Bloomsbury: explore the heart of academic London

by lucydodsworth

Home to artists and intellectuals in the 1930s and the University of London today, Bloomsbury's Georgian garden squares, museums and galleries are well known, but there are hidden spots to discover

Made up of writers, artists and intellectuals like Virginia Woolf, EM Forster and the economist John Maynard Keynes, the 'Bloomsbury group' made this part of London famous when they met here in the 1930s. Today you'll find blue plaques showing their former residences dotted around the area, and Bloomsbury still holds true to its academic roots as home to students and academics from the University of London's colleges. It has all the museums, galleries and libraries they could need – as well as great places to eat and drink. So come and discover Bloomsbury's highlights and hidden gems.

What to see

The British Museum (Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG; www.britishmuseum.org) is the largest museum in the country, and one of London's major tourist attractions. With more than seven million objects in its collections, it's worth choosing a section to explore and not trying to see too much at once. Take your pick from Egyptian, Etruscan, Oriental, Greek and Roman galleries, as well as special exhibitions (entry is free other than for the special exhibitions, so you can come back as often as you like). Some of the most famous exhibits include the (controversial) Elgin Marbles and Rosetta Stone. The spectacular glass-and-steel-roofed Great Court, designed by Norman Foster and built around the old reading room, is also worth a visit on its own. (Museum open daily 10am-5.30pm and until 8.30pm on Thursdays and Fridays.)

Not far away is the British Library (96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB; www.bl.uk). It holds over 150 million items, with another 3 million added each year, and is one of the biggest academic resources in the world. You can see some of their 'treasures' exhibited, which range from the Magna Carta and Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, to the first edition of The Times and Beatles song lyric manuscripts. You need to register as a member – or 'reader' as they're called – if you want to use the collections, but it's free to go into the galleries (open 9.30am-6pm most weekdays, until 5pm at weekends and 8pm on Tuesdays).

Bloomsbury is the home of many of the colleges that make up the University of London, and at the heart of them is Senate House. This imposing 1930s art deco building was the inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four when it was used as the Ministry of Information during WWII. It's been a location for films like Batman Begins and Spy Game, but its less glamorous day job is as administrative centre for the University of London.

Just behind Senate House is Torrington Square, with University College London, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Birkbeck College buildings surrounding it. For a different perspective on the area, there are a few hidden vantage points. If you can blag your way in, Birkbeck College has a panoramic (and student price cheap) rooftop terrace bar overlooking the square (open weekdays, take the lift at the end of the main corridor to the fourth floor and don't tell them I told you!). Or, more relaxingly, SOAS has a peaceful Japanese roof garden on top of its Brunei Gallery. It's used for exhibition openings and Japanese music performances, but is otherwise open to the public, Tuesday–Saturday, 10.45am–5pm (check on 020 7637 2388).

Bloomsbury's squares are full of gardens, perfect for picnicking or lazing about on a sunny day. Russell Square is the largest garden square, though watch out on weekday lunchtimes as you'll be fighting for space with escapee students and university staff. There's a cafe with outside seating in the middle of the square which is a good spot for a drink or ice cream. Or if you're looking for a bit more space, then you'll find the other local squares, like Tavistock or Gordon Square, a bit quieter.

Nearby Bedford Square also hosts one of London's most eccentric sporting events each July – the Chap Olympiad (www.thechapolympiad.com). Run by The Chap Magazine ('a monthly journal celebrating tweeds, hat doffing and martinis'), attendees in period dress take part in events like umbrella jousting, cucumber sandwich discus, and the gin and tonic hop, skip and jump (try not to spill any!). There's also lawn games, jazz music, afternoon tea and cocktails from retro bar Bourne and Hollingsworth if you're feeling less energetic. (Tickets around £15 and dates for 2014 to be announced.)

Where to eat and drink

There are lots of chain restaurants and touristy cafes around the British Museum, but if you stray off the main roads there are some more interesting places to be found.

Hidden away near Russell Square is the Lumen Cafe (88 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RT; 020 7278 2203; www.lumencafe.com). With a pretty courtyard garden and art gallery attached, it's open for lunch and tea on weekdays. They use organic and Fairtrade ingredients, with tasty big salads and mezze plates (around £6). It's run by a church homeless charity too so you'll be helping out as you tuck into a delicious chocolate brownie.

Busaba Eathai (22 Store Street, London WC1E 7DF; 020 7299 7900; www.busaba.com) is one of a small chain of good value Thai restaurants. With traditional Thai dishes, from green curry to pad Thai, for £6-11, served at big communal tables, it a popular place so be prepared to queue. At the other end of the price scale, but also owned by restaurateur Alan Yau, is Hakkasan (8 Hanway Place, London W1Y 1HD; 020 7927 7000; www.hakkasan.com). This Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant has main courses from £14 up to £58 for its speciality Wagyu beef dishes. Or splash out £80 for the bizarrely named 'Monk jumps over the wall' (aka soup with abalone, scallop and sea cucumber).

Another good places to eat is Salt Yard (54 Goodge Street, London W1T 4NA; 020 7637 0657; www.saltyard.co.uk) which serves Spanish and Italian style tapas (from £6) and charcuterie plates, along with a good wine selection.

As you'd expect for a student area, there's no shortage of pubs and bars in Bloomsbury. If you're looking for a traditional historic London pub, try the Princess Louise (208 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EP; 020 7405 8816). It's packed with Victorian period features, like cubicles with cut-glass panels, etched mirrors and colourful tiles. Or if you're more of the cocktail type, try the newly opened New Bloomsbury Set (76 Marchmont Street, London WC1N 1AJ; 020 7383 3084; www.newbloomsburyset.co.uk). Tucked away in a basement behind Russell Square, the expert bartenders mix a fantastic mojito.

Where to stay

There are plenty of reasonable (in London price terms) B&Bs in converted Georgian townhouses on and around Gower Street. A good choice is Arosfa (83 Gower Street, London WC1E 6HJ). It has a comfy lounge area, nice gardens and helpful staff. Bedrooms are recently refurbished and have (compact) en suite bathrooms (double rooms from £80).

Or if you're looking for a bargain, YHA London Central (104 Bolsover Street, London W1W 5NU) is close to Euston and King's Cross stations. Dorm rooms start from £18 a night and there's a 24-hour cafe/bar and travel desk giving information about things to see and do. It's a sociable place usually full of young backpackers, but ideal if you want a cheap base to explore from.

lucydodsworth

I'm passionate about travel and try and do as much as I can - always have to have a trip (or two) to look forward to! A 16-month gap 'year' around South East Asia and Australia in 2003 started me off and I've travelled as much as as possible since then. The list of places which I'd like to visit seems to grow faster than I cross things off though so there's plenty more travelling to do. As well as writing for Simonseeks, I also have my own blog at www.ontheluce.com