Royal Opera House - Night view of the Bow Street elevation. Photographer: Peter Mackertich © Peter Mackertich
The ten Discover London Trails were developed by London’s Smaller Museums and Galleries Group with support from ALM London (Archives Libraries and Museums London). Covering different regions of the capital, they link smaller museums and galleries with other attractions of interest in half and full day trails.
Begin at the highly informative Westminster Reference Library situated in St Martin’s Street on the south side of the Square and then walk past the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery on your way to the hidden Gallery in the Crypt, an arts centre situated in the ancient stone vaults of the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields Church.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane by night. Courtesy of Really Useful Theatres.
Leaving Trafalgar Square with its famous fountains and statues behind, walk up Charing Cross Road to the Photographers’ Gallery, a prime venue for contemporary photography and your first stop on the way to Covent Garden. Bustling market stalls surround the specialist shops, cafes and wine bars in the central piazza, where street performers add to the enjoyment.
Here, the new Royal Opera House home to the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet companies is open to all every day. Close by, London’s Transport Museum, brings to life the history of the city’s underground and buses. The Theatre Museum, with its collection of theatrical memorabilia is just around the corner – and is not just for luvvies but for anyone who loves the stage.
London Transport Museum © Transport for London
The Theatre Royal Drury Lane offers a unique opportunity for a behind-the-scenes tours with the Freemason’s Hall having one of the finest publicly available collections of Masonic material in the world.
You can walk or jump on a busy in Kingsway for Somerset House. This is one of London’s best-kept secrets - with its panoramic views of the Thames and three attractions in one. Wonderful displays can be enjoyed at the Courtauld Institute Gallery, which is famed for its Impressionist art, Gilbert Collection and Hermitage Rooms. You could easily spend several hours here so may like to leave it for another day.
Fountains by day. Courtesy of Somerset House
Trail In Detail
Westminster Reference Library is located in a building that replaced the house occupied by Sir Isaac Newton, one of the earliest residents of Leicester Square. Situated in St Martin’s Street on the south side of the Square, this library has key collections on business, UK official publications, European Union and the Arts.
It contains nearly a million books, plus videos, CDs and talking books as well as newspapers and magazines. There is also local information, language courses and free access to the Internet.
St Martins Church. Courtesy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields
From here, walk past the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery to St Martin-in-the-Fields Church overlooking Trafalgar Square. There has been a church on this site since the 13th century with the present church designed by James Gibbs completed in 1726.
The building of the church was very influential setting the style for the US colonial style of building. It has a beautifully decorated ceiling and a handsome 18th century pulpit. Lunchtime recitals take place Monday, Tuesday and Friday and candelit concerts Thursday to Saturday.
In the ancient stone vaults of the crypt, refurbished in 1987, you will find the Art Gallery and London Brass Rubbing Centre, offering the opportunity to make pictures, as well as a restaurant and religious bookshop. There is also a craft market outside.
The Cafe in the Crypt is Les Routiers London Cafe of the Year. Courtesy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields
Heading towards Covent Garden along Long Acre, you will find The Photographers’ Gallery in Newport Street. This enterprising gallery is London’s leading venue for photographic exhibitions.
There are occasional lectures and theatrical events, as well as a good photographic book and print shop and café. The plaque on the outside commemorates Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder of the Royal Academy in Piccadilly who lived here in the 18th century.
The Photographers' Gallery. Courtesy of the Photographers' Gallery
Arriving at Covent Garden piazza, in the north corner, you will see the stunning Royal Opera House. Following two years of extensive refurbishment, it was reopened in time for the new millennium complete with a second auditorium and rehearsal rooms.
This is the third theatre on the site with the history beginning in 1728, when John Rich actor/manager commissioned John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. The success of this venture provided capital for the first Theatre Royal in Covent Garden designed by Edward Shepherd. It was primarily a playhouse for serious musicals beginning with the Handel’s operas.
