Get happy: five places to play games

Had enough culture, food and specialist shopping for now? Here’s something different: today we’re focusing on pure fun, from laser shoot-outs and eye-popping arcade machines to traditional pub games (surprisingly rare in the West End, but there if you know where to look). Switch your brain off, grab some friends and turn London into your personal playground…

Laser Tag at Trocadero

Laser Tag was HUGE in the 90s, but there are fewer around than there used to be. Remind yourself how much hectic, silly fun it can be at Star Command, a large, high-tech arena at the Trocadero. There’s the obligatory scene-setting intro, followed by 20-40 minutes of combat, complete with crazy visuals and surround sound. Sophisticated it ain’t, but it’s immersive and energetic, and with capacity for 35 players you can count on some serious gameplay. Book ahead if you’re a large group, but small ones and individuals can usually turn up and play.

  • Address: London Trocadero, 7-14 Coventry Street, Piccadilly Circus, W1D 7DH
  • Walking time: 12 minutes

Bowling at All Star Lanes and Bloomsbury Bowling

If you prefer your ten-pin bowling with a side of retro Americana, you’re in luck – both our nearest alleys have an cool, Atomic Age vibe that pulls in young and fashionable crowds. All Star Lanes is a little closer, but Bloomsbury has a couple of karaoke rooms too – other than those differences, you can expect great diner-style food, a soundtrack of rockabilly, psych and pop, and a decent range of beers and cocktails at both, with the party continuing to 2am on weekend nights. They’re not the large bowling alleys you get in the suburbs, so book ahead if you’re a big group or want a lane on Friday or Saturday night.

  • Address: All star: Victoria House, Bloomsbury Place, WC1B 4DA / Bloomsbury: Tavistock Hotel, Bedford Way, WC1H 9EU
  • Walking time: All Star: 16 minutes / Bloomsbury: 24 minutes

Pool and darts

Once we’d have had a third game to mention, because the Glasshouse Stores, near to Piccadilly Circus, used to have a rare Bar Billiards table. Sadly the table vanished a few years ago, but in its place is a dartboard – now equally rare in West End pubs. Ask at the bar for darts, and expect to leave a small returnable deposit for them. For pool, try The Angel in Covent Garden, which, like Glasshouse Stores, is a Sam Smith’s pub – a testament to the brewery’s commitment to retaining traditional interiors in a rapidly modernising part of town.

  • Address: Glasshouse Stores: 55 Brewer Street, W1F 9UL / The Angel: 61-62 St Giles High Street, WC2H 8LE, UK
  • Walking time: Glasshouse Stores: 16 minutes / The Angel: 12 minutes

Arcade games at Namco Funscape

This large, family-friendly complex near Westminster Bridge features bowling, an adventure play area for the little ones, karaoke and even bumper cars – but the arcade is the main event. Namco are a big name in arcade machines, so expect everything from the latest hi-tech dancing platforms and shoot-em-ups to funfair classics like claw machines and whack-a-moles. It’s the very opposite of peace and quiet, but if you’re into gaming, this is the place to come.

  • Address: Westminster Bridge Road, Riverside Buildings, SE1 7PB
  • Walking time: 20 minutes (or take the RV1 bus to the London Eye and walk from there)

Overrated?: Three attractions to do differently

Negative? Not us. But there are a couple of local attractions that people typically approach the wrong way, and we’re here to help. All three are treasured bits of London – you just need to know how to get the best out of them…

Climbing The Monument

We like the Monument itself – from the ground, especially from a distance, it’s a unique, elegant addition to the skyline. We’re even quite fond of the climb to the top, which does wonders for the calves and earns you a certificate to prove you did all 311 steps. The problem is the view from the top. It isn’t the Monument’s fault that several equally tall and rather dull structures surround it, nor that King William Street and Gracechurch Street are busy; but the result is that visitors end up looking at traffic queues and the sides of office blocks through thick wire mesh.

Instead: Admire Monument from the ground, then walk up Gracechurch Street and go to Leadenhall Market. Though no longer a working market, it still has gorgeous wrought iron canopies and stunning red and gold shopfronts. Go during the day – it’s a favourite haunt of City traders and gets congested in the evening, particularly later in the week.

Seeing Tower Bridge rise

Again, the structure itself is a marvel. What’s less inspiring is seeing it rise close up. There’s a thrill as the pavement parts, but after that it becomes a piece of road coming very slowly towards your face – and tarmac doesn’t become more interesting the closer it is. When the raising is over, you’ve no choice but to keep staring at the tarmac until a boat has passed, the road is back in position and normal service has been resumed. And the boats generally take their time. In all, it isn’t the most exciting 10 minutes London has to offer.

