Savoring the Heart of Soho
“Soho is a bit like the Times Square of London. Everyone passes through here at some point,” remarked our cabbie Frank, his jolly, ruddy face a welcoming beacon after a long day of travel. “But there’s much more to it than most tourists ever see. Soho’s real charm is in her heart.”
Walking around one of London’s most popular neighborhoods, Frank’s words become very clear. Hemmed in by Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road, Shaftesbury Avenue and Regent Street, Soho’s touristy edges are packed with beautiful architecture, souvenir shops and people—lots and lots of people. Though touring this periphery is a must for any new visitor, it is essential to go beyond these crowded borders to truly experience the area’s charm. Take the cobblestone paths inward and savor the heart of Soho.
Throughout its history, London’s Soho has been home to hunters, hookers, homos and highbrows—not always exclusive of each other. The name “Soho” is actually derived from a 17th century hunting call when the area was known for its fox and hare game. From hunting foxes to foxy hunting, Soho developed a popularity with prostitutes, writers and intellectuals in subsequent centuries. Today, it covers roughly one square mile and is not only the hub for London’s film industry, publishing houses, and gayborhood; but also steps from the tourist-favored Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and West End theatres.
Good morning, Soho! Skip the Starbucks and start your day with a phenomenal cappuccino from Bar Italia. This no-frills, bustling Italian café serves pastries, sandwiches and the aforementioned delicious coffee 24 hours a day. Stop in at different times and notice the ambience shift. In the morning, the sidewalk tables are great for a low-key glimpse into Soho’s rising. Late at night, it is a perfect spot to watch the neighborhood’s colorful citizenry congregate, chat and clunk the cobblestones.
Now that you are properly caffeinated, it is time for a stroll. Put down the map. In Soho getting lost means finding new stores, cafés and picturesque alleyways. If you need an initial direction, roam toward the shops of Carnaby Street. The birthplace of fashion during London’s Swinging Sixties, Carnaby combines established brands with one-of-a-kind independent boutiques. Containing the very hip Newburgh Quarter and the three-story shopping complex Kingly Court, Carnaby is home to recognizable labels such as Levi’s, Ben Sherman and Fred Perry as well as trendy boutiques like actress Sienna Miller’s Twenty8Twelve and Fur Coat No Knickers, a favorite for vintage accessories.
Shopping can be exhausting; take a load off in Soho Square. Sit on a bench or lounge on the lawn and rest those weary feet. On a beautiful day you can find sun worshippers and lunching businessmen enjoying a green retreat from the city streets. Look just beyond the gardens to marvel at the magnificent architecture of St. Patrick’s Church, one of the first Catholic churches built after the Reformation, and the French Protestant Church, the only remaining Huguenot church in London.
Thirsty yet? Few things are more English than a pub, and Soho is a perfect spot for a pint. Let yourself off the leash at the Dog and Duck. This century-old corner pub was a frequent hangout of George Orwell in the 1940’s; now the upstairs dining room bears his name. Enjoy fish and chips, steak and ale pie, and other traditional pub grub, while wondering if the Dog and Duck were inspirations for his Animal Farm.
If you like your traditional English fare a bit more upscale, head to the Dining Room at Dean Street Townhouse. This new addition to the Soho culinary scene, serves a weekly changing menu of seasonal British food, sourced locally from producers within the U.K. and Ireland. Survey the diverse collection of contemporary British art adorning the walls from your vintage armchair, while sipping Pimm’s and Lemonade and savoring a traditional Sunday roast.
Alright lads and lassies, time to spice up your holiday. Eat, drink and dance the night away at Soho’s premier supper club: Floridita. This popular hotspot combines a Latin restaurant, cocktail bar, cigar lounge and dance hall into a deliciously sabroso evening. As you descend the spiral staircase you quickly realize if “Sex and the City” were set in London, Carrie Bradshaw and Co. would be sipping a Mojito and scoping the singles scene downstairs. With sister outposts in Havana, Dublin and Madrid, Floridita London imports Salsa bands from all over the world. Live music starts around 9pm, with the dressed-to-impress crowd swiveling to sexy rhythms late into the night.
You must be exhausted. Though countless hotel options line Soho’s busy borders, three distinctive properties standout within her heart. For civilized English hospitality, spend your nights at Hazlitt’s. Named after the English essayist, William Hazlitt, who died here in 1830, Hazlitt’s now occupies three historic houses, each restored to its original Georgian glory. Just off Soho Square, Hazlitt’s has painstakingly furnished and decorated each room with antique furniture and artwork to create a classic, intimate feel. Of course, all the historic charm comes with modern conveniences: free Wi-Fi, telephones and satellite televisions, all unobtrusively installed in every room. To honor its heritage, Hazlitt’s literary guests leave signed copies of their books to be included in the hotel’s prestigious library. Read up on favorite autographed works from Susan Sontag, Ted Hughes and Bill Bryson, while enjoying a drink from the “honesty bar” (make a drink, jot it down, pay at checkout).
