Central London’s most bohemian and cosmopolitan district, the grid of alleys and roads compromising Soho are many things to many people. Located between Shaftesbury Avenue and Oxford Street, it’s a theatrical, liberal and political quarter where anything goes – its reputation for debauchery was sealed in the 30s and 40s when playwrights, poets and theatrical queens sunk champagne all day in the likes of the shabbily brilliant Coach and Horses (29 Greek Street) and Charles de Gaulle ran the Resistance during WWII in the back room of the French House pub (49 Dean Street).
It’s the home of the UK’s film, advertising and media industries so there’s a go-getting creative atmosphere all around, and different streets have wildly different characters. Old Compton Street, denominated by rainbow flags, is the centre of London’s gay community – bars like the once-bombed Admiral Duncan (54 Old Compton Street) and ultra-decadent G-A-Y (30 Old Compton Street) are packed day and night, there’s a vibrant pavement café scene and the culinary institution that is Balans (60 Old Compton Street) offers essential fried breakfasts.
Berwick Street is the place for record shopping in venerable institutions like Sister Ray (34-35 Berwick Street) and Vinyl Junkies (94 Berwick Street), and Carnaby Street, famed for its mod stylings in the Swinging London of the 60s, now has contemporary fashion stores by the gallon.
Frith Street has the legendary Ronnie Scott’s (47 Frith Street), 50 years young in 2009 and, though expensive, still a pilgrimage for jazz lovers. Great Windmill Street was where Soho resident Karl Marx drafted the Communist Manifesto in the Red Lion of Soho – now converted into luxury flats, oh the irony; the big man lived on Dean Street, home to Soho’s most famous of many private members’ clubs where celebrities go wild behind closed doors, The Groucho Club (45 Dean Street) and the excellent Soho Theatre (21 Dean Street).
Soho wouldn’t be Soho without its seediness – for years one of the world’s most notorious red light districts, there’s a tolerant, if considerably less in-your-face attitude to the world’s oldest profession around these parts and a profusion of sex shops and table-dancing bars around Brewer Street if you like that sort of thing; if you don’t, be careful of walking up an open staircase marked only with a postcard offering ‘French Lessons’.
Underground stations near to Soho include Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly and Bakerloo Lines), Oxford Circus (Victoria, Central and Bakerloo) and Tottenham Court Road (Central and Northern).