Small theatres

You probably know that we’re surrounded by big-name theatres at the Strand Palace. The Lyceum, home to the all-conquering Lion King musical, is just around the corner, and beyond that you’ll find the Theatre Royal, the Novello, the Aldwych… the list goes on and on. But London’s theatre scene isn’t just about famous productions in huge auditoriums. We’re also walking distance from some great small theatres showing innovative new comedy and drama, and fresh takes on modern classics. And more than one of them comes with a genuinely great bar and restaurant attached, which the big theatres – as much as we love them – usually don’t. Grab a bite to eat, see a thought-provoking show, dissect it over a drink and be back at your hotel within minutes. What’s not to like?

Donmar Warehouse

This 251-seat independent theatre has been through several incarnations. Originally a private rehearsal studio, it spent just over a decade in the hands of the Royal Shakespeare Company, before being bought and rebuilt by producer Roger Wingate in 1990. Its first creative director was none other than Sam ‘American Beauty’ Mendes, who established a reputation for eclecticism that continues today. Coming up are Privacy, a new work by Olivier-nominated James Graham, and a new adaptation of Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons by celebrated Irish playwright Brian Friel. If you’re on a budget, most performances have a small number of standing tickets at £7.50.

  • Address: 41 Earlham Street, WC2H 9LX
  • Walking time: 8 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Southampton street, built on the site of Bedford House (demolished 1705) and the subsequent Bedford Estate.
    • Covent Garden Market and St Paul’s Church.
    • Floral Street, renamed in 1895 in reference to the trade in flowers at Covent Garden.

Arts Theatre

This small venue between Covent Garden and Leicester Square opened in 1927 as a members-only venue, which allowed it to sidestep censorship laws and back productions that lacked the obvious commercial appeal to make it into West End theatres. From 1956 to 1959 it was run by Peter Hall (later Sir), who founded the RSC and went on to direct the National Theatre. Ghost Stories, a notoriously scary piece from The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, is running until August, alongside short stints by cabaret legend Eve Ferret and a new production of Philip Glass’s opera In the Penal Colony.

  • Address: 6-7 Great Newport Street, WC2H 7JB
  • Walking time: 8 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Bedford Street, built on the site of Bedford House (demolished 1705) and the subsequent Bedford Estate.
    • Garrick Street, named after actor David Garrick (1717 – 1779). The Garrick Club was founded in 1831 and still has premises here.

Cottlesloe / Dorfman and The Shed

Okay, this is technically the National Theatre. But the Cottlesloe was introduced as a smaller, more flexible space to give a platform to new plays by up-and-coming writers. At time of writing it is reaching the end of a major refurbishment, from which it will emerge as the Dorfman, which promises ‘even greater creative freedom’ and capacity to run learning activities during the day. In the meantime we have The Shed, a striking red pop-up on the riverfront which has continued to stage new, innovative work in an intimate 225-seat space. May sees the debut of Hotel, a new play by award-winning playwright Polly Stenham, who burst onto the scene in 2007 at just 19 years old.

  • Address: Upper Ground, South Bank, SE1 9PX
  • Walking time: 10 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Exeter Street, site of the old Exeter House (demolished 1676), Exeter Exchange (demolished 1892) and Exeter Hall (demolished 1907)
    • The Savoy, site of the old Savoy Palace, London residence of the Lancasters.
    • Aldwych, which derives from the Old English for ‘old trading town’ – the ancient Anglo-Saxon town Ludenwic stood here centuries ago.

Soho Theatre

Most comedy-loving Londoners have found themselves at Soho Theatre at some point. As well as full shows by breakthrough performers, you’ll often find established stand-ups using the upstairs room to trial material for upcoming tours – and what those shows lack in polish they make up for in value and intimacy. While the theatre’s programme tends to be comedy-heavy, it isn’t all straight stand-up; this April it has been running Never Try This At Home, a satire on 70s children’s TV, and school-themed sketch comedy from young trio WitTank. You can also catch some new writing – Philip Ridley’s dramatic monologue Dark Vanilla Jungle, running until April 13, has had four-star reviews from The Independent, the Financial Times and Time Out. And the bar’s fantastic too.

  • Address: 21 Dean St, London W1D 3NE
  • Walking time: 15 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Bedford Street, Southampton Street and Garrick Street (see above).

Young Vic

It’s a bit of a walk, but the Young Vic is more than just a theatre – it also boasts buzzing bar and restaurant on one of Southwark’s liveliest streets, where local arts and media types flock to tuck into the famous soft shell crab burger. Its 2006 refurbishment won it a RIBA London Building of the Year prize, and it now boats three performance spaces: the 420-seat main auditorium, and the smaller Maria and Clare rooms at 150 and 70 seats respectively. Productions focus on modern and older classics, with some new writing in the mix too. Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge is currently running, followed by The Valley of Astonishment, a theatrical exploration of synaesthesia by innovative team Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne.

