London: Places to Explore

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Soho and Covent Garden

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Once a red-light district, today's Soho is more stylish than seedy and offers some of London's best nightclubs, live music venues, restaurants, and theaters. By day, this hotbed of media production (Sir Paul McCartney's offices are here) reverts to the business side of its late-night scene. If Soho is all about showbiz, neighboring Covent Garden—once the stomping grounds of My Fair Lady's Eliza Doolittle and landmark home to the Royal Opera House—is devoted to culture. Both districts offer an abundance of narrow streets packed with one-of-a-kind shops and lots of character.

The narrow, winding streets of Soho lie to the east of Regent Street and to the south of Oxford Street and are unabashedly devoted to pleasure. Wardour Street bisects the neighborhood, with lots of interesting boutiques and some of London's best-value restaurants to the west (especially around Foubert's Place and on Brewer and Lexington streets), and nightlife central to the east, including London's gay mecca, Old Compton Street, and beyond that, the city's densest collection of theaters on Shaftesbury Avenue. London's compact Chinatown is wedged between Soho and Leicester Square. A bit of erudition surfaces on Charing Cross Road, to the east of the square, famous for its secondhand bookshops, and on tiny Cecil Court, a pedestrianized passage lined with small antiquarian booksellers.

To the east of Charing Cross Road lies Covent Garden, the famous marketplace turned shopping mall. Although boutiques and haute fashion shops line the surrounding streets, many Londoners come to Convent Garden for its two outposts of culture: the Royal Opera House and the Donmar Warehouse, one of London's best and most innovative theaters. The area becomes more sedate just to the north, at the end of Wellington Street, where semicircular Aldwych is lined with grand buildings, and from there the Strand leads to the huge, stately piazza of Somerset House, which contains the many masterpieces on view at the Courtauld Institute Gallery. You'll get a sense of old-fashioned London just behind the Strand, where small lanes are little changed since the 18th century. On the way to the verdant Embankment Gardens bordering the Thames, you may pass the Adam Houses, the remnants of a grand 18th-century riverside housing development, and the Benjamin Franklin House, where the noted statesman lived in the years leading up to the American Revolution.

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