London offers visitors some of the best shopping in the world. There truly is some thing for everyone. Of the many districts that offer a retail experience to visitor’s Soho and Covent Garden are two of the best – shops, cafes, restaurants, night-life, theatre – it’s all here.
Let me take you on a shopping tour of Soho & Covent Garden, and discover some of the most famous places, as well as some of the places that I think are the best in this part of town.
Soho used to be quite a seedy area, with a very alternative vibe but since, at least the early 1990s, it has been in a constant state of gentrification. Given Soho’s location between Oxford Street and Regent Street, change was always inevitable. The changes that I noticed even in the time I was living in London were many. There is still a small red light district and a section with some gay bars but overall things are rather tame these days.
In any case, there is a lot of great stuff to be found in Soho and the whole area has a great vibe. There are a lot of independent shops, and an ever increasing number of great food places to eat at. There are also quite a few good small bars around, although the night-life is a bit tourist focused for my liking, so I don’t really spend much time here at night.
The first stop on this shopping tour of Soho & Covent Garden starts at Golden Square.
When London’s bike hire scheme started these bike stations popped up all over central London quite literally overnight. They are everywhere and are great. Register, get a key, pay, take a bike, drop it off at the nearest station when you are done. Many cities already have a bike hire scheme in place, and it’s a positive step for London. There are always lots of people making use of them.
BAPE (Bathing Ape)
BAPE is a Japanese brand that was founded in 1993. It’s known for having very unique designs and high quality materials. Although I’ve never actually purchased anything from the store, as visit is worth it if only to check out the great designs and artwork on the clothing.
The Nordic Bakery
The fit-out here at Nordic Bakery is exactly like you would find in Scandinavia. Lots of natural materials and clean, simple lines. Home to, in my opinion, the best cinnamon buns in London, and on par with anything I have had in Scandinavia. Do make sure you come here with an empty stomach though, as the cinnamon buns are very filling!
Whole Foods Market
A small selection of organic foods, but absolutely nothing compared to the global organic supermarket chain’s 2 storey mega-store in Kensington.
Update Mar 2013: Since writing this post, a large, fully stocked Whole Foods Market has opened in Soho, just off Regent Street near Piccadilly Circus.
Vintage Magazine Shop
This place sells, as the sign would suggest, vintage magazines. It’s always interesting to see what was on magazine covers back in the day.
Flat White opened up when good coffee and London did not go hand in hand. Started by a Kiwi and and Aussie who wanted, as you can get in Australia, a Flat White. It has a reputation as one of the best coffee places in London and feels just like the ones they have back home.
Flat Whites have become so popular in London that coffee chains Starbucks and Costa Coffee started offering them in 2010.
Sister Ray is a Soho institution that has been going strong for over 25 years in the same location on Berwick Street. It has an extensive and varied selection of music on offer, and lots of vinyl.
Berwick Street, as close as I could get to the cover of Oasis’ 1995 album ”(What’s The Story) Morning Glory ?” Continuing from above, Berwick Street used to be known for its numerous record stores but, as Soho has changed, high rents have forced most of the independents out, and the street is becoming more trendy, with cafes and bars and higher end ”independents” slowly popping up.
Just off Berwick Street is Phonica records. One of my favourite record stores in London, Phonica stocks an amazing selection of vinyl and CDs, and lots of rare things that they are constantly sourcing from around the globe. The focus is on all kinds of electronic music, as well as some funk, soul and hip-hop. They also have small gigs downstairs sometimes.
The Hummingbird Bakery has a reputation as the best place in London to get cupcakes, importing the craze from NYC a few years back. Tourists flock to this place, and its reputation is well deserved.
The original store is on Portabello Road in Notting Hill, with a second location just up from South Kensington tube station. The third store, this one, on Wardour Street in Soho, opened in 2009 and as is the largest of the three. I couldn’t choose between the signature red velvet or the classic taste of chocolate, so I got both, although I also wish I had tried the new lavender one.
Sounds of The Universe
Another one of my favourite record stores, Sounds of the Universe specialises in funk and soul, and has a lot of old reissues that you won’t find anywhere else in London.
Agent Provocateur is one of the most famous lingerie shops in the world, and was founded by Joseph Corre, the son of Vivienne Westwood in 1994.
Busaba Eathai is a popular Thai restaurant chain that has outlets all over London. On some nights, there is a line all the way out the front of the Soho branch. The food is somewhat watered down for western tastes, but is still very good.
Princi Bakery is a boutique bakery from Milan, and has a very good selection of tasty Italian breads, pizzas and cakes. The coffee is top notch too.
Hummus Bros started a few years back and now has two other stores. I used to work close to the Holborn Store and often had lunch here. The servings are decent, the food is extremely fresh and tasty, service is excellent, and the prices are reasonable (although outside of lunch it does become more expensive).
Snog is yet another establishment that started a few years ago, and has since expanded to several locations throughout London. The premise is simple. Plain or chocolate frozen yoghurt, with your choice of a multitude of fresh fruit or sweet toppings. Not quite as good as Pinkberry, but still great.
