Architecture, history and retail therapy: attractions to see in the City of London

Given the fact that the City of London – or the ‘Square Mile’, as some refer to it (or London’s financial district, as many out-of-towners tend to) – is the oldest part of the entire UK capital, it’s literally dripping in historical resonance. And it’s a rich history, indeed; dating all the way back to medieval times and boasting ancient churches, eerie plague pits and Victorian architectural grandeur. Yet, for all that, the ‘City’ is also a thrusting, ultra-modern corner of the world, boasting cloud-grazing skyscrapers, 21st Century shopping destinations and irresistible cultural highlights. Here then are just a few of the attractions any visitor to this most essential nook of the Big Smoke simply must give a go and discover…

panoramic scenic view on London's southern part

The Charterhouse

(Charterhouse Square EC1M 6AN/ open 11am-4.45pm Tuesday-Sunday)

This location may only be loosely described as a venue – it is, after all, a conglomeration of inner-city almshouses that are home to around 40 men; many of whom are, as you might imagine, in their twilight years. Yet, it’s what been discovered on the building’s site in recent years (and which has, therefore, seen it opened up to the general public) that ensures it’s definitely worthy of a look around for those beguiled by the history of centuries-old metropolises like the UK capital. Way back in the medieval age it was a Carthusian monastery and, upon the 14th Century outbreak of the Black Death plague, became a cemetery in which 50,000 souls (yes, really that many!) were buried – and the remains of some of them are now on show for visitors.

Sadler’s Wells

(Rosebery Avenue EC1R 4TN)

If dance is your thing – or even if you’re just curious about it – then you’re in for a treat thanks to an evening or afternoon spent at this outstanding destination that’s among the first names in performances ranging from classical to contemporary ballet, tango to flamenco and interpretative dance to hip hop. Not only does it house the main, grandstand theatre space, but it’s also home to the more intimate Lillian Baylis Studio, which has carved out a niche over the years for launching exciting works from new names on the block. And while you’re there, be sure to check out too the actual ‘Sadler’s well’ (from which the venue gets its unique name); it was a once-upon-a-time medicinal well cultivated on the site in centuries past for the supposed wellness properties of its water.

Boxpark Shoreditch

(2-10 Bethnal Green Road E1 6GY/ open 11am-11pm Monday-Sunday; 12noon-10pm Sunday)

Boxpark is all about shopping with a difference. In fact, it’ll be pretty much unlike any shopping experience you’ve ever had. Why? Because the shops here are to be found in a coterie of refitted shipping containers arranged in a space lying beneath Shoreditch’s elevated railway station. The people behind this highly successful venture like to refer to it as the world’s first ‘pop-up mall’ and, in a sense, that’s exactly what it is – in a laid-back, scaled back, hipster-ish way, that is. Between the different containers you’ll find an array of white fashion, jewellery, homeware and perfumery brand outlets, as well as a clutch of exotic street-food venders.

Brick Lane Market

(91 Brick Lane Road E1 6QR/ open 11am-6pm Saturday; 10am-5pm Sunday)

Brick Lane Market

The small area of East London around Brick Lane has become world-famous in recent times thanks to the bestselling novel of the same name by Zadie Smith. And yet, it’s one thing to read about the place and another to visit it. Indeed, probably the primary reason why you might fancy doing so is to have a mooch around its legendary market. Always lively, vibrant, bold, brilliant and aromatic, it’s famed for its slice-of-everyday-life East End vibe – and a very 21st Century East End at that; one whose origins may be in the industrial working class, but which is nowadays hugely supplemented by the culture of the Indian Sub-Continent and the hipster norms of millennial urbanites. So, you’ll find the likes of old-school fruit and veg, household goods and bric-a-brac stalls here, but – thanks to the Sunday UpMarket – vintage bits and bobs, designer crafts and artisan food pop-ups too.

