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In the middle of central London there is a quiet, green rectangle called Bloomsbury. The area is a microcosm of museums, trees, cafés, bookstores, and the historic home of artists and academics. There are no official boundaries sealing off Bloomsbury from the rest of London; it is better thought of as an atmosphere, an attitude of laid-back learning, dozing, munching and romancing.
There is something strangely exhilarating in the sheer simplicity of turning a corner down Great Russell Street and suddenly, there it is: the towering, classical beauty of the British Museum, home to thousands of ancient treasures and troves of lost knowledge. Walk inside and the sense of grandeur only increases, the white and glass dome of the main hall lifting your eyes upwards. You could easily devote an entire afternoon to the Ancient Egyptian rooms alone, where the mummy of Katebet is on display. Other wonders include the Rossetta Stone and the Parthenon sculptures. If you manage to tear yourself away for a quick break, you can have a slice of cake in the café or peruse the extensive gift shop, and if you’re still hungry for more but can’t quite stand on your own two feet after so much enthralled meandering, catch an expert talking on everything from 17th century Japanese painting to the rise of monetary currency. Intellectual, cultural, beautiful and communal, the British Museum is the beating heart of Bloomsbury.
British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, UK, +44 20 7323 8299
Some of the cosiest, best value places to eat, drink and watch the world go by are tucked away along Torrington Place, which also provides a relaxing scenic walk away from the hustle and bustle of Tottenham Court Road. From Tottenham Court Road, turn left on to Torrington Place and head eastwards. Your first pit stop is Planet Organic, haven of vegan buffet lunches and freshly-pressed juices. Students get 20% off. Continue east and pass a small patch of grass and tarmac in front of Birkbeck College, which on Thursdays is transformed into a fancy Farmer’s Market. Just opposite is a lean curve in the road where you can sit on a bench and munch on your organic goods – or pop into Gordon’s Square, which is only few steps away. Continue past the square, and where Torrington Place meets Judd Street you’ll find a recent, chocolate-coloured addition to the smattering of cafés that line this part of town: Moreish. Serving delicious Spanish deli produce and coffee at good prices, Moreish has tables inside and out, and offers some delicacies that are hard to find outside Spain.
As the home of Birkbeck, UCL, SOAS and the New College of the Humanities, it is only right that Bloomsbury also offers some stellar bookshops. Here are only two of the many gems that speckle the map. The independent Dillon’s Bookstore may have been replaced by The Waterstones At Gower Street, but to the chain’s credit, it has maintained the wide range of academic, second-hand and remainder books that make it so unique. Less well-known but equally haven-like is Skoob Books (see what they did there?), which offers great discounts for students on top of the second-hand prices. Although there is no central catalogue that can tell you where to find what, the charm of a trip to Skoob lies in the thrill of exploring and navigating its chaos, leafing through Herodotus or Hardy by the ancient piano that sits, unexplained, amidst piles of manuscripts and pre-loved novels.
Skoob Books, 66 The Brunswick off Marchmont Street, London, UK, +44 20 7278 8760
Malet Street may well be the most beautiful stretch of London you’ve never heard of. Although relatively short, the wide, tree-lined road links together some significant landmarks. Walk past the University of London Union and you pass the main entrance of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), a chic light green curve in the landscape and home to one of the most renowned drama schools in the world. The unmissable landmark is Senate House, an architectural and historical treasure, formidable and yet, for students and academics of the area, an old and familiar friend. Formerly the building served as the HQ of the Ministry of Information in World War II, where George Orwell worked – his Ministry of Truth in 1984 is based on this building. The site is now home to various academic libraries, but passers-by are free to stroll into the impressive main hall and maybe catch a free concert or talk. Even if you ignore all these famous sites and simply stroll beneath the trees, the shady spot is itself a serene refuge. A good place to simply be.
‘Lived in squares and loved in triangles’, so the saying goes about the Bloomsbury bohemians; and indeed, the romance of Bloomsbury wafts most palpably from all the green, green, green. If you have limited time and money in Bloomsbury, you can still have a great day out by simply walking through the squares. Every square has its own unique character and charm; you could make a route through all of them or laze away the time in your favourite. The quieter ones include Gordon Square and, parallel to it, Tavistock Square, where you can do some statue-hunting and pay a visit to Mahatma Gandhi or Virginia Woolf. The champion of Bloomsbury, however, has to be Russell Square, sheltered by lofty trees, sprinkled by the central fountain where young and not-so-young ones dash through in hotter weather, and nourished by an amiable Italian café, which serves good ice-cream. Whatever the pressure of the high-flying London madness, the green squares of Bloomsbury are the perfect way to release everything into the fresh(er) air.