Soho in London
Soho is a district of central London, part of the West End.
This is generally considered to be the area enclosed by Piccadilly Circus, Shaftesbury Avenue and Cambridge Circus to the south, Charing Cross Road to the east, Oxford Street to the north, and Regent Street to the west. Oxford Street is the main shopping street in London but much of it is in the Mayfair-Marylebone district.
The area immediately surrounding Old Compton Street in the southern part of Soho is widely recognised as London's foremost gay village and is a very stylish part of London indeed.
Soho is sometimes considered to include London's Chinatown. Chinatown, however, lies south of Shaftesbury Avenue and, having a culture distinctly different from the rest of the West End, adjoining - but not really part of - Soho.
Soho has a long and colourful history. The first record of the name comes from the 17th century when the area was pasture after being used as hunting park for the Royal Court of Henry VIII some 100 years earlier.
Despite this royal attention and very grand development taking place in adjoining districts, Soho did not become fashionable until recent times and was mostly known as an area settled by new immigrants. By the mid-19th century it had become the home of prostitutes and low brow music halls. Things looked up in the early 1900s when it gained something of a Bohemian reputation with writers, artists and actors moving in but the sex industry continued to dominate the district until as recently as the 1980s. This lucrative business was always run by organised crime groups and ensured that Soho was a notorious haunt of gangsters throughout much of the 20th century.
The music business began to really prosper here in the 1950s with a beatnik and jazz culture very much to the fore. Perhaps London's most famous jazz venue, Ronnie Scotts, is still thriving today in Frith Street. Many famous rock bands are also closely associated with Soho. The Rolling Stones played their first ever live concert here (at the legendary Marquee) and The Sex Pistols lived in Denmark Street as well as playing a number of infamous gigs. In the 1970s and 1980s Soho, and the Marquee in particular, was the place in London to head for to check out up and coming and often very controversial British bands.
Since the 1980s, the whole of Soho has undergone rapid transformation and development into a fashionable district of upmarket restaurants and media offices. There are though still a few places which are easily associated with its more colourful past and even a small remnant of the previously dominant sex industry remains.
Modern day Soho has the densest concentration of restaurants, cafés, clubs and bars in central London and truly represents the vibrant, bustling heart of the city. It is also the modern hub of London's media world with multiple advertising agencies, television and radio studios and post-production companies choosing this as their base of operations.
Unsurprisingly given its colourful nature, much has been written about Soho. The following is short selection of books, all of which are a great read and would be of benefit to anyone planning to visit Soho.
Dirty White Boy, Tales of Soho by Clayton Littlewood, Cleiss Press 2008. The musings and observations of a clothing store owner in Old Compton St in the 2000s. You will struggle to find a better modern day commentary on Soho. Littlewood's book has been compared to Christopher Isherwood's writings about sordid Berlin in the 1920s. And apart from all that, it is very funny.
Dog Days in Soho by Nigel Richardson, Phoenix 2001. A biography of one sailor's life in Soho in the 1950s, perhaps the single most notorious period in the history of the district. Poignant and very well written. Gives a fine sense of the period just before the evolution of modern day Soho.
Soho: A History of London's Most Colourful Neighbourhood by Judith Summers, Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd 1989. Not easy to find copies of this book but it is worth the effort. Covers the social history of the district from the 18th to late 20th century.
A tube station serves each of the four approximate corners of Soho:
- Tottenham Court Rd to the north-east (Central and Northern lines)
- Oxford Circus to the north-west (Bakerloo, Central and Victoria lines)
- Leicester Square to the south-east (Northern and Piccadilly lines)
- Piccadilly Circus to the south-west (Bakerloo and Piccadily lines)
The most convenient mainline rail station is Charing Cross, located 10-15 min walk to the southeast.
Access to Soho by car is not recommended, owing to traffic congestion and stringent parking restrictions, and the £8 congestion charge. There is, however, a Masterpark parking station on Poland St.
More entertainment than transportation really, rickshaws run in Soho and the surrounding areas. They are much more expensive than a black cab, and may seem a lot less safe, but they are a lot of fun and can often be the fastest way to get around these tightly packed streets.
