Look at all this almost live-blogging I’m doing… writing things within days of actually doing them. It’s all a part of my “back to blogging” theme of the year. Read on for my latest adventure…
Last weekend I went to London for a bit of a city break holiday. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but London is one of my favorite cities and it’s hard to be away for too long at a time. Plus, it’s been several months since I saw a musical and I was itching for some high-quality production, big ballads and strong, English acting. (We saw Wicked, if you’re wondering…)
This trip to London, however, was a bit different from my previous visits. Normally I try to stay away from the city center and usually opt for the more hipster-friendly areas. This time, though, because I knew I’d be trying to find some cheap tickets for a West End show, I figured I’d give the London Soho neighborhood a try.
From what I understood before visiting, Soho has been the traditionally touristic spot of central London for a while. There are more than a few hotels in the area, the nightlife is pretty legendary and it’s also convenient to many of London’s most popular tourist attractions. A bonus for me: it’s the historic “gayborhood” of London where many gay bars are located (mostly along Old Compton Street). But, to be honest, I think a lot of London’s modern gay life has moved further out (to the east and to the south), but Soho is still Soho and will likely always be a safe, gay place in London. So I felt it was time to explore it a bit more.
I was also curious to see Soho in a bit more detail because I recently read the book, The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst. It’s a fictional story of a young gay man’s life living in London before the AIDS crisis. I actually identified a lot with the story—plus there were some seriously sexy scenes (erotic fiction is pretty cool, who knew?!). But what was immediately apparent from the novel were the locations and places mentioned—many of them famously in London Soho and some, even ones I recognized. And, as I’ve written before, traveling to places found in pop culture always makes for more meaningful trips.
And so I landed in London Soho for a few different reasons. In typical “bad tourist” fashion, my travel planning, however, was pretty dismal. I booked my easyJet flight just a week before, the hotel—a day before and then I didn’t even start to look up things to do until I was already sitting in my hotel’s lobby waiting for check-in. #oops
Regardless, my long weekend in London was a success. Keeping myself pretty local to Soho, I was able to discover more than I thought there actually was. As it turns out, London Soho is pretty damn fun.
Check out my photo essay below (all from my @travelsofadam Instagram) with details on what to do and see in London Soho at the end…
Highlights from London Soho – What To Do & See
From Oxford Street to Trafalgar Square, the area is no doubt full of tourists. But that doesn’t mean the streets in between should be ignored. Oftentimes, it’s just a matter of knowing where to go and which restaurants are a bit more authentic or “local.” The Soho neighborhood has a storied past. I know it was once the seedier part of London, full of neon signs and sex shops, underground clubs and drug dealers. These days, the area’s cleaned up quite a bit—perhaps it’s lost a lot of it’s edge, but there’s still plenty of cool left in this part of town. I’m not a Soho expert, but on my weekend trip, these were the clear highlights:
I first discovered this thrift, vintage shop back in Shoreditch, but their Soho location had quite a few good finds, too. Beyond Retro (8-59 Great Marlborough Street, London W1F 7JY) is definitely a shop worth checking out and it’s only a short walk away from the high street shops over on Oxford Street.
Books, books, books! I’m not 100% sure why, but London’s Soho neighborhood seems to have close ties to the literary world. There are several bookstores but the biggest is Foyle’s (107 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DT). With just a handful of locations across the UK, the Charing Cross bookstore has an awesome collection of books. It’s one of my favorite independent shops in the area.
The Photographer’s Gallery
I’ve been to London countless times and done a fair bit of shopping on Oxford Street (looking at you Topman), but I’d never made it inside The Photographer’s Gallery before (16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW). The gallery space was impressive and though the exhibition I saw (see below) wasn’t my favorite, I still managed to spend over an hour at the free museum. Read more: Human Rights Human Wrongs Photo Exhibition on at The Photographer’s Gallery
Flat Planet Restaurant & Café
I first found this café, Flat Planet (39 Great Marlborough Street Soho, London W1F 7JG) recommended on a list of London cafés with wifi, but when we first visited, I was happily surprised that they offered a pretty amazing menu of flatbread pizzas. Even more amazing was to find that many were in the Middle Eastern style, with my favorite spice/flavor: za’atar. Downstairs was a more laid-back environment with many people on their laptops typing away, but there was also a piano against a large mirror—an attractive workspace.
Herman ze German
Somewhat unfortunately, currywurst has become an international trend. In Soho, Herman ze German (33 Old Compton Street, London W1D 5JP) serves up the German specialty along with other German food & drink products (think: beer). It’s expensive, but hey – they have some of my favorite hipstery things from Germany (looking at you Fritz Kola). I had a schnitzel sandwich which wasn’t really schnitzel (the meat wasn’t pounded quite as thin as usual) but it was still tasty.
Dishoom Bombay Style Café
Dishoom (12 Upper St. Martin’s Lane, London WC2H 9FB) is a popular Indian restaurant styled as a “Bombay café” with a handful of locations across London. Reservations are usually necessary but we stumbled in on a weekday afternoon at the Covent Garden spot and had no problem getting a table. The food was delicious and surprisingly affordable. Plus the waiters were cute and super friendly. Highly recommended!
G-A-Y (and G-A-Y Late)
It wouldn’t be a weekend in Soho if there wasn’t a late night of dancing to pop music in a sweaty Soho club. G-A-Y (30 Old Compton Street, London W1D 4UR) is a bit of an institution in Soho and it’s quickly climbed up my list of favorite gay clubs in Europe!