  • Address: 66 The Cut, SE1 8LZ
  • Walking time: 19 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Exeter Street, The Savoy, and Aldwych (see above).
    • The National Theatre, Royal Festival Hall and BFI Imax.

Markets in the West End, Soho and Southwark

Londoners love a market. You might come to the city assuming the bustling, built-up centre doesn’t have room for them, but you’d be wrong – within 20 minutes’ walk of our door you’ll find markets tucked under bridges, filling quaint churchyards and hiding behind world-renowned concert halls. There’s plenty of variety there too: on our list are second-hand books, amazing fresh food, unique antiques and even fossils. Whether you make a special trip or drop by between other activities, they’re guaranteed to brighten your day.

Jubilee Market at Covent Garden

Most visitors to Covent Garden stick to the tame – and perfectly nice – shops and stalls of Apple Market, in the central Piazza building. But head to the south side of the square and you’ll find a slightly more unpredictable set of stalls. Jubilee Market is the covered area between the London Transport Museum and Southampton Street, and while the square-facing retailers can seem a little tacky – particularly at weekends – you’ll find an eclectic mix of antiques, vintage clothing and crafts if you venture further inside. It’s open daily, and stalls vary throughout the week.

  • Address: 1 Tavistock St, London WC2E 8BD
  • Walking time: 2 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Exeter Street, site of the old Exeter House (demolished 1676), Exeter Exchange (demolished 1892) and Exeter Hall (demolished 1907)
    • Tavistock Street was a fashionable shopping street in the Bedford estate in the 18th Century, but fell into decline in the 19th
    • Covent Garden Market

South Bank Centre Book Market

This gem has been beneath Waterloo Bridge for years, but little has changed: books are still displayed spine-up on a series of no-nonsense trestle tables, with the bigger hardbacks face-up in the middle. Punters are still trusted to browse freely – so much so that when you do find something you like it can be difficult to work out who you have to pay. Stock is 100% second hand and vintage, and often very keenly priced, though you’ll pay more for some of the more desirable pieces (there’s usually a small selection of first editions). With antique prints available too and the BFI bar just feet away, it’s easy to lose a few hours here. Open daily.

  • Address: Beneath Waterloo Bridge (south side)
  • Walking time: 7 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Exeter Street (see above)
    • The Savoy, site of the old Savoy Palace, London residence of the Lancasters
    • Aldwych, which derives from the Old English for ‘old trading town’ – the ancient Anglo-Saxon town Ludenwic stood here centuries ago
    • Somerset House
    • Waterloo Bridge

Real Food Market

Londoners over a certain age remember when the patch behind the Royal Festival Hall was a bald expanse of concrete whose only purpose was to be walked across. That’s still the case from Monday to Thursday, but come Friday it transforms into the Real Food Market, a lip-smacking mix of street food stalls and produce sellers. With everything from gourmet hot-dogs to organic salad boxes to small-batch jams and chutneys, you can grab lunch on the go, shop for a picnic or just wander around filling up on free samples. It runs until 8pm on Friday and Saturday, and until 6pm on Sunday.

  • Address: Belvedere Road, SE1 8XX
  • Walking time: 13 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Exeter Street, The Savoy, Aldwych, Somerset House and Waterloo Bridge (see above)

Soho Flea Market

If you’re staying with us in May, you might catch this up-and-coming ‘artists and makers’ event on Dean Street. Launched in 2012, it brings together independent creatives with stuff to sell – ceramics, textiles, jewellery, you name it – with small food producers, entertainers and musicians to create a buzzing mini-festival in the heart of Soho. The concept has proved popular so far: apparently 10,000 people passed through in 2012, prompting organisers to scale things up for 2013. We await the next installment with bated breath…

  • Address: Dean Street (annual, check cityshowcasemarkets.com)
  • Walking time: 13 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Bedford Street and Southampton street, built on the site of Bedford House (demolished 1705) and the subsequent Bedford Estate
    • Garrick Street, named after actor David Garrick (1717 – 1779). The Garrick Club was founded in 1831 and still has premises here
    • Leicester Square and Chinatown

Piccadilly Market

It may be small, but this underappreciated market packs plenty of charm and offers a welcome escape from the chaos of Piccadilly Circus. Held in the front yard of a Christopher Wren-designed church, it has a weekly roster – food stalls dominate on Monday, antiques on Tuesday and general arts and crafts from Wednesday to Saturday. In the past we’ve spotted homemade kaleidescopes, handmade printing blocks, vintage nautical equipment, genuine fossils and much more – this is a friendly, well-located market that punches well above its weight.

