It's Friday night – or the early hours of Saturday morning, to be more precise – and the mood inside Oxford Circus Underground station is rather surreal. Usually at this time, you could expect to be caught up in a mad dash for the last Tube, as booze-fuelled revellers and jaded shift workers scramble to avoid two of the worst plights imaginable: a long and winding journey home on a night bus, or a wallet-draining taxi ride. Right now, the crowds sashaying through the station are noticeably more carefree and smiley. Especially beaming is a gang of thirtysomething women doing a rendition of Lionel Richie's All Night Long (All Night). It's unashamedly cheesy – and very apt. We are, after all, in the realm of the Night Tube.
One of the biggest game-changers in the Underground's 153-year history, this weekend-only service began in September, boosting the British capital's credentials as a bona-fide 24-hour city (and eliminating the Friday and Saturday rush for the last train). Initially covering just two key lines (Central and Victoria), this all-night network was joined by the Jubilee line on October 7 and will take in the Northern and Piccadilly lines by the end of 2016. With trains running roughly every 10 minutes, the Night Tube is a boon not just for Londoners, but for night owl and early bird tourists, too.
A five-minute walk from Oxford Circus, Soho, a long-time bastion of nocturnal activity, is benefiting from the Night Tube knock-on effect. Its warren of narrow streets are lined with eclectic establishments that serve drinks til way after typical pub last orders (11pm). Open until 3am at weekends, Cahoots is one of Soho's newest speakeasy-flavoured joints, a kitsch 1940s Tube-themed affair in a former air-raid shelter. Descend the wooden escalator-style staircase and you'll be greeted by quirky decor – including vintage Underground posters, signs, tiles and seat fabric – and inventive cocktails conjured by staff in period costume and character. It's spiffingly popular, so best reserve a table in advance. Prefer to bar-hop and see where the wind takes you? Opium is worth seeking out. Also open until 3am, this seductively lit, shabby-chic cocktail bar and dim sum parlour occupies three floors of a townhouse in nearby Chinatown. Try its signature Opium #6 tipple (tequila, cactus, pimiento, ginger and oolong tea) with a platter of meat, seafood and vegetable dumplings and barbecued-pork buns. For soothing late-night ambience, head to Ronnie Scott's, London's mecca of live jazz since 1959 (it shuts at 3am, but its "late late" show starts at 1am; pre-book tickets to ensure entry). If you're hankering for a caffeine jolt, pop across the road to Bar Italia, where the air is espresso-scented 22 hours a day (this retro cafe closes at 5am and re-opens at 7am).
An alternative hub of late-night London revelry is Brixton. The southern-most tip of the Victoria line (a 12-minute ride from Oxford Circus), it's dotted with hip venues such as Ekcovision, an intimate cocktail spot nestled under railway arches, and Gremio de Brixton, a Spanish tapas bar, with resident house DJs and live musicians, in the crypt beneath St Matthew's Church. Opposite Brixton station is an eye-catching mural of a man who pulled a few all-nighters in his time, Brixton-born David Bowie (it was painted by Australian street artist James Cochran). In east London, the streets of Shoreditch buzz until dawn (they're within ambling distance of Central line station Liverpool Street). One perennially vibrant Shoreditch hangout is the Horse & Groom, fondly dubbed the "Disco Pub" thanks to its 4am weekend licence and dancefloor-beckoning tunes.
Some of the capital's most alluring 24-hour eateries are fairly close by. For dishes such as crispy leg confit with fried duck egg and mustard maple syrup, plus dazzling views of London's skyline, hit Duck & Waffle on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower. Traditional fry-ups and pie and chips are a speciality round-the-clock at Polo Bar, an old-school British "caff" facing Liverpool Street. On nearby Brick Lane, neighbouring bakeries – Beigel Bake and Beigel Shop – attract queues 24/7. Order the smoked salmon and cream cheese (or hot salted beef) bagels.
The Night Tube can also assist in shedding calories. There are 24-hour pay-as-you-go gyms (thegymgroup.com) near several stations, including Vauxhall on the Victoria line. Vauxhall, incidentally, is home to New Covent Garden Market, Britain's largest flower, fruit and vegetable market. From 4am-10am every day but Sunday, you can roam its aisles to browse and buy a stupendous array of flowers, plants and foliage. Into yoga? 6am classes are held at various locations, including Soho. Check triyoga.co.uk for schedules. Another bonus of being up early – or out late – is experiencing London, and the Tube, without its usual hustle and bustle. The carriages I ride are far from jam-packed and carry a cross section of passengers: largely placid revellers in varying states of intoxication and tiredness, folk travelling to and from work, and the occasional police (extra officers have been drafted in to patrol Night Tube stations and trains). With dawn looming, I take an eerily near-empty Tube to Waterloo, then stroll along a strikingly crowd-free South Bank and onto Westminster Bridge. The sun is creeping up, and with Big Ben to my left, the London Eye to my right, and the River Thames snaking below, it's a magnificent sight for bleary eyes.
Standard off-peak fares apply on the Night Tube. It's best to travel using an Oyster card or Contactless; tfl.gov.uk
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Steve McKenna's trip was supported by Visit Britain
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