Soho is the spiritual – and geographical – center of LGBTQIA+ London. With more gay bars per square mile than any other area, it’s no surprise that when you think of Pride in the UK, this is the first gayborhood to spring to mind. For good reason, too: in fact, this year marks 50 years since the first Pride March in the UK, led by the Gay Liberation Front in 1972. And so be prepared for the rainbow-flag-clad queer community to descend on the neighborhood this weekend in both celebration and protest.
Don’t get us wrong, though, Soho is buzzing on any night of the week, all year long. It's no secret that this is the neighborhood where the sex industry in London Town thrived for more than 200 years. Perhaps, most famously, during the 1895 trials of Oscar Wilde, when it became clear that the writer frequently kissed waiters at the Soho restaurant Kettner’s (recently reopened and now owned by the Soho House Group) and hosted orgies at the Savoy Hotel. Having overcome its ‘center of sleaze’ title and its 1960s heyday, there are only a few licensed sex shops left. Now, however, the ‘hood is permanently filled with people, whether they’re shopping, drinking, eating or here to catch a show. Think mainstream fun, with a queer twist.
Here are our favorite spots.
You can’t really talk about queer history and Soho’s gayborhood without mentioning Comptons on Old Compton Street. It’s been there since the late 1980s, and has an old-school gay pub vibe. If you like sports, this is the spot for you as they always have some kind of sport on – especially rugby. Be warned: it can get quite cruisy.
FYI: Old Compton Street is at the heart of Soho's LGBTQIA+ scene, and you'll find plenty of gay-friendly venues along here and the surrounding streets. The Village on Wardour Street is one of the oldest gay bars in Soho, while The Yard's Victorian courtyard on Rupert Street is a great place for a cocktail.
Fancy a tipple with your haircut? Queer-owned Blade has you covered. This Soho-located hairdressers launched the concept of hairclubbing, and is stocked with rare whiskies and a great beer, wine and cocktail list, too. The space also prides itself on being an open and unique experience for people of all genders and sexualities.
Lina Stores is a bit of a Soho veteran: they’ve been producing fresh pasta on the same site for over 70 years, and they’re still going strong. Not only that, they import and sell authentic Italian produce, and continue to make pasta, cakes, hot dishes and sandwiches, too. The coffee isn’t half bad, either.
Coffee connoisseurs should head to Flat White amidst the Berwick Street Market. It’s here that you can witness the fusion between the Old Soho of street traders, fabric stores and vinyl shops and the New Soho of creative industries, media and fashion — along with grabbing your caffeine fix, of course. Since opening in 2005, Flat White has become a rendez-vous for Soho locals and a haven for Australian and New Zealand expats and travellers desperate for a good coffee in the city.
SHE is the first – ever – lesbian bar on the main strip of Old Compton Street. And it’s actually the only lesbian bar in the whole of London, operating downstairs from Little Ku, meaning that this spot can get packed out. But that’s good news for the female-identifying queer community who are generally forgotten about when it comes to ‘gay’ spaces: almost every city where there are large quantities of LGBTQIA+ people, has a real dearth of spaces for lesbians, queer women and non-binary folk.
“In the past decade, there’s been a real increase in club nights that cater to this demographic, but in terms of physical permanent spaces, it’s very slim pickings. There must be reasoning behind that, but I’m sure most of it’s got to do with misogyny,” states Alim Kheraj, author of ‘Queer London: A Guide to the City's LGBTQ+ Past and Present.’
One of London’s most famous record stores, Sister Ray actually began life as a stall in Camden Market. Fast-forward to today – and its Soho location – its collection is both extensive and in excellent condition, stocking rare records and timeless classics. The friendly and knowledgeable staff are always on hand to help, so don’t be shy about asking for recommendations.
Machine-A is easy to miss on Brewer Street, but it’s a concept store that’s certainly worth the visit. Stocking all the coolest pieces from designers such as Raf Simons, Gosha Rubchinskiy, Maison Margiela and A-Cold-Wall, be prepared to part with some of your hard-earn cash.
One of London’s recent success stories, Bao has gone from street food to permanent sites with undeniable ease, and continues to command huge queues around the block. Their original spot in Soho is still a neighborhood highlight, a great place to pop in for some steamed buns — the signature pig blood cake with bright-yellow egg yolk is a must.
When in the ‘hood, it’s always worth seeing what’s on at Soho Theatre, a great local venue with lots of LGBTQIA+ programming. As a charity and social enterprise, driven by a passion for “the work we produce, the artists we work with and the audiences we attract,” its herstory dates back to the early 1970s as Soho Poly — a small but influential fringe theatre, capturing the excitement and innovation of its time.
Down the street from Comptons, you’ll find Balans — a sleek and sumptuous restaurant in the heart of ‘hood that was established back in 1987. ‘Good food, good times, late into the night’ is their tagline, and so it’s no surprise that you’ll find many a queer Londoner here after having danced their way into the night.
The Photographers' Gallery
The Photographers' Gallery was founded in London's Covent Garden in 1971 and was the first public gallery in the UK dedicated to the medium. Having relocated to Soho, it is now the largest public gallery in the city dedicated to photography, with exhibitions ranging from the latest emerging talent to established artists. Make sure to check out the Soho Photography Quarter (SPQ) – an exciting new cultural space in Ramillies Place, offering free open-air exhibitions and other events on the streets of Soho.