Covent Gardens tourist knick-knack bazaar
It was a pain in the rectum finally getting to London, but we had at last made it. Through the last minute visa pickup at the DHL office, to the speeding drive to the airport, and finally the sigh of relief sailing through the air. There was also of course the fear about transit, especially due to the lack of it on Christmas Day, but that would sort itself out. When we got to the Z Hotel on the Strand, entering our room with glasses of complimentary mulled wine in hand, we knew that it would be all right. But then I do usually get that feeling with mulled wine in hand.
There’s a competition between London and New York, about which is the best city for theatre. And really, the cards are all out on that one. But if there’s one show that must be seen in a person’s life, and one show only, then it really is "The Phantom of the Opera" at Her Majesty’s Theatre, where they’ve been doing it to perfection for the past 30 years. The play to this day is frequently sold out, so buy tickets a few months in advance if you want to sit together.
Her Majesty’s is right at the edge of the theatre district, known as the West End or Theatreland, which is home to some 30 theatres, most hosting very long-run, often Andrew Lloyd Webber, productions, like Phantom, Les Miserable, Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. I especially love the Gonzago Can-Can in the last one.
But if you’re a true theatre aficionado, it’s not necessary to catch a show here. London is full to the brim of underground theatres. You only have to go a spitting distance to find one, or if looking for something a dash bit tourist while still being local, check out the hipster district, Camden.
"No pictures please," an usher to the right seems to be saying
Her Majesty’s itself is a landmark, having shown premieres by George Bernard Shaw, J.B. Priestley, and even Bach and Mozart’s premiers to a British audience and is under a constant fee-on-your-ticket-storm of restorations. It was built in 1705 and earns its name by being actually owned by the monarch, as the land is literally a crown estate. So the title isn't actually a misnomer. A series of fires burnt down reconstructions of successively grander theatres until finally, the present one was rolled out in 1897.
The walk from the Strand to Her Majesty’s is a right bit scenic walk, going either down the avenue to Trafalgar’s Square or up through Covent Gardens, both must-see destinations for any first time visitor to London.
It’s the premiere over-priced shopping district necessary for any newcomer to hit up while in London. It’s full of beautifully tailored pedestrian streets and most closely resembles a giant outdoor mall. But some gems are hidden there, like the Battersea Pie Station, one of the better places to grab a famous London meat pie, along with the place where I bought my latest hat, to adorn my expensive-fancy-hats-I-will-eventually-no-doubt-lose collection.
Covent Gardens was once the fashionable fruit-and-vegetable bazaar for all the nobility and clergymen to show off their latest corset or mustache wax. But by the 1700s, it had declined into being a red light district--naturally, with all the corsets laced up tight--until Parliament decided to clean up the area a bit and return it to glory.
A street in Covent with lots of bookshops
Covent and the neighboring Soho (more on that next week) are probably also the best places to catch some street music. Here there don’t seem to be any laws on noise—not like Prague’s latest draconian acts—and anyone and everyone seems to be allowed to set up a performance. From nutty preachers with megaphones, to jugglers, to bands with full on PA systems. Even in the dead chill of winter, the place was alive and merry.
If you’re looking for the real traditional hyped up “British pub”, then this is the place to get to, where there’s over 60 places serving 8 pound a pint beers and not a chav in sight. But they’re nowadays a far cry from the underground boxing rings of the days of yore and are now mainly just filled with tourists and Poles trying to be British. Let me know in the comments if some bona fide drinking holes are still lining those gilded alleys.
Atheist Christmas markets are all the rage
Finally rounding out the tour on our way to Her Majesty’s was a stop at Leicester Square, which livens up during the Christmas season with a Czech-themed Christmas market, where they sell mulled wine and Czech beers. We didn’t stay long there since we’re exposed to the real deal, so we quickly shuffled off and found a Costa Coffee. Not the best coffee, but it’s something you have to drink when in London because it’s from London. It’s equally as ridiculous as drinking Starbucks in Seattle or McDonald’s in a manure collection pile.
Arriving at the theatre a bit early meant we still had time to round out one more tourist site, the main square of the city. Its most famous event was Bloody Sunday, where the British contributed a thousand bullets to the Irish cause and the Irish got back at them with U2 being played by every bloody pub’s cover band for an eternity after. Well played, Micks.
Trafalgar Square purdied up for Christmas
The square is named for Lord Horatio Nelson, who defeated Napoleon’s navy at the Battle of Trafalgar, earning him a spot in memoriam on top of a giant column, which sits in direct line of sight to Buckingham Palace. Nelson was unduly lucky in a great bit of naval battles, having his arm and leg shot off by cannonballs in the past and finally, death by musket at Trafalgar.
Finally, our night ended in public view with the Phantom show, which was attested to be one of the most incredible performances my wife had ever seen, and indeed the same goes true for myself. The singing, the scripting, the choreography, and the set design were all top notch. But then if you’ve been doing it for 30 years and your monarch owns the place it better dang well be.
Need more to read? Why not read about our New Years time here?
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