Instead: It genuinely is worth watching Tower Bridge rise, but do it from the riverbank – it’s more dramatic from a distance, and you don’t have to hang around staring at a piece of pavement. It’s also worth checking out the Tower Bridge Exhibition, which begins in the northern tower – it takes you up into the bridge’s high-level walkways and down into its jaw-dropping engine rooms.

Hanging out at Piccadilly Circus

The fact that Piccadilly Circus is seen as an attraction in its own right baffles most Londoners – it’s really a traffic interchange with a neon sign above it. And while the Eros statue makes a good meeting point and photo opportunity, even the most hardened London-lover will admit that the Circus is hardly Times Square. The appeal of this spot is actually its centrality: it’s where upscale areas like Mayfair and St James’s meet the rough-and-tumble West End ones like Soho and Covent Garden. Hence the amount of money spent on the station – it was a genuine marvel when it opened, and the retail space you can see around the circular foyer was once full of chic boutiques. But even then, people were coming to Piccadilly Circus to go somewhere else, not to hang out there.

Instead: Do what Londoners do. Look around the station to get a sense of its glory days, then shop on Regent Street (or Mayfair if you’re feeling flush) eat and drink in Soho, trot down Piccadilly to see a show at the Royal Academy, or lounge around in St James’s Park. And if you must, get a photo with Eros too.

Guided walks in Covent Garden and the City

We encourage guests to walk as much as possible – it’s the best way of getting to know our fascinating neighborhood, whether you’re heading north to Covent Garden, west to Soho or east to the City. And while it’s great exploring on your own, there’s nothing quite like a good guide to take your understanding of a place to the next level. Each of these three guided walks comes with a twist: get into places you’d never see alone, find some off-the-beaten-track pubs, and find out about the dark side of St Paul’s and the City. Enjoy…

Behind Closed Doors

Starting at Covent Garden tube, this walk is about discovering interiors you’d never normally find – or never be allowed into. You’ll see the stunning Floral Hall at the Royal Opera House, with a barrel-vaulted glass roof and intricate ironwork; enter the baroque Royal Courts of Justice on Fleet Street (both guides have legal backgrounds); and admire St Clement Danes, the Christopher Wren church with ties to the Royal Air Force. It finishes up near the incredibly ornate Old Bank of England, a 19th-century pub with a huge island bar, glass screens and wood panelling.

  • When: Tuesdays at 10.30am
  • Start: Covent Garden underground station (six minutes’ walk north through Covent Garden market)
  • Fee: £9 per person (£7 concessions). No booking required
  • Full details of Behind Closed Doors

The Old City Ghost Walk

It often comes as a surprise to non-Londoners that the City, abuzz with financial services workers, lawyers and other professionals from Monday morning to the small hours of Friday night, is almost eerily quiet over the weekend. This tour takes full advantage of the deserted streets, taking you down spooky alleys and into the shadows of centuries-old buildings as dark falls on Saturday evening. Led by Blue Badge guide Richard Jones, author of Haunted Britain, it’s great fun – atmospheric rather than genuinely scary – and gives you a chance to learn more about the ancient heart of the capital.

Hidden Pubs of Old London Town

This one starts at Temple underground station, just a short walk from the hotel. The actual pubs are a closely-guarded secret, but they’re all out-of-the-way places you’d never find on your own – and you get a proper stop in at least three. You’ll be exploring the fascinating warren of alleys, courtyards and streets either side of Fleet Street, touching on some of London’s famous Inns of Court and passing the beautiful Middle and Inner Temple gardens. There’s literary history too, with connections to Dr. Johnson, Oscar Wilde and William Shakespeare. It’s run by the multi-award-winning London Walks.

Vintage shopping

When pop star Lily Allen closed the Soho vintage boutique she’d set up with half-sister Sarah Owen, few Londoners were very surprised. It’s not that there isn’t a market for vintage – the problem is that there is one, and it’s already served by a small but well-loved troop of shops in the West End (it might also have been Lily and Sarah’s prices, but in fairness they’re still going strong online). Our pick includes a buzzy generalist with a 30-year history, an exchange that’ll buy your old clothes too – subject to them being any good – and finally an elegant store for menswear geeks.

Rokit Covent Garden

Rokit began life as a Camden Market stall in the late 80s, and has grown to a mini-chain of four stores across town. With a central team of buyers, finders and restorers, it’s a real generalist – expect rare denim, faded band t-shirts, glam dresses from the 50s, odd military pieces and much more. And it’s a fashion-conscious operation too (current trends they’re riffing include ‘90s Men’s Rave’, which we’re fully on board with), so you won’t find yourself digging through racks and racks of unwearable items before finding something you can picture stepping out in. Our local branch is on one of Covent Garden’s quieter back streets, near the fantastic Cross Keys pub.

