London is one of the best cities in the world for tourism. With its broad variety of amazing districts and 32 boroughs to explore, you’ll never have a problem finding things to do during a stay at accommodation like the London Piccadilly Hotel. There are, however, several areas of London that are packed to the rafters with tourist attractions. This is certainly the case with London’s West End. Though spanning only a few square miles, there’s a lot to see in this vibrant area. Not only is it full of historic tourist attractions, but acts as London’s theatreland and indeed, a thriving media and business district. From commuting workers to excited holidaymakers, London’s West End will offer a dizzying amount of opportunities.
With such a varied mix of attractions, this breakdown of Soho and the West End will give you everything you need to make the most out of the famous area.
Where is the West End?
The West End of London comprises of an area of only a few square miles but packs a dazzling amount into its small spread. Sprawling out from its heart in Leicester Square, the West End comprises of Covent Garden, Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street, amassing an eclectic collection of attractions, high streets, special offer London hotels and iconic landmarks.
History of the West End
During the medieval era, what we now know as a singular London was built out of two different cities. These were the City of London and the City of Westminster. Whilst the latter was in charge of the country’s overall rule, the City of London was more focused on the civic and local, creating a thriving metropolis of markets and business. With its crowded streets and pollution, there were definitely no massage West End and wellness spas in those days!
Over time, the West End became better known as an affluent neighbourhood sought after by the rich of the city in part due to its proximity to the ruling class in Westminster, but also because the area was upwind from the smoke produced by the City of London’s heavy industry districts. This meant that the West End became more closely linked to leisure and entertainment, and to this day is comprised of the same 18th-century townhouses, Victorian entertainment venues and well-known monuments and landmarks.
As London house prices increased, the 20th century saw the West End transform into less of a residential area and more of a tourist and cultural district. With its historic collection of hotels, bars and theatres, the early in the 20th century late 19th saw Soho transform into an infamous red-light district. Nowadays, however, it has developed into a more tourist-friendly locale still retain the intoxicating essence of its former personality.
The West End’s fame not only derives from its entertainment and dining venues, but from its broad array of historic monuments. London’s history, and at times that of the whole country, has been immortalised in the streets of Soho and the West End. Here are some of the most famous landmarks for you to explore in the area.
Trafalgar Square is possibly best known for its astounding Nelson’s Column monument. Surrounded by four sculpted lions, the bronze relief of Admiral Horatio Nelson was completed in 1843, whilst it’s feline guards were added more than 20 years later, despite being part of the original design of the monument. The monument itself was made in honour of the brave Admiral who defeated the Spanish and the French int he Napoleonic Wars.
And on the subject of Nelson, the square itself was named after the historic Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Originally intended to be named after William IV, this Charing Cross and Strand based square took over 30 years to build, but once it was, quickly became a focal point for gatherings, celebrations and protests.
Leicester Square is one of the best-known tourist destinations for London visitors. Acting as a concentrated snapshot of the West End, this square is nestled between Soho, Covent Garden and Piccadilly Circus, and promises an eclectic mix of cinemas, theatres and entertainment venues. Furthermore, the area’s broad variety of chain pubs and restaurants near Piccadilly make it the perfect stop-off point for tourists in the West End.
Covent Garden’s heady mix of business, commerce and tourism has seen many changes in the past. From being the grounds of Westminster Abbey to industrial warehouse complex, the once red-light district has since grown into a thriving market square and shopping district. With independent cafes, boutique eateries and talented buskers performing magic, stunts and music, Covent Garden has become the beating heart of London for locals and visitors alike.
Attractions in Covent Garden include its vibrant indoor market, the site of which has been in use since the 16th century. Alongside this, Covent Garden is also home to the Royal Opera House, one of the most famous in the world, and which can seat over 2200 audience members.
London’s China Town was originally based in Limehouse but in 1974 the area between Gerrard Street and Macclesfield Street became a popular hotspot for Chinese restaurants. Now serving over 80, Soho’s China Town also holds supermarkets, bars and other facilities popular with tourists and locals alike.
China Town is most vibrant during Chinese New Year. In the week preceding, guests in the area can enjoy parades, lantern lighting and festive decorations throughout the streets in the area. Whilst this year saw Chinese New Year fall on the 25th of January, its lunar cycle adherence means that next year it will fall on the 12th of February.
Whilst the West End is the predominant term used for the theatre district in the area, the title actually encompasses not only the theatre district of London but the entirety of the West End. to be more specific, the theatre district is actually recognised as London’s Theatreland. With many of the buildings dating back to the Edwardian and Victorian era, the array of architecture on show encapsulates many styles, including art deco and renaissance styles.
