Gentrification and rising rents mean that the former red-light district of Soho isn’t as sleazy as it used to be. Today, the neighbourhood is best known for its LGBTQ scene, innovative bars and first-class restaurants. There are plenty of fun things to see in the area, including a 1920s Art Deco bar and an old-school street market.
Is there a more written-about London street than Carnaby? Known for its pivotal role at the centre of the Swinging ’60s, it’s a must-visit destination for tourists, and has managed to keep some of its independent spirit. Start at beautiful department store Liberty London and then swing by Kingly Court when you get hungry – the three-storey building has 21 restaurants and bars around a central courtyard. Don’t miss the pub The Shakespeare’s Head, either, which was originally owned by distant relatives of the Bard and has been here since 1735.
Turn left from Carnaby Street into Broadwick Street to see a landmark marking a pivotal point in medical history. After studying a cholera outbreak in Soho in 1854, physician John Snow tested his theory that the disease enters the body through the mouth and found a water pump in Broadwick Street (then called Broad Street) that was spreading the illness. Today, there’s a commemorative pump outside the pub named after John Snow, next to where the original stood.
Music nerds might recognise Berwick Street: it’s on the cover of Oasis’s 1995 album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and also has London’s largest concentration of independent record shops. Berwick Street is known for its market, which has been going since the late 18th century and was where both tomatoes and grapefruits were first sold in London. It wasn’t all food, though: writer Virginia Woolf used to buy silk stockings here. These days, the street is lined with food stalls selling dishes from all over the world, and there are still some independent shops to discover.
Soho has a long, proud LGBTQ heritage, and many of the capital’s most famous gay bars can be found here. From Brewer Street it’s just a short walk to Old Compton Street, which has been at the heart of London’s LGBTQ scene for decades. Make sure to visit the Admiral Duncan, which is, sadly, perhaps best known for being the target of the 1999 nail bombing that killed three people and injured around 70, both inside the pub and on the street. But there’s much more to the Admiral Duncan – the popular pub is one of the oldest gay bars in Soho. It’s known for its friendly staff, and hosts cabaret and karaoke nights seven days a week.
Saxophonist Ronnie Scott founded the eponymous jazz club in 1959 as a small West End basement club for musicians. Sarah Vaughan and Miles Davis are among the big names who played here early on. Today, it’s one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world and offers a packed schedule – there’s something happening every night at Ronnie Scott’s, which also has an upstairs bar in the style of a 1950s speakeasy. The club draws a mixed crowd, attracting everyone from older jazz fans to hipsters looking for a classic Soho night out.
Those who are after a truly elegant, old-fashioned Soho experience need look no further than Kettner’s, which serves fairly well-priced traditional French food in its beautiful dining room. Kettner’s is a restaurant and hotel and was recently refurbished by its new owners, Soho House. For those who are just after a drink, head straight to the Art Deco champagne bar, which features an original mosaic floor with an eye-catching pattern of geometric circles.
Frith Street is home to many of Soho’s best eateries, including the cosy Bar Italia. The café, which opened in 1949, is a throwback to the days when Soho was a big Italian area, and still has its original coffee machine from back then. Bar Italia is a great, casual spot for people watching – especially as it’s open until 5am almost every day of the week, serving Soho’s night owls.
Our debut short film, The Soul of Soho, explores neighborhoods separated by oceans, history and culture but united by craft community and change. Neighborhoods bound by one name: Soho. Intimate portraits of city living in the Sohos of London, New York and Hong Kong reveal rich stories of the people who bring life to these iconic neighborhoods. Explore Soho here.