Soho and the West End, London
The whole of Covent Garden can be a bit of a tourist trap. The craft market and surrounding shops and stalls have some nice things on offer but in some cases the prices are outrageous. Wherever you go you are likely to encounter some sort of public entertainment, whether it be a lone busker murdering a Bob Dylan classic or a string quartet playing a bit of Mozart (as can be seen in the main picture). Other photos show an impromptu unicycle display on the piazza in front of St Pauls church, where there always seems to be someone making an arse of themselves.
And there is ALWAYS a hat passed around.
All in all Covent Garden is an interesting place to have a stroll around, just keep your wits and possessions about you, think about the price of everything before you hand over any money and be aware that you are in the heart of pick-pocket paradise.
Now don't get me wrong. I ADORE shopping. I love clothes, shoes, bags, make-up, PERFUME (HUGE perfume collector) and maybe sometimes even HATS! I read and re-read in all my guidebooks (I'm a guidebook fanatic) that Oxford Circus was THE place to shop, with stores galore.
Sorry, but Selfridges was a Bloomingdales look-a-like and when I tried finding Vivienne Westwood all they had was her Red Label! (same as Harrods...just her Red Label!)
Anyway, avoid Oxford Circus. It's filled with very loud and obnoxious tourists wearing ugly white trainers (I thought people were seriously kidding about white trainers! I didn't think anyone still wore white trainers!) Now, they're not even nice and loud tourists...they're obnoxious! Seriously, when you see the public loos/bathrooms, please don't scream and point out that it says "Toilet" in public. It doesn't look very pretty.
But Oxford Street has outrageously priced clothing, outrageously priced restaurants, and outrageously priced touristy booths. I tried shopping there one weekend and I had the worst headache of my life being pushed and shoved. Blech.
I mean, they DO have Laura Ashley's flagship store, but the atmosphere is way too "Times Square" for me. :-/
Unique Suggestions: Go when its less crowded to do your shopping in peace. Unless you like huge crazy crowds of really, really loud people, go during the weekdays or something. And keep your bag close by.
Fun Alternatives: Markets! Markets don't sell just antiques and food/fruit/meat. They also sell clothes! Really nice clothes too, sometimes you find designers! And they're so much fun and the things you see are just so random and cool. Notting Hill is obviously one of the more popular ones (CRAAZY on saturdays) but there's also one down in Elephant-something (southside of Thames) and up around the Angel station. Also check out the Spitalfields Market on the East End or the meat markets at Smithfields.
Covent Garden, although very touristy, is quite nice, i think. There are a lot of performing actors/actresses and singers and musicians. Saw an AMAZING opera girl singing there one weekend. Absolutely loved the short little concert! There's plenty to see in Covent Garden, but if you're taking the Tube there on the weekend, don't get off at Covent Garden. Alight at one of the nearby stops. Seriously, everything's within walking distance in central London and there's no need to bury yourself underground. Walk around. Walking is seriously underrated.
There was a time when provincial people such as myself looked in awe at the shops and the fashions on Oxford Street. London people , especially young people were so much better dressed than anyone else and the shops in Oxford Street out of another world. 30 years on and you cannot tell a Londoner from any other English person, the shops are no better than at say the Trafford Centre or Meadowhall. So if you are from overseas or the middle of nowhere in England Oxford Street may hold some attraction but if not do not bother. Lots of tacky tourist stalls and shops that fleece tourists - don't bother.
Unique Suggestions: Do however see John Lewis' department store - this is still the best shopping experience in Oxford Street. Good product lines, knowledgeable staff and a well presented shop. If only they were all like this.........
Fun Alternatives: If you want good shopping take short train rides to Bluewater in Kent or Lakeside in Essex. Or in London itself and not far from Oxford Street the new Westfield shopping centre.
Visiting Oxford Street is one of the least enjoyable things one can do but probably one of the things the majority of visitors end up doing. Its full of hawkers and priced for tourists. Above all, its teaming with visitors who will return home whose impression of London will be developed after a visit there. I would avoid it. If you are a shopaholic, visit the Kings Road instead or a smaller alternative area eg Spitalfields Market, Covent Garden or Portobello. Vote with your wallet, boycott the chains is what I say. Give your hard-earned cash to the little guy. You will not only have a unique item, you will be putting a smile on someone face and bread on the table for their family!!!!
Unique Suggestions: Avoid buying fake perfume, never buy items whose packaging you cannot recycle, keep a firm hold of your wallet and handbag (Oxford Street is generally safe but there are pickpockets). Do not be drawn in by the glitzy window displays!!!! If you have to go, I would only recommend putting up with this in the January sales when you may be able to pick up what you NEED for a bargain!!! I can hear the ladies thinking - Stop me if you can!!!!!
Fun Alternatives: Kings Road (Quiter but still full of chain shops). Full of wealthly Sloane Rangers.
Recommend the Markets of Portobello (Saturday only), Camden (Sunday) or Spitalfields (Sunday). Also Covent Garden Market (although does get very busy).
Oxford Street is crowded and not just a little bit frustrating, but there are some great flagship stores, (Topshop and HMV to name a couple)
But whatever you do, DON'T walk through the top end, i.e. the part between Tottenham Court Road tube station and Oxford Circus! It's full of nasty tacky shops selling rubbish. Really, it isnt worth your time or money!
Unique Suggestions: If you have to visit the area, at least take a bus through it and ony get off if something really grabs your eye. Stick to the lower end with the department stores.
Fun Alternatives: If you want stores without the hassle, try Covent Garden or Kensington High Street
You may be propositioned by attractive ,scantily clad young ladies as you wander round the touristy bits of Soho ( the bits with the sex shops -live shows ) to go and have a drink with them. However this drink may cost several hundred pounds and she aint going to take you home afterwards.