  • Address: 197 Piccadilly, London W1J 9LL
  • Walking time: 17 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Zimbabwe House, designed by key London Underground architect Charles Holden
    • William IV Street, created in 1831 and named after the then king. His reign saw considerable change in the layout of Covent Garden
    • Leicester Square, created when the Earl of Leicester bought and built on the land in the 17th Century

Independent Bookshops

You don’t have to go far from the Strand Palace to find yourself in ‘Literary London’. Niche and academic bookshops cluster around the British Museum and University of London in Bloomsbury, while Charing Cross Road has a long history of generalist bookselling and Soho and Covent Garden do a nice line in art and design specialists. On our list you’ll find travel, politics, fashion, and even comics and graphic novels – all of them a short walk from our front door. Even the most devoted Kindle users admit there’s nothing like a real book, so get out there and give these five gems a try…

Stanfords

This venerable travel bookshop – one of the biggest in the world – celebrated its 160th anniversary in 2013. Today, its vast range of travel writing, guidebooks and maps ranges across three floors, and the floors are literally attractions in themselves, adorned with huge maps of the world (ground), the Himalayas (first) and London (basement). There’s a pleasant in-store cafe for day-dreaming about your next trip, and a gorgeous range of globes to salivate over. It won’t help your travel habit, but it’s one of the most inspiring bookshops in the area.

  • Address: 12-14 Long Acre, WC2E 9LP
  • Walking time: 7 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Bedford Street (see above)
    • Garrick Street (see above)
    • Rose Street, home to the historic Lamb and Flag. The street once extended further south, but was cut off by the construction of Garrick Street in the 1860s

Magma

Oh, we like Magma. If art, fashion and design are your passion, you will too. The mini-chain was founded by two friends in 2000, and has since expanded to Clerkenwell and Manchester – but this small, vibrant Covent Garden store is where it all started. In their own words: “Magma should be like walking into a thermometer, an instrument indicating ‘where things are at’ at a certain point in time and space.”

If that isn’t enough, there’s a ‘product’ branch a few doors down, stuffed with t-shirts, watches, gadgets, games, cushions… anything you can think of, really, as long as it’s design-led and very, very cool.

  • Address: 8 Earlham Street, WC2H 9RY
  • Walking time: 10 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Bedford Street (see above)
    • Garrick Street (see above)

Forbidden Planet

Remember when comic books and sci-fi weren’t cool? Before Avengers Assemble, the Nolan Batman trilogy and the BBC’s all-conquering Doctor Who reboot? Forbidden Planet don’t. Cross the threshold and you enter a world where this stuff has always been where it’s at, and the rest of us are johnny-come-latelies. Whether you’re a long-term ‘geek’, a new convert or just a dabbler, you’re guaranteed to find something in Forbidden’s dizzying range of comics, graphic novels, DVDs and merchandise.

  • Address: 41 Great Russell Street, WC1B 3PE
  • Walking time: 10 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Southampton Street (see above)
    • Tavistock Street, a fashionable shopping street in the Bedford estate in the 18th Century. It fell into decline in the 19th
    • Covent Garden Market
    • Floral Street, renamed in 1895 in reference to the trade in flowers at Covent Garden
    • Neal Street, named after 17th Century MP Thomas Neale, who developed nearby Seven Dials

Foyles

It’s huge, it has (almost) everything, and most importantly it remains fiercely independent. Foyles has come a long way since it started life as a tiny second-hand bookshop in Peckham in 1903. A few years later the Charing Cross flagship opened its doors, and decades of ‘eccentric’ management did nothing to dull Londoners’ enthusiasm for this sprawling five-floor emporium. Now thoroughly modernised, it still feels like it is run by book lovers, for book lovers – a rarity for a shop this size. Add in regular readings and exhibitions and a nice first-floor cafe and you have an essential stop for bibliophiles.

  • Address: 113-119 Charing Cross Road, WC2H 0EB
  • Walking time: 13 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Bedford Street and Southampton street, built on the site of Bedford House (demolished 1705) and the subsequent Bedford Estate
    • Garrick Street, named after actor David Garrick (1717 – 1779). The Garrick Club was founded in 1831 and still has premises here

London Review Bookshop

Brace yourself: things are about to get highbrow. Literary fiction, political writing, cultural theory – the London Review Bookshop has it all in spades, housed in an elegant shop round the corner from the British Museum. Closely related to the none-more-literary London Review of Books, it’s the perfect place to feed your head.

And if it all that brain food gets a bit heavy, there’s real food too – head down a corridor in the history section and you’ll find the Cake Shop, a book-lined hideaway serving everything from shredded duck baguettes to apple and earl grey cake.

