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Soho Hotels, History and Culture Guide

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Soho is one of the most creative, eclectic, edgy, fun and exciting areas of London with a long and very interesting story! Our guide to the history, culture, restaurants and hotels in Soho will give you everything you need to know about one of London’s most famous areas.


The Most Exciting and Energetic Area of London

The one square mile of Soho has traditionally been the centre of London’s music and entertainment scene and is bordered by Oxford Street to the north, Regent Street to the west, Leicester Square to the south and Charing Cross Road to the east. Adjacent to Piccadilly Circus, Chinatown and Covent Garden, you can see why it’s so jam-packed with entertainment and nightlife!

Sitting just west of Soho is Mayfair, one of the world’s most exclusive (and expensive!) areas – it’s hugely popular with business travellers, locals and tourists, ensuring that there’s a wealth of bars, clubs, restaurants and hotels near Soho which are constantly abuzz with activity.

With a Bohemian ‘open-all-night’ vibe, Soho is full of quirky boutiques, great restaurants, a wide range of clubs, bars and characters that have been on the ‘Soho scene’ for years!


Hotels in Soho, London

When you stay in Soho, you are literally in the epicentre of London. You are just a few minutes’ walk from world-famous restaurants, bars, clubs, cafés, pubs and shopping as well as the bookshops and ephemera of Charing Cross Road, the stages of Theatreland, the dim sum of Chinatown and the bright lights of Leicester Square.

If you’re coming to London on business or as a tourist, you have the option of everything from apartments, hostels and motels to top end luxury suites. Among the best known hotels near Soho, London, is the Rathbone, which is ideally situated just a stone’s throw from the action, yet quietly tucked-away in the peaceful surroundings of Charlotte Street. The Rathbone offers a perfect combination of style, comfort and understated elegance that has seen the hotel win a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor and guests who return time and again.


The History of Soho

A definitive answer to the question ‘why is Soho called Soho’ has, it seems, been consigned to history, but the most likely answer can be found in the late 17th century. In the 1630s, the area was called Soho (no-one knows by whom or why) but the word ‘soho’ was used as a rallying call by James Scott, the 1st Duke of Monmouth for his men at the Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset in July 1685.

Since it was adopted by London’s entertainment district, other cities followed suit and you’ll now find a Soho in New York, Hong Kong, Malaga and Buenos Aries.

Until the mid-1500s, the area was farmland until King Henry VIII proclaimed it a royal park for the Palace of Whitehall. A century later, the Crown granted a lease to Henry Jermyn, the 1st Earl of St Albans for Soho Fields (now Soho Square) as it was known. He then sub-let 19 of the 22 acres to Joseph Girle who passed the lease to a bricklayer called Richard Frith (who is said to have kept his tools in the wooden ‘shed’ that sits bang in the middle of the square) who started to build.

In the late 1600s, London was becoming overcrowded so the powers that be decided to build residences in Soho and people like Frith, William Bentinck and Robert Sidney started the development of the area.

It was the intention of these men to create an area fit for London’s moneyed classes, essentially to replicate the surrounding models of Marylebone, Bloomsbury and Mayfair but the plan backfired and the wealthy aristocratic few who moved into Soho Square and Gerrard Street soon moved out again.  In fact it never fulfilled its ambition to be ‘another Mayfair’ and the often clearly demarked disconnect between Soho and the rest of the West End has endured.

Over the following decades and centuries, Soho remained a largely neglected pocket of London and – as with a lot of areas that fall into disrepair (not just in London but all major cities) – it became a collecting point for immigrants, most notably the late 17th century French Huguenots and it quickly became known as London’s French quarter. The French church, otherwise known as the ‘Eglise Protestante Française de Londres’ in Soho Square was founded by the Huguenots and there are a number of French cafés, restaurants, bookshops and emporia still around the area.

At the same time as the upper classes were leaving, the theatres, drinking dens and music halls of the 19th century moved in and Soho made a name for itself as an area associated with the more colourful, flamboyant aspects of life. A reputation it still maintains, willingly or not!