Old Compton Street is Soho's unofficial high-street and is full of bars, cafes, clubs and shops. It is a great place to grab a coffee and watch Soho go by.
- Soho Square (address: Soho Square W1)
A centuries-old small park that becomes packed on warm sunny days.
- Wander the streets
Soho is best discovered by simply wandering its streets. Take the less trodden paths and you will be amazed by the rabbit warren of streets and the seemingly endless number of cafes, bars, shops and more. Some highlights are the gay village on Old Compton St, Soho Square and a tea and cakes in one of Soho's great patisseries.
- London Palladium (address: Argyll Street W1F 7TF)
Famous old London music hall whose boards have been trodden by many legendary names. These days it shows mostly blockbuster musical productions for the masses.
- Prince Edward Theatre (address: 28 Old Compton St W1D 4HS) +44 20 7440 3020
Soho has a diverse range of shops, tending towards the arty, boutique and independent style of outlet.
After a period in the 1970s and 1980s when Carnaby Steet became little more than a tourist trap and a pale imitation of its innovative, trend-setting heyday in the 1960s, it is now once again a major centre of new design. There are some especially interesting independent fashion stores in the small streets and courtyards off Carnaby Street, so it is well worth exploring the area carefully.
Berwick Street is notable for a collection of independent record shops specialising in different genres of dance music.
Clothing and accessories
- Ben Sherman (address: 50 Carnaby St W1F 9QA) +44 20 7437 2031 firstname.lastname@example.org
The flagship retail outlet of this iconic British fashion brand. Men's and women's clothing, accessories and shoes.
- The Great Frog (directions: tube: Oxford Circus) +44 20 7439 9357 email@example.com
Rock and heavy metal jewellry specialist. Been in business here for more than 40 years. The iconic skull ring worn by so many famous rockers was originally designed and produced by Great Frog.
- Social Suicide (address: 8 Ganton St W1F 7QP) (directions: tube: Oxford Circus) +44 20 7617 7696
open: M-Sa 11AM-7PM, Su noon-6PM
Beautifully tailored men's jackets with a real funky design flair.
- Stromboli's Circus (address: 1.5 Kingly Court, Carnaby St W1B 5PW) (directions: tube: Oxford Circus) +44 20 7734 1978 firstname.lastname@example.org
Electic range of vintage clothing, furniture and other homewares. Some quite wonderful stock and a must for those in search of both retro chic and the truly kitsch.
Music and record shops
- BM Soho (address: 25 D'Arblay Street W1F 8EJ) (directions: tube: Oxford Circus) ++44 20 7437 0478 email@example.com
Specialises in house and drum 'n' bass.
- Revival Records (address: 30 Berwick St W1F 8RH) (directions: tube: Oxford Circus) +44 20 7437 4271 firstname.lastname@example.org
Mostly old rock vinyl but just about any genre could jump out at you.
- Vinyl Junkies (address: 94 Berwick St W1F 0QF) (directions: tube: Oxford Circus) +44 20 7439 2493 email@example.com
Cutting edge dance music including house, tech and old rare soul. A favourite with many famous DJs and producers.
Unsurprisingly, Soho has a number of gay-related outlets, some of the best known are:
- Prowler (address: 5-7 Brewer St W1F 0RF)
- Clone Zone (address: 64 Old Compton St W1D 4UQ)
The world's largest gay retail company.
- Berwick Street Market (directions: on Berwick St)
An absolute gem and a relic of Soho's past. This is an old fashioned London fruit and vegetable market complete with shouting Barrow Boys and a whole array of colourful characters. There has been a market at this site since the early 1800s. Best early in the mornings.
- Blackwell's (address: 100 Charing Cross R WC2H 0JG) (directions: tube: Leicester Square) +44 20 7292 5100
Small secondhand section in this mainstream bookshop.
- Foyles (address: 113-119 Charing Cross Rd WC2H 0EB) +44 20 7437 5660 firstname.lastname@example.org
London's best known bookshop is a mazy warren containing a seemingly impossible number of books! It is not always easy to find your way around and although greatly improved since the renovation in 1999, the service is notably surly. Nonetheless, this place is a must for all book lovers.
- Boardwalk (address: 18 Greek St W1D 4DU)
A club, bar, and restaurant. Good choices if you are strapped for cash.