  • Address: 14 Bury Place, WC1A 2JL
  • Walking time: 14 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Aldwych, which derives from the Old English for ‘old trading town’ – the ancient Anglo-Saxon town Ludenwic stood here centuries ago
    • Drury Lane, named after Sir William Drury, whose house stood at its southern end on Wych Street (now Aldwych)

Great value set meals at Michelin-starred restaurants

Joel Robuchon, chef patron of one of our choices below, describes London as ‘the culinary capital of Europe’. To judge from the liberal dusting of Michelin stars in the West End, he has a point. Whether you want formal fine dining, a buzzy modern bistro or innovative world food, you’ll find a wide range of world-class restaurants near to us in Soho and Covent Garden, and almost all of them offer prix fixe menus – in other words, opportunities to sample award-winning cuisine for a very reasonable price. Here are five fantastic options within walking distance of our door…

Lunch menu at L’Atelier De Joel Robuchon

Your first decision at Joel Robuchon is whether to sit upstairs or downstairs. While the first floor offers (fairly) traditional table service, diners on the ground floor sit at wooden counters surrounding island kitchens, watching and interacting with the chefs. And what the chefs put out is wonderfully opulent – lobster ravioli in a ginger broth, quail stuffed with foie gras. In the words of the Michelin guide itself, “Dishes may look elegant, but they pack a punch.” At £31 for two courses and £36 for three it’s the most expensive fixed-price menu on our list, but you won’t regret paying a little extra.

  • Address: 13-15 West Street, WC2H 9NE
  • Walking time: 10 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Bedford Street and Southampton street, built on the site of Bedford House (demolished 1705) and the subsequent Bedford Estate
    • Garrick Street, named after actor David Garrick (1717 – 1779). The Garrick Club was founded in 1831 and still has premises here

Set lunch and pre-theatre menu at Lima

A Michelin-starred Peruvian restaurant in the West End? Yes, you heard right. If you’re new to the cuisine, Robert Ortiz’s menu will be full of surprises – look out for ‘tiger milk’, aka the fish-infused juice left over from a ceviche, and the bright yellow aji pepper, a staple of Peruvian cuisine. The tasting menu is series of fresh, eye-opening jewels, but comes in at £48 per person – more affordable is the set menu, at two courses for £20 and three courses for £23. Available at lunchtimes and evening guests who arrive between 5.30pm and 6pm.

  • Address: 21 Romilly Street, W1D 5AF
  • Walking time: 12 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • 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
    • Endell Street, built as a relief road in the 1840s as an influx of Irish workers led to overcrowding in the area. At no. 24 is the former British Lying-In Hospital, once the oldest maternity hospital in London, now a private members’ club

Working Lunch / Weekender at Arbutus

Opened in May 2006 and starred in January 2007, Arbutus is now a popular fixture in Soho. Head chef Anthony Demetre counts Marco Pierre White among his former teachers, and it shows in a menu of refined but gutsy bistro food. As it happens, Arbutus’s A La Carte is good value for Michelin-starred dining in the West End – mains rarely stray over £20 – but it offers a range of cheaper options: for a quick bite try the daily plat du jour with wine for £10, or go for the £19.95 three-course ‘Working Lunch’ and ‘Weekender’ menus offered during the day.

  • Address: 63-64 Frith St, London W1D 3JW
  • Walking time: 14 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Bedford Street and Southampton street, built on the site of Bedford House (demolished 1705) and the subsequent Bedford Estate
    • Garrick Street, named after actor David Garrick (1717 – 1779). The Garrick Club was founded in 1831 and still has premises here

Taste of Hakkasan

Global brand Hakkasan is justly famous for its chic, knowledgable take on Cantonese food, but it’s also eye-wateringly expensive for the average diner – the signature sharing dish of Peking duck with caviar will set you back some £250. Thankfully, the original restaurant in Soho’s Hanway Place offers a two-course sample menu for a much friendlier £28. It starts with a plate of Hakkasan’s legendary dim sum, followed by a choice of five mains, including the gorgeous butterflied-and-roasted ‘pipa duck’. A vegetarian menu is available at the same price.

  • Address: 8 Hanway Place, W1T 1HD
  • Walking time: 17 minutes
    • Look out for:
    • 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
    • Endell Street, built as a relief road in the 1840s as an influx of Irish workers led to overcrowding in the area. At no. 24 is the former British Lying-In Hospital, once the oldest maternity hospital in London, now a private members’ club

Prix Fixe lunch at Social Eating House

This is our kind of Michelin-starred dining: funky, relaxed and utterly delicious. It’s part of the empire of Jason Atherton, who rose to fame as a lieutenant of superchef Gordon Ramsay in the noughties. Head chef Paul Hood crafts an inventive, British-inspired bistro menu – expect Cornish fish, Romney Marsh lamb and Scottish venison. The Prix Fixe offers limited choice – two starters, two mains, three puds – but at £19 for two courses and £23 for three, it’s cracking value for food of this standard. Available at lunchtime Monday to Saturday.

  • Address: 58 Poland Street, W1F 7NR
  • Walking time: 19 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Bedford Street and Southampton street, built on the site of Bedford House (demolished 1705) and the subsequent Bedford Estate
    • Zimbabwe House, designed by key London Underground architect Charles Holden
    • Garrick Street, named after actor David Garrick (1717 – 1779). The Garrick Club was founded in 1831 and still has premises here
    • Leicester Square, created when the Earl of Leicester bought and built on the land in the 17th Century

Specialist Music Shops

Rumours of the death of the record shop have been greatly exaggerated. While big, identikit retailers have been shedding stores, the cream of the independents have been going from strength to strength, buoyed up by expertise, rare and unusual stock and hard-won respect from discerning but loyal customer bases. The best record shopping in Central London is undoubtedly in Soho, so this list features a narrower range of locations than usual and slightly longer walking times – but, as you’ll quickly discover, pounding Soho’s pavements in search of the best new and vintage music is anything but a chore.