Auditorium at the Royal Opera House. Photographer: Rob Moore © Rob Moore
Backstage tours offer a unique glimpse behind the scenes of one of the busiest international opera houses in the world. They include an introduction to the colourful history of the theatre, an insight into the recent redevelopment of the Royal Opera House and a look at aspects of current productions. Many include opportunities to see the Royal Ballet in class, the Royal Opera artists in costume or the magnificent backstage technology in operation.
London Transport Museum © Transport for London
Also in the piazza is London’s Transport Museum. This fascinating museum is not just for enthusiasts and offers plenty of hands-on exhibits and an opportunity to try out the driving seat of a London bus or underground train.
Located in a picturesque Victorian flower market, built in 1872, it has an intriguing collection of public transport past and present. By conserving and explaining the city’s transport heritage, London’s Transport Museum provides an understanding of the capital’s social history. There is an excellent collection of 20th century commercial art and a shop selling posters.
The Theatre Museum
The museum illustrates the history of the performing arts with displays that include playbills, programmes, props and costumes from historic productions, bits of interior décor from theatres that have long since vanished, as well as paintings of actors and scenes from plays.
Exterior Freemasons' Hall. Courtesy of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry
Heading towards Drury Lane you will find the Theatre Royal with its entrance on Catherine Street. Designed by Benjamin Wyatt, the current theatre was completed in 1812. Boasting one of the city’s largest auditoriums, originally famous for pantomimes, it now stages blockbuster musicals.
The theatre offers visitors a unique opportunity to go 'Through the Stage Door' on a behind the scenes tour where characters from many eras bring the history of theatre to life.
Apron pouch of Sir Winston Churchill. Courtesy of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry
Turning north, on the corner of Drury Lane and Great Queen Street, is Freemason’s Hall, the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England and an exhibition of the history of English Freemasonry.
You can see an extensive collection of objects with Masonic decoration including pottery and porcelain, glassware, silver, furniture and clocks, jewels and regalia. Items belonging to famous and Royal Freemasons including Winston Churchill and Edward VII are on display together with examples from the Museum’s extensive collection of prints and engravings, photographs and ephemera.
Lucas Cranach I (1472-1553), Adam and Eve, 1526. Oil on panel. Lee Collection. Courtesy of The Samuel Courtauld Trust, Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London
If time allows, turn right into Kingsway, along Aldwych and make your way to The Strand and the magnificent Somerset House. Home of the celebrated , Courtauld Institute and Gallery and , the 18th century building is a thriving cultural centre for London – a place for enjoyment, art and refreshment.
Since 1990, the northern part of Somerset House, known as the Strand Block has housed the Courtauld Institute Gallery, a dynamic centre for the study and enjoyment of the history of art. Here, you can see an extraordinary collection of works of art from Old Master paintings to Impressionist and 20th century art.
Queen Charlotte (1774-1818). Enamel, copper, gold, rubies and pearls. Johann Heinrich Hurter (1734-99) England, 1781. Courtesy of the Gilbert Collection
Formed over 35 years by the late Sir Arthur Gilbert, the Gilbert Collection comprises more than 800 works of decorative art and is one of the most important gifts ever made to the nation.
The restored, vaulted spaces of the Embankment Building are an impressive setting for this dazzling display of European craftsmanship, which includes magnificent European silver, spectacular gold snuff-boxes and remarkable Italian mosaics. Situated in the South and Embankment Buildings at Somerset House, the Collection is best accessed from the Great Arch entrance on the Victoria Embankment.
Rudolf Vilde, Measuring Jug "Multicoloured Rays", 1921. Porcelain, overglaze polychrome painting, gilded. Courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum
On show on the ground floor of the South Building of Somerset House, the décor of the Hermitage Rooms recreates, in miniature, the imperial splendour of the Winter Palace and its various wings, which now make up The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. This imperial setting provides the backdrop for rotating exhibitions from the collections of the Museum in St Petersburg and other Hermitage-related activities.
The Hermitage Rooms shop offers over 300 exclusive gifts and souvenirs throughout the year, many of the items specially designed and made in Russia.
Walk back along the Strand to Charing Cross station of across the bridge to Waterloo.
The Discover London Trails were created by the Campaign for Museums and supported by ALM London.