West End: an area guide
A look at all the things to do in London's exciting entertainment centre
Ah the West End. Neither an end, nor in the true west of the city. But despite the inaccurate moniker the winding streets of London’s entertainment hub draw in millions of visitors a year. Find the best restaurants, pubs and bars sitting snugly among the nation’s greatest theatres; museums within a short walk of insalubrious adult-only bookshops; great tree-lined boulevards veering off into labyrinths of alleyways. The bohemian jewel in the crown of the city is an absolute must-visit for a trip of any length to London.
Firstly: where is it? Well, take any map of London. Squint your eyes. Now put your finger at what seems to be the most central possible point on the diagram, and the chances are you’ve landed in the West End. Smack bang in the centre of town, the area is roughly considered to be between Oxford Street and the Strand on the north and south and Regent’s Street and Kingsway on the west and east. It comprises other famous neighbourhoods like Soho, Chinatown and Covent Garden. It’s incredibly easy to get to, and once you’re there, the streets make for some of the best walking in London.
As you stroll down Shaftesbury Avenue or Long Acre, you’ll probably notice the preponderance of theatres. This is what the West End is best known for: the fifty historic venues supplying the gold-standard of dramatic entertainment to Londoners and tourists alike. And at the moment, they’re going through something of a vogue. Enjoying more than double the yearly attendance of Premiership football matches, the dozens of excellent comedies, dramas and musicals are provoking a tremendous fondness for thespians. It’s also worth noting that tickets for West End shows are far cheaper than in other cities with a great theatrical heritage (cough cough New York), with tickets available from around £20 for smaller productions. If you’re on a budget and have no particular show in mind that you’re desperate to see, head to any of the officially-licensed ticket resale officers such as TKTS or the LSBO in Leicester Square to snag a bargain.
But before your show, perhaps you fancy a swift half and a bite to eat. Well, you are thoroughly in luck, my friend, as the West End is replete with excellent pubs, hip dark bars and quality restaurants. For true value, you could do worse than visiting a Samuel Smith pub for good beer in a Victorian pub setting and then head over to Chinatown for a hearty buffet. People with slightly thicker wallets might fancy a snifter at Bar Termini or the London Cocktail Club before sampling the surprisingly reasonable set menu at Brasserie Zédel, which boasts one of the glitziest decors in all of London dining.
If you find yourself with more time to spare then many options still lay before you, especially if you want to imbibe a little culture before your night of hedonism. A walk down Charing Cross road will take you past some of the most famous bookshops in London, all with good second-hand prices, and the rare map and musical manuscript dens of Cecil Court. Further down the road, you will see the corner of Trafalgar Square open out into a wide vista of city life. St Martin’s-in-the-Fields, the grand besteepled church on the corner of the square, has consistently excellent classical and choral music concerts in its well-appointed crypt. Next door, the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery welcome visitors free of charge to explore their world class collections. Visit the National Gallery on a Friday night and enjoy open doors until 10pm with a programme of musical and culinary events to accompany your picture-gazing.
Indeed, though the West End is known principally for the sampling of more nocturnal activities, it is a thoroughly enjoyable place to visit in the day as well. Marvellous Soho is full of street art, risqué shops and centuries-old passages leading from pub to restaurant to theatre away from the prying eyes of the crowd. Oxford Street boasts some of the best shopping in the world with everything from Primark to Prada adorning the so-called busiest road in the world. And within five minutes’ walk in any direction you can enjoy the Garden Squares of Bloomsbury, the British Museum, Green Park, River cruises along the Thames or the quaint second-hand shops of Marylebone and Fitzrovia.
If there’s just one thing that defines the sheer joyous fun of the West End, it’s walking through the crowds among the neon lights at the pulsing heart of a metropolis, feeling yourself part of the noisome bustle and getting a sense of how the city moves and works.