- Cafe Valentino (address: 13a Greek St W1D 4DN) +44 20 7437 8837
A small cafe, primarily notable for its very late opening hours.
- The Dining Plaice (address: 20 Berwick St W1F 0PY) +44 20 7437 3280
Decent fish and chip shop in the heart of Soho. Handy for Berwick Street market.
- Ma'oz (address: 43 Old Compton St W1D 6HG)
The best place for a light fast-food style vegetarian/vegan meal, one of the few places in Soho where a fiver can get get you fed.
- The Montague Pyke (address: 105-107 Charing Cross Rd WC2H 0BP)
Offers real ales and two-for-one offers on a variety of meals.
- Stockpot +44 20 7287 1066
price: Mains average £5-10 without drinks
open: M-Sa 11:30AM-midnight, Su 11:30AM-11:30PM
Good dependable 'British' cuisine
- Taro (address: 61 Brewer St W1F 9UW)
Noodles, sushi, bento boxes and assorted other Japanese goodies. Good cheap eats and reliable quality.
- Tai of Soho (address: 10 Greek St W1D 4DH) (directions: Just off Soho Sq, parallel to Charing Cross Rd)
( CLOSED) An oriental vegetarian/vegan restaurant that offers a cheap buffet and a variety of spicy dishes.
- Tuk Tuk Noodle Bar (address: 56 Old Compton St W1D 4UE) (directions: Next door to Admiral Duncan pub) +44 20 7734 5951
open: noon-midnight M-Th, noon-1pm F-Sa, 12.30PM-11.30PM Su
Honest, authentic and reliable Thai food, served up quickly and is amazing value for money. Can be crowded at peak times, turnover is so fast you won't be waiting too long.
- Thai Cottage (address: 34 D'Arblay St W1F 8EX)
A slightly rough around the edges Thai restaurant which is always busy, thanks to the excellent value food which speaks for itself.
- Wagamama (address: 10a Lexington St W1F 0LD)
price: Main courses around £5-8
open: M-Sa until 11PM, Su until 10PM
Reliable Japanese food at a reasonable prices from this almost Starbucks-esque chain. Service is swift, and although queues can often be quite long, they clear rapidly. Diners are seated on uncomfortable benches opposite each other, so not a good place for an intimate meal.
Italian and pizza
- Piccolo Diavolo (address: 8 Old Compton St W1D 4TE)
price: Mains and pizza around £7
A little corner of great Italian hospitality in the heart of Soho. A good variety of Italian quality food served with passion by friendly waiters.
- Pulcinella (address: 37 Old Compton St W1D 5JY)
open: Th-Sa noon-1AM, Su-W noon-midnight
Arguably the best Italian pizzeria in Soho with a good variety of pizzas prepared with a thin and crustry dough spun in the air and other traditional Italian dishes. Good value for money.
- Ristorante Cappucetto (address: 9 Moor Street) (directions: At the intersection of Old Compton Street and Moor Street - close to Cambridge Circus) +44 20 7437 2527/9472
open: Th-Sa noon-1AM, Su-W noon-midnight
One of the oldest established Italian restaurants in Soho - since 1962. Family run, and the service is friendly, with some really good and authentic Italian dishes. Lunchtime meal deal between 12pm and 4pm with a main course and drink for £5.50.
- Andrew Edmunds (address: 46 Lexington St W1R 3LH)
price: From about £25 per head
Top quality restaurant, great romantic spot. Bookings recommended.
- Balans (address: 60-62 Old Compton St W1D 4UG) +44 20 7439 2183 email@example.com
open: daily 24 hrs
Almost a Soho institution, this 24 hour eatery in the heart of the gay village offers a wide range of British and world cuisine in a stylish atmosphere. Has now gone international with branches in Miami, but the original Old Compton Street Balans is still be best, attracting clientele as diverse as TV presenter Dale Winton and politician and former mayor Ken Livingstone among its regulars.
- Busaba Eathai (address: 106-110 Wardour St W1F 0TR) +44 20 7255 8686
price: Average meal £14-20
One of the best choices on a street with any number of fantastic restaurants. You will find a laid back atmosphere with big low wooden tables (expect to share if your party is small). The menu features among other dishes a fine butternut squash curry.