Sounds of the Universe

The Soul Jazz label is a perennial favourite with music fans of a globe-trotting, archive-mining bent – its breakthrough series was with a set of compilations from the pioneering Jamaican label Studio One, packaged with vintage photos and deep-dive liner notes. It continues in that tradition today, unearthing forgotten gems and exploring niche genres from Chicago house to Dubstep. As you’re probably guessed by now, Sounds of the Universe is essentially the Soul Jazz record shop. It occupies a busy corner spot in Soho, and will keep keen crate-diggers happy for hours on end.

  • Address: 7 Broadwick Street, W1F 0DA
  • Walking time: 17 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Zimbabwe House, designed by key London Underground architect Charles Holden
    • William IV Street, created in 1831 and named after the then king. His reign saw considerable change in the layout of Covent Garden
    • Leicester Square, created when the Earl of Leicester bought and built on the land in the 17th Century

Schott Music

Walk past Schott without prior warning and you could be forgiven for doing a double-take. Here, in the middle of modern, media-friendly Soho – with the offices of Sony and Framestore just a few doors away on either side – is a shop window packed with sheet music. The store is an outpost of German music publishing business Schott, but it has solid London credentials, first opening here in 1835 and moving to its Soho home in 1908. Alongside the sheet music you’ll find books, CDs, DVDs and three practice rooms with baby grand pianos from Steinway. Serious musos will be in heaven, and for the rest of its, it’s still a fascinating store to browse.

  • Address: 48 Great Marlborough Street, W1F 7BB
  • Walking time: 20 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Zimbabwe House, William IV Street and Leicester Square (see above)

BM Soho

Beats, beats and more beats. Those are the three priorities of this highly respected store on D’Arblay Street, which racks more sub-genres of dance and electronic music than you can shake a tone arm at. How respected is it? Well, its series of live in-store sessions has featured legends like Kerri Chandler and Derrick Carter – and that’s pretty impressive from a shop whose two floors are scarcely bigger than the average living room. You’ll also find a range of DJ equipment, clothing and magazines, but it’s the wax that is the main event. Casual visitors will probably find it all a bit much, but for true believers it’s an essential stop.

  • Address: 25 D’Arblay St, London W1F 8EJ
  • Walking time: 20 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Zimbabwe House, William IV Street and Leicester Square (see above)

Reckless

This long-running shop doesn’t specialise in a particular genre. In fact, you could find almost anything here. Instead it’s all about second-hand vinyl – stacks and stacks of the stuff, sifted through by a team of expert buyers. If your idea of record shop heaven involves the smell and feel of worn album sleeves, an hour or so of hypnotic finger-walking through crates and a final “Did-I-just-see-that?” moment of discovery, you’ll be right at home. Less patient shoppers can head straight for the reissue pressings, which offer a range of classic and cult albums on heavy-duty plastic.

  • Address: 30 Berwick Street, W1F 8RH
  • Walking time: 17 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Zimbabwe House, William IV Street and Leicester Square (see above)

Phonica

Like BM Soho, Phonica’s area of expertise is electronic music, but it’s a more accessible and design-conscious option – and it’s slightly more eclectic to boot, with a smattering of rockabilly and exotica among the beats. A comfy bubble chair dominates the front window, and there’s a table of recommended buys on – gasp! – CD. Follow them on Twitter for a constant stream of interesting, left-field new arrivals, exclusive streaming mixes and news from the shop’s associated record label. Artwork, books, headphones and all sorts of other goodies are on sale too.

  • Address: 51 Poland Street, W1F 7LZ
  • Walking time: 19 minutes
  • Look out for:
    • Zimbabwe House, William IV Street and Leicester Square (see above)

Pubs with History

One of the side-effects of Britain’s otherwise brilliant beer renaissance (see our list of great beer pubs) is that choice of tipple has taken centre stage when choosing a boozer, often trumping less fashionable qualities like atmosphere and heritage. But never fear: for those who like their pint to come with a bit of backstory, there are historic pubs scattered throughout nearby Soho and Covent Garden, and there’s a particularly high concentration of them around Fleet Street, on the western fringe of the City. Prepare for tales of bare-knuckle boxing, Dutch sailors and dancing monarchs…

The Lamb and Flag

Now owned by London brewing giant Fullers, this two-floor Covent Garden pub has a long and colourful history – it claims Charles Dickens as a former patron, and was notorious for bare-knuckle boxing in … when it was unappetisingly known as the ‘Bucket of Blood’. It’s Grade II listed, and although the exterior has been updated the interior still smacks of the 17th Century. There’s a nice collection of vintage photos and press cuttings downstairs, and more seating – of the basic, unpadded variety – in the upstairs Dryden Room.