Yummy. We walked into Muriel’s Kitchen (36 – 38 Old Compton Street London W1D 4TT) because we saw a crowd and rightfully assumed it would be a decent brunch option. Our meals were pretty good (the blueberry pancakes—delicious) and the fresh fruit juices were just what we needed on a Sunday morning. It’s a good restaurant option for Soho with decent food, great prices and a cool atmosphere.
So, so gay ❤ Old Compton Street in Soho is pretty much the heart of “gay Soho.” The Caffê Nero (43 Frith St London W1V 5TE) on the street corner with Frith Street is pretty much the heart of gay life in Soho. The coffee is good and the sidewalk tables are prime people-watching locations.
Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre
There are a lot of different shows in Soho and the West End worth checking out, so much so that it can be overwhelming to find which ones to go to. Many of them are London staples that have been around for years and all the half-price ticket booths around Leicester Square make it difficult to decide. But Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre (28 Old Compton Street, London W1D 4HS) is one of those that should definitely make your list West End theater list. The music is fun and engaging, the set design is incredible (really!) and the story has all the dramatic and comedic elements that make it a story worth seeing again and again.
Read: Review of Miss Saigon (2014)
And finally…my favorite reason for hanging out in London Soho has got to be the Chinatown. London’s Chinatown is situated between Wardour and Lisle Streets, mostly along Gerrard Street, not far from Piccadilly Circus. During the day, the area can be pretty lively—lots of colors and strange scents. Shop windows are filled with foreign foods. But my favorite time to visit is after a West End show when the restaurants are starting to close, but they’ll always let you in for one last meal.
Where to stay
If you’re looking for a cheap and easy place to stay in London Soho, I stayed at the Z Hotel. Billed as an “urban hotel,” expect the rooms to be very small (especially if you’re two people) but the prices are tough to beat. The Z Hotel in Soho was incredibly convenient—steps way from Old Compton Street, Chinatown and no more than a five minute walk to the museums at Trafalgar Square. What lacked in room amenities was certainly made up for in convenience. And to keep guests happy, the hotel offers a pretty generous supply of free wine and cheese every night in their café. Plus, there’s that rooftop view…
Room prices at the Z Hotel Soho from £85 — check here. View more photos on their website.
I used to work very close to Soho (technically Covent Garden), just around the corner from The Photographer’s Gallery and I have many mixed memories of this area. It’s where Zab and I went out to celebrate my 20th birthday, staying up all night (something which I don’t think has happened since!) and having breakfast on Old Compton Street before taking a bus to the airport for a trip to Prague. It’s also where I realised that London was not the city I wanted to live in any more. It’s kind of bitter sweet, and I enjoy visiting for a while, but am also usually glad to leave it behind too. Glad you had a nice time, Adam!
Thanks for sharing your story from Soho, Sam – I think these kinds of neighborhoods always feel a bit funny when looking at them as locals. As an outsider, I just love the buzz of the area…
Love it Adam! Soho is one of my favourites places. My friends and I used to drink champagne in the mini-park and then choose a random art film, sit at the back and chat!
We also used to spend Sunday afternoon at the gallery because it was free, and we were all nursing hangovers.
I used to go to some of the clubs nearby like “Heaven” in between Charing Cross and Embankment, “GAY” and some other places in quite dodgy corners I might add.
Good times though as long as you knew when to keep on walking and not to look back LOL!
Thank you Victoria! I never really spent so much time in Soho as I did this past weekend and I totally fell for it. Love your story – sounds oh so British! Heaven and GAY are also so much fun (same owners now, too). When I studied abroad I remember going to some cheap student clubs near Tottenham Court Road – of course I have no recollection of where or what they were!
Ah Adam wish I could have known you were going… There is an incredible coffee and juice shop in Soho called ‘Joe & the Juice’ that you have to go to if you go back there. The coffee is amazing… and the juicing boys are so fit!
Ahh Katie – that place sounds perfect. I’ve been on a juice kick these past few months, plus fit guys are always a major plus in my books! Will look it up for next time! xx
Brings back memories of my semester abroad and my days wandering London. I just searched for art and culture…and beer.
Art, culture and beer — pretty much sums up my study abroad experiences as well ;-)
awww This makes me miss London! I loved Soho, spent so much time there
Yeah Rebecca! Soho has so many cool things to do – I think you could spend an entire week in the Soho neighborhood alone and still not get bored
There is an inherent sleaziness about Soho that I quite like. It quite literally stinks and I have to shower as soon as I make it from there, but there is a certain appeal nevertheless. Not that it competes for my affections like the East End or anything.
Yep – you know I love the East End too, but there’s something about Soho which still makes it attractive for a weekend!
In three weeks I am travelling to London with my girlfriend and I am really glad that I could read your article. I could add some “to do & to eat & to see” to my check list!
Enjoy your trip!
I love this post. London is probably my favorite place in the world. I can’t get enough of it. I love Chinatown and the free museums. I used to love going to the Doc Martens store that used to be in Covent Garden in those days. We will have to try Dishoom next time. Looks good. My book has erotic fiction, and you would probably recognize some of the places from Boston! Write what you know, and all :-)
Hey Kemkem! Thanks for the comment love :) You’ve pointed out some of my favorite parts of London — you definitely have to try out Dishoom the next time you’re there. It’s honestly so, so, so, so good!
And OMG – I have to look up your book! Sounds amazing!
Awesome photos! London seems like a great city to walk around in and see the shops. Also, their food seems… interesting! Thanks for sharing.
London is a fantastic city for getting lost and wandering! Also pretty fantastic for shopping :)
I visited Soho once but I found it way too flashy and crowded. Reading your blog makes me want to visit again and go to the places recommended.
Amazing photos & very nice place to have a walk, many different restaurants, theaters, shops and many places there to visit.