- Chowki (address: 2-3 Denman St W1D 7HA) (directions: Off Piccadilly Circus)
price: Set menus £14.50, vegetarian £12.50
open: Until midnight
In a city which was once the capital of India it makes sense that one can find a decent to good Indian restaurant on just about every corner. Once in a while you find one though that does things in an interesting enough way to be worth talking about. Chowki is like that, with dishes from around India that do not conform to the standard Bengali/Kashmiri/Punjabi fare, but surprise and please the pallet with unexpected overtones of Africa, or Italy, or Greece.
- The Red Fort (address: 77 Dean Street W1D 3SH) +44 20 7437 2525 firstname.lastname@example.org
This has been the landmark Indian restaurant in Soho since it opened in 1983. It was badly damaged during the Dean St fire in July 2009 and is currently closed for renovation. No doubt it will be back and serving the same high quality Indian food soon. Vegetarian options are especially good.
- Red Veg (address: 95 Dean St W1D 3TB) (directions: Opposite TESCO) +44 20 7437 3109
For those of you looking for veggie fast food, this has some great options.
- St Moritz (address: 159-161 Wardour St W1F 8WJ)
A slice of the Swiss Alps in central London, offering Fondue, Raclette and other winter comfort foods amongst giant alpine horns and cowbells.
- L'Escargot (address: 48 Greek St W1D 4EF) (directions: tube: Tottenham Court Road) +44 20 7437 6828
price: From about £60 per head
This French restaurant has been serving up refined cuisine to the Soho faithful since 1927 and is currently owned and run by celebrity chef Marco Pierre White. The brasserie downstairs is slightly less formal than the Michelin-starred upper level.
- Quo Vadis (address: 26-29 Dean St W1D 3LL) (directions: tube: Tottenham Court Road) +44 20 7437 9585 email@example.com
price: About £60 per head
Bit of a Soho institution formerly owned by Marco Pierre White. Now under new management but little has changed. Top notch British grill style food in a very smart environment.
- Vasco and Piero's Pavillion (address: 15 Poland St W1F 8QE) (directions: tube: Oxford Circus) + 62 20 7437 8774 firstname.lastname@example.org
price: About £60 per head
Umbrian food prepared with the very best ingredients by chef Vasco. All the pasta is freshly made on the premises. The calve's liver is especially famous. Has been in business here for 40 years.
Have tea and cakes in one of Soho's great patisseries.
- Maison Bertaux (address: 28 Greek St W1D 5DD) (directions: tube: Tottenham Court Road) +44 20 7437 6007
Slightly tatty but utterly and deliciously French, since 1871. Take away or sit at one of their sidewalk tables.
- Patisserie Valerie (address: 44 Old Compton St W1D 5JX) (directions: tube: Tottenham Court Road) +44 20 7437 3466
open: daily 7.30AM-11PM
The original location of this highly successful business which has expanded across London. Wonderful French cakes and pastries. Breakfast here is notably good. Has a large seating area upstairs.
Be careful not to go any place recommended by someone you just met or it will cost you hundreds of pounds with the suggester getting a commission.
- Garlic and Shots (address: 14 Frith St W1D 4RD)
Walk through the unassuming upstairs restaurant and head down the back stairs to find this small hidden basement bar, which boasts 101 different garlic and chilli-infused shots and loud rock/metal music. The 'Bloodshot' is highly recommended! There is also a seated outdoor smoking area out the back.
- The Crobar (address: 17 Manette St W1D 4AS) (directions: Off Charing Cross Rd)
Metal pub. Very fine atmosphere if you like or are among the metal folks.
- The Crown and 2 Chairmen (address: Dean St W1D 3SB) +44 8721 077 077
Has had a fancy refit and has a good selection of beers together with non-smoking upstairs. You may have to wait a little while for your drink however. Popular with local media industry crowd.
- The French House (address: 49 Dean St W1D 5BG)
The legendary pub in which the French resistance convened during World War II and which was the favoured haunt of legendary Soho characters such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. It is a very small pub, so expect to be jammed in, particularly in winter. Also, note that the pub only serves beer in half-pints. An absolute Soho institution. Think "Jeffrey Bernard is unwell".