Despite what we may like to think, Soho wasn’t all Bohemia, booze and brothels. While studying the 1854 outbreak of cholera in the area, Dr John Snow (for whom the John Snow pub on the corner of Broadwick Street and Lexington Street is so named) identified the cause as a public water pump on that corner. He mapped the sick and decreed that they all must have used that particular pump. It was subsequently determined that the spring from where the water was being drawn was contaminated with sewage – an early but vitally important example of epidemiology – the germ theory of disease – in a crisis.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th, Soho began to attract writers, intellectuals and artists and with the proliferation of cafés, restaurants and drinking houses, it gave the pseudo-literati places to gather, talk, ruminate and generally put the world to rights.

The story goes that London’s Soho hotels, guest houses and pubs were so packed with potential literary giants getting drunk every night (and most days) that none of them stayed sober for long enough to become successes! This was also the age of the Soho ‘characters’, mainly landlords but including people like Spectator journalist Jeffrey Bernard, poets Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan, artist Francis Bacon and latterly Lucian Freud, George Melly and Damien Hurst.

Fast forward to the years after the Second World War and the music scene exploded in Soho. The working class roots of blues and jazz found their natural home in Soho and venues like Club Eleven, the Cy Laurie Jazz Club and the 51 Club played to packed crowds. Skiffle, jive and rock flourished at world-famous venues like Ronnie Scott’s, the 2i’s Coffee Bar, the Flamingo Club, Whisky a Go-Go and the Marquee Club. Although they have mostly closed now, Denmark Street was affectionately known as ‘Tin Pan Alley’ because of the number of shops that sold musical instruments.

Today, Soho is undergoing a gentrification reminiscent of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s transformation of the area around Times Square in New York in the 90s (and similar to the regeneration of areas like Shoreditch, Old Street and Hoxton). The ‘less desirable’ elements were moved out and the creative agencies, TV production companies and Starbucks clones were moved in. While there are moves afoot via the ‘Save Soho’ campaign backed by stars such as Stephen Fry, Rob Brydon, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Izzard to halt this gentrification – Stephen Fry went as far as saying he didn’t want the area to look like ‘Singapore Airport’ – it seems like it’s happening.


Soho – Eat, Drink…

Whatever you’re in the mood for, you can find in Soho. World-class dining rooms in the shape of Michelin-starred Pollen Street Social, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Gymkhana, Benares and Hibiscus are on your doorstep with some of them located in the best hotels in Soho. You will also find food from almost every country in the world, super-cool street food stalls, pop-ups and the biggest craze sweeping London – the gourmet burger. There’s a pub or wine bar on every corner and if you stay at the Rathbone, our concierge will give you all the help you need booking tables, theatre tickets, cabs and indeed anything you need to make your stay as comfortable as possible.


…and Shop!

If you’re looking for high-end designer, go to Bond Street. While Soho does have its fair share of big brand fashion labels, it’s a haven for quirky vintage boutiques, second-hand stores, jewellery, arts and crafts, record shops, bookshops, and ephemera of all sorts. We can assure you that you’ll never be bored exploring the narrow lanes and famous streets of Soho.


Travelling to Soho

If you’re travelling to London, there are plenty of Soho hotels to choose from and they are all extremely easy to get to. The closest tube stations are Leicester Square (Piccadilly and Northern Lines), Covent Garden (Piccadilly Line), Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly and Bakerloo Lines) and Tottenham Court Road (Northern and Central Lines) and there are dozens of bus routes from where you can get all over London. You’re also close to the mainline stations of Kings Cross St Pancras, Charing Cross and Euston and should you be so inclined, there are lots of ‘Boris Bikes’ for hire.


London Soho Hotels – Why Choose The Rathbone?

If you want a hotel in Soho with a reputation for excellent customer service and all the amenities and facilities you’d expect from a quality London establishment then the Rathbone is for you.

Our 72 beautifully decorated air-cooled rooms are spacious and welcoming and give you enough space to work and relax. The hotel boasts super-fast wi-fi, in-room refreshments, continental and traditional English breakfast, 24h reception and all the mod-cons you’d expect from a top London hotel.

Ultimately, we believe the Rathbone ranks among the best hotels in Soho, and we’d like to think our guests would say the same!


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08 December 2023