    • Address: 33 Rose Street, WC2E 9EB
    • Walking time: 6 minutes
      • Bedford Street and Southampton street, built on the site of Bedford House (demolished 1705) and the subsequent Bedford Estate
      • Rose Street – note the association with connecting Floral Street, named for Covent Garden’s flower sellers – once extended further south, but was cut off by the construction of Garrick Street in the 1860s

Princess Louise

No-frills Yorkshire-based brewery Samuel Smith divides punters, but one thing everyone agrees on is its commitment to preserving classic pub interiors. The Princess Louise is probably the most impressive of its London pubs – there may be older ones (this is a relative young’un, built in 1872) but there no better examples of a Victorian-era boozer. It’s a warren of partitioned spaces surrounding a central bar of elaborately carved dark wood, and the tiling, the mirrors and even the ‘facilities’ are period. An upstairs room offers much-needed extra seating, but lacks the character of the lower floor.

        • Address: 208 High Holborn, WC1V 7EP
        • Walking time: 13 minutes
          • Aldwych, which derives from the Old English for ‘old trading town’ – the ancient Anglo-Saxon town Ludenwic stood here centuries ago
          • Kingsway, built in 1900 as part of a major redevelopment of the area. Its construction cleared away countless small courtyards and streets

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

Another Samuel Smith haunt, this time on the fringes of the City. But the Cheshire couldn’t be more different from the Princess Louise, featured above. Dating back to the 17th Century – the 16th Century original was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London – it occupies a series of gloomily atmospheric chambers off a Fleet Street alleyway. Don’t expect much by way of decoration or central heating; exposed brick vaults, wooden benches and open fires are the order of the day. A no-nonsense menu offers big sandwiches and pies.

          • Address: 145 Fleet Street, EC4A 2BU
          • Walking time: 14 minutes
          • Look out for:
            • Aldwych (see above)
            • The old Strand tube station
            • The Royal Courts of Justice
            • Somerset House
            • The Ludgate dragon outside the Royal Courts of Justice, marking the site of a former toll gate outside the Roman city of London

Ye Olde Mitre Tavern

It may not be the easiest to find, but track down the Mitre and you’ll discover the kind of British pub tourists dream of. Cosy and wood-panelled, it’s so perfect it regularly features in TV and film productions – look out for it in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. And on sheer age, it takes some beating: originally built in 1546, it claims Elizabeth I among its former patrons – there’s even a charming story about her dancing round a cherry tree in the pub’s pretty courtyard. With a good range of ales and some hearty pub grub, this is the whole package.

          • Address: Ely Court, EC1N 6SJ
          • Walking time: 19 minutes
          • Look out for:
            • Aldwych, Strand tube station, Royal Courts of Justice, Somerset House, the Ludgate dragon (see above)
            • Fetter Lane, which dates back to the 14th Century and is home to historic Barnard’s Inn and Clifford’s Inn, both formerInns of Chancery

De Hems

From 1685 to 1890 this was the site of the Horse and Dolphin, a coaching inn famous for its association with US slave turned bare-knuckle boxer Bill Richmond (aka ‘The Black Terror’). By the turn of the century it had been rebuilt and was being run as an oyster house by a retired Dutch sailor named Papa De Hem – who sowed the seeds of the Low Countries-themed hangout you see today, and gave his name to the establishment in the process. A motley band of poets, gangsters and spies have drunk here over the years, and it was an unofficial headquarters for the Dutch resistance during World War II. A great range of continental brews and lashings of history? Count us in.

      • Address: 11 Macclesfield Street, W1D 5BW
      • Walking time: 12 minutes
      • Look out for:
        • Bedford Street and Southampton Street (see above)
        • Garrick Street, named after actor David Garrick (1717 – 1779). The Garrick Club was founded in 1831 and still has premises here
        • Leicester Square and Chinatown

7 surprising things that have happened to (and on) Leicester Square

When the Odeon Leicester Square is demolished later this year, it will mark the end of an era – with the Charlie Chaplin statue and movie star handprints removed in the square’s 2010-2012 renovation, few traces of its cinema heritage will remain.

That may disappoint film fans, but we prefer to look on the bright side: it’s all true to the square’s unpredictable history. Over the centuries it has been an open field, a fashionable address for the aristocracy, a haunt of writers and artists and a venue for raucous popular entertainment.

As the square prepares to change its identity once more – a trickle of new luxury hotels like the W and One Leicester Street hint at its future – we thought we’d compile a list of some notable, spectacular and downright strange things it has seen since it first emerged in the mid-1700s…

1. A stately home

The house that started it all is Leicester House, built by Robert Sidney, the 2nd Earl of Leicester, in 1635. King Charles I insisted that he leave part of his newly-acquired land open to parishioners, sowing the seed of the public square we have today. In the centuries to come the house would host several of the square’s most famous residents and attractions. It’s visible in this picture of 1750 – look for the large building set slightly back from the north side of the square.