If chic is more your style, check in to The Soho Hotel. Billed as “Soho’s first full service luxury hotel,” upon its opening in 2004, The Soho Hotel comprises 85 rooms and 6 apartments, Refuel Bar and Restaurant, fully-equipped gym (with on-site trainer) and two screening rooms. Soho’s magnet for Hollywood and British celebrities, The Soho Hotel is fabulously trendy while retaining a whimsical warmth. Upon entering the lobby you will be greeted by a spectacular 10-foot bronze Botero cat sculpture. Flawlessly designed by Kit Kemp in a “contemporary London style,” every room has its own distinct personality. Want to party like a rockstar? Choose one of the penthouses with wrap-around tree-lined terraces.
For a charming combination of classic and contemporary, Dean Street Townhouse is the newest addition to the neighborhood. Since opening in November 2009, this 39-bedroom hotel draws from its heritage while incorporating 21st century luxury. Part of the Soho House family, the private members’ club with branches in London, New York, West Hollywood, Miami and Berlin, Dean Street Townhouse provides four categories of rooms: tiny, small, medium and bigger. However, there is nothing teeny about the tiny, as each room has a King-size bed and its own rainforest shower. Immaculately designed with Georgian wallpaper and upholstered vintage sofas, Dean Street Townhouse updates elegant English style with subdued modern sophistication.
Soho has undergone many shifts and changes throughout history, but has always maintained a palpable relevance in London culture. From a hunting past to a cosmopolitan present, this “Times Square of London” (as christened by Frank) has its borders explored by many tourists but its interior savored by few. Of course, there is much to see throughout this sprawling capital of England, but the alluring restaurants, shops and hotels of Soho are enough to seduce any sophisticated traveler to wander deep into its heart.
The country code for the United Kingdom is 44
Where to Stay:
Hazlitt’s: Just off Soho Square, three Georgian homes have been restored to create this charming 30-room, traditional English hotel. 6 Frith Street, London W1D 3JA; 020 7434 1771; www.hazlittshotel.com
The Soho Hotel: Impeccably designed luxury hotel catering to Soho’s most fabulous clientele, complete with restaurant, bar, gym and screening rooms. 4 Richmond Mews, London W1D 3DH; 020 7559 3000; www.sohohotel.com
Dean Street Townhouse: The new kid on the block, this stylish hotel combines classic Georgian design with contemporary sophistication in the heart of Soho. 69-71 Dean Street; London W1D 3SE; 020 7434 1775; www.deanstreettownhouse.com
The Cranley: If you would like a more peaceful abode that is not far by taxi or tube from Soho, consider staying at this luxury townhouse hotel on a quiet, tree-lined street in the heart of the London Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. 10 Bina Gardens, London SW5 0LA; 020 7373 0123; www.thecranley.com
The Royal Park: Situated north of Hyde Park close to Paddington Station, this romantic hotel is comprised of three pristinely restored, mid 19th-century townhouses, and is a perfect haven for both business and leisure travelers. 3 Westbourne Terrace, London W2 3UL; 020 7479 6600; www.theroyalpark.com
Where to Eat & Drink:
Bar Italia: This bustling Italian Café serves some of Soho’s best coffee 24 hours a day. A perfect spot for people watching day or night. 22 Frith St, London W1D 4RP; 020 7437 4520; www.baritaliasoho.co.uk
Dog and Duck: A traditional English pub with a wide selection of beers and spirits, and upstairs dining room. Don’t forget to order the fish and chips. 18 Bateman Street, London W1D 3AJ; 020 7494 0697
Dining Room at Dean Street Townhouse: Upscale English fare served at Dean Street Townhouse’s very stylish new restaurant. 69-71 Dean Street, London W1D 3SE; 020 7434 1775; www.deanstreettownhouse.com
Floridita: This popular Latin hotspot is a place “to be seen” eating, drinking and dancing late into the night. 100 Wardour Street, London W1F 0TN; 020 7314 4000; www.floriditalondon.com
What to See & Do:
Carnaby is the shopping area containing Carnaby Street, Newburgh Quarter and Kingly Court. Established brands and independent boutiques line these pedestrian friendly streets. www.carnaby.co.uk