Go Away! To Soho, London

where variety is abundant and affordable, and more than you take in one go

Feature by Marcie Hume | 12 Dec 2006

Soho's reputation for flashy folk and seedy streets is wholly and blissfully true. It whets one's consumerist whistle reading all the cocktail menus that line the streets, but you could spend a weekend inside the whimsical walls of Soho and, without spending any money, never have cause to doubt whether you lived it up enough.

Among all the opportunities to drop some cash on good food at fancy tables, the ancient entertainment of people-watching was never so apropos as it is in Soho. It is a safari park of human behaviour. Teenage hipsters and ageing drag queens mix on the streets. In the afternoon. In winter. Life in a big city is inseparable from non-stop buzzing and boozing activity.

The neighbourhood has four main streets (Frith, Greek, Dean, and Wardour) and many smaller nooks and crannies that you can dive down, always with a glimpse of something curious. The horrifically crowded, commercial and avoidable Oxford Street runs along the top of Soho, while Carnaby Street is a more romantic and pedestrian-friendly option for shopping.

At the bottom of Soho is glorious Old Compton Street, where by day you can stuff your cake hole at Patisserie Valerie, sip coffee in continental style at a street-side table while you rank the most weirdly dressed passers-by, or buy some beans to take back with you from the Algerian Coffee shop, a dwarfish yet shiny Disneyland for coffee lovers.

Excess is in fashion here, and no one's afraid to show it. If you can handle the nightclub scene, pull those crazy shoes you thought you might never wear out of your closet and bust out the eyeliner. Starting early in the evening on Old Compton Street, compact and well-groomed men will hand you flyers for entrance into various clubs. G-A-Y club is a favourite, not just because it's where Big Brother's Grace got her face bashed (a one-stop route to becoming a national landmark). The whole street is festive and a little surreal every night, and there's a reasonable chance of walking past George Michael as he is ogled by the multitudes. If this is all a little extrovert-sounding, the Curzon Cinema is an art-house venue with a killer café downstairs and plenty of solo-movie-goers doing their artsy loner thing.

Soho is a neighbourhood of weird juxtapositions. After the humble but veggie-riffic Berwick Street market ends on Saturday, the street turns into a wonderland of cultural anti-norms. You can peek in the windows of the fair trade shop and observe a meditation group, or turn your head the other way to find mannequins dressed in their skivvies, beckoning in the weirdos standing on the corner (careful!).

London is said to be composed of many small villages, of which Soho may be either the hippest or the filthiest, depending on your age, budget and ideology. But there's no better way to pack the entire world into one weekend away.

http://www.virgintrains.co.uk, and www.gner.co.uk.