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soho under social distancing in 2020
Photograph: CK Travels / Shutterstock

Soho, London: the Ultimate Guide to the Neighbourhood

Discover the best things to do, old-school pubs, world-beating restaurants and more in our insider guide to Soho under social distancing

By Laura Richards
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What’s the deal with Soho?
Colourful Soho has been showing Londoners a good time for centuries. Its messy grid of streets and narrow alleyways is buzzy, grubby, swanky and sexy in equal parts. A bunch of famous faces, including Mozart, Karl Marx and the Sex Pistols, have called it home over the years, and it’s still got something of a sleazy reputation, with more than a handful of sex shops, strip clubs and sex-positive bars remaining from its days as London’s main red light district.

Nowhere in London has suffered like Soho has during the pandemic, its independent businesses some of the hardest hit. But to counteract the area’s misfortunes, the roads have been pedestrianised and tables and chairs have been added. Soho may no longer be the den of disrepute it was in the ’70s and ’80s, but its bohemian spirit is alive and well as Londoners spill out into the streets in support of the area’s long-standing and legendary restaurants and bars, making up (for once) for the absence of tourists. It's a great time to head down and do some people watching from a pavement spot – or even with a tinny in hand in Soho Square.

If you only do one thing
Pull up a chair outside Grade-II listed pub The French House. Charles de Gaulle used it as a base in exile during World War II, Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon both drank here and beer, famously, is only ever served in half-pints. Londoners love it so much, they raised £80,000 to get the pub through lockdown.

French House under social distancing Photograph: CK Travels / Shutterstock

Go off the beaten track
You’re in the right place for unusual. Why not get inked at Soho’s longest running tattoo parlour Diamond Jacks; drink whisky in a bar hidden behind a bookcase at Milroy's; or indulge at Soho's Secret Tearoom nestled above the grotty-but-popular Coach and Horses pub.

Get cultured
Visit The Photographers’ Gallery on Ramillies Street. There’s an ever-changing programme of exhibitions as well as a study room, bookshop and café. Or if you prefer your culture live, the legendary Ronnie Scott's jazz club has reopened for socially distanced shows. Soho was once the centre of the British film industry, so you could even pay tribute at the Curzon on Shaftesbury Avenue.

French House under social distancing Photograph: CK Travels / Shutterstock

Seek out plucky survivors
Maison Bertaux has been serving custard slices and chocolate eclairs since 1871, making it London’s oldest patisserie – and it smashed its fundraising target during lockdown to secure its future selling French fancies. And the area’s LGBTQ+ night spots – like world-famous G-A-Y – bring lively vibes to Old Compton Street in spite of a nationwide curfew.

Visit actual new spots
Soho is renowned for the best restaurants in town, and among them are newbies Kolamba – which opened before lockdown and is loved for serving Sri Lankan comfort dishes – and a hotly anticipated outpost of Noble Rot. It takes over the iconic site of Hungarian restaurant Gay Hussur, dishing up exemplary modern European plates matched with the finest wines known to humanity.

Nearest tube to Soho
Oxford Circus, Tottenham Court Road and Piccadilly Circus tube stations mark the corners of the area, and Leicester Square isn’t far either.

What else is nearby? 
Chinatown and its selection of great eats rubs up alongside southern Soho. Oxford Street is one of London’s busiest shopping streets, with Fitzrovia to the north. Covent Garden, with its street performers and undercover market, is in walking distance too.  

The best of eating, drinking and staying in Soho

The best restaurants in Soho

Restaurants

Soho has a killer range of restaurants to satisfy any culinary craving, at any price. Our faves are Kricket, Barrafina and Kiln. Want something kinder on the wallet? Try eating fluffy white steamed buns at Bao or posh kebabs at Le Bab. And where once you had to get in the queue, you can now book a table under social distancing – get to it at Hoppers for incredible Sri Lankan food or Lina Stores for delicious pasta dishes. 

Swift
Swift
© Addie Chinn

The best bars in Soho

Bars and pubs

One thing is for sure – you’ll never go thirsty in Soho. Don’t let a thing like curfew get in the way: check out the basement beneath El Camion for tequila fun times, or keep it light with a sgroppino at Swift, a cocktail bar we can’t get enough of where prosecco and lemon sorbet combine for heavenly results. For coffee and incredible negronis, try Bar Termini

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101 Things To Do in London: Liberty
101 Things To Do in London: Liberty

The best shops in Soho

Soho these days is heaven for serious shoppers. For starters there’s Carnaby Street, once a focal point of the Swinging Sixties in London, which is studded with indie shops and cool chain stores. Famous department store Liberty is a must-visit too. You’ll find sex shops, fabric shops and quirky stores galore in Soho’s warren of streets. Don’t miss Berwick Street Market for fruit, veg and delicious street food.

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soho hotel
soho hotel
Simon Brown

The best hotels in Soho

Hotels Luxury hotels

Fancy staying the night in Soho? You can’t go wrong with the cool, casual luxury of the Soho Hotel. For serious history and a resident ghost or two, have a kip at Hazlitt’sOn a budget? You’ll find dorm rooms, twins and doubles, plus a guest-only bar and roof garden at SoHostel.

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