  • Where: 42 Shelton Street, WC2H 9HZ
  • Walking time: 8 minutes

Bang Bang

Bang Bang isn’t just a vintage shop – it’s a bona fide clothing exchange that both buys and sells from its visitors. We’ve got two branches within walking distance: the Drury Lane shop around the corner caters for women only, while the Berwick Street shop over in Soho stocks menswear in the basement. The Bang Bang ‘look’ is eclectic, but tends towards the bright and bold; they also take in unworn samples from designers, so you’ve got a chance of finding some real bargains.

  • Where: 9 Berwick Street, W1F 0PJ
  • Walking time: 15 minutes

The Vintage Showroom

Stepping upmarket, here’s a very special menswear shop occupying a former ironmonger’s in Covent Garden. Initially formed as an archive for collectors Douglas Gunn and Roy Luckett, the business started with an appointment-only showroom over in Notting Hill, adding this retail outlet at Seven Dials in 2009. It’s a nice space too, all bare floorboards, vintage photos and dark wood display cases, with particularly striking garments hung high on the walls. While less casual than Rokit or Bang Bang, it’s nevertheless fun to browse in, and real clothing geeks will be in seventh heaven.

  • Where: 14 Earlham Street, WC2H 9LN
  • Walking time: 11 minutes

History in the streets: four statues and monuments to look out for

London’s an old, rich, layered place. If you know where to look, you can find its curious details, characters and stories written into the streets – and that makes every trip and every walk more interesting. Start by keeping an eye out for these four hidden and not-so-hidden objects in our neighbourhood. Each one’s near major attractions and restaurants, and some don’t even require a detour from main thoroughfares…

Eleanor Cross

The story of the Eleanor Crosses starts not in London but in the village of Harby in Northamptonshire. In 1290 the little village saw the death of Eleanor of Castile, the wife of King Edward 1. The grieving king commissioned a series of ornate crosses to mark the 12-night journey that brought her body back to London, and the last cross stood in Trafalgar Square. The original was in wood and stood at the top of Whitehall – this version is a Victorian replica erected by the Southern Rail Company in 1865. It may not be 100% authentic, but it’s a striking monument to one of medieval Britain’s most moving stories.

In the area: Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, and St Martin’s Church. For refreshments, try the fantastic wine bar Terroirs and celebrated real ale pub The Harp.

A Conversation with Oscar Wilde

It took several years of campaigning from a group of prominent Oscar Wilde fans – including director Derek Jarman and the actors Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellan – to secure backing for a statue of the writer and wit. Maggi Hambling’s design was chosen from a short list of six, and depicts Wilde rising from one end of a bench in full conversational flow, a cigarette hanging from his hand. Opinion on the piece is divided – one Telegraph writer said “hideous is too gentle a word for it.” Astonishingly, despite being erected in the 90s, it was Britain’s first official public monument to Wilde.

In the area: As above – A Conversation with Oscar Wilde is just around the corner from the Eleanor Cross.

Hodge the Cat

It wasn’t fashionable to like, let alone keep, cats in Dr Johnson’s London. But the formidable and traveller was nothing if not a contrarian, and keep a cat he did. Hodge is believed to have been black, and was fed on oysters, which Dr Johnson insisted on buying himself. He’s brought back to life in Gough Square, near Dr Johnson’s House, by a cute statue – sculptor John Bickley has him sitting on a copy of Johnson’s famous dictionary with two empty oyster shells. The inscription “A very fine cat indeed” comes from Johnson himself, as reported by his friend and biographer James Boswell.

In the area: The Dr Johnson’s House museum itself. For refreshments, it has to be Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a cavernous, historic pub that is traditionally associated with Johnson – though historians insist there’s no evidence he ever drank there.

Temple Bar marker (and dragon)

This one is hard to miss – it stands right in the middle of the road outside the Royal Courts of Justice, and marks the spot where the City of London meets the City of Westminster. It marks the place where a barrier was erected to regulate trade entering the City. It is first recorded in the 13th Century, but the current marker was unveiled in 1880. A more elaborate gate by Christopher Wren stood here from 1672 to 1878 – it was removed but not destroyed, and is now at the entrance to the Paternoster Square development beside St Paul’s.

In the area: While you can’t do much at the Royal Courts of Justice, they’re impressive from the outside; and just over Fleet Street is Somerset House and the Courtauld Gallery. For refreshments, try 28-50 Wine Workshop and Kitchen on Fetter Lane.

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