A guide to exploring Soho in London
Soho is a brilliant place to stay if you're heading to London. This is the busiest square mile in the capital over 24 hours. You're bang in the middle of the city, it's neon-bright at night and the pavement cafes and bars are excellent people-watching spots during the day. We're not going to lie, it's a bit grubby in places but that's part of its unique charm. You can't say you've really seen London until you've had a saunter round Soho - so here's our guide to get you started.
Where is Soho?
What's Soho like?
It's distinctive. You definitely know you're in Soho come sunset thanks to the thousands of neon signs lighting up the dark, narrow streets. And you've got the late neon artist, Chris Bracey to thank for some of the most iconic signs. He created provocative signage from the 1970s onward, not only for Soho but for futuristic films like Blade Runner.
As well as seeing some of his signage in Soho - you can visit the family-run Gods Own Junkyard in Wathamstow and buy your own bit of neon history.
Soho used to be one of the most notorious and densely populated parts of London in the nineteenth century. You can still see the evidence in the streets, with their tightly-packed buildings and network of alleyways (see Great Windmill Street below).
Shaftesbury Avenue snakes through central London. It marks the south Soho border with Chinatown and Leicester Square.
If you've got theatre tickets chances are you'll be heading to this street, as there's five major theatres on the Soho stretch.
If you're after some new theatre, cabaret or comedy, then the Soho Theatre on Dean Street offers an alternative to the big West End productions.
Old Compton Street is at the heart of Soho's LGBT+ scene, and you'll find plenty of gay-friendly venues along here and the surrounding streets. The Village on Wardour Street is one of the oldest gay bars in Soho, while The Yard's Victorian courtyard on Rupert Street is a great place for a cocktail.
Soho is the spiritual home of Pride in London. It now runs for two weeks in more than 40 venues across the neighbourhood. Pride usually takes place in June if you want to time your trip and see Soho at its vibrant best.
Soho Square is one of those rare things - a bit of open space in central London. People have been hanging out here since the 1790s and it's a good spot to sit on the grass or benches and have your sandwiches.
There's also a strong cafe culture here, possibly due to the French influx in the late 19th century and then the Italians and Greeks in the 20th century - bringing with them continental-style eating and drinking.
The French House on Dean Street retains a bit of Bohemia. Its no music and machines rule make it a great place to hang out and chat with friends (you can even do bit of celebrity spotting). In neighbouring Frith Street, Bar Italia is an institution and was one of the UK's first coffee bars when it opened in 1949. It's also open from 7am until 5am the next day making it the perfect place for an early (or late) caffeine hit.
Kingly Court is a relatively new addition just off Carnaby Street. It has more than 20 cafes and restaurants, including Dirty Bones, The Rum Kitchen and Cinnamon Soho. Every street has a pub or club and Soho has some of the best late night bars in the city, so you can get a drink more or less anytime of day or night.
Proper pubs include The Sun & 13 Cantons, The Crown & Two Chairmen and The Dog and Duck. There's also no shortage of bars. 68 & Boston on Greek Street has a separate cocktail and wine bar (all the bottles are £20 so it's easy) and you can get a great Martini in Mele e Pere on Brewer Street.
There are loads of restaurants here too, with new ones popping up all the time. Many of the restaurants don't take bookings so you might see a line of people waiting their turn outside Dishoom (Indian), Bone Daddies (Ramen) and Polpo (Italian). On Greek Street you'll find London's oldest patisserie, Maison Bertaux and you must visit the Gay Hussar on the same street. This unusual Hungarian restaurant looks like someone's library - and you have to check out the political cartoons on the wall.
It's no secret that Soho is where the sex industry in London has thrived for more than 200 years. Its notoriety has made it high on visitors' lists, looking to peak behind the curtains of polite society. Soho's moved on a bit since its 1960s "heyday", and now there are only around a dozen licensed sex shops in the area.
Music has long been the bedrock of life in Soho - and no more so than in Carnaby Street. The first jazz clubs were set up in the basements during the Swinging Sixties (think the Austin Powers opening segment). Then the 1970s came along with the introduction of punk and the Sex Pistols. There's still plenty of live music in Soho -Ronnie Scott's is probably one of the best known jazz clubs in the world. It's been going since 1959, you can see live music here every night of the week - but it's best to book in advance. You can see more jazz at the PizzaExpress Jazz Club on Dean Street, rock music at Crobar on Manette Street and blues in Ain't Nothing But on Kingly Street.
You can't miss one of London's best stores - Liberty. It's fronted by the huge mock-Tudor building on Great Marlborough Street (just behind Oxford Street). You could spend hours in here and its Christmas displays are famous. Of course Oxford Street marks the northern boundary of Soho and they have all the major stores, including the flagship Topshop. The western boundary is Regent Street which has more flagship, designer stores.
Soho is particularly noted for its independent book stores, especially on Charing Cross Road. Foyles has been on Charing Cross Road since 1906 when it started in a basement. It's now four-stories worth of book-browsing heaven. The Society Club in Ingestre Place has rare, limited editions to buy. If you're after premium alcohol, try Gerry’s Wines & Spirits on Old Compton Street or Whisky specialists, Milroy’s of Soho.
Chinatown might not be strictly Soho - but it's so close we can't not mention it. While the Chinese community have been established here since the 1960s, it only got its famous gates in the 1980s. It may only be a few, extremely colourful, streets, but in this split between Soho and Leicester Square you'll find a lot of authentic Chinese restaurants.
Places to stay in Soho
If you head east to the other side of Charing Cross Road you'll find Covent Garden, famous for its market, street entertainers and shopping. Five minutes walk in a southerly direction will see you arrive in Trafalgar Square - where you can visit the National Gallery and get your picture in front of Nelson's Column. If you're feeling adventurous jump on the tube and head west - Notting Hill is ten minutes away on the Central Line. Or get on the Northern Line and go to Camden - it only takes 20 minutes and is another great place for people watching, live music and browsing the markets. We've also put together some ways to spend the day in London if you're looking for further inspiration.
Got any great Soho stories?
We'd love to know where your favourite Soho spots are. Tell us your top tips in the comment section below and we might add them to our guide to Soho.