London's West End

London's most famous area has something for everyone, but can you cram it all in during one visit? We show you the best bits...

Londoners love to hate it, but there is much to see and do in the West End. Start by tackling the shops, then fill your head with art before taking in a play or a gig. And no West End excursion is complete without hitting the bars.

Oxford Street is London’s most crowded shopping street, so it’s always a good idea to get there early in the morning. It runs from Marble Arch through to Tottenham Court Road, and contains a plethora of high street chains as well as big department stores like Selfridges, John Lewis, Debenhams and House of Fraser. Towards the Tottenham Court Road end souvenir and electrical shops start to become the norm, and should you require any hi-fi or photographic equipment you’ll find plenty of stockists on Tottenham Court Road itself. Despite the sheer number of people this main thoroughfare attracts there is little in terms of eating and drinking, unless you’re content with McDonald’s or a sandwich from M&S.

Halfway down Oxford Street is Regent Street, which has more upmarket stores like Armani Exchange, All Saints, Calvin Klein Jeans and Anthropologie. Here you’ll also find the Apple Store, toy store Hamley’s and the National Geographic shop. Follow the road all the way down to Piccadilly Circus and as you approach the main square with the statue of Eros you’ll start to see narrow mews on either side. If you wish to stop off for refreshment you have various choices: Heddon Street is patronised by several eateries including Momo, and further on, depending on your budget there is a cheap and cheerful Samuel Smiths pub on Glasshouse Street called The Glasshouse Stores, or the smart Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill on Swallow Street.

Piccadilly Circus is so-called because of the name given to a type of rigid shirt collar in the 17th century, a “picadil”. A tailor who specialised in making picadils is thought to have lived nearby. Despite being one of London’s main tourist sights it is surprising how little there is to see here; there is the statue, the famous neon advertising signs, and hoards of people having their picture taken. Heading West down Piccadilly will take you towards Mayfair, past the Royal Academy of the Arts and The Ritz. South of Piccadilly Circus is Haymarket, once known for shady activities but now famed for its theatres, however instead of going down either of these streets walk past the Trocadero, an amusement arcade, and onto Shaftesbury Avenue.
This major street, now at the very heart of Theatreland, used to cut through an area of slums when it was first built, the idea being to encourage the poor locals to leave the centre of London. Today it is populated by theatres, an Odeon Cinema and several tourist-orientated restaurants. As you head up Shaftesbury Avenue towards Charing Cross Road, to the left is Soho, an ideal stopping off point for a drink, food or sex shop visit (its rep as London’s epicentre of sleaze hasn’t quite disappeared yet). Of equal interest is Chinatown, which is to the right. This stretch of the West End has been so-called since the 1950s, when the cheap rents of the area attracted Chinese immigrants who had settled in Limehouse. Nowadays few reside here, however you will find a high concentration of Chinese restaurants and Oriental supermarkets on Gerard Street and Lisle Street. The shops stock food from Thailand, Korea, Japan and Taiwan as well as China, and anyone fascinated by Far Eastern food will easily wile away a few hours here.

Walk up Lisle Street till you reach Leicester Square. Much like Piccadilly Circus, this is one of London’s most recognisable places, even though there’s little to do here. Many movies get their British premiere at the Odeon, Vue or Empire Cinemas; aside from that there are several uninspiring pizzerias and if you’re here in the evening, numerous touts trying to sell you cheap theatre or club tickets. Speaking of night time haunts, the W Hotel, at number 10 Wardour Street, is a relatively recent addition. The W Bar has quickly pitted itself as a favourite of the fashion pack, so you’ll enjoy this if you like a bit of preening and posing with your martini.

Head south of Leicester Square to Trafalgar Square. The famous Nelson’s Column stands proud, surrounded by three other statues. The fourth plinth was shrouded in controversy for a number of years as no one could make up their mind what to fill it with, therefore it was eventually decided that it would be used to exhibit artworks on a temporary basis. Trafalgar Square is also where the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are located. The former contains works by Western European artists dating from 1250 to 1900. You’ll find all the masters here: Turner, Michelangelo, Titian, Caravaggio and plenty more. The National Portrait Gallery is next door, and has portraits from the 16th century up to the present day, including painting, sculpture and photography. Entry to both of these museums is free, with the exception of the temporary exhibitions. It’s worth mentioning that the National Gallery boasts a great little restaurant called the National Dining Rooms, run by well-known chef Oliver Peyton. The restaurant closes at 5pm during the week however, so if you’re looking for somewhere to have dinner you’ll have more choice in Soho, or for swankier affairs, Mayfair. For dinner in the immediate vicinity we recommend Bocca di Lupo and Terroirs; for pushing the boat out check out the famous J Sheekey or The Ivy.
To the east of Trafalgar Square is the Strand, and the area between here, Kingsway and Drury Lane has dozens of theatres. There is something for everyone, from musicals and comedies to more serious plays; check listings to find out what’s on. In terms of live music, the West End isn’t what it used to be, as many venues have closed down and the attention has shifted to the East. The legendary Denmark Street, aka Tin Pan Alley, is still here however, with the teensy 12 Bar Club hosting budding guitar bands every night of the week. In a similar vein is the 100 Club on Oxford Street, and for jazz Ronnie Scott’s is the undisputed king, but you’ll need to purchase tickets in advance, and they tend to be on the pricey side.

For a post-gig bevvy or three, there are pubs and bars aplenty, however note that most public houses will shut at around 23:30 during the week. Try The Harp (voted 2010 pub of the year by CAMRA) in Covent Garden, thesp favourite The Coach and Horses, or the minuscule, atmospheric Bradley’s Spanish Bar. For cocktails, the Latin-inspired Barrio Central is fun and raucous (the “No Brainer” is actually served in a Mexican luchador mask), while Old Compton Street’s Café Boheme and the Artesian Bar are a tad more grown up. Champagne lovers can end the night at Flûte, which has an extensive selection of bubbly available by the glass. Just don’t blame us for the hangover.

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