Leicester Square

2: A notorious duel

In the late 17th Century the area, then known as Leicester Fields, became a prime spot for settling gentlemen’s disagreements. One of the most famous took place in 1699, after the drinking buddies of Captains French and Coote fell into an argument outside a Charing Cross pub. It ended in tragedy, with Coote dead – run through twice with a sword – and French badly wounded. The subsequent high-profile trial saw a Lord charged with murder and an Earl convicted of manslaughter.

3: Barker’s Panorama

English painter Robert Barker coined the term ‘panorama’ to describe his huge cityscape paintings. And in the late 1790s he created the first purpose-built gallery for them – a large rotunda in Leicester Square, where punters viewed his work from a raised central platform. It was a hit, and made Barker filthy rich. Best of all: it may be invisible from the street, but as you can see in this satellite view, the rotunda still stands.

4: Wyld’s Great Globe

Imagine a hollow globe some 60 feet in diameter, with scale models of mountains and rivers on its inside surface. And imagine going inside it, and exploring it on a multi-level scaffold. We’re not making this up – that’s what mapmaker and MP James Wyld designed for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Globe’s size and commercial focus kept it out of the exhibition, and it ended up occupying the central gardens of Leicester Square until it was dismantled and sold for scrap in 1862.

Baker's Globe

5: A king’s childhood

In the mid-17th Century Leicester House went up in the world – it became the family home of the young King George III. Although George moved out after his coronation in 1760, his mother stayed on for another six years. After that, the house’s glory days were largely – though not quite – over, and it was demolished in 1806.

6: The ‘Holophusicon’

In 1775, just eight years after the royals’ final departure, Leicester House opened to the public as a natural history museum. Its founder was Sir Ashton Lever, the model of an eccentric aristocratic collector, and so impressive were his ‘cabinets’ that Captain James Cook donated a host of object from his celebrated voyages to the Pacific. Lever spent faster than he earned, and his oddly-named attraction was forced to move from Leicester Square in 1786. The collection was finally sold off at auction in 1806.

Holophusicon

7: The original ‘picnic’

No, we aren’t claiming Leicester Square saw the very first outdoor meal. But it did play host to the society that coined the phrase. The “Pic Nic Society” was a club founded by actress Lady Albina, and along with sharing the cost of theatrical entertainment its members each provided a home-made dish for a collective supper. Commercial theatres were outraged by the model, and the controversy catapulted Albina and friends into the popular press – they were even caricatured by the satirist James Gillray:

James Gillray ‘Dilettanti Theatricals’ from goldmarkart.com on Vimeo.

National Gallery vs Courtauld

Bookending the western stretch of the Strand are two of London’s finest art collections. One is a huge, bustling tourist hub, welcoming over 5m visitors a year; the other is one of London’s better-kept secrets, visited by fewer than 250,000 people a year despite its location in one of the area’s most historic buildings.

Unless you’re an art obsessive, you probably won’t manage to fit in a visit to both – so which is for you, the exhaustive and exhausting National Gallery, or the small-but-perfectly-formed Courtauld Gallery?

The collections

Both galleries cover the early renaissance to the early 20th century, but the National Gallery inevitably has the larger collection. That is both a blessing and a curse – even if you did manage to see it all in a day, it would be too much to take in. The trick is to plan ahead. Go to the website beforehand and work out which sections really interest you; many of them are large enough to be treated as small galleries in their own right.

The Courtauld, on the other hand, repays casual visits – you can wander in and do a serious chunk of the collection in a morning or an afternoon. It has particularly strong coverage of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism; if that’s your passion, you could visit the Courtauld in the morning and devote the afternoon to the relevant parts of the National. Handily, they’re right next to the main entrance in rooms 43 – 46.

Key pictures

Where to start with the National? Hans Holbein’s curious, cryptic masterpiece The Ambassadors hangs in a room near the entrance, and draws crowds thanks to the optical illusion in the foreground: a large warped skull, only recognisable from one side of the canvas. You’ll also find Van Gogh’s famous sunflowers, which must be seen ‘in the flesh’ – reproductions are everywhere, but never capture the passionate brushwork and intense colour of the real thing.

Elsewhere, the fascinating 1250-1500 rooms in the Sainsbury Wing allow you to trace the development of painting from simple medieval altarpieces to increasingly complex and realistic scenes. You’ll notice extraordinary technical leaps – the use of perspective, the depiction of skin tone – as the first stirrings of the renaissance begin to emanate from Florence.

Among the Courtauld’s jewels are Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, a slice of belle époque Paris that contains one of art’s most famous tricks of perspective. From Van Gogh there is Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, a grim counterpart to the National’s Sunflowers – while one expresses Van Gogh’s excitement about working with his hero Paul Gauguin, the other shows his rapid descent into depression after the relationship foundered. On the very top floor is a fine group of paintings, drawings and bronzes by Degas, reflecting his preoccupation with horses and dancers.

