Look what's hidden just steps from Trafalgar Square!
Nothing says “London” to me quite like Trafalgar Square. As a student studying in the UK, I had plenty of occasions to be there, visiting the National Gallery (which I absolutely love) and the National Portrait Gallery (which I appreciate but truthfully find a little creepy). The fountains and statues of the square, along with the interesting ‘characters’ – both locals and visitors alike – all contribute to its vibrant energy. I could easily pass a day here, popping in an out of the galleries and sitting by the water, watching the world go by.
Unfortunately, for many visitors to London, Trafalgar Square is ALL they see. Perhaps they have a limited amount of time and naturally flock to this central, convenient, popular location. Others might find themselves with reoccurring visits, as the Square is a popular gathering spot and tour meet-up point. While it’s hard to ever get tired of visiting Trafalgar Square you might start to feel a bit weary of it if less ambitious travel partners want to see it again and again. Trafalgar Square has many famous and appealing attractions that are just a short walk away – but is there anything special within 200 steps?
I’m pleased to report I found not one but several little treasures just seconds from Trafalgar Square! The first isn't exactly the proverbial hidden gem, as it’s both within plain sight and rather well known, but St Martin in the Fields Church hasn't lost any of its charm. If it looks familiar to you, it’s for good reason, as its unique design became the template for many of the wooden churches built in early North America. With over 20 church services a week, this is a welcoming congregation and when services are not held the church is open for visitors. They are famous for their music program and free lunchtime concerts, as well as special ticketed events.
A visit to St Martin would be a winning 200 meter challenge in and of itself, but the church is just one part of this amazing complex. To get to the heart of St Martin, you have to go downstairs – deep into the crypt. Among the vaulted ceilings and tombstone floors you’ll discover an award winning café. The Café in the Crypt is always humming with activity but there are plenty of free tables and the diverse crowd of singles, couples, and families, visitors and locals, young and old, make this one dining experience where you’ll always feel welcome.
My first visit to Café in the Crypt corresponded with dinnertime and I was famished after a long day of exploring London by foot. I selected the hot special of the night and was rewarded with crunchy baked chicken, sautéed carrots, braised cabbage, roasted potatoes, and a red wine herb sauce. The serving was enormous! As you can tell from the photo above the massive plate of food dwarfs my fork! In the interest of thorough travel writing research, I also ordered dessert, a hot fruit crumble with custard on the side. The pitcher contained at least a cup of custard! Adding a gourmet soda on the side and my grand total came to about 14 GBP. Unbelievable! This gut busting meal could have easily left two people satisfied.
I returned the next day for lunch and while I originally thought I would pick up one of their gourmet salads, I was again tempted by the hot meal. This time, I went for the vegetarian option, which was gnocchi cooked with eggplant and peppers in a creamy sauce with a thick layer of melted English cheddar cheese on the top. On the side came a piece of garlic bread, a roasted zucchini, and salad. This time I heroically passed on dessert and instead of buying a drink I helped myself to some of the complimentary flavored water on the side. My bill? A whopping 7 GBP. Those on a tighter budget can easily find fresh, filling food for under 5 GBP.
If the idea of huge portions of delicious, hearty, creative, wholesome, locally sourced food at tiny prices in central London isn’t enough to convince you to visit, you’ll certainly be motivated to go when you learn that the Café in the Crypt’s profits support the St Martin church in their extensive community outreach work. If you have a little extra time, you’ll want to visit the gallery room beside the café, where you can see displays of contemporary art work. Families will enjoy a brass rubbing station, where you can make your own rubbings of centuries old brass reliefs.
Finally, if you’re just passing through and don’t have time to stop for lunch, walk a few steps behind the church, heading towards The Strand. Beside the open area that serves as the summertime Café in the Courtyard and you’ll discover a memorial to Oscar Wilde on the edge of Adelaide Street, with a view towards Charing Cross Station. Wilde’s artistic influence remains strong in London and there are even entire tours devoted to his life in the city, but if you are short on time this moving memorial is well worth the one minute walk.
One of London's best dining bets and a tucked-away tribute to a legendary writer are just begging for you to visit. If the 200 meter challenge can work in central London, I think it can work anywhere!
As always, I welcome and encourage your comments. Do you have any secret spots in London that we should know about?
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