All churched out? London is more than stories about dead queens and bloody uprisings. It’s always been cosmopolitan, too, and the flash point for trends that ripple out to the rest of the world. Songs first sung at the clubs of Soho soon caused toes to tap on the other side of the planet, and fashion trends born on Carnaby Street remain internationally iconic 40 years later. Bring along your credit cards as we roam some of the city’s best shopping streets and touch upon a few leftovers from London’s recent past, including forgotten air-raid shelters and the settings for some good, old-fashioned sex scandals. This is the London you found out about from the radio and the runways, not from your social studies teacher.
START: Oxford Circus Tube station
FINISH: Goodge Street Tube station
TIME: 2 hours, not including shopping or restaurant breaks
BEST TIMES: Weekdays, when Berwick Street’s market is on and Oxford Street is slightly less crowded
WORST TIMES: Evening rush hour, when Oxford Circus Tube stop is positively rammed, and after dark, when stores and markets close
1 Oxford Circus
Leave the Tube station using Exit 2. Position yourself out of the fray.
You are in the thick of mile-long Regent Street, which to the right is punctuated by the witches-hat steeple of All Souls Church and to the left curves toward Piccadilly Circus. When the Prince Regent, later George IV, was planning his new pet project, Regent’s Park, he decided he also wanted a road to connect his house to it. He chose this particular location because, in his mind, it would provide a suitable demarcation line between the gentry of Mayfair, to the west, and the rabble of the traders who lived in Soho, to the east. George tapped John Nash to do the job, completed in 1825. Originally, the sidewalks were covered by stone colonnades, but when those attracted prostitutes, they were removed, and most of the original buildings were later rebuilt—the only Nash original is now All Souls. Even if most of the facades you see now mask more modern buildings, few streets in London impart such a sweeping, uplifting feeling, though few are also as congested with the hoi polloi George would have spurned.
The other avenue intersecting before you is Oxford Street, following the same line as a Roman road. George’s class-centered definition of the landscape has more or less held: The exclusive shops of Oxford Street still lie west of Regent Street, and the downmarket stores tend to be east of it. Having a presence on Oxford Street is considered crucial for brands with mass appeal.
Head right, east on Oxford Street. You will pass Argyll Street on the right. When you pass Ramillies Street, prepare to stop in front of:
2 Marks & Spencer
London has a love-hate relationship with Oxford Street. People come here to shop by the thousands, but they often despair of the crush of the experience. Charles Dickens, Jr., described the street thusly in 1888: “It ought to be the finest thoroughfare in the world. As a matter of fact it is not by any means, and though it is, like all the other thoroughfares, improving, it still contains many houses which even in a third-rate street would be considered mean.” We’re only going to walk down a sample of Oxford Street. It’s usually so crowded, that’s as much as you can probably handle if you’re keeping one eye on this book.
Marks & Spencer, or M&S, dates to 1894 and is the favored British department store for staples. Perhaps proof of its appeal is that the chain can afford to run two giant frontages on Oxford Street; its flagship store is remarkably near here, between Bond Street and Marble Arch Tube stations. Its Food Halls (at this store, in the cellar) are well known as an ideal place to pick up prepared foods, sandwiches, and inexpensive but well-selected wines.
Turn right at Poland Street, walk 1 block, and turn right again onto Great Marlborough Street. Soon on your right, at nos. 19–21, you’ll see a stout white building. That’s the:
3 Great Marlborough Street Magistrate’s Court
Charles Dickens worked here as a reporter just before hitting it big as a novelist, and a variety of other big names appeared before the judges here, including the Marquess of Queensbury (defending himself from Oscar Wilde’s libel charge). When this neighborhood turned bohemian in the Swinging '60s, the court began trying a string of drug charges against the likes of Mick Jagger, Johnny Rotten, Keith Richards, Francis Bacon, and, curiously (and coming full circle), the guy who wrote the musical Oliver!, Lionel Bart. It’s now a hotel, but I suggest you go inside briefly, because much of the old judicial fittings were left intact. You can have a cocktail in one of the old jail cells—now converted into private booths—or even peek into a restaurant slotted into the authoritative Number One court, which still has its witness stand, bench, wood paneling, and vaulted glass ceiling.
Beyond the Courthouse Hotel on the left, you’ll see a Tudor-style building of black beams and white plaster. This is Liberty , famous for its haute fabrics. It’s also famous for its building—it was made in 1924 using wood recycled from junked ships.
