Covent Garden Shopping
It’s hard to imagine Covent Garden, known for its many street entertainers, shops, market, and bustling atmosphere, as its early life as an orchard belonging to Westminster Abbey. When it was developed under architect Inigo Jones in 1630, It was the first planned square in London, giving rise to the many that exist in the city today, and was based on one in Livorno, Italy.
It was initially intended as a residential area for the wealthy, but by 1654 an open-air market selling fruit and vegetables opened. This grew over the years, as did the number of people visiting the square, and the area became filled with taverns and theatres, leading to much unsavoury behaviour. In a bid to turn the square around, the neo-classical building that you see in the centre of the square, now filled with shops and restaurants, was erected in 1830. It housed the market until 1974, and in 1980 its retail revival started to take place, turning it into the much-loved tourist hot spot that 44 million people visit every year.
Surrounded by historical theatres showing the best West End musicals in town, it’s no wonder Covent Garden has plenty to keep you entertained. You’ll most famously find the Royal Opera House in the square’s northeast corner. It was opened in 1732 and is home to opera and ballet performances from the world’s leading companies. For a more humble show, you only have to walk through the square to find many street entertainers vying to steal your attention for a few moments. From human statues to buskers to circus performers and more, these are among the highest calibre you’ll find in this talented city and undoubtedly worth throwing a few pennies in their hats.
On top of all this, Covent Garden is home to the London Transport Museum, a fascinating exploration of how the capital stays moving. The highly interactive exhibitions are perfect for adults and children.
When did Covent Garden first become a popular shopping destination?
Covent Garden was first built upon and given its infamous Italian piazza design in the 16th century. The open-plan square provided an ideal space for market traders, and by 1654 it was a popular spot for shopping for fruit, flowers, roots and herbs.
A few centuries on, it had become a nuisance to residents and unfit for purpose. So, in 1828, the 6th Duke of Bedford funded the building of the Greco-Roman style market building that stands today. The market continued to operate as a major wholesaler of fruit, vegetable and flowers until 1974, when it moved to the Nine Elms area of London due to traffic congestion in Central London.
The market building was converted into a shopping centre in 1980, but it still holds much of its original charm and attracts 44 million visitors yearly. There are also many stalls under the colonnades selling jewellery, crafts, art and antiques, a homage to its market origins.
When did Covent Garden first become a place for entertainers to perform?
Covent Garden has been just as famous for its entertainment as its shopping, and for just as long. Famous London diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the earliest known street performance in 1662. The performance was a marionette show featuring a character called Punch, the first known example of a Punch and Judy show. This is commemorated by the Punch and Judy pub downstairs in the Covent Garden market hall.
The piazza is still full of street performers who must audition for a slot in a dedicated space at an assigned time. From buskers to human statues and circus performers, you’ll be able to witness some of the most talented entertainers in the city every day of the year except Christmas Day.
More formal entertainment in the piazza comes courtesy of the Royal Opera House, sometimes referred to as “Covent Garden”, which has stood in the northeast corner of the piazza since 1732. It is home to the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet companies.
What time do shops in Covent Garden open and close?
The market hall building never formally closes, allowing the shops and stalls to stay open as late as the many shops surrounding the piazza. You should check individual stores’ opening times to avoid disappointment, but, in general, stores open around 10 am and stay open until approximately 8 pm. Larger stores are restricted by trading laws on Sundays which means they can only operate for six consecutive hours and therefore tend to open at either 10 am or 11 am and close around 5 pm or 6 pm.
Where does the name “Covent Garden” come from?
Before Covent Garden became the bustling tourist spot it is today, or even before it was home to the UK’s first Italian-style piazza, it was an orchard belonging to the monastery at Westminster Abbey. It was, therefore, the ‘convent’s garden’. The land was traded with King Henry VIII shortly before he dissolved the monasteries and granted it to the Earls of Bedford, who would develop it into a residential area. Still, the name of its former incarnation lived on even as it was built over.
What is the “Seven Dials” area in Covent Garden?
Shortly after the creation of the Covent Garden piazza in the 1690s, the area to the north was developed by politician Thomas Neale. The unusual layout of the seven roads in a dial shape, forming triangular blocks of buildings, was a sneaky way for Neale to make more money from tenants, whose rents were based on the size of the building’s frontage instead of its interiors.
The sundial pillar at the centre of the seven roads is still an attractive focal point. However, it’s a replica of the original, removed in 1773 as it had become a meeting place for dubious characters. Nowadays, the area is full of shops, hotels, cafes and the Cambridge Theatre. It is known for having an independent spirit with unique businesses you won’t easily find elsewhere.