Talks and guides

The National offers seven audio tours, including a 60-minute highlights package and a build-your-own option for those who know exactly what they want to see (all £3.50). Free guided tours run twice a day during the week and three times a day at weekends, and there are in-depth 15-minute talks on particular paintings every Thursday lunchtime.

The Courtauld runs 15-minute lunchtime talks every Monday and Friday, and longer curators’ talks on the first Wednesday of every month, starting at 5pm. Tours of special exhibitions run every Sunday from 3-3.45pm.

Eating

National Gallery visitors are spoilt for choice. The large, usually rather crowded cafe on the ground floor has a wide range of sandwiches, cakes and light meals. The more formal National Dining Rooms, developed by restauranteur Oliver Peyton, have a full menu of modern British food with the accent on provenance. Suppliers are routinely named on the menu, and many ingredients are made in-house. There’s also a cracking afternoon tea and a kids’ menu for little visitors.

Inevitably, the Courtauld can’t quite compete with all this. It has a small cafe in the basement, which gives onto a pleasant patio for warmer weather. Light, wholesome food is the order of the day – lunch plates might feature smoked salmon or pate and cornichons – as well as cakes and soups. While it isn’t likely to wow you, it’s fine for a coffee and a snack after trotting around the galleries for a few hours.

Prices and walking times

  • National: 7 minutes, free
  • Courtauld: 3 minutes, £6 (£3 on Mondays)

5 reasons the BFI is more than just a cinema

When you think about the Southbank Centre arts complex, what springs to mind? Most likely it’s one of the huge, iconic buildings that loom over Waterloo Bridge – the gently curved facade of the Royal Festival Hall, or Sir Denys Lasdun’s striking, angular National Theatre. We love both, but we’re here to celebrate the forgotten sibling tucked under the bridge itself: BFI Southbank, the home of the British Film Institute. If four screens showing a range of vintage and arthouse cinema aren’t enough to get you through the door, here’s a list of other reasons we love it:

#1: The live scores

Naturally, an institution like the BFI shows its fair share of silent films. Some get a live piano accompaniment, just as they would have when they were originally screened. That’s great, but the real magic happens when the BFI gets artists to play original – sometimes specially commissioned – scores. Past highlights include the Dodge Brothers (featuring film critic Mark Kermode on double bass) playing their soundtrack to 1928 classic Beggars of Life, and experimental electronica duo Demdike Stare scoring Haxan, a pioneering drama-documentary on superstition in the Middle Ages. After something a bit different? Scour the What’s On pages for one of these – you won’t regret it.

#2: The Mediatheque

Just beside the ticket desk in the BFI foyer is something rather special: a small room full of TV screens that provide access, completely free of charge, to over 2,000 highlights from the institute’s catalogue. Some are full-length movies, some are classic British TV broadcasts, some are behind-the-scenes clips, documentaries or art projects. With loads of shorter pieces in the database, it’s a fantastic resource to browse for an hour or so – punch in a place or a topic that interests you and see what comes up. Screens can be booked in advance, but walk in on a weekday daytime or early on a weekend and you’ll usually find one available.

#3: The shop

It may be tucked away in a corner of the complex, but the BFI shop is a treasure trove. The range of arthouse and repertory DVDs and Blu-Rays – some from the organisation’s own range, which includes many formerly unavailable classics of British cinema – is an obvious draw, but there’s also a fantastic selection of books that ranges from theory and criticism to glossy coffee-table fare. If you’re serious about movies, or shopping for someone who is, you’ll love it.

#4: The bars

Giant sodas? Tasteless popcorn? Dodgy hot-dogs? Banish all thoughts of multiplex catering: the BFI’s two bars are different beasts entirely. Upstairs, Benugo Bar & Kitchen’s lounge area is full of mismatched sofas and comfy booths, and is screened off from the ticket hall by thread curtains; you’ll sometimes find DJs bringing the place to life after music-themed events. The neighbouring restaurant offers a more formal space, serving small plates of British food with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern accents. Downstairs is the rough-and-readier The Riverfront, serving pub grub and bar snacks – it’s less relaxed, but captures some of the buzz from the South Bank.

#5: The IMAX

A short walk from the BFI complex brings you to the biggest cinema screen in the country, at a vertigo-inducing 20 metres. It loses a little on the style front – the IMAX is owned by the BFI but operated by Odeon, so the in-cinema experience is more multiplex than arthouse – but see the right film here and you’ll be blown away. Everything is tuned to deliver great audiovisuals, from the 70mm projector to the 12,000 Watt soundsystem to the very architecture – the building was set on anti-vibration bearings to counter the effects of tube trains running beneath it. The film programme can be a mixed bag, but when a an all-guns-blazing 3D spectacle like Gravity or The Hobbit comes to town, no other screen will do.

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