London is a vast, sprawling metropolis. Because it was once a collection of separate towns and villages or "boroughs," it developed pockets of attractions and activities from one end of the public transportation system to the other, and beyond. Still, it's the West End with its concentration of entertainment, shopping, restaurants, bars, famous parks, and historic attractions that lures both visitors and locals looking for a good or night out on the town. Piccadilly, Covent Garden, Soho, Mayfair, St James's, Knightsbridge, Trafalgar Square, and Parliament Square are among the famous neighborhoods loosely included in the "West End." If you're heading "up West," as many Londoners say, just remember to stay alert because pickpockets and scam artists love this part of London too.
London's Theatreland fills the heart of the West End. The city's commercial theaters, where you can see the brightest stars and the newest theater sensations—musicals, dramas, comedies, revues, and of course, in season, Pantos are all here. Look for the star-studded marquees and theater posters along Shaftsbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road, St. Martin's Lane, The Strand, and Aldwych as well as a few tucked into the side streets of Soho and Covent Garden.
If you go, beware of ticket touts. As with most sports events and concerts world wide these days, there are grifters out there trying to sell you way overpriced, or even counterfeit, tickets.
Unless you've planned way ahead and booked your tickets through some of the links on the London Theatreland or Official London Theatre websites, your best bet is to visit the TKTS booth in Leicester Square. They sell last-minute and discount tickets for the hottest shows. You have to go in person (TKTS is open every day), but you can check the website to see what might be available before you go.
London's Chinatown runs south of Shaftsbury Avenue and parallel to it, along Gerrard Street and Lisle Street. It is small but intense, packing in every kind of Chinese food available—Cantonese, spicy hot Szechwan and Hunan, complex and sophisticated Hong Kong-style, and even a few French-influenced Vietnamese places. The area is particularly good for dim sum and snacks at all hours. We like Haozhan on Gerrard Street, also known for its roast and lacquered duck; and Opium, a 1920s Shanghai-themed cocktail and dim sum bar behind a secret jade door at the other end of Gerrard Street.
And if you are in London for Chinese New Year, you can count on this area being at the heart of the celebrations.
Hit the Shops
Whatever your style or budget, you will likely find great shopping somewhere in London's West End.
Oxford Street: This is one of the most famous shopping streets in the world for mass market brands and the Selfrigdes department store.
Regent Street: One of London's most beautiful shopping areas, it's sweeping curved Regency terraces hold some of the more upmarket chains as well as top London brands.
Carnaby Street: Off Regent Street, this is the current place for youthful brands, shoe shops, cool bars, and cafes.
Bond Street: Head here for exclusive designers, jewelers, and celebrity spotting.
Piccadilly: Start at Piccadilly Circus, and after you've ogled the huge new LED advertising sign and done some people-watching near the statue of Eros, head west along Piccadilly for luxury goods shopping and the entrance to London's famous 18th century shopping arcades.
Mayfair and St James's: Here you'll find art galleries, fine antiques, and gentlemen's goods.
Soho: Find an eclectic mix of shops featuring vintage vinyl, old magazines, comic books and posters, theatrical fabrics, makeup and wigs, chefs clothing, and supplies.
The British Museum, the UK's famous storehouse of civilization with miles of galleries and millions of objects, is a popular stop in London's West End. Stop in to ogle the Rosetta Stone, the Egyptian mummies, and loads more. Despite lots of competition, it remains Britain's number one attraction.
But this area is also home to some quirky museums that are worth a visit. The Foundling Museum, in an 18th-century house on Coram Fields, was London's first home for abandoned children. In addition to moving displays and objects, there are exhibitions on its founders, George Frederick Handel, William Hogarth, and Thomas Coram.
Other museums in the area include the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden for fans of the iconic red double decker-bus; the Pollocks Toy Museum in Fitzrovia; and the Sir John Soane's Museum, the home of the 19th century architect who designed the Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the world's first purpose-built public art gallery.
See Some Beautiful Art
The West End is a feast for art lovers. Both of Britain's big national collections are here—the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, but the area is also home to a few other galleries.
The Wallace Collection, a private collection given to Britain as long as none of the works were ever loaned out and as long as it remained free to the public. If you want to see Frans Hals's The Laughing Cavalier or Fragonard's Girl on a Swing, you have to come here, just north of Oxford Street.
The Courtauld Gallery, a small, lovely gallery full of Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings. (Note: From September 3, 2018, the Courtauld will be closed for two years for a major redevelopment project.)
The Royal Academy of Arts where its members, Britain's leading living artists, show off their work. This is a gallery run by artists. Its annual Summer Exhibition—a juried show to which anyone can submit a work—is legendary.
Go on a Traditional Pub Crawl
The Soho and St James's areas of London's West End are especially rich hunting grounds for traditional London pubs. Some, such as Soho pub The Pillars of Hercules (pictured here) and the Queen's Head on Denman Street, date from the early 18th century. Most of them have fascinating stories as well as well-conditioned pints of ale. The Queen's Head was once the meeting place of club of gentleman dog baiters. When that became illegal, they looked for a way to indulge their dog-breeding enthusiasm, and the forerunner of Britain's famous dog show, Crufts, was born. A good way to find the best pubs and hear their great stories is to take a guided tour with a qualified guide. Joanna Moncrieff of Westminster Tours offers pub-focused tours of both Soho and St. James. Or search The Guild of British Tourist Guides to find a qualified Blue Badge Guide.