Foot Patrol had reputation around the world as being an excellent sneaker store, stocking all kinds of rare sneakers from around the world. They had to close a few years back due to prohibitive rent, but are back (albeit as part of the huge JD sports chain), with a snazzy new store. JD sports have insisted that they will stay true to the ethos of the original independent store, and by first impressions, I cannot argue. There were some amazing sneakers in there.
Now let me move this shopping tour of Soho & Covent Garden into Covent Garden. Covent Garden is home to lots of shops, cafes and bars, more name brands and generic stores, but still a selection of independents too.
All Saints, which is a UK based store that sells a good selection of casual clothing.
London’s Adidas Originals store. This store is actually quite disappointing compared to what I have seen in other Adidas Originals stores around the world. All the best stuff is in their Newburgh Street concept store just off Carnaby Street, about a 15 minute walk away.
One of the many Fred Perry stores in London. This one tends to have some interesting items that aren’t at the other stores though.
Monmouth Coffee, on Monmouth Street servers some of the best coffee in London. I always buy my beans from here (or their Borough Markets outlet) and many of the good cafes around London also source their beans from here.
These guys know their stuff, and there is a newsletter that is updated every few months with a detailed description of where all their blends are from, how they discovered the blend, what undertones and flavours there are etc. Very, very good.
Sole has a very good selection of shoes for sale, including a very extensive selection of awesome sneakers, which one needs to try hard to avoid buying unnecessarily!
The Reebok concept store. Worth a look in just to play with the pumps on the 1990s throwbacks.
Another cool little shoe store. Neal Street, in the time I’ve lived in London, has become more and more of a shoe street. There are a stack more shoe shops on this street that I didn’t take photos of.
Size? is a great shoe store – there are outlets across the UK and it’s probably the best there is. It’s certainly my favourite of the lot. They have a very extensive selection of Adidas, Nike, Onitsuka Tiger and Puma sneakers and always have great sales on year round.
Pepe Jeans is a great brand that I hadn’t even heard of before I came to London. Originally a single stall at the Portobello Road Market, they now have stores all over Europe. They have some really good casual clothes and their prices are very reasonable.
Urban Outfitters is a well known US brand that has a few stores in the UK. They sell all kinds of clothes and random bits and pieces, such as ”the book of farts”, ”Chuck Norris vs Mr. T” other useful/useless things.
One of the many Diesel stores in London. Diesel jeans are another item that I have to pull myself away from, as I already own too many pairs.
The popular US clothing label with a focus on sustainable practices and materials.
Generally outside of my price range, but sometimes you’ll stumble across a great item on sale.
I find Ben Sherman to be very hit and miss. Sometimes they have excellent collections, and other times it can be quite underwhelming. It’s certainly always worth a look in to see what they have on offer at any given time.
Zara, the global behemoth is always worth a look in to see what they have.
Ted Baker is one of my favourite brands and has stores all over London. Their collections are generally always good, and come sale time it’s just unbeatable. This store is two stories, dedicated to men (the women’s store is around the corner), and very dangerous for my wallet.
Paul Smith has some great clothes without a doubt, but even on sale, they tend to be too expensive for me. The best option for Paul Smith in London is an outlet store they have just off Bond Street. Often the sizes are awkward at the outlet store, but sometimes you can stumble across something great for cheap.
The Tintin Shop
I want to buy a poster from here of one of the covers, in French, but am undecided on which one to get. I’m leaning towards ”The Seven Crystal Balls”.
Now it’s time to move this shopping tour of Soho & Covent Garden out of Covent Garden and close to Leicester Square.
Cyber Candy. This is a great little shop, and they always have the favourites, as well as limited edition drinks, candies and chocolates from the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Pret is a chain that is everywhere in the UK. Always a good default option for lunch, the price is decent and the selection of sandwiches huge. They make their stuff fresh on premises each day and donate what’s left to homeless charities at the end of the day.
Pizza Express is another chain that is everywhere in the UK. I’m generally very picky about my food and quite anti-chain, but to be fair Pizza Express is pretty decent (they do proper pizza not Pizza Hut or Dominos style), and you can often get 2 for 1 vouchers online.
Back up to Soho, the section that abuts Leicester Square, and Tokyo Diner is one of my favourite places to eat in the area. No nonsense, simple Japanese dishes, good quality, decent servings and well priced.
A few of my favourite grocery stores in Chinatown.
This one has expanded its selection massively since I first arrived. They have about 20 types of Iced tea from Hong Kong, and have even started stocking the Yeo’s brand Kaya spread, as I found out today!
HK Diner in Chinatown offers Londoners authentic Cantonese cuisine. You won’t find it explicitly stated on the menu, but ask for the roast duck on steamed rice and you will be in for a treat. In fact, there is a “Chinese” menu that differs from the one in English. That’s where you’ll find the best stuff.
Keep an eye out for “mullet man”, who seems to be working there 24/7!
I hope you enjoyed my shopping tour of Soho & Covent Garden, and the you’ve seen some great tips for whenever you’re in the city.
Update Mar 2013: Looking through this post in hindsight has been quite interesting. There are certain places not on this list that have become favourites of mine, but it’s still a great list!