Which city has the world’s most exciting nightlife? It’s a debate I’m happy to leave to the DJ sites, but for energy and sheer imagination, London takes a lot of beating.
Here you’ll find big-budget superclubs competing with someone spinning in the upstairs room of a local pub-club. You’ll run into art-school trendy burlesque nights just down the street from hen parties dressed up for the school disco. Round the next corner, the best DJ from New York is playing to 150 dedicated shoe-shufflers under a glitterball and a roof of balloons. Yes, if you know where to look, it isn't hard to find a good party these days.
The first thing to do is decide what you want. If you’re heading to a headline night at a superclub like Fabric, get your tickets in advance and you know you’re sorted. If you’re more interested in finding out what the cool kids are up to in Dalston, expect to do some research on the ground - a lot of the best nights are one-offs or irregular, so talk to people and check out the record shops while you’re here, or before you arrive do some hunting around on myspace or Facebook for interesting networks of London promoters.
The key thing to remember is that the late-night options are worst in London’s West End - its central area. Licensing regulation is in the hands of individual boroughs, not the Mayor and the Greater London Assembly. So it’s easier to stumble into late-opening bars in Shoreditch or Dalston in east London or around Camden in north London than in central Soho. Soho has long been notorious for its wild nightlife, but it is part of the same borough as the Houses of Parliament. Unless you've got a friend in one of the Soho members’ clubs, the best after-hours drinking option in the West End is likely to be an expensive cocktail in a swanky Mayfair hotel bar.
Fabric (77A Charterhouse Street, EC1M 3HN; 020 7336 8898, www.fabriclondon.com) is the one for the connoisseurs, with credible line-ups in an old-school warehouse space that’s surprisingly centrally located, between the City and the West End.
The Ministry of Sound (103 Gaunt Street, SE1 6DP; 0870 060 0010, www.ministryofsound.com), south of the Thames, is still a bit in thrall to the big-budget superstar DJs, but also hosts cooler names. Both clubs are open only on Fridays and Saturdays, but they’ll keep you rocking until breakfast. While you're south of the river, see what's happening at Cable (33A Bermondsey Street, SE1 2EG; 020 7403 7730, www.cable-london.com), a proper old-school rave club in the arches under London Bridge train station.
If day-and-night dancing is your sole aim, also check out the scene around Vauxhall. Once the province of gay muscle boys, clubs like Fire on South Lambeth Road (www.fireclub.co.uk) have been hosting nights for much more mixed audiences over the last few years - albeit with the promoters who are as keen as their predecessors to exploit ridiculously extended opening hours. This is famously the part of town where you start your clubbing odyssey on Friday night and are still jumping, if you’ve got the stamina, on Tuesday morning.
One of the most interesting nightlife developments in recent years has been the increasing prominence of small, more casual clubbing venues. Some mix up DJs and live music, while other are imaginatively re-using former print factories or shops, often on temporary licences. And a lot of column inches have been spent trying to find a good name for a new hybrid pub/club venue - the kind of place that served a Sunday roast and nice pint of ale, but also got together odd combinations of bands and DJs to play for small, packed, sweaty dancefloors. If you’re happy heading out of London's centre, the Star of Bethnal Green (359 Bethnal Green Road, E2 6LG; 07932 869705; www.starofbethnalgreen.com), Paradise by Way of Kensal Green (19 Kilburn Lane, W10 4AE; 020 8969 0098; www.theparadise.co.uk) and the Amersham Arms (388 New Cross Road, SE14 6TY; 020 8469 1499; www.amersham-arms.co.uk) are great examples of this messy take on clubbing.
Boozy clubbing can also be enjoyed in the centre of town. Social (5 Little Portland Street, W1W 7JD; 020 7636 4992; www.thesocial.com) is an old-style DJ bar, set up by Heavenly Records in the 1990s, while the basement of Madame JoJo’s (8-10 Brewer Street, W1F 0SE; 020 7734 3040; www.madamejojos.com) keeps a bit of the Soho spirit alive with a chaotic mix of soul, indie and burlesque nights.
The most exciting clubbing areas of London are in the north and, especially, the east. Shoreditch and, more recently, a bit further north in Dalston are the busiest bits of London nightlife.
Proximity to London’s main financial centre, the City, dictates the type of venue. Shoreditch, nearer the City, is increasingly grown-up, with relatively sophisticated venues like Callooh Callay (65 Rivington Street, EC2A 3AY; 020 7739 4781) and Loungelover (1 Whitby Street, E1 6JU; 020 7012 1234; www.loungelover.co.uk) alongside looser hipster hangouts like dreambagjaguarshoes (34-36 Kingsland Road, E2 8DA; 020 7729 5830; www.dreambagsjaguarshoes.com).
As you head into Dalston, things get wilder, younger, more gay and more self-consciously fashionable: check out the Dalston Superstore (117 Kingsland High Street, E8 2PB; 020 7254 2273) if you’re any or all of those things. The Dalston scene ranges from Café Oto (18-22 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL; 020 7923 1231; www.cafeoto.co.uk), with experimental acts, to longstanding Vortex, are still going strong - along with innumerable ad hoc venues putting on irregular dance nights.
Back in Shoreditch, those wondering what the place used to be like will get a flavour at Plastic People (147-149 Curtain Road, EC2A 3QE; 020 7739 6471; www.plasticpeople.co.uk), and 333 (333 Old Street, EC1V 9LE; 020 7739 5949; www.333mother.com).