Great Marlborough Street runs into Regent Street. Turn left there and walk the short distance to:
4 Foubert’s Court
Times have been better on Regent Street. Walmart-style box stores in the suburbs have put the screws on the destination shops of the city, and this avenue has seen long-termers lose their sizzle. Dickins & Jones, a department store at the corner you just turned, closed its doors in early 2006 after nearly 170 years, and the same old shopping mall brands are moving in.
Two doors farther from Foubert’s Court, though, at nos. 188–196, is a well-loved holdover from the street’s glory days. It’s Hamleys, one of the largest toy stores in the world. Some 5 million customers pour through its doors every year, but since the sales force is famous for putting on a nonstop show on every floor, it’s understandable if many of those customers come to gawp and not to buy. If you go into Hamleys, when and if you come out again, turn right and go back to Foubert’s Court.
Walk down the very short Foubert’s Court for 1 block; you’ll see “Carnaby” on a metal arch. Go under it and head 1 block. Go right, and now you’ll see a larger arch on:
5 Carnaby Street
Yes, those obnoxious arches proclaim your location with a self-promotion that proves this street is no longer the super-cool, forward-trending street of the kids in the know. It’s more of a mall with an edge. The days of Swinging London, when men could cruise from store to store trying on hip-hugging black trousers and frilly shirts, are behind it. Time magazine spilled the secret of Carnaby Street in 1966, and by the 1970s, it was pedestrianized as a shopping street, making hipness a matter of retrospect.
Just after you cross Ganton Street, where Broadwick Street hits Carnaby Street, duck into the passageway on the right:
6 Kingly Court
Clever entrepreneurs led Carnaby Street’s rebirth with this development, a lively gathering of bars and restaurants in a former timber warehouse.
Slip out the back door of Kingly Court, opposite its front door, and hang a left on Kingly Street. No. 9 is the Bag 'O Nails pub, where future Wings-mates Paul McCartney and Linda Eastman first clapped eyes on each other—and also where in 1961 John Profumo met Christine Keeler, kicking off the notorious Profumo Affair. It’s also where Fleetwood Mac’s John McVie proposed to Christine. (The free audio touring app Carnaby Echoes dives into the music history of the neighborhood.)
Return to Kingly Court. Retrace your steps out of it, cross Carnaby Street, and head down Broadwick Street. You’ll stop around:
John Snow Pub
So grateful were Dr. Snow’s neighbors that they renamed their pub for him, albeit a century later. It stands at no. 39, at Lexington Street, on the site of his practice. Raise a pint in his honor here, as we read the words of Dr. Snow himself: “I feel it my duty to endeavor to convince you of the physical evils sustained to your health by using intoxicating liquors even in the greatest moderation.” (Oops.)
Continue on Broadwick Street to:
7 Berwick Street
About 170 years ago, this block was a foul slum. French, Greek, and Italian immigrants fled hard times and revolutions by cramming into these tight streets, and by the 1850s, cholera was storming through the overstuffed city. An 1854 outbreak killed 500 people in barely 10 days. Common wisdom at the time held that the disease was spread through the air—a reasonable conclusion, given how terrible the sewage-smeared city smelled—but a local anesthetist, John Snow (for whom the pub you just visited was named) had a different theory. Suspecting polluted water was the cause, he got permission to inspect the public pump at Broad Street, now Broadwick Street (in the block before Berwick St.) and found that it was being contaminated with sewage leaking from no. 40, at the corner of Broadwick and Poland streets. The saga was recently retold in the book The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, and in 2015 the site of no. 40 was dug up to build this new building.
When you reach Berwick Street, look left. Think of this location as the modern-day Abbey Road. It’s where, in 1995, Oasis photographed the cover of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, one of the seminal CDs of the age. The photographer shot from farther down the street, aiming south, toward where you’re standing. (Noel Gallagher, with characteristic tact, said he thought the album cover was “s**t.”)
And here’s another slice of rock history: One miniblock farther down Broadwick Street at no. 7, the corner shop covered in striking rust-colored tiles (now Sounds of the Universe record store, a local landmark for world music) was the Bricklayers Arms pub. Brian Jones auditioned the Rolling Stones here in 1962, and they held formative rehearsals upstairs. Across the road at no. 6 is Agent Provocateur, a noted lingerie shop, a hint of how unsavory the area once was. The word “Soho” is probably derived from a hunting cry used when this area was parkland—it’s nice to see that some folks around here are still on the hunt.
Turn south on Berwick Street. Walk down it to:
8 Berwick Street Market
This is the vestige of the last great weekday market in the center of the city—it’s been in operation at least since the 1840s (vestry records indicate some illicit trading was going on as far back as 1778). London’s first publicly available grapefruit was sold here in 1890. Now that the Cockney produce sellers have been mostly elbowed aside for gourmet nibbles, the market again caters to those with exotic, expensive tastes.
