These adjacent districts, separated by Charing Cross Road, are a magnet for younger, trendier visitors to the capital. Neither area has ‘sights’ as such but both have a lively street-culture and nightlife, with a mix of shopping, restaurants, theatres and bars. Soho is the centre of London’s thriving gay and lesbian scene, as well as its sex and film industries, while Covent Garden, previously London’s fruit and vegetable market, has reincarnated itself as a shopping mecca and remains the heart of ‘Theatreland’.
Bounded by Regent Street, Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street and the Embankment, Soho embodies the myths of both 1960s ‘swinging London’ and a more recent incarnation cashing in on so-called ‘cool Britannia’. Although the maze of narrow streets may not quite live up to the promise of either of these, there is a definite buzz to the district, helped by being the focus of much of London’s gay and lesbian scene and the location of many of London’s youthful media companies. Before the 17th century this was open fields and a hunting ground. These only began to be developed when what now is its heart, Old Compton, Gerrard, Frith and Greek streets, were laid out in the 1670s.
These streets are lined with bars, restaurants and clubs and remain busy almost around the clock. Despite its position as the main nightlife centre in London, it’s a considerably cleaned-up version of the old Soho, although there is still a red-light district tucked away in the quieter streets.
To the south stood Leicester Fields, now Leicester Square. This tacky but famous piazza is surrounded by expensive multiplex cinemas (with the notable exception of the Prince Charles on Leicester Place) and crowded with street performers, touts and, at night, drunks; it is generally avoided by locals. Gerrard Street, which lies between Leicester Square and Old Compton Street, is the main thoroughfare of London’s Chinatown, packed with Asian shops. Chinese immigrants, mainly Cantonese from Hong Kong, started to settle the area during the 1950s, some moving in from Limehouse in the East End where there had long been a Chinese community. Once you are past the gateway on Gerrard Place there is a plethora of restaurants to try.
The other side of bookshop-lined Charing Cross Road is the Covent Garden district (named after a convent that once stood here). For about 300 years the piazza housed London’s main veg and flower market. The area around the piazza was developed to a design by Inigo Jones in the 17th century, and the covered market buildings date back to 1830, based on Charles Fowler’s designs (with considerable interference by the Duke of Bedford, the marketplace’s owner). By the 1960s it was becoming untenable to have such a volume of goods and traffic in the center of town. In 1974, the market, now known as New Covent Garden, moved out to Nine Elms south of the river. A period of decline followed (not that it hadn’t always had its more seedy side; the area to the north around Seven Dials x was notorious in the 19th century for its criminal gangs) and it was only in the early 1980s that the central market was redeveloped as a shopping, eating and tourist hub.
Today, it is a popular shopping and entertainment district, with the piazza housing shops, a market and various entertainers. Quirkier, trendier spots can be found on the cobbled streets away from the piazza, particularly up Neal Street and along the narrow roads that stretch up to the Seven Dials and Soho.
Covent Garden is of course home to many of London’s theatres, as well as its two resident opera companies, the English National Opera, based at the Colliseum on St Martin’s Lane, and the Royal Opera on Bow Street. The concentration of theatre-goers ensures that the area is bustling all through the evenings.
Walking downhill towards the river from Covent Garden Piazza brings you to the Strand. At the western end is Charing Cross Station, in front of which is a 19th-century monument which replaced the last of the 12 crosses set up by Edward I in 1291 to commemorate the funeral procession of his wife from Lincoln to London. Also on the Strand is the Savoy Hotel and to its side is the Savoy Theatre. Heading down busy Villiers Street towards the Thames, turn left by Embankment tube for the pleasant Victoria Embankment Gardens. Opposite, on the bank of the river, is Cleopatra’s Needle, an Egyptian obelisk.