- The Midas Touch (address: 49 Beak St W1F 9SB) (directions: tube: Piccadilly Circus)
Popular pub with locals and usually has some good happy hour deals.
- The Tottenham (address: 6 Oxford St W1D 2DN) (directions: corner of Oxford St opposite Tottenham Court Rd tube station)
Recently refurbished pub claiming to be the only pub on the whole of Oxford St. An aboslute tourist trap but it is very convenient.
- The Toucan (address: 19 Carlisle St W1D 3BX)
Widely mistaken for an Irish bar it actually specializes in Guinness, said to be the best pint in London. Also checkout their collection of over 100 different Irish whiskies.
Bars and clubs
- Alphabet (address: 61-63 Beak St W1R 3LF) +44 20 7439 2120
Trendy bar that manages to have a comfortable vibe, despite the great art on the wall and hip clientele.
- Lab (address: 12 Old Compton St W1D 4TQ) +44 0 7437 7820
Popular martini bar.
- Ronnie Scott's Jazz Bar (address: 47 Frith St W1D 4HT) +44 20 7439 0747 email@example.com
price: Non-members admission M-Th £20, F Sa £25; members admission M-Th £5, F Sa £10 (ordinary membership £60 per annum)
open: Open M-Sa 8:30PM-3AM including Bank holidays (closed Christmas Eve and Day, and Boxing Day); live music 9:45PM-2AM
Ronnie Scott's world-famous jazz venue.
- Admiral Duncan (address: 54 Old Compton St W1D 4UB)
- Barcode (address: 3-4 Archer St W1D 7AP)
Bar and dance club, opened a second venue in Vauxhall. Relaxed and friendly bar, mainly male orientated.
- Candy Bar (address: 4 Carlisle St W1D 3BJ)
Most popular lesbian bar with a mixed clientele.
- Comptons (address: 53-57 Old Compton St W1D 6HN)
- G-A-Y (address: 30 Old Compton St W1D 4UR)
Dance party, popular with a very young crowd, who often strip down to their boxer shorts as the night progresses.
- Rupert Street (address: 50 Rupert St W1D 6DR) (directions: Corner of Rupert and Winnett Sts) +44 20 7292 7141
A great bar, popular with businessmen.
- Shadow Lounge (address: 5 Brewer St W1F 0RF) +44 20 727 7988
Where the trim, taut and terrific go to party. Often hosts incredible dance party nights.
Soho is a densely built district and there are not too many places to stay here.
- Oxford Street Youth Hostel (address: 14 Noel St W1F 8GJ) 770 5984
price: Adults from £24.50
Busy, vibrant hostel ideal for backpackers, not a place for a quiet break. Self-catering kitchen. 2-4 bed rooms.
- Piccadilly Backpackers (address: 12 Sherwood St W1F 7BR) (directions: N of Piccadilly Circus, adjoining Brewer St)
price: 10-bed dorms £12, twins £52, basic breakfast included
One of the first pod-style hostels in London, space is at a premium but the low prices and central location are right.
- Courthouse Doubletree (address: 19-21 Great Marlborough St W1F 7HL) +44 20 7297 5555
price: From £200
A Hilton hotel in a spectacular old building.
- Hazlitt's (address: 6 Frith Street W1D 3JA) +44 20 7434 1771 - firstname.lastname@example.org -
price: From £190
A quirky little hotel which occupies a number of adjacent Georgian houses. Just about as boutique as boutique gets.
- The Soho Hotel (address: 4 Richmond Mews, W1D 3DH) (directions: tiny laneway running between Dean and Wardour Sts) email@example.com
price: From £280
Luxury boutique hotel with 91 rooms in an old converted building. Full range of five star facilities including spa, gym, restaurant and bar. If you can afford it, a fine experience for sure.
- Netstream (address: 9-12 St Annes Court W1F 0BB) +44 20 74342525 firstname.lastname@example.org
open: daily 24 hrs
Very well equipped outlet with full business services as well as a fast internet connection. Even have a few Macs.
- If you are looking for gay nightlife, note that it spills across into the Leicester Square area.