WC1: Bloomsbury, Covent Garden & WC2: The Strand

Bloomsbury           
Bloomsbury still has that aura of literary and scholarly gentility about it: it was home to Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers in the early 20th century and is still home to universities, libraries, and the mammoth British Museum. It is also well known for its peaceful garden squares – such as Russell Square, Gordon Square, Tavistock Square, and Bedford Square – and its many second hand bookshops.

British Museum           
UK LONDON The British MuseumThe British Museum [Great Russell Street, +44 20 73238299, www.britishmuseum.org, free entry] is bewildering, controversial, and, above all, tremendously impressive. To truly appreciate its entire collection is a Herculean task, requiring many separate visits and taking up days at a time. If you have the time (and the mental endurance) for this, it can be a very rewarding experience.

The world's first national public museum, it was founded in 1753 when the naturalist, physician, and collector Sir Hans Sloane beqeathed his private collection to King George IV and the nation. The museum opened in 1759 in Montagu House, the Old Royal Library, which was situated on the site of the present museum.

Since the 18th century the museum has been acquiring antiquities from across the globe. When Britain ruled the waves, the museum was uniquely placed to collect priceless artefacts from its colonial outposts and beyond. Today, it is still dealing with the consequences of these actions.

UK LONDON British Museum Elgin Marbles 'Head of a horse of SeleneThe museum's strengths undoubtedly lie in its collections from civilisations around the Mediterranean. In particular, the Egyptian, Roman, Greek, and Near East collections are superb. Among the museum's 7 million objects, there are some that are instantly recognisable to everyone: the controversial Elgin Marbles, slender, exquisitely detailed figures from the Parthenon at Athens; the Rosetta Stone, a deceptively plain chunk of granodiorite, that was a vital key in the decipherment of the ancient Egyptian language; and the Sutton Hoo burial helmut, crafted in the 7th century, presumably for an important local chief or king. The face carved from bronze, with its moustache and heavy brows, is arresting, an intriguing symbol of strength and power from centuries past. If you only visit a few objects in the museum, these are three not to miss.

To get the best out of the museum, browse the website for details about tours (half hour eyeOpener tours occur daily in most galleries), lunchtime lectures every Tuesday and Saturday, handling sessions, fun workshops for kids, and much more.  


 

Covent Garden
UK LONDON Covent Garden Fruit and Vegetable StallTo the east of the West End, stretching between St. Martin's Lane and Drury Lane, is London's lively theatre and shopping district. Covent Garden was once used as farmland and orchards by Westminster Abbey and came to be known as 'the Abbey and Convent Gardens'. Later still, it was known for the fruit and vegetable market that sprawled across the square.  There's plenty to see:
Neal's Yard is a small alley, between Monmouth Street and Shorts Gardens, known for it's health and New Age shops; Seven Dials, where seven streets converge upon a pillar with six sundials, was known for many years for its unsavoury poverty but these days it is far more gentrified and packed full of fashion-forward shops; the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, a stalwart of the dramatic world; and the London Transport Museum.

London Transport Museum     
The London Transport Museum [Covent Garden Piazza, +44 20 73796344, www.ltmuseum.co.uk, Adults £13.50] has a fascinating collection of vehicles, posters, photos, and films.

The Strand            
The Strand is a famous street in the City of Westminster, running from Trafalgar Square to Fleet Street and marking the southern boundary of Covent Garden. In Old English, the name means 'bank' or 'shore', reflecting its location beside the Thames. Throughout the Medieval period, grand houses lined the Strand but today the only one of these to remain is Somerset House, itself a later reconstruction of a 16th century home.

Somerset House 
       
UK LONDON Somerset HouseSomerset House [Strand, +44 20 78368686, www.somerset-house.org.uk, Admission to the Courtauld Gallery Adults £6] is a late 18th century reconstruction of a 16th century home built by Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset. It was built on the site of an old Inn of Chancery, a legal training institution, and upon land occupied by church buildings before the Dissolution of the Monasteries. After Somerset's disgrace and death, the building became the residence of Elizabeth I for many years. The residence was then further used by the wives of later monarchs except for a breif period when it was the property of the Parliament after the civil war. By the 18th century, the royal connection had been severed and the building served motely purposes.

Although the building is still home for a big variety of tenants, these days Somerset House is known as a venue for arts and culture. The Coutauld Institute of Art and its gallery hold a selection of works by Old Masters and the Impressionists. Somerset House's courtyard transforms every winter into an ice rink and thaws again every summer for the year's hottest music stars. There are also regular film and fashion events.

Sit on the cafe terrace and watch the currents of the Thames or take a free guided tour – check the website for details.

Royal Court of Justice        
UK LONDON royal courts of justiceWhile strolling along the Strand, you might come across an ornate Victorian Gothic building. This is the Royal Courts of Justice [460 The Strand, +44 79366000] and it was built in the 1870s. If you look carefully at the carvings above the nothern Judges' gate, you will see a cat and a dog. These cheekily represent the litigants. Browse the exhibition of legal wear in the Great Hall or watch a trial in progress.
 