The longest-running shows performed in Theatreland have included Cats, which closed in 2002 after 8949 performances, and Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap which has been performed continuously at St Martin’s Theatre since 1952. Whilst these shows might have the most history to them, modern performances have also made it, including the multi-award-winning The Ferryman and the Harold Pinter season at the Pinter Theatre, which commemorated the ten-year anniversary of the iconic playwright’s death and starred the likes of Danny Dyer and Tom Hiddlestone.
Theatreland’s broad selection of unique performance spaces has meant that the city is packed to the rafters with amazing theatres. From the modern to the historic, this selection is not only some of the standouts of the West End but in the country too.
The Gielgud Theatre dates back to 1906 when it was opened as the Hicks Theatre. With 991 seats and a long history of award-winning programming, the Gielgud is located just a 2-minute walk from Piccadilly Circus on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue. Currently, the stage adaptation of TV Shakespearean comedy Upstart Crow starring David Mitchell is being performed there, before it is overtaken by the Aaron Sorkin adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird later this year.
Duke of York’s Theatre
Having opened in 1892, this is one of the oldest West End theatres. Made up of three levels, the 600 plus capacity still makes for an intimate performance space and the beautiful columned facade on St Martin’s Lane is instantly recognisable. Past performances at the Duke of York’s Theatre include Ian McKellan in King Lear and the gripping adaptation of Touching the Void by David Grieg.
Seating 2286, the Grand Palladium was designed to compete with the London Hippodrome and has seen a century-long programme of musicals and live music events. From the upcoming Joseph and His Technicolour Dreamcoat to the live 6-night run of Van Morrison that will precede it, the London Palladium’s Grade II listed building is a venue bursting with musical magic.
Jermyn Street Theatre
One of the more recent additions to the Theatreland collection, the Jermyn Street Theatre is a small studio theatre that seats just 70. Opened in 1994 on Jermyn Street, the Jermyn Street Theatre offers up exciting and engaging classics that are both accessible and cutting edge in equal measure.
Entertainment in Soho
It’s not just theatre that can help you while away an evening in the West End. From the bars and clubs to museums and eateries, you’d be surprised at what awaits you down the side streets of this unique area. Below is a collection of just a few of them, proving that Soho is more than just Theatreland.
The Soho Theatre on Dean Street offers a programme of new writing, yes, but it offers so much more alongside it to help it stand out from the crowded Theatreland scene. Here, you’ll find stand-up comedy acts from the best newcomers in the country, alongside cabaret and drag performances that raise it above and beyond traditional performance mediums. With three performance spaces and a bustling bar that really is Soho all over, this is a must for those looking for a night out with a little edge.
And when it comes to edginess, you can’t do much better than the historic 100 Club. Based on Oxford Street, this club was originally opened in the 50s’ as a music hall venue. Over the years it was repurposed as a boxing ring and eventually into a seminal punk music venue in the 70s’. It is the latter spirit that still lives on, the 100 Club programming the cream of the crop of new alternative music.
Pizza Express Jazz Club
Who would have thought that chain restaurant pizza could be fused so perfectly with jazz? This Dean Street restaurant also hosts a downstairs bar and gig venue that showcases the best in jazz acts. Spanning a range of genres and styles in the performances it showcases, the Pizza Express Jazz Club regularly hosts music festivals exploring everything from Korean music to hip hop.
Another classic jazz venue of Soho, Ronnie Scott’s is a legendary music venue that’s been running since the 1950s’ and adds a dash of smoky glamour to Soho. With its regular live musicians and a world-class bar, this romantic venue is not only perfect for date night but a smooth night out with friends.
With so much history to the area, it’s not surprising to find that the West End of London plays host to some of the quirkiest museums and enriching institutions in the city. Here are just a handful of them.
National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery is an offshoot of the National Gallery and holds the country’s largest collection of portraits, both painted and photographic. From contemporary artists and historic alike, the 195,000 strong collection portrays some of the most important figures in Britain, from William Shakespeare to Queen Elizabeth II.
With its collection spanning from the 13th century up until the turn of the 20th, the National Gallery is one of the most important art galleries in London. With works from not only British painters but Italian, Dutch and many other European countries, the gallery is one of the most expansive in the city. Furthermore, the beautiful gothic building is a sight to behold on Trafalgar Square, and neighbours the Portrait Gallery which expanded from it 32 years after it was built in 1824.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
Based on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Sir John Soane’s Museum explore the life and work of famous 19th-century architect Sir John Soane’s. With drawings, antiquities and designs showcased throughout the museum, the museum also acts as the national centre for the study of Architecture.
Pollock’s Toy Museum
Pollock’s Toy Museum is a unique international toy museum based on Scala Street and explores a broad spanning array of playthings. With some alarming and others charming, the toy museum is certainly one of the more intriguing oddities in the West End.