Pass over Peter Street and under Maurice House, going under the crossover and winding up on:
9 Brewer Street
From the late 1700s to the 1950s, it was impossible for a single gentleman to pass unpropositioned through Soho. A 1959 act chased the open salesmanship indoors, to be replaced by drinking joints where men could buy lap time with a lady, and by the 1970s, even those were forced to seek a lower profile. By law, today’s displays are not permitted to titillate, complying with the British reputation (inaccurate in my book) for sexual modesty.
It was in this fleshy carnival that Laura Henderson bought a theater near Great Windmill and Archer streets (across the intersection from No. 20, where Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto was commissioned in 1847, by the way). She got around indecency laws by ensuring that the performers in her naughty entertainment, the Revudeville, never moved a muscle. Famously, the Windmill never closed, not even during the Blitz. You might have seen it in the film Mrs Henderson Presents (2005). By the 1950s, Soho was a den of gang warfare and prostitution, full of craftsmen of every sort—costumers, ostrich feather trimmers, gun makers—until the Conservative government re-zoned the neighborhoods to admit offices, and the old ways were priced out.
Go left to Wardour Street, make a right and then a quick left. You’ll be at the head of:
10 Old Compton Street
First, note the church of St Anne’s, a few yards down Wardour Street, on the left. It was built in 1685, possibly by Wren (which ones weren’t?), 2.5m (8 ft.) higher than the street because it went on top of a graveyard for 60,000 bodies (until 1853, when burials stopped, the neighborhood reeked from it). Everything save the church’s tower was creamed by the Nazis.
Walk down Old Compton Street, Soho’s de facto main street, which is busy round the clock and a center of gay life. No. 54 is the Admiral Duncan, where Dylan Thomas once drank (then again, where didn’t he?). It was here, in 1999, that Nazi sympathizer David Copeland planted a bomb stuffed with 500 nails, which killed three people and injured many more. Copeland, an obvious madman, also bombed the South Asian population of Brick Lane and blacks in Brixton, but his only fatalities were here.
On the corner of Dean Street, look right. Down the block on the left, at no. 49, is the French House, more commonly called the French Pub. During World War II, it was the drinking haunt of Charles de Gaulle; here the exiled leader formed the Free French government and army. The street beyond the French House is Shaftesbury Avenue, the famous theatrical thoroughfare; many of the side streets between Old Compton and Shaftesbury contain the stage doors for the major playhouses, where famous actors report to work. Now look left, north up Dean Street. In no. 28, Karl Marx dwelled in abject poverty with his wife and several kids, but no running water or toilet. Three of his kids died while he was in residence in Soho in the early 1850s, and he had to borrow £2 for a coffin for one baby. No wonder he thought Marxism would be better.
Turn left at:
11 Frith Street
Bar Italia, the stylish cafe at no. 22, is a nightlife landmark of its own. Upstairs is where, in 1925, John Logie Baird privately tested a homemade invention he called “noctovision,” using his grocer’s delivery boy as a test subject. The next year, he unveiled an improved model for the science nerds of the Royal Institution upstairs in this building. (Unsatisfied, he made another attempt in 1928 that involved hooking up a fresh human eyeball he’d rushed by taxicab from Charing Cross Ophthalmic Hospital. It created a mess.) Baird’s system, which used a spinning disc, was eventually discarded, but it debuted ahead of American Philo T. Farnsworth’s more famous electronic version. Within a decade, the BBC was broadcasting “television”—its new name—regularly. In the 1940s, Baird invented the first color picture tube.
Walk up three doors. For 10 months starting in September 1764, the 8-year-old Mozart lived with his father and sister at a house at no. 20 (the building was replaced in 1858). While he was in London, the prodigy amused King George III, wrote his first two symphonies, and befriended fellow composer J.C. Bach, who mentored him. By the 1800s, Soho’s Wardour Street was the violin-making center of Europe. Music history of another kind happened at no. 47, which in 1969 hosted the first public performance of The Who’s Tommy, and then Jimi Hendrix’s last performance, in 1970.
The Dog & Duck
You should totally stop at another pub now. I mean, how often are you in London? This one, at 18 Bateman Street, is a beauty, rich with Victorian tilework and mahogany paneling. If it puts you in a literary frame of mind, perhaps you’re sensing vibrations. It was a favorite of George Orwell—he toasted with absinthe here when he learned he’d sold Animal Farm to a publisher.
