48 Hours in Soho

The geographical centre of London is a vibrant mix of cultures, cuisines and sexualities. David St Vincent ventures into the biggest Chinatown in Europe and finds plenty of attractions


WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Because the centre of the capital's entertainment, media, restaurant and sex industries is London's most vibrant and multicultural quarter. And because Chinatown, on the south-east fringe of Soho, will be putting on its Sunday best to ring in the Year of the Rooster.

The official Chinese New Year celebrations start at 11.15am on 13 February. Events include ballet, martials arts and a performance by the Red Poppy Ladies' Percussion Group on Trafalgar Square, plus fireworks on Leicester Square. For many, however, the highlight is the chance to shadow the lion dancers as they gyrate through the streets of Chinatown.

TOUCH DOWN

Soho is the heart of London, but does not have its own Tube station. Four Underground stops fringe it: Oxford Circus, Tottenham Court Road, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. Except on a very quiet day, driving into or through Soho is crazy.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

If you're south of Oxford Street, north of Leicester Square, east of Regent Street and west of Charing Cross Road, you're in Soho. The only major traffic artery running through it, Shaftesbury Avenue, divides Chinatown from the rest of Soho. A block or two north, Old Compton Street is Soho's high street and the centre of its gay village. To the west, the red-light district is centred where Brewer and Berwick Streets almost meet. To its north, Soho's media industry, and many smarter bars, restaurants and clubs, lie along Wardour and Dean streets. West Soho, around Carnaby Street, is mainly shops and offices.

CHECK IN

The spanking-new Soho Hotel at 4 Richmond Mews (020-7559 3000; www.firmdale.com/SHext.html) is discreetly cocooned in a former car park between Wardour and Dean streets. It offers spacious loft-style doubles from £276 (with breakfast an extra £19.50). Its raucous, reassuringly expensive bar is a great place to hobnob with Prada-clad media darlings. Hazlitt's, at 6 Frith Street (020-7434 1771; www.hazlittshotel.com), looks inside and out more like an elegant 18th-century town-house than a hotel: it was originally home to essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830), and was named by Bill Bryson as his London pied-à-terre. Doubles start at £241; breakfast is £9.75.

TAKE A HIKE

Wander - or sashay - along Old Compton Street, probably the gayest thoroughfare in Europe. The street's homosexual venues used to be recognisable by their rainbow flags until Westminster council controversially ordered their removal. A sculpted brass chandelier at the Admiral Duncan pub, at No 54, commemorates the spot where the nail-bomber, David Copeland, killed three people in 1999.

Life's a catwalk here. On a Saturday evening, if you're not a transvestite on roller skates, you're probably underdressed. Continental visitors are always amazed at the determination to keep pavement café culture going despite the weather.

Turn south at Wardour Street into Europe's largest Chinatown, centred on Gerrard Street. Its restaurants started in the 1950s when migrants from Hong Kong wanted a cheap, central location, and British servicemen returned from the Far East with a taste for Oriental food.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Make up a picnic at Soho's organic supermarket, Fresh and Wild, at 69-75 Brewer Street (020-7434 3179). It opens 7.30am-9pm Monday-Friday, 9am-8pm Saturday, 11.30am- 6.30pm Sunday.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Take in a matinée. Tkts on Leicester Square sells half-price same-day theatre tickets (10am-7pm from Monday to Friday, noon-3pm on Saturdays). The diminutive Soho Theatre, at 21 Dean Street (020-7478 0100; www.sohotheatre.com), is a showcase for new playwrights and established comedians. Tickets are sometimes as low as £5. Soho's independent repertory cinema, the Prince Charles, at 7 Leicester Place ( www.princecharlescinema.com; 020-7494 3654) is not too high-brow to screen a monthly Sing-A-Long-A Sound of Music. Tickets for other films sink to £1.50 on Mondays.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Berwick Street is the place to pick up rare vinyl and the latest DJ-only floor-fillers. Oasis shot the cover of their album (What's the Story) Morning Glory? here. Selectadisc, at No 34 (020-7734 3297), boasts a particularly eclectic collection. The wonderfully messy and noisy Berwick Street Market dates from the 1840s. It's one of the best and cheapest places to buy fruit and vegetables in London - and to practise your Cockney. It opens 9am-6pm Monday-Saturday.

