The West End
London's West End is the heart of the city's theatre scene and its primary shopping district, as well as being a lively hub of bars, restaurants and nightclubs. Renowned as the UK's centre of entertainment, the West End plays host to regular international film premiers and showcases every talent from the world's leading movie stars and celebrated thespians, to the often weird but always wonderful street performers of Covent Garden.
Covent Garden is one of London’s entertainment hotspots, particularly its central square. Once a bustling fruit and veg market, the Piazza now offers everything from quirky street performers to the Royal Opera House. Another highlight is the wonderfully eccentric Neal’s Yard; a small alley between Monmouth Street and Shorts Gardens which opens into a courtyard filled with brightly painted new-age shops and health food cafes.
Tube: Covent Garden
Ringed with cinemas, Leicester Square is the venue for many a star-studded red carpet. But, film premieres and celeb-spotting aside, there is little on offer here. The cinemas are extortionately expensive, as are the interspersing cafes and restaurants. It is, however, the best place in London to source last-minute theatre tickets from one of the many booths scattered about.
Tube: Leicester Square
The busiest shopping street in Europe isn’t the most scenic part of London but, in fairness, people don’t generally come here to take pictures. The street follows the exact route of a Roman road, a fact emphasised by its near perfect straightness, and runs for one and a half miles. It is home to major department stores, such as Selfridges, Debenhams and House of Fraser, as well as a vast array of restaurants and bars.
Tube: Oxford Circus
Dominated by Nelson standing atop his enormous column, Trafalgar Square is a must-see for any first time visitor. Impressive fountains are located on each side of Nelson, and the classically inspired National Gallery (free) sits at the back. The area is always a lively hub of activity in the day, when street performers entertain the crowds, and at night, when surrounding bars and restaurants have patrons spilling out their doors.
Tube: Charing Cross
Few London districts can top Soho in the atmospheric stakes. Seedy, stylish and seductive, Soho has something of a colourful history, and while it hasn’t abandoned this altogether (the sex industry is still very much alive, with clusters of licenced sex shops strewn about the place) it is now also a hotbed of top restaurants, bars and clubs. This area is the centre of London’s gay and lesbian scene, and also home to much of London’s dynamic media industry.
Tube: Oxford Circus
Sitting grandly on the banks of the River Thames, Westminster is home to a host of London’s major attractions, including the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace. Many of the iconic images of London across the planet originate from this area, with Big Ben being just one example. If The City is about money, Westminster is about power, religion and royalty. For a spell-binding view of the area, head to Westminster Bridge when night falls.
Bridging the West End and The City, Holborn is the legal centre of London. The Royal Courts of Justice, a striking building with some parts open to the public, can be found here, and Temple, slightly to the east, is home to two of the four Inns of Court. Other than this, Holborn doesn’t appear to offer much more than chain shops and eateries filled with hurried office workers. Escape this by heading to St Etheldreda’s Church.
Tube: Holborn, Chancery Lane
By some miraculous feat, Marylebone has managed to retain a distinctly village-like feel, despite the heavy traffic and being located in the midst of central London. Among the affluent residential streets are some top-notch restaurants and cosy pubs and bars. Its star attractions are the Wallace Collection (a museum housing some of Europe’s finest works of art), Madame Tussauds and Baker Street, which has a quirky museum dedicated to Sherlock Holmes.
The main draw card of Bloomsbury, a well-kept and largely residential area of central London, is the free-to-enter British Museum, which houses an astonishingly vast collection of both native and foreign artefacts. Of particular interest is the Ancient Egypt section, which showcases coffins, mummies and other burial goods. Aside from this, Bloomsbury is littered with pretty garden squares and dotted with some outstanding churches, such as St. George's and St. Pancras.
Tube: Russell Square, Euston Square
Epitomising London luxury, Mayfair is the most exclusive district of the city, boasting some of the world’s most expensive hotels, properties, shops and restaurants. There are no specific attractions here, but the area rather unsurprisingly makes for a pleasant stroll. Perfectly groomed squares are aplenty and impressive statues are scattered all over the place; look out for ‘The Allies’, a bronze cast of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt conversing on a bench.
Tube: Bond Street, Green Park