Imagine buying silver cutlery, antique silver, or silver jewelry from a giant safe, and you'll have some idea of what the London Silver Vaults on Chancery Lane are like. The building started out in the late 19th century as a safe deposit storage business where Londoners could store their valuables and documents. Over time, merchants who sold valuable stock—particularly antique silver—found it was easier to move their businesses into the safe depository than regularly move their stock into the vaults. So each vault became a mini-shop, packed floor to ceiling and wall to wall with fine antique silver. The Silver Vaults were damaged during World War II but rebuilt in 1953. This is one of those attractions that few tourists know about but that most find fascinating to visit even if they're not in the market for silver. But if you are, don't be put off by the treasures available for tens, even hundreds, or thousands of pounds. There's plenty of stock—spools, jewelry, napkin rings, charms and trinkets—that's affordable for most visitors.
In 1662, diarist Samuel Pepys witnessed the first Punch and Judy Show outside St Paul's Church, Covent Garden. A plaque on the wall of the church, built by Inigo Jones in 1633 and known as The Actor's Church, commemorates the event. The spot is still a place of street entertainment. Visit this end of Covent Garden any day of the week, and you'll see a continuous performance of licensed street entertainers (known as buskers in London) entertaining the crowds. Singers, jugglers, dog acts, comedians, tumblers, and acrobats all have a go. Just be sure and keep a tight watch over your valuables while you are watching the entertainment.
When you're tired of the entertainment, there's plenty of artisan craftwork and gifts to browse in the restored Covent Garden Market itself as well as on nearby Neal Street. It can be a bit touristy, but it is, nevertheless, a fun place to wonder around in or stop for a snack or drink.
The Royal Opera House (ROH) Covent Garden is the third theater on the site, dating from 1856. Two earlier theaters, the first built in 1732, were destroyed by fire. Today the ROH is the home of the the Royal Opera Company, the Royal Ballet, and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera.
Even if you are not coming to see a performance, you can tour the building and learn about its historic associations. Most of Handel's operas and oratorios, for example, were written for this house and premiered here.
Backstage Tours offers a chance to see behind the scenes before the theater opens its doors for a performance; Legends and Landmarks Tours entertains with stories and histories of the opera house and nearby Theatreland; the Velvet, Gilt and Glamour Tour focuses on the architecture of the Victorian auditorium and the stories of the famous performers who have appeared there.
The schedule of tours is announced seasonally on the opera website and they can be booked online. If you plan on attending a tour, leave your big bags, rucksacks, and backpacks somewhere else before you arrive. You aren't allowed to bring them on the tour, and there is no place to check them in the Opera House.
Buckingham Palace, right on the edge of what might be considered the West End, is a must for any first-timer to London. During its open season in the summer, you can go inside to see some of the rooms and then enjoy tea on the terrace, which offers a chance to see the Queen's backyard. At other times, view the part of the Queen's private collection of art in the Queen's Gallery, and of course, try to time your visit to see the Changing of the Guard. It's quite an elaborate ceremony that begins at 10:30 a.m. at St. James's Palace and the Wellington Barracks. It takes place on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, and if you want a good spot for your pictures, plan on getting there early.
If you're hoping to actually hear Big Ben sound the hours, the half-hours and the quarter-hours, you're out of luck for the next few years. They've had to silence the giant bell for restoration, cleaning, and repairs for the next few years (as of 2018), and the actual date for the reopening of the tower for tours hasn't been announced. You can still see the clock face, but not much else as the whole tower is shrouded in scaffolding.
What you can tour, however, are the Houses of Parliament and the Palace of Westminster itself. There are a variety of tours open to UK residents and overseas visitors including self-guided audio tours, family tours, tours with afternoon tea, and a range of special interest tours. These tours are offered when Parliament is not in session and must be booked in advance online or via the phone number listed on the website. But if you are a UK resident, you can arrange a tour to see Parliament in session through your UK MP.
Whitehall is the road that runs from Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square. It's the home of much of the British government's bureaucracy, and at first glance, it looks like a bunch of faceless white 18th and 19th-century buildings. But there is a lot worth seeing along this street and well worth a stroll north along it to see.
10 Downing Street: About 815 feet along from Big Ben, on the left side of the street, walking North, is the entrance to Downing Street and the homes of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. The entrance is barred by tall iron gates, railings, and on-duty policemen. But you can peek in to see the style of the houses within. You can also see what British people are currently up-in-arms about because there is invariably a small crowd of protesters and petitioners outside the gates.
Horseguards Parade: Continue about another 500 feet, and you come to a pair of guard boxes with a pair of mounted officers on tall, handsome stallions. This is the entrance to Horseguards Parade and the soldiers are members of the Queen's Household cavalry and the guards in the boxes change hourly. The full Changing of the Guard here is a half-hour spectacular of colorfully uniformed cavalrymen inside the gates at 11 a.m. on Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. on Sunday. It is far less crowded than Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, and best of all, there are no railings between you and the cavalry. After, visit the Household Cavalry Museum where you can see the working stables and try on a cavalryman's uniform.
The Banqueting House: As a last stop, pop across the street to visit the Banqueting House, all that remains of Charles I's Whitehall Palace. Check out the ceiling by Rubens and the balcony from which the doomed king stepped out onto a scaffold to be beheaded on the orders of Oliver Cromwell.