There’s no area that exudes the essence of London quite like Soho. This perennially cool corner, with its gritty past and penchant for trendsetting, nonchalantly stretches across one square mile of the West End, veining off to Covent Garden, Regent Street, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square.
The area is a melting pot of culinary treasures, coffee spots, independent shops and iconic London institutions such as Ronnie Scott’s, one of the world’s oldest jazz clubs, which has played host to Miles Davis, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone and more since opening in 1959.
Soho may never fully shed its “seedy” reputation (much to the relief of long-serving locals), but the feeling you get when exploring its maze of streets is anything but. It’s a buzzy neighborhood made for pedestrians and those seeking out new and old gems hidden around every corner. Keep your eyes peeled for celebrities, too — there are frequent sightings thanks to a strong media, film and music presence.
There’s so much packed into this central London nook that you could spend the whole day exploring. Here’s but a pinch of the area’s highlights to get you started.
Good days start with a great breakfast. As the temperatures start to dip, Dishoom’s bacon naan roll and a cup of house chai are just the ticket to a cozy morning.
If you’re looking for a slightly sweeter bite, Bread Ahead on Beak Street teases with a mountain of edible goods in the window — pop in for a salted caramel doughnut; or for more unusual flavors of this fried treat, including vegan variants, nip to Crosstown Donuts on Broadwick Street.
When lunchtime rolls around, stop by one of the food stalls at Berwick Street Market to grab a portable bite. Eat as you explore, or meander over to one of the benches in leafy Soho Square to people watch. Open every day except Sunday, this little spot has been running since the late 1700s — it’s said Virginia Woolf used to buy her stockings here.
If nothing catches your eye at Berwick, stop by one of the other great takeout spots nearby, such as Island Poké (order the yuzu lomi lomi), Bao (Taiwanese steamed buns are a go-to) or Golden Union (excellent fish and chips).
For a sit-down affair, the options are equally plentiful. Over on Frith Street, Ceviche is a colorful venue serving vibrant Peruvian fare and a mean pisco sour. Head to Kiln on Brewer Street for delicious Thai cuisine cooked in clay pots.
L’Escargot on Greek Street is another long-popular spot (Coco Chanel and Mick Jagger can be counted among past diners), with the additional kudos of being the first restaurant in the country to serve snails.
For exquisite eats in relaxed surroundings, try Jason Atherton’s Social Eating House. And if you’re not quite sure what you fancy, go to Kingly Court, where you’ll have three floors’ worth of choices, including Dirty Bones for NYC-inspired comfort food.
There’s no shortage of great independent coffee shops in this area of town. Tap (on Wardour Street) and Soho Grind (Beak Street) both serve a fine cup — the latter’s house blend espresso martinis are also worth a taste.
Step back in time at Bar Italia, an almost 24-hour coffee shop and Soho institution. Opened on Frith Street in 1946, the historic venue has attracted many a famous face over the years, including Paul McCartney, who is said to be a regular when he’s in town.
For a more classic cuppa, look no further than Yumchaa. Occupying a sunny corner on Berwick Street, this former hip-hop record store serves a stellar selection of 40-plus black, green, white, rooibos, matcha and herbal tea blends. The staff is great at making recommendations, if the choice is too overwhelming.
Fancy something a little stronger? The Blind Pig is a cozy den above Social Eating House with an inventive cocktail menu inspired by children’s book classics (such as Winnie the Pooh and Harry Potter) and a vast array of spirits and malts.
After a day exploring above ground, head under it to Greek Street haunt The Vault. This speakeasy-esque bar, hidden behind a bookcase at Milroy’s whiskey shop, is a quirky stop for a bourbon nightcap.
Whether you’re in the market for some vinyl, vintage fashion, the latest drop from the street label du jour or some British tailoring from a celebrity favorite, there’s no shortage of independent and big-name stores for men and women to peruse in Soho.
Standing watch over the Great Marlborough Street end of Carnaby, Liberty is a department story worth popping into, if only to admire its Tudor-revival architecture. But once inside, you’ll notice its five floors of covetable designer home, fashion, beauty and fragrance are great for luxury gift shopping.
When you’re ready to rest your head (and aching feet), you don’t have to travel far to find a posh perch. Across the way in Fitzrovia, a stone’s throw from Soho proper, are two splendid Forbes Travel Guide Recommended hotels. The closest to the action on Berwick Street is The London Edition, a chicly modern stay that’s home to a buzzy restaurant and bars.
If you’re looking for a more relaxed retreat, the film-themed Charlotte Street Hotel lies in a quiet area off Goodge Street. You’ll love its well-stocked honor bar, massive DVD library of critics’ picks, plush leather loungers and wood-burning fireplace in the lobby.
And to stay right in the midst of Soho, try Dean Street Townhouse. This boutique hotel sits on the same road Karl Marx once lived on and exudes a Georgian glamour that melds well with the neighborhood’s literary and artistic past.