Inns of Court            
Every barrister and judge in the country must belong to one of the Inns of Court, professional associations which date back to the medieval period when law was taught by the clergy to young men who resided, trained, and later practiced in a specially purposed 'inn', usually named after the landlord. There were many of these in the past but today only four remain, Lincoln's Inn, Gray's Inn, Inner Temple, and Middle Temple. Lincoln's Inn and Gray's Inn are in Holborn, a district which has long been associated with the law, but Inner Temple and Middle Temple are opposite the Royal Courts of Justice on The Strand, in the Temple district, also historically linked to the practice of English law. The inns date back to around the 14th century but there is a staunchly upheld tradition amongst them whereby none claim to be the oldest. Lincoln's Inn [+44 20 74051393, www.lincolnsinn.org.uk, check website for tour details] counts such famous names as Tony Blair, John Donne, and Wilkie Collins amongst its members. Gray's Inn [+44 20 75487800, www.graysinn.info] counted Francis Bacon as a member and was known for its wild parties during Elizabeth I's reign. Apparantly Shakespeare performed at one of these. Built upon the site of a 12th century church established by the Knights Templar, are the Inner Temple [+44 20 77978250, www.innertemple.org.uk] and the Middle Temple [+44 20 74274800, www.middletemple.org.uk], the former which has counted James Boswell, Geoffery Chaucer, Sir Francis Drake, and Gandhi amongst its members and the latter which was the site of the premiere of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in 1602.

Holborn        
Holborn has some excellent restaurants, bars, and pubs but for many years the area has been strongly associated with the law. In the 13th century, King Henryy III prohibited the teaching of law within the City of London. Thus the lawyers moved to Holborn, which was tolerably close to the law courts at Westminster Hall. In Holborn they worked and were housed in Grays Inn [www.graysinn.info] and Lincoln's Inn [www.lincolnsinn.org.uk], two of the four Inns of Court. Both of these still operate today.

 


National Gallery            
The National Gallery [Trafalgar Square, +44 20 77472885, www.nationalgallery.org.uk, entry free for permanent exhibitions] has a collection of over 2300 works of art, a collection which began to come together in the early 19th century. The gallery was built at Trafalgar Squre to house the growing collection in 1838. Grab a free gallery plan at the entrance and take your time exploring. Paintings range from the 13th century to the turn of the 20th century (for later pieces you will have to seek out the TATE Modern and the TATE Britain) and they were sourced from across Western Europe.  

UK London National Gallery Van Eyck - Arnolfini PortraitThe Sainsbury Wing holds works from the 13th to 15th centuries, a period which encompasses the religious themes of the late medieval era and the beginning of the Renaissance. The famous van Eyck painting, the Arnolfini Portrait, and Botticelli's Venus and Mars are part of this collection. 16th century paintings, showcasing the highlights of the Renaissance in full bloom, are to be found in the West Wing. Here you can see Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne and Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin on the Rocks. The North Wing holds works from the 17th century including paintings by Caravaggio, Rubens, Velázquez, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. Finally in the East Wing visitors can find the greatest variety of styles and subjects. Paintings here date from the 18th to the early 20th centuries and include examples of Impressionism, social satire from Hogarth, colourful everyday scenes from Seurat, and Van Gogh's exhuberant Sunflowers.  

The are temporary exhibitions (which usually carry an entrance fee) and a host of other activities including regular lectures, concerts, guided tours and workshops. Check the website to find out what's on.  

National Portrait Gallery    
UK London National Portrait Gallery John Taylor 'Portrait of Shakespeare' ('The Chandos Portrait') Established in 1856, the National Portrait Gallery [St Martin's Place, +44 20 73060055, www.npg.org.uk, free entry for permanent exhibitions, most temporary exhibitions require a charge] set out to collect portraits of Britain's movers and shakers, giants in the fields of science, art, literature, the military, and politics. In the Primary Collection, there are over 11,000 portraits: 4000 of these are paintings, sculptures, and miniatures which are displayed regularly, while the rest are portraits on light-sensitive paper and as such they are on a more limited exhibition rotation. The Primary Collection includes the gallery's first and most famous acquisition, 'The Chandos Portrait', a portrait of Shakespeare supposedly by John Taylor which the gallery dates to the bard's lifetime.

The Reference Collection comprises 80,000 portraits in the form of prints, caricatures, miniatures, medallions, drawings, and even silhouettes. It is located in the Heinze Archive and Library.

The Photographs Collection brings together 220,000 photographs, many of which are original negatives. The collection is held at the gallery's Orange Street location.

The gallery has three floors with the earliest portraits, from the Tudor and Regency periods, situated at the top on the second floor. On the first floor you can find works from the Victorian and Edwardian periods and the 20th century, while the ground floor holds contemporary portraits and exhibitions in the Wolfson and Porter Galleries.  

Sir John Soane’s Museum  
 
William Hogarth 'A Rake's Progress' Wikipedia Sir John Soane was born in 1753. From a humble background, he worked hard to become one of the most distinguished architects of his day. He designed his own home both as a place to live and as a museum for the many antiquities and works of art that he collected. When he died in 1837, he opened up the house to the public to be used as a resource by students and amateurs in the fields of architecture, sculpture, and art.

Sir John Soane's Museum [13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, +44 20 74052107, www.soane.org.uk, free entry] brings together an excellent collection, somewhat typical of the Regency period when Grand Tours of Europe were commonplace. Some of the highlights include Hogarth's famous series of paintings, A Rake's Progress, and the alabaster sarcophagus of Egyptian pharaoh Seti I. However, there are also detailed drawings, paintings, and plans of Soane's architectural work in the city of London, including the Bank of England, the Soane Monument, and the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

There is one guided tour a week on Saturdays at 11am. The tour lasts for one hour and costs £5.