Soho

Soho

At the heart of central London, Soho is probably the capital’s buzziest neighbourhood – and one that has managed to keep an appealing bohemian edge despite rampant gentrification and regular clean-up initiatives. Long the boozy haunt of intellectuals, writers and artists, media types and musos, Soho can be sleazy, but it’s an old-fashioned kind of sleaze, the saucy strip clubs and ‘naked models’ signs evoking another era. Its lively restaurants and bars, meanwhile, along with its huge gay scene and crop of cinemas around Leicester Square, are all firmly rooted in the present. It’s got something for most people, as well as many quirky surprises for those who know where to look, and it’s endlessly diverse, from the dim sum joints of Chinatown to the secondhand bookstores lining Charing Cross Road.

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Eat and Drink

If you had to choose one London neighbourhood for a night out, it would have to be Soho, whose array of restaurants, bars, pubs and clubs is second to none. Historically a district of French, Italian and Chinese immigrants, all of whom brought their food and their traditions with them, Soho bursts with coffee bars, cafés and ethnic restaurants, and is also home to some of the finest high-end food hotspots in London. Restaurateurs of the moment Russell Norman and Fergus Henderson have strong presences – Norman with his funky destination restaurants Polpo, Polpetto and Spuntino, and Henderson with the West End outpost of his classic English restaurant St John – and there’s a great selection of classy independent restaurants ranging from Japanese noodle bars to Lebanese canteens. Whether you want a quick, strong shot of Italian espresso, a dim sum feast, or an elegant selection of sharing plates, you’ll find somewhere to fit the bill. And as for pubs, few neighbourhoods in London have a better choice of places to drink. With its well-earned bohemian reputation and its famously sozzled habitués, Soho has all the boozing bases covered, with cosy historic pubs, rowdy gay bars, sleek cocktail joints and cheery gastro-pubs.

Shop

Although many of the old vinyl stores and bookshops that used to characterise the neighbourhood have gone, Soho still offers quirky pickings for browsing bibliophiles and music lovers. It’s also a good place to pick up deli food and one-off gifts – and, of course, befitting its saucy reputation, it still has more sex shops than any other part of the capital (though far fewer than there used to be). In neighbouring Chinatown, which fills the streets immediately south of Shaftesbury Avenue, you can pick up all manner of gifts and colourful home furnishings in the bustling supermarkets, patisseries and small family stores.

Things to Do

Soho has historically been one of London’s premier entertainment quarters – somewhere to eat, drink and be very merry – rather than a sightseeing destination. That said, wandering the streets and soaking up the atmosphere is an attraction in itself – indeed, one of central London’s best – and there are a couple of genuine sights to take a look at, too. Historic Soho Square, where local workers and residents sprawl with picnic lunches, and the hidden French church of Notre Dame, one of London’s best-kept secrets, both make good places to take time out. In the evening, Soho buzzes with creative energy: jazz clubs and indie cinemas, as well as quirky small theatres and cabarets, offer heaps of offbeat appeal.