Unique Suggestions: Ask yourself if you get asked in to a " bar " , " am i really that good -looking " and " why is she wearing a bikini top in February " also avoid places with lots of neon , or suggestive names , i never saw a clip joint called the Dog and Duck. Whatever you do don't try and fight your way out as one of the hostesses was murdered in Archer street recently and the bouncers are likely to be a bit jumpy.
Fun Alternatives: Go to Stringfellows or Sunset Strip like any respectable pervert, you can amuse yourself between dances by spotting C list celebrities and crap footballers.
Avoid the bottom end of Oxford Street / Tottenham Court Road. Its nasty and dirty and the shops are full of over-priced tat.
Try not to trip over the beggars!
Fun Alternatives: If you are in that area and are looking for a decent restaurant (or if you have been to see a show at the Dominion), carry on further up Tottenham Crt Road and turn left into Goodge Street by the Tube Station (about 10 minutes walk). There are a number of good places along Charlotte Street and you won't have to dodge beggars and drunks etc. (Thai Metro was pretty good last time I went)
Picadilly Circus is a traffic bottle neck, Leicester square is pedestrian square a short distance away. There are a few large attractions on Picadilly like the Hippodrome and Rock Circus both of which are way over priced. The movie theatres on Leicester square are horrendously priced and some of the restaurants that we saw were as well. There are quite a few kitchy souvenir shops and kiosks too but souvenirs are a dime a dozen in London and you'll find nicer stuff elsewhere, probably cheaper too.
Unique Suggestions: It *is* pretty neat to see Picadilly circus lit up at night with all that neon. Sort of like Times Square but once you see it once, that's all you need to do. Leicester Square has the half price theatre ticket booth but i personally prefer to call the theatre or book tickets on the internet to be sure to get what i want.
Fun Alternatives: For souvenir shopping, walk back a few blocks into Soho or go up along Bayswater road or near the Queensway tube stop. Same stuff, cheaper. Covent Garden has a lot of places as well and it's not far away. It's far more interesting for people watching as well.
This may have been the centre of swinging London in the 60's but it's nothing now. There are a few clothes and tacky souvenir shops and that's about it.
Unique Suggestions: Take a walk through as you go in between Oxford Street and Regent Street but don't expect too much.
The theatre scene in London is famed the world over. But the whole experience is so expensive and invariably awful! First of all you have to call ticketmaster (as a former employee i know how much they charge and overcharge and overovercharge, with all their booking fees and breathing in and out fees) and get ripped off, then sit through three hours of West End drivel, badly acted by so-called professionals, sitting a million miles above the stage so you need a neck like a giraffe to see, paying loads for drinks in the lobby then needing to use the toilet during the boring predictable love scenes, rushing a meal down beforehand and then rushing to the pub afterwards for five minutes of a three pound pint just to be told, sorry, sir, eleven o clock everybody OUT!
If that's what you call a night out, you can stick it.
Unique Suggestions: Well, the Lion King is meant to be brilliant, as is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I'm intrigued by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, too, who play at the Criterion in Piccadilly Circus. their Complete Works of shakespeare (abridged), Complete history of America (abridged), and the Complete Word of God (the Bible abridged) are supposed to be an absolute hoot. It's less expensive too, and less ennuyeux.
Fun Alternatives: Try a smaller theatre venue, on the Fringe. See something worthwhile by true artists, not big-buck merchants. Go to a theatre-bar, so you can have a relaxing drink afterwards, perhaps with the cast. The Kings Head in Islington, maybe, or even the Royal Court in Sloane Square, more renowned and cutting-edge than any typical WestEnd fare.
I probably consider Oxford Street to be a tourist trap because I went up and down and saw nothing other than overrated shops. And it didn't help that part of the street had some cranes and other under construction equipment. I don't know, my companion sort of nagged about it in a way that I felt like I "had to go there"...
Unique Suggestions: If traveling during the warmer seasons, take a gelato (ice cream) from the cart that's in front of Angus Steak House in my picture (sorry for the reflection - I was on a bus.) They were yummy and not so expensive!!!!
Fun Alternatives: Perhaps Piccadilly is more of a tourist trap but I liked it better.
The Christmas illuminations in Oxford Street and Regent Street are disappointing. The 2009 lights were based on the Disney movie A Christmas Carol but as the photo shows this was more or less all there was to see along Oxford Street every few yards.
In Regent Street the 2009 lights were the same as 2008 - illuminated netting that is strung across the street. Quite effective when you see it the first time but by year 2 not so good. Most provincial city's have better displays.
Fun Alternatives: Covent Gardens lights are quite good as are the lights at Westfield shopping centre.
DO avoid, the night clubs around Leicester square, they are for..tourists..
nothing wrong with being a tourist, but acting like one should be a criminal offense.
Cafe de Paris is another NO GO area, it's full of people with an attitude problem and the drinks are extremely expensive, dont expect a smile or a "thank you" in this place, it's just not on.
Avoid Trafalgar Square around the New Year! We also heard the warnings from TV but we jumpped off on the wrong tube station and we found us.... Trafalgar Square. There wasn't anything happening, People just wanted to gather there and wait the midnight there. There was lots of Bobbies to calm the situation.
The first couple of hundred metres of this road are lined with the tackiest of hard-sell hi-fi and camera shops. Somebody I otherwise respect once compared it to an Arab souk, but that seems pretty far-fetched to me! I always feel I need a bath after going along here.
Unique Suggestions: Go the the north end, where there are good Indian restaurants nearby as well as Heal's famous furniture shop. Or the streets to the west for the pubs, cafés and Greek restaurants of the area known as 'Fitzrovia' (after Fitzroy Square).