All Articles Lights, culture, action: A guide to London’s West End

Lights, culture, action: A guide to London’s West End

Museums, food, shopping—it’s much more than just theater.

Melissa Klurman
By Melissa Klurman31 Mar 2024 5 minutes read
West End, people in Leicester Square
Image: Maremagnum/Getty Images

When I was in college, I used to spend a lot of time in London's iconic West End, waiting for cheap rush seats to musicals and dining on pub chips and pints. As I’ve returned over the decades, I’ve discovered that the West End is more than just theater and pub grub.

These days, the area's boundaries extend well beyond the theater district, reaching into posh Mayfair (the place for elegant hotels and high-end shopping) and into Trafalgar Square (where some of my favorite—and free—museums are located).

I recently spent a long weekend soaking up as much fun as I could in the West End, and I’m here to tell you that there’s no better place to base yourself to get all London buzz in just three days. Here’s my highly curated guide.

What to see and do

Woman looking at wall lined with portraits
National Portrait Gallery
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Take a tour: The best way to get to know an area (and shake off jet lag) is to get outdoors and explore with a walking tour. I especially like Look Up London and their insider tours of neighborhoods around the city. For the West End, I tried the “Secret, hidden, and the lost tour,” where my guide, Anthony, pointed out the small details that give personality to the neighborhood. For example, the gold intertwined double-Cs that grace every light pole in the St James section of Mayfair? They’re a literal loveletter from the Duke of Westminster during the 1920s to Coco Chanel, whom he repeatedly asked to marry him. (Who knew, right?)

Museum hop: The National Portrait Gallery just emerged from a three-year renovation this past summer—now, the space is delightfully bright, airy, and open. You can feel history told through the people who lived it here with everything from the legendary life-size portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at her 1559 coronation, decked out in sparkling regalia, to modern renderings of Anna Wintour and her iconic bob.

Next door, the palatial National Gallery is filled floor-to-ceiling with thousands of masterworks. Some of the greatest paintings in the world are here—we’re talking everything from Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks” to Vincent van Gogh’s “Vase with 15 Sunflowers.” Since it’s free to visit, I like to just hit one or two galleries at a time (Room 43 and 44 are two favorites filled with impressionists) to avoid museum overload.

Next up on my art lover’s whirlwind tour is the Royal Academy of Arts, which has been an active art school since the late 18th century and has expanded over the centuries to include masterworks from Michelangelo, cafes and shops, and rotating exhibitions from contemporary artists, like a recent takeover by Marina Abromovic. It’s free to see the permanent galleries, but you’ll need to buy a ticket for the new exhibits. Or, do like I do, and hit the snack bar on the patio for a perfectly prepared latte and some excellent people watching before wandering the free displays in the Collection Gallery.

Tip: Note that while all three of these are free to enter in London, making a free timed reservation ahead of your visit will help you avoid waiting in line.

Exterior of building with red lit-up "The Mousetrap" sign
The Mousetrap
Image: chrissyN65/Tripadvisor

Hit the stores: I love strolling through the Burlington Arcade, an open air shopping gallery filled with aspirational items like diamond rings and vintage Rolex watches. Not in your budget? Me neither. But there’s affordable luxury here, too, from custom lipstick at Code 8 to macarons at Ladurée, and my luxe favorite, Begg & Co Scottish cashmere. The modern and amazingly soft scarves and sweaters are offered in bright pops of color and make the perfect special souvenir with prices that aren’t astronomical (I have it on good authority that Zendaya and Tom Holland are both fans).

Showtime! Shows tend to come and go in the West End, with some exceptions. One you can quite literally always count on seeing is The Mousetrap. It has been running for 70 years and is the longest running show in the world. It’s a classic Agatha Christie whodunit—charming and clever and truly ageless. The 70th anniversary is bringing in the crowds, and my recent show was completely full on a weeknight (there are also rumors it’s about to open on Broadway, so you can say you saw it here first).

Another one of my favorite shows in the West End that seems like it has staying power also has a wonderfully royal tie in: Six, the rock musical about Henry V’s six wives. Those ladies truly rocked (and so does the show).

Tip: Unlike in the U.S., you’ll have to pay to get a program (about 6 pounds). Or, save your money and buy an ice cream at intermission, one of my favorite British theater traditions.

Where to eat

Restaurant interior with wood floors, dining tables, and bar area
Casa do Frango
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Cocktail hour: I love a swanky cocktail spot, and the Swan Bar, hidden inside Maison Assouline (the brand known for its lush coffee table books) is worth a stop. It feels like you've stepped into some rich Londoner's private townhouse. Order one of the expertly crafted cocktails, like the Burnt Mandarin Negroni or the pink-hued Aviation Rosa, while you nibble elegant bites like foie gras toast and caviar.

Lunch done right: Casa do Frango is my new go-to for an affordable West End meal that checks all the boxes when I’m in London. The Portuguese restaurant is spacious and filled with groups of friends digging into the main event: peri peri chicken covered in a tingly red pepper sauce.

Classic dinner: Pretheater dinner classic J. Sheekey is a can’t-miss option before or after a show. The Michelin-approved seafood restaurant has been serving theatergoers since 1896—and no wonder. Its crisp oysters and classic Dover sole are on point. And don’t miss the honeycomb ice cream covered in hot fudge for a decadent dessert.

High tea: For me, it’s not a trip to London without afternoon tea. And there’s no better place to dress up, and feel special, than Afternoon Tea at The Ritz, which has been serving tea time treats for almost 120 years. The room is gilded and glowing, with a piano player tickling the keys while freshly made finger sandwiches, scones, and elaborate petit fours arrive on silver trays. There’s also properly prepared tea in lovely china pots, and champagne on request (yes, please!).

If you can’t get a reservation at the Ritz, there’s another fabulous tea room just down the block at Fortnum & Mason. It’s a multi-level jewel box with an entire floor of tea and tea accompaniments, plus a really lovely selection of fashion, accessories, kids clothes, housewares, and gourmet delicacies throughout the rest of the building.

Decadent dining: Although Wild Honey has a coveted Michelin star, it serves a surprisingly well-priced pre-theater dinner. Actually this was my only regret during my last visit to London—I wish I could have spent the entire night here, instead of dining and dashing off to the next show. (I will be back for the duck and pork terrine en croûte and the signature wild honey ice cream with warm madeleines.)

Where to stay

Modern guest room with orange pillows on bed and an orange chair
Sofitel London St James
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Finding a central location in the West End is the key to taking in all the fun. For this trip, I chose the Sofitel London St James, which is blissfully out of the bustle of noisy nightlife with a location across from St. James Park and ideally located a five-minute stroll from Trafalgar Square—where both the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are located—and 10 minutes from the theater district. This French hotel brand combines Parisian touches (think Diptyque toiletries and abundant croissants at breakfast) with British practicality, including a doorman that hands out piles of umbrellas when it starts to rain and turn-down service that leaves herbal tea by the bedside.

Melissa Klurman
Melissa Klurman is an award-winning travel journalist based in New Jersey. She writes about everything from honeymoons to family travel to amazing African safaris. You can find her work at Brides, Martha Stewart Weddings, Saveur, Islands, Parents, Working Mother, and Reader’s Digest, among others. Follow her on Instagram @mklurman and Twitter @melissaklurman