Other good options include scruffy music pub the Old Blue Last (38 Great Eastern Street, EC2A 3ES; 020 7739 7033; www.theoldbluelast.com), clubbers’ favourite East Village (89 Great Eastern Street, EC2A 3HX; 020 7739 5173; www.eastvillageclub.com) and Book Club (100-106 Leonard Street, EC2A 4RH, 020 7684 8618, www.wearetbc.com), which hosts a typically bewildering range of nights.
If you get sick of the hipsters, Aquarium (256 & 260 Old Street, EC1V 9DD; 020 7251 6136; www.clubaquarium.co.uk) packs in fright-wigged parties for crowd-pleasing disco nights that make full use made of the club’s pool and jacuzzi.
Camden in north London has been a bit overshadowed by the meteoric rise of Shoreditch and Dalston, but there’s plenty going on along Chalk Farm Road. Proud (Horse Hospital, Stables Market, NW1 8AH; 020 7482 3867; www.proudcamden.com) is the one for nights you wished you could remember, while the nearby Barfly (no.49, NW1 8AN; 020 7688 8994; www.barflyclub.com) is a more studenty take on the same vibe.
Sophisticates can try the extensive bourbon list at the Blues Kitchen (111-113 Camden High Street, NW1 7JN; 020 7387 5277; www.theblueskitchen.com).
The opening of St Pancras International Station south of Camden has led wholescale redevelopment of King’s Cross, much of it rather high-end - this is home to the august British Library, after all. Redevelopment has cost the place several favourite venues, but do check out Pentonville Road: former cinema the Scala (no.275, N1 9NL; 020 7833 2022; www.scala-london.co.uk) still hosts good club nights and gigs, and the Big Chill House (nos.257-259, N1 9NL; 020 7427 2540; www.bigchill.net) manages to balance hipster credentials and a relaxed atmosphere.
For clubbers still missing mad nights at the Cross, the Key and Canvas, three-floor Balearic-styled EGG (200 York Way, N7 9AP; 7609 8364; www.egglondon.net) is still at the party.
A surprise hit on London’s nightlife scene has been burlesque. Not really stripping, although there’s usually some titillation involved, but a broad spectrum of usually camp and theatrical, dressed-up and undressing shows. The scene is involved with any number of vintage and retro revivals, sometimes styling itself on Victorian erotica, sometimes 1920s speakeasies, sometimes ’50s rock ‘n’ roll… sometimes venturing away from entertainment entirely towards the outer edges of performance art. Gay, straight or often somewhere in between, London's burlesque performers might use magic, songs, juggling or anything else they think they can craft into a compelling show.
Key venues are pioneering gay pub venue RVT (372 Kennington Lane, SE11 5HY; 020 7820 1222; www.rvt.org.uk) and, source of many of the trends of the last decade, the down-at-heel Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club (42-44 Pollard Row, E2 6NB; 020 7739 2727; www.workersplaytime.net). Volupte (7-9 Norwich Street, EC4A 1EJ; 020 7831 1622, www.volupte-lounge.com) is a bit more civilised, while the Bathhouse (7-8 Bishopsgate Churchyard, EC2M 3TJ, 020 7920 9207, www.thebathhousevenue.com) is more boisterous.
One great night out in the centre of town is a visit to Soho and Ronnie Scott’s (47 Frith Street, W1D 4HT; 020 7439 0747; www.ronniescotts.co.uk), Britain’s most famous jazz club. It’s an intimate, atmospheric, all-seater venue, with tables gathered right in front of the stage and staggered counter-style seating at the sides. Chelsea’s 606 Club (90 Lots Road, SW10 0QD; 020 7352 5953; www.606club.co.uk) is smaller, and you have to dine to be served alcohol, but the programmes are often good.
In east London, the Vortex Jazz Club (11 Gillet Street, N16 8JN; 020 7254 4097; www.vortexjazz.co.uk) hosts a very varied and often quite out-there programme of acts, while Charlie Wright’s International Bar (45 Pitfield Street, N1 6DA; 020 7490 8345; www.myspace.com/charliewrights) is a good late-night option - gigs don’t usually start until 10pm. Note: there’s no jazz on Saturdays at Charlie’s.
With the BBC and most of the UK’s media industry based here, London is bursting with new comedians eager to make an impression. This means there’s stand-up all over town, every night of the week.
My favourite venues? The Comedy Store (1A Oxendon Street, SW1Y 4EE; 0870 060 2340; www.thecomedystore.co.uk) is both centrally located and excellent, a purpose-designed auditorium where pretty much all the British ‘alternative’ comedians (Alexei Sayle, Dawn French, Ben Elton, Paul Merton) cut their teeth, but I love gigs at the Soho Theatre (21 Dean Street, W1D 3NE; 020 7478 0100; www.sohotheatre.com), where the normal stand-up rule of three acts squeezed into a night is broken to allow single comedians to perform an extended solo show.
One warning: although it’s no longer completely dead, the month of August is pretty quiet on the comedy scene in London. Most comedians and promoters head up to the Edinburgh Festival each year during August to see new acts or be seen by bookers. So come at a different time of year if comedy is a big part of your itinerary.
My selected hotels are strategically located across the city and across the price ranges, so you should find somewhere close to where you’re planning to party.