Turn right into Bateman Street (pub behind you), go one block, then left at Greek Street. Take the first right, the alley of Manette Street, and continue to Charing Cross Road. Cross using the crosswalk on your left and keep going straight along Denmark Street.
12 Denmark Street
Look up, and you’ll see the 35-story Centre Point development. Built in 1964 with government concessions, it was kept empty for years by its greedy owner, Harry Hyams, partly to hold out for astronomical rents and partly to get off the tax hook even as the city struggled through a homeless crisis. In 1974, a hundred squatters occupied it to make a point. The charity Centrepoint, which started in the basement of St Anne’s Church in Soho and grew into a force, derisively took its name from the waste.
Denmark Street, recently decimated by Elizabeth Line construction and lined with a now-paltry scattering of specialists in musical instruments, is just a hundred yards long, but it’s dense with stories. This is London’s version of New York’s Tin Pan Alley—a nucleus for the British popular music industry. At no. 4, the Rolling Stones recorded their first album at Regent Sounds Studios (now The Alley Cat Club). On the roof of No. 20, Bernie Taupin wrote the lyric for “Your Song” (1970), his first hit with Elton John, during a break from work, which is why the words reference sitting on a roof. Charlie Chaplin wrote the tune of the iconic “Smile” in two hours here. David Bowie, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, the Sex Pistols, and Black Sabbath all had countless formative moments—buying guitars, hiring bands, recording albums—along Denmark Street. It’s all in the past now.
Keep following this road. It hangs slightly right, then is renamed St Giles High Street.
13 St Giles
You are standing in the worst slum in London. In the middle 1800s, the census counted more than 50,000 paupers within a few hundred squalid square feet. One eight-roomed house was stuffed with 107 luckless souls. People called poor neighborhoods “rookeries” because inhabitants were packed, shoeless and shivering, into single rooms like birds in nests. This is the London of Oliver Twist’s Fagin and his haggard gang of orphan pickpockets, of William Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” prints warning of the villainy of drink among the destitute, including kids. This is the lawless labyrinth teeming with penniless immigrants, sex workers, drug addicts, thieves, and rats. This spot is so far gone that in World War II, even Hitler didn’t bother to bomb it.
Except it’s not. Not anymore. The new toybox-colorful development by Renzo Piano tells you nothing of the depravity that shocked and reformed the heartlessness of English society. Most of the remnants of poverty were bulldozed aside by development, as happens in our age. But the church on the right, St Giles-in-the-Fields, has origins back to Saxon times (1101), but this one was built in the 1730s because the architectural integrity of the previous one had been compromised by the huge number of plague victims buried all around it. The interior is fairly standard as churches go, but note The Angel pub (on Saint Giles High Street) just past it.
Until the late 1700s, St Giles was the last church on the wagon route from Newgate Prison to the gallows at the village of Tyburn a mile away (now near Marble Arch). The convoys of doomed criminals rolled as many as eight times a year, and it was the equivalent of a major sporting event. Thousands of people would line the route to watch the condemned be dispatched to their maker, and as they passed taverns, they would be offered one last draught of ale. The pub that stood here (in the past, called The Bowl) is recorded as being where many prisoners drank their last beer on this mortal plane. The phrase “on the wagon” may stem from this grisly ritual.
Continue straight to the Shaftesbury Theatre.
14 Shaftesbury Theatre
The Shaftesbury was built in 1911 as the New Prince’s Theatre, and it has been one of the most important independent houses ever since. In 1923, the sibling dance team of Fred and Adele Astaire cemented their international stardom with Stop Flirting; Prince Edward, future abdicator and a man fatefully obsessed with Americans, attended almost nightly. Adele was soon swept off her feet by a duke, leaving Fred with the (then) unlikely prospect of finding a career alone. We know how all that turned out. Other past tenants: Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins, the London premieres of Pal Joey (1954), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1963), Hair (1968), Follies (1987), Rent (1998), and Hairspray (2007).
Two short blocks later, you’ll be where Museum Street and Drury Lane both cross High Holborn (the road you’re on). Turn left onto Museum Street. In 3 blocks, one of them pedestrianized, you will find yourself standing before the world-famous British Museum.
15 The British Museum
When it received its charter from George II, in 1753, the idea was revolutionary: A museum not owned by either the king or a church, free for the masses to use, and dedicated to the advancement of a broad range of disciplines. It was called the National Museum, and as you’ve just learned, at the time, acres of slums roiled just outside its doorstep. But, in a miracle of liberal-leaning benevolence, the country was determined to improve itself. Even the filthy souls who inhabited mid-19th-century Soho and St Giles were welcomed here. And now, so are you.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.