North of Trafalgar Square and west of Covent Garden is the district of Soho (underground stations: Leicester Square or Piccadilly Circus). It was once one of the hunting grounds of Henry VIII, and one explanation for the name of this lively district in the West End is the hunting call “so ho!” For 250 years, Soho has been the most ethnically diverse part of London; here came Huguenots From France, Italians, Jews, Indians and Chinese. The latter are a particularly strong force; the shops and restaurants of Chinatown are concentrated in Lisle and Gerrard Streets, marked by a recentlyerected Chinese gate. Even the telephone boxes have been given a Chinese touch.
Click here for Soho Virtual Tour
A few steps further on is the principal open space of Soho, Leicester Square, which housed theaters as long as 150 years ago. Today, numerous cinemas draw the crowds. At the center of this green square are statues of Shakespeare and Charlie Chaplin, and at the south end there is a ticket office offering half-price tickets for performances that same day. Alone on the main thoroughfare of London’s stage world, Shaftesbury Avenue, you can count six theaters and two cinemas. At the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road (which is a Mecca for book lovers, with Foyles and a host of second-hand bookstores) is the Limelight, a popular nightclub in a converted church. To the north, two streets past Shaftesbury Avenue, is pulsing Old Compton Street. This former Bohemian quarter is worth visiting for its innumerable pubs and restaurants. Nearby Carnaby Street came to fame in the 60s as the place to buy hip clothes, but today the only people gravitating here are tourists. Real, if fairly seedy, life is found in Berwick Street.
To the west, around Brewer Street, is the nearest London comes to a real redlight district, with strip clubs and dirty bookshops. It peters out just before Piccadilly Circus. “Circus” here has nothing to do with the big top, but rather refers to the circulation of traffic and people around the central fountain with its statue of Eros, erected in 1893. This monument doesn’t have much to do with physical love, but rather, incongruously, with Christian charity; it is dedicated to the Earl of Shaftesbury (who also gave his name to the avenue) who fought for better social and hygienic conditions in the 19th century. To the north is Regent Street with the large stores which symbolize England to many visitors: Austin Reed, Aquascutum, the Art Nouveau edifice of Liberty’s, and so on.