane Carruth – which might give you a chance to figure out what’s going on in the film.

    Flash Gordon

    When: August 30

    One cool film, one enlightening film, one confounding film – so we’re rounding out the list with a dose of pure, campy fun, served on a huge screen in the British Museum forecourt. Last year’s outdoors shows for the Gothic season were a huge hit, and this year’s promise to be just as good, with an even bigger screen. Gordon, full of pulpy, quotable lines, is perfect stuff for a relaxed, boozy watch in a massive group.

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