AN APERITIF

One of the last of Soho's celebrated watering holes, the tiny French House, at 49 Dean Street (020-7437 2799), was the base of the Free French Army during the Second World War. Draught beer is served only in halves, not pints, and it has one of Soho's best wine and pastis selections. Ageing pictures on the walls commemorate some of its famous customers - including Maurice Chevalier, General de Gaulle, Francis Bacon and Dylan Thomas.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Ling Hoon at 25 Lisle Street (020-7437 3602) combines civilised service with authentic Cantonese dishes at rock-bottom prices. Don't underestimate the power of a main-course noodle or ho fun soup (£3.30 plus) from its "Economic Meals" menu to fill you up. Braver options include fishing boat rice porridge (£4.10) and wind-dried salted fish with chicken fried rice (£4.50). If Japanese food makes you think of impenetrable menus and astronomical prices, think again. The Tokyo Diner, at 2 Newport Place (020-7287 8777), has a user-friendly menu for novices and low prices; tipping is not allowed. If you're here for the Chinese New Year celebrations, look out for food stalls around the pagoda and special menus at most Chinatown restaurants. Finally, Yauatcha, on the corner of Berwick and Broadwick streets, is an indulgent, intriguing place.

TAKE A VIEW

Swish four-storey polysexual bar The Edge at 11 Soho Square (020-7439 1313) offers one of Soho's prettiest views - although its top floor normally opens only at weekends. (The bar itself is open daily until 1am, or 10.30pm Sunday.) Reminiscent of an upmarket French bistro, the cosy second floor piano-bar bids you slump into a window-side sofa. On cabaret nights (Tuesday-Thursday) audience participation is encouraged but certainly not compulsory.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

It's easy to forget that amid all the commerce, Soho has some 5,000 residents. A convivial place to meet some of them is St Anne's at 55 Dean Street, which has a laid-back communion at 11am on Sundays. Built, possibly by Wren, in 1685, it was blitzed in 1940 and only the clock-tower survived. As well as being Soho's parish church, it's also unofficial chapel to London's gay community.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Brewer Street is London's Little Tokyo. Arigato, at Nos 48-50 (020-7287 1722), is a Japanese store offering made-to-order dishes you can eat on site. Try the chicken teriyaki bento (£4.50). Arigato opens 10am-9pm Monday-Saturday, 11am-8pm on Sundays.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Soho was once a royal hunting-ground, its very name being the "tally-ho" of the 17th century. These days, unless you saunter in a repeated circle, you'd be hard-pressed to have much of a walk in any of Soho's pint-sized parks. Fringed with elegant town-houses, Soho Square is among central London's finest. Laid out in 1681, it originally housed aristocrats made homeless by the Great Fire. Nowadays it's mostly offices, although a few lucky individuals live here. A weather-beaten statue inside the park commemorates Charles II, while the charming half-timbered hut at the centre dates from 1876. If you spot a film crew on the south-east corner, it's probably reporting the latest Svenanigans at the Football Association.

TAKE A RIDE

To the chagrin of residents, cabbies and traffic wardens, but the joy of many tourists, Soho is Britain's rickshaw capital. Introduced in 1998 as an "emission-free alternative", they remain - for now - unregulated, since Victorian legislators did not foresee their use in this country. Negotiate fares up front, but you won't get far for under £10.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Pick up a free postcard at the Algerian Coffee Stores, 52 Old Compton Street (020-7437 2480). Founded in 1887, it has over 140 coffees and 200 teas as well as genuine Turkish delight and an assortment of coffee-drinking paraphernalia. For further caffeine-fuelled inspiration, order a cappuccino (£1.90) at Bar Italia, 22 Frith Street. Whenever Italy is involved in an important football match, Frith Street becomes impassable to traffic with the crush of fans watching TVs outside. A plaque above marks the flat where John Logie Baird first demonstrated television in 1926.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Chinatown's impossibly cramped grocery stores defy any non-Chinese person not to linger in bemusement. At See Woo Hong Supermarket, at 18-20 Lisle Street (020-7439 8325), stock up on fried fish maw, mystery fruits and cryptically labelled Oriental foodstuffs so obscure that even the staff struggle to explain what they are.

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