Culture in the City – Top 20 places

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Posted by May B on Saturday 28th of April 2012

Being a born and bred Londoner who has worked in and around the square mile of the City of London for over 30 years I was interviewed recently by the student magazine of an international university who wanted to show its readers that there was more to the City of London than bankers, bars and offices.

I sat down to gather my thoughts for a few minutes and was amazed at what came into my mind to share with the journalist. Whilst he was delighted with the material (and the article was duly published) he wasn’t able to mention all of my favourite City scenes. And yes, I know I cheated by doubling up in a number of places – but I wanted to get in all of my favourites! Here goes:

1. Holborn and Hatton Garden jewellery

Holborn – which is home to many solicitors - is really mid-town (although it’s called “City Fringe”) but as it edges onto Covent Garden and Theatreland it merits a mention in my book.

Hatton Garden must be one of the places where anyone interested in gold and jewels must visit – there are so many shops and workshops. And Bleeding Heart Yard offers a peek at more history as well as some pleasant eating places. On a more contemporary note, not far away in Clerkenwell is Craft Central – a series of workshops for jewellery, clothes and other goods that hold regular open days and events.

And by Hatton Garden's side is Leather Lane, which each day is home to a large number of ordinary down to earth market traders selling everything from shoes and vegetables to toiletries and DVDs. There are a couple of great pubs here too – some of which have amazing histories - which offer outside seating in the warmer weather.

2. Somerset House and the Royal Inns of Court

Whilst the courtyard at Somerset House was made famous in the recent film “The Duchess”, in the summer it is full of children playing in the fountains by day and open air film screenings in the evenings. In winter it hosts ice skating.

There are various areas for exhibitions and on the riverside (as opposed to the Aldwych side) there have been some great contemporary shows – many of which are free. Just along the road is the Royal Inns of Court – which is often seen on the television news when a major case is heard.

3. Inns of Court and Embankment

Between Fleet Street and Embankment are the four Inns of Court. These historic buildings are where barristers reside along ancient cobbled walk ways and through arched tunnels. There’s Middle Temple church – built by the Knights Templar - and lots of secret little court yards containing delightful gardens and fountains. The architecture is something to behold – classical columns included.

And remember that along Embankment are Victoria Gardens – little pockets of green with benches and an assortment of historical statues. And in the summer there are often free concerts playing at lunch time – everything from jazz to madrigals.

4. St Paul’s Cathedral and Paternoster Square

Recent news reports focused on the protest camp outside, but the building itself is something to behold. There’s a nice café and there are often concerts which are open to the public.

There’s a marvellous tea shop and a champagne bar right by the side and a stroll into Paternoster Square (home of the Stock Exchange) reveals a wonderful space with restaurants, bars and coffee shops and a rather nice sculpture of a shepherd.

Just across the road is the recently opened One New Change which offers a plethora of shops if you need retail therapy and restaurants on the top floor if you’re hungry. And don’t forget to cross the Millennium Bridge and visit Tate Modern on the South Bank.

5. The Old Bailey

Just off of Ludgate Circus and around the corner from St Paul’s is The Old Bailey. At street level it isn’t much to look at but peer up and you see those golden scales of justice that feature on just about every UK legal TV series. There are now many modern office blocks around the area – and many new ones under construction – and a large number of them are home to solicitors, but surprisingly few criminal lawyers.

6. St Bride’s Church and Fleet Street

This pretty little church – known as the journalist’s church – is located just off of Fleet Street and offers a tiny oasis of calm and tranquillity amongst it cool stone gardens and shady trees.

Fleet Street has a rich history for newspapers and has many fine old pubs – some of which used to be banking halls and others are entwined with London’s literary history such as Samuel Pepys.

Just around the corner is St Bride’s Theatre – a converted Victorian swimming pool – and I admit that I have enjoyed my lunchtime sometimes eating my sandwiches while watching a 45 minute Shakespeare production. Sadly, the Mermaid Theatre in Blackfriars is only used for private functions.

7. Guildhall

London is home to the original guilds and there are still many old and new buildings around the City which show that 108 of these livery companies are still active today even if their brief is more concerned with professional standards, education and charity than it is with trade protection as they were originally.

Particularly good buildings are: Draper’s Hall (a new building) near London Bridge, Goldsmiths’ Hall near St Paul’s, The Brewery in Chiswell Street and Salters Hall near London Wall (one of the great 12).

You mustn’t forget Guildhall – which is home to the City of London Corporation - and the fabulous City Business Library where, among many services for City businesses and the local community, are an astonishing range of courses and seminars, many of which are free.

There are also the remains of a Roman amphitheatre in the basement and works by the Pre-Raphaelites in its galleries. And if you ever have the chance to attend an event in the Crypt then you should jump at the chance.

8. Bank of England, the Royal Exchange and Mansion House

There’s a museum at the Bank of England and just across the road is The Royal Exchange (the original building was built in 1565) – a building twice destroyed by fire and easily identified by its huge Corinthian columns as you emerge from Bank tube station.

The interior reveals a sumptuously decorated, cavernous hall in the centre of which is the Grand Café. Some of the original paintings from 1892 are still here. There are luxury brand shops on the periphery and on the upper level there is a good restaurant and excellent cocktail bar – both of which look down onto the busy hall.

There are often ceremonies in the nearby Mansion House which comes into its own each year during the Lord Mayor of London’s Parade.

9. Leadenhall and Smithfield Market

Leadenhall Market (just off Gracechurch Steet) - originally a meat, game and poultry market - stands on what was the centre of Roman London is now home to some upmarket shops and a selection of great bars and restaurants. The building is stunning – high ceilings with many golden decorations and hundreds of tiny windows which allow the sun’s rays to filter in.

Smithfield Market (London Central Markets), close to Farringdon station, St Bartholomew’s Hospital and Charterhouse Street, is the largest wholesale meat market in the UK and one of the largest of its kind in Europe. It’s also famous for having bars that are open at unusual hours for the tradespeople. It is housed in three listed buildings.

10. Lloyd’s of London and The Gherkin

Two iconic buildings which show modern architecture at its best - metal and glass artworks which shine in the sun and are still home to London’s world renown insurance industry.

Lloyd’s – on Lime Street – was originally a coffee house in 1688 providing marine insurance. It nearly went bust after insuring The Titanic for £1m. It has some artefacts – such as the Nelson collection – which are sadly not available for public viewing.

Newcomer “Gherkin” (originally the Swiss Re building) on St Mary Axe was designed by Norman Foster and opened in May 2004. It is on the site of the Baltic Exchange building, which was severely damaged on 10 April 1992 by the explosion of a bomb placed by the Provisional IRA.

11. Museum of London

A dark, round and uninspiring looking building in the middle of a roundabout on London Wall hides numerous treasures inside. The Museum of London has an excellent number of permanent displays but always manages to provide really interesting temporary exhibitions.

I adored the “Great Fire of London” and many have commented on the Dickens’ show. As well as office workers strolling around in their lunchtime, the place is usually full of children on school visits.

12. The Barbican

The residential blocks of apartments and the gym contain within them many concrete oriented open spaces – including water feature – as well as a number of spaces for theatrical, musical and artistic exhibitions. There’s a varied programme which caters for a wide range of tastes and interests. Personally, I love their productions for children which are in the promenade format.

13. Monument

Recently restored, this column marks the location of the start of the Great Fire of London. Situated close to London Bridge (sing: “London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down”) it is also convenient for the House of Fraser on King William Street which is home to much fashion art for the shoppers.

14. Liverpool Street

As well as being the main train station for all the commuters coming in from the East of England and Essex, Liverpool Street is surrounded by restaurants and bars catering to every taste and pocket. It’s no surprise that office workers linger here after hours – the choice is as diverse as the West End.

Broadgate also hosts an ice skating rink during the winter and offers al fresco dining and drinking in the summer.

15. City Fringe – Shoreditch and Hoxton

In an incredible feat of regeneration, these Eastern City fringe areas offer a thriving hub of restaurants, bars and venues geared up to the younger, trendier generation. So it’s no surprise that Old Street has become the home of City Tech - the cluster of 600 technology companies that provide a London version of Silicon Valley.

16. St Katherine’s Docks

Tucked away just a short walk from the Tower of London are these peaceful and historic docks that are managed be the Port of London Authority and where a selection of beautiful boats are moored.

There’s something wonderful about walking along the water’s edge and there is even a Starbucks positioned so that you can drink coffee while looking out across the water.

17. Tower of London

The tower contains Beefeaters, ravens and the crown jewels and is a must on every tourist’s list. In the summer there is music festival which sees an eclectic assortment of singers perform on specially erected stages in the moat area for relatively intimate audiences of 100-300 people. Nearby is Trinity House – another beautiful building – which is home to British lighthouses.

18. Tower Bridge

Another tourist spot but a fabulous site – particularly in the early morning or dusk light. In its shadows are open spaces – one of which has a pond and fountain with a statue of a boy and a dolphin. There are often kids gathered round this special place watching the boats on the river. The opportunity to watch the bridge open and close should not be missed.

19. The London dragons

I still remember when I was a child and was first told that standing guard to every road entering the square mile is a splendid dragon. Over the years I have sought out all of those dragons and they are now like friends. As well as the dragons, the City of London has its very own police force so it’s a bit like the Vatican in Rome.

20. The River Thames

Flowing through London is the river and just about every riverside area has been reclaimed for public walkways or for outside seating areas by restaurants and pubs.

There are plenty of pleasure boats on which to take a tour to Greenwich, the O2 and Thames Barrier one way and to Westminster, Richmond and Windsor the other. Then there are all of the bridges – each with its own history. For example, Waterloo was built almost entirely by women during the war years.

So this City within a city holds a special place in my heart. And, I think, deserves closer inspection for its cultural and entertainment value before being dismissed as you rush into the West End.

So where’s your favourite City of London location? What did I miss? Let me know by commenting on the blog, emailing me at or visiting the All in London Facebook page.


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Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner – that I love London town... thoughts from the girl who’s still in love with her home town.

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