Regardless of how you arrive in Soho – on foot, by taxi or by public transport. You’ll most likely find it all a bit much at first. But follow our Leicester Square taxi driver’s guide, and you’ll hopefully discover that it’s not all selfie sticks, neon lights and expensive rickshaws. There’s actually a whole lot more going on. Here’s an interesting fact for you: among London tourists, it’s said the tube route between Covent Garden and Leicester Square is the most popular and frequently used. And yet, it’s cheaper and quicker to just walk. Put another way, there’s a tendency to panic in this part of London. The heaving crowds and bright lights of the West End, the thick melee of Leicester Square itself and the 24hr buzz of Chinatown. They all contribute to a strong communal desire to get where you’re going as fast as possible. Even if that means sometimes going the wrong way. But stop and stand a while. Take a deep breath and actually consider where you’re going and very quickly, Leicester Square becomes your oyster. An exciting, spirited, even historied part of London with candy like neon treats and ancient culture available in equal measure. Leicester Square has been through a lot of change over the last few hundred years. Once the courtyard for Leicester House, this now pedestrianised square has been home to legendary revolutionary Karl Marx; has statues to Charlie Chaplin, Sir Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare; and was even once a popular duelling site. Today it’s alive with sights, sounds and big, bright lights. Come here to see the attractions but scurry away into its side streets to uncover its true hidden gems. Follow our guide to avoid paying a fortune on Leicester Square taxi fares. All you’ll need is an Addison Lee.
Where to drink
Cork & Bottle
It’s a hell of thing to find a great bar around Leicester Square that isn’t perpetually busy. And we’d be lying if we told you that The Cork & Bottle was a quiet venue. But Slug & Lettuce it ain’t. Squirreled away down an alley at the rear of the square you’ll find this charming little wine bar. Step in under its famous red canopy and down the stairs into its belly to discover a wine list that boasts no less than 300 bottles of fantastic (and mostly old world) wine. Since the Cork & Bottle opened in 1971 it’s said to have hosted some of London’s most famous and discerning drinkers. They also serve a curious food menu to soak it all up with.
44-46 Cranbourn St, WC2H 7AN
There is a tendency with the larger pubs in the area to submit to more conventional and crowd pleasing styles. To go the way of a Wetherspoons or a TGI Fridays. So it’s all the more impressive that The Garrick has managed to stay so attractive and individual (even if it is owned by a brewery). Taking its name from the famous theatre next door, this place is – unsurprisingly – ideal if you are looking for a drink or a bite to eat before catching a show. They serve oodles of great drinks, including some fine ales and even a cocktail menu. While the food is everything you’d hope for from a proper gastropub menu.
8-10 Charing Cross Rd, WC2H 0HG
Experimental Cocktail Club
We wouldn’t be in our right minds if we brought you all this way and didn’t tell you about the area’s best kept secret. As the sister bar to the incredibly famous speakeasy of the same name in Paris, this Chinatown cocktail den is a place of only the highest quality. The entrance is little more than a dimly lit black door. Usually identifiable only by the presence of a doorman outside. Inside though, it opens up and transforms into three floors of prohibition era fun. The drinks are all incredible and in spite of the slightly rubbish name, are easier to choose from than you’d imagine.
13a Gerrard St, Chinatown, W1D 5PS
Where to eat
Staying in Chinatown is another rather secret location with plenty of goodness inside. Although Opium is at least a little easier to find. Look out for the jade coloured door this time (it’ll probably just be open). A famous Chinese and Dim Sum restaurant, Opium is about as low lit as you can go without actually turning the lights off. But it all helps to contribute to the broody but inviting atmosphere. The food comes on individual plates or in mouthwatering platters and it’s not too unreasonably priced. If you fancy a drink afterwards, ask about Peony – their (hidden) bar upstairs. It’s equally excellent.
The jade door, 15-16 Gerrard St, W1D 6JE
If London is drowning in a sea of Chinese, Indian, French and Italian restaurants then the one thing it doesn’t have enough of is Israeli restaurants. Especially if the food at Palomar is anything to go by. Shuffle in the entrance and down the long bar to choose your seat in front of the chefs (there are larger tables at the back but it’s less fun) and they’ll ply you with incredible Mediterranean food for as long as your palate can handle. Generally it’s a mix of small and larger plates so we recommend going with a friend you don’t mind sharing with. Also, be prepared to drink while you’re here. It’s practically obligatory.
34 Rupert St, W1D 6DN
J Sheeky Atlantic Bar
We could just as easily recommend you go the full J Sheekey restaurant next door but this place is such fun (and focuses more on oysters) that we felt it about trumped its bigger sister. This buzzy restaurant invites you sit at the bar and indulge as the chefs create seafood majesty before your very eyes. Tucked away between Covent Garden and Leicester Square it offers a slightly more affordable alternative to the larger, more established restaurant next door and yet does it without sacrificing any of the quality. Even the majority of the menu remains intact. If you like seafood – especially oysters – this is the place for you.
28-32 St Martin's Ct, WC2N 4AL
What to do
The West End
As you may have noticed by now, Leicester Square is something of a throbbing hub of entertainment. Theatres are just about everywhere and the famous Shaftesbury Avenue is but a stone’s throw away. And that can mean only one thing – London’s famous West End. From the long running classics like Les Miserables and Phantom of The Opera to the more modern shows like The book of Mormon, this area is positively teeming with great plays and musicals to go and see. And while they can be expensive, if you’re careful and shop around, you can get lucky and find a bargain.
There are lots of cinemas on Leicester Square and while they are all going to be showing pretty much the same films at the same time, The Empire is probably the most famous and glamorous. Built in 1884 as a variety theatre, it’s now used to screen global premieres and even houses the largest IMAX cinema – by volume of seating – in the UK. And while you’ll definitely find cheaper places to watch a film further outside of central London, you’ll probably not find many with as much history. For anyone who finds the cinema boring, there’s an adjoining casino next door.
6 Leicester Square, WC2H 7NA
On of the greatest things about London – and one that all Londoners hope will never change – is the fact that all our major art galleries and museums are free to enter. This liberal attitude to culture and art has been the driving force behind the city’s enduring relationship with all things creative for years. The National Gallery is no different. Established in 1824 in Trafalgar Square because it was so central both the rich and the poor could access it easily, this British institution now holds over 2,300 painting and sculptures. Including the work of Vermeer, Cezanne, Monet and Van Dyck to name but a few – a real treat.
Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DN