Leadenhall Market

(Gracechurch Street EC3V 1LT/ open 10am-6pm Monday-Friday)

Like it or not, the big attraction of this place is that it featured in several of the unavoidable Harry Potter movies (specifically, it doubled as Diagon Alley in J. K. Rowling’s world). In reality, it’s an irresistible arcade that’s a superb example of sublime Victorian architecture, with a particularly impressive vaulted ceiling. It’s a favourite of City workers come lunchtime and the end of the day; its cool-vibe bars, pubs, restaurants and eateries proving a big pull, indeed – could it be so for you come lunchtime, if you’re staying nearby at the Montcalm London City Suites?

Guildhall

(Gresham Street EC2 7HH)

Technically speaking, Guildhall’s claim to fame is that its awesomely ornate Great Hall (all deep reds and glistening golds) has been home to the City of London district’s government ever since the medieval age. Nowadays, however, what attracts visitors to this location more than anything else is its art gallery – which, dating all the way back to 1670, features a number of pre-Raphaelite masterpieces and historic London-focused artworks – and its outdoor yard, which hosts a world-cuisine-offering weekly market every Thursday lunchtime, as well as many one-off seasonal events for all the family and the Roman amphitheatre, of course, which (amazingly) was only discovered to be lurking under the building less than 30 years ago.

One New Change

(1 New Change EC4M 9AF)

Lying in the enormously elegant shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral, this sleek, gleaming shopping mall provides a complementary contrast to the 17th Century grandeur and splendour of that world-famous place of worship, like much of the architecture in this specific area of the capital. Not only does One New Change offer up a plethora of high-street outlets, but also a roster of fine eateries. And this includes the Jamie Oliver-founded, barbecue-themed restaurant Barbecoa, which serves the likes of steaks, ribs, pulled pork and even ‘beer can chicken’ (why not, should you be in area taking advantage of one of the many London city break packages available, pop in to find out just what that is!). And then there’s Gordon Ramsey’s Bread Street Kitchen, which is distinguished by a wood-burning oven, a deli and an always impressive and delicious-sounding menu.

The Gherkin

(30 St. Mary Axe EC3A 8EP)

Open since 2004, ‘The Gherkin’ (officially known by its address, 30 St. Mary Axe) is an instantly recognisable icon of the London skyline, its perpendicular but curved shape and the green tint of its 24,000 square-metres of glass giving rise to its nickname and, well, its height seeing it rise high above many of the buildings around it. Unfortunately, this one attraction that’s not regularly open to the public, being that it’s full of office space; that said, there are occasions when tours of the building are held for non-workers, as well as access to the highly-rated Searcy’s restaurant on the top floor. Fun fact: it contains so much glass that you could fill football stadiums with it all!

Postman’s Park

(King Edward Street, EC1A)

Open year-round from 8am to 7pm/ dusk, this peaceful, arguably serene little public space just down the road from St. Paul’s Cathedral is exactly that because it was specifically designed to be a place of contemplation and remembrance. Although it earned its name owing to its popularity with a good number of Royal Mail employees who worked nearby, its actually notable for its late Victorian-era memorial to ‘heroic self-sacrifice’; the notion behind it being to commemorate the ordinary and poor whom selflessly committed acts of bravery in the capital, among them many children. A favourite – owing to its quiet atmos – with City workers at lunchtime, its appeal is only enhanced by its elegant sundial, brightly colourful flower beds and gently trickling fountain.

Church of St. Bartholomew the Great

(West Smithfield EC1A 7JQ)

Hidden away via a medieval gateway from the far better known Smithfields Market, lies this gem of a centuries-old church. Dating all the way back to the Middle Ages, it was first an Augustin Priory built and established very nearly 900 years ago – making it the oldest place of worship in London – and remains in use as a parish church to this day. A wonderful slice of living history, part of it was deployed as a print shop in the 18th Century, enabling Benjamin Franklin (during his time in the UK capital) to use it as a workplace and it’s been used as a location for a number of big-name blockbuster movies, including Fore Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

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