The term “The West End” is ambiguous but generally refers to a portion of London centered around the Theatre district. Consisting of a wide geographical area in its broadest terms, for the purpose of this post I will focus on Covent Garden, Soho, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus.
The historic heart of the West End is Leicester Square and Covent Garden Market. Leicester Square is the hub of London’s entertainment district, akin to Broadway and every bit as good. My friend and I took the opportunity see the hit musical “Billy Elliott”, a show which received rave reviews when I live in the NYC area but never had the opportunity to watch. Similar to the Big Apple, we picked up discounted same-day tickets at the TKTS booth in Leicester Square.
Once a fruit and vegetable market, today Covent Garden is an upscale tourist mecca filled with branded shops and buskers catering to the masses. None-the-less, it is still a great place to visit and my friend and I took the opportunity to stop in one of the pubs to soak up the atmosphere of such an international melting pot.
To the north of Leicester Square lies Soho, London’s Chinatown. My friend and I spent considerable time there, eating out in a hole-in-the wall Chinese restaurant with good atmosphere, great food and even better prices. We also met up for drinks with an i-banking friend of mine at a little pub. Despite being less than 500 meters from both Leicester Square and Covent Garden, it was well hidden from the tourist masses, resulting in a more authentic London feel. I also took the opportunity to visit the iconic British bookstore Foyles to pick up a few English language books which are in short supply and much more expensive in Copenhagen.
As an aside, Soho is also London’s red light district, although most tourists are unaware of this as it is much smaller and more discrete than the red light districts of other European capital cities.
West of Soho is Picadilly Circus, London’s equivalent of Time Square. Despite the unfair comparison, the surrounding architecture is stunning, particularly the arched buildings lining Reagent Street. This was the first time I visited at night and must admit it was more impressive than what I remembered from my day-time visits and with a lot less tourists.
South of Leicester Square lies Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. Lording over the Square is Nelson’s Monument, a nod to the great British Admiral while to the east lies the beautiful St Martins-in-the-Fields church.
I must admit that of all the art galleries I’ve visited, the National Gallery remains my favourite. It’s not because it has a better collection than other museums, it is not because it is more beautiful than the others, it is simply because it offers high caliber art on a human scale. With a “mere” 2,300 exhibits, it allows you to leave feeling you have accomplished something compared to Museums like the Louvre which leave you overwhelmed. This particular visit to the Gallery was interrupted by a fire alarm, allowing me to people-watch from the base of Nelson’s Monument as I waited to meet up with my friend. A giant clock in the square counted down the hours to the Olympics.
As we left the square, we espied a heavy police presence in the traffic circle, including several officers armed with submachine guns. I recollected previous visits shortly after the 2005 bombings and during the attempted Haymarket Theatre bombing just north of Trafalgar (2007) and wondered if it was déjà vu all over again. Although we never did find out the exact cause, we think it was just protection for some dignitary.