They say that all of us are either city people or country people, if we really had to make a choice. I grew up in the countryside in lots of different parts of the UK, from villages to towns but it’s only since I moved to London 17 years ago that I really found my place in the world. I love this city so fiercely and could happily spend every day exploring. Still, after all this time there are parts of it I barely know and even the ones I do have changed so much over time they’re almost unrecognisable.
Soho has to be one of the prime examples of this and earlier this week I had the opportunity to spend some time rediscovering my youth, not really one misspent other than falling out of way too many pubs and clubs in my 20s and well, early 30s, in this crazy lil’ city. I never really know how I feel about redevelopment. I KNOW it has to happen and provides jobs, boosts the economy and so on. From hotels in Soho to new offices and apartments I wonder if any of my history still exists. One of my fave pubs in Soho where I had some very eventful nights is now a Jamie’s Italian and that breaks my heart just a little bit.
Yet time stops for no man (or woman for that matter!) and so instead of lamenting it it’s time to get on board with the new Soho. I got my best walking shoes on and pottered up and down the streets to see what I could find. If you’re unfamiliar with the area it’s the part of London that’s bordered by Shaftesbury Avenue to the south, Charing Cross road to the east, Regent’s Street to the west and Oxford Street to the north. You could EASILY spend an entire day and night here and not run out of things to do or see. There’s so much to it though than the glitzy stores dominating Regent’s and Oxford Street so hopefully I can show you a side to Soho you may not be familiar with.
On the south side of Golden Square, Scandinavian mainstay Nordic Bakery is gleefully still unaffected by the constant Soho redevelopment and has been serving up delicious Scandi fare since 2007. It used to be one of our regular haunts when I was still volunteering at Samaritans (the Central London Branch is just round the corner in Beak Street) and Pete would come to meet me off a nightshift and we’d head for the divine cinnamon buns for breakfast. I popped in to pick him one up as a treat to take home and joy of joys I immediately spied that they now do VEGAN cinnamon buns and so of course I popped one in my bag which we shared when I got home.
Take A Load Off
The lesser-known of Soho’s green spots this is by far my favourite spot for a rest to watch the world go by – Soho Square to the north-east is too busy for me. It’s currently full of the most beautiful tulips and if you need somewhere for a lunch or coffee break I’d totally recommend it. Plus with two outdoor ping-pong tables you could even get a bit of gentle exercise in too.
Oasis In The City
Are you the person that sees something intriguing tucked down a walk-way and heads off to investigate? That’s me! Walking down Great Windmill Street, I clocked the most divine looking little passageway so I headed down it to investigate. It opens out into Smiths Court which is a little oasis of independent cafes and boutiques. You could be worlds away in this beautiful little spot and it’s definitely going to be one of my new places to take people or even just to hang out by myself. A chocolatier, jewellers, general stores and second-hand bookshop as well as coffee bar and healthy café, it’s basically the Instagrammer’s dream.
Despite how much is changing and the location, this isn’t just a place people come to work or for tourists. There are still amenities and facilities that people need and it makes my nerdy history geek side happy to find hardware shops established in 1896 and a primary school RIGHT in the middle of Soho. Could you imagine even being part of that catchment area, who on earth lives here? But I guess people do and there must be a need for it. That would be quite a tale to tell in later life “Oh I went to primary school in Soho”. I wouldn’t believe it for a second.
The area is still full of creative industries especially within the media. Whilst some businesses have been forced out and you could argue that there may not be as many independent creatives left, art takes many forms. Walk down Great Marlborough Street to find the artfully decorated building hoardings. Well, if buildings have to be boarded up for development may as well jazz it all up a bit.
I wonder how many people have visited this pub thinking it’s any way connected to Game of Thrones 😉 You know nothing, JoHn Snow.
Somehow The Photographers Gallery has previously completely escaped my attention. It’s tucked just off Oxford Street and is open from 10am daily. Established in 1971, it relocated to the current Ramilies Street in 2012 taking over an old textiles factory. Admission is just £5 for a day pass and it houses exhibitions, workshops, a café, shop and offers tours. Whilst art is often a bit lost on me I do really love photography so I’m definitely going to make time to go back and explore properly.
Lunch (All That Walking I Had The Hanger!)
Ok it is IMPOSSIBLE to give you the best advice on where to eat in Soho because it feels like there are 3476895038 options. But for me I knew exactly where to head. I’ve been meaning to try Mildred’s, a predominantly vegan restaurant with one outpost on Lexington Street for absolutely AGES! But they don’t take reservations and I’d heard too many horror stories of queues out the door. So I made my plan to be there just after it opened at noon and emerged triumphant.
I have to say it really was worth all the hype. I had a starter of pea and shallot ravioli followed by Red Dragon Stir Fry which is probably the best stir fry I’ve ever had (and that includes on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, THAT’S how good this bad boy was!) It’s a beautifully airy restaurant but not overly huge with a great selection of reasonably priced menu options. Be warned though, whilst most of it is vegan, there is absolutely no meat on the menu at all. Just a couple of dishes with halloumi to make it veggie instead of vegan. No complaints from me and within 5 minutes of me arriving it was absolutely packed on a Tuesday lunchtime so clearly it has a fantastic reputation.
After a few hours of exploring and full of delicious food I have to admit my exploring antennae were starting to droop a little bit. So here in brief are three other places I would recommend you to pay a visit to:
–Wholefoods Market. Pete and I were a little obsessed with our first visit to Wholefoods in New York many years ago and then they opened one back in my west London days when I used to live in Kensington. Now there are a few dotted in and around London and this outpost is just a whisker away from Piccadilly Circus underground. I made a mistake and should have popped in when it first opened rather than at lunchtime when I was feeling full and it was super busy. Always worth a visit for those unusual ingredients and to wonder if you could spend £20 on one grain of quinoa.
–Ham Yard Hotel. This is probably THE hotel to be seen at in Soho and again, they’ve done a good job of tucking it away just off the beaten track. I went to an event here a few years ago that coincided with our wedding anniversary and so dragged Pete along and they have THE most divine roof terrace. Sadly it’s only available to guests of the hotel but there are some other very lovely bars and restaurants and it’s an interior lovers dream
–Picturehouse Central. Absolutely on my hit list and I was tempted with the idea of an afternoon film. Slightly frustratingly, Picturehouse Central membership is a separate beast to the rest of their cinema chain so whilst we can go and see films there and visit the café and restaurant, again the rooftop bar is open to members only. Grrr! But it always looks so stylish as I go past so I think I’m going to wait until there’s a film I really want to see and then treat myself.
One Last Snack Stop?
Ok, I have to immediately confess that no, I didn’t grab a donut from hole-in-the-wall donut pitstop Doughnut Time located on Shaftesbury Avenue. But I have before so I feel well qualified to testify to the calibre of their offerings. With vegan and non-vegan available there is plenty of choice and some absolute behemoths which are like at least 4 donuts all rolled into one giant beast. The inventive names such as ‘Jason Bournville’ and ‘Egg Sheeran’ are worth a little peep alone.
So ladies and gents, that’s a wrap on my little tour of Soho. There’s SO much I missed out but I’ve come to realise that it’s not the same Soho as 20 years ago, it’s still perfect just in a very different way. I’ll definitely be back that’s for sure.
Disclaimer: This post is in collaboration with hotels.com who kindly provided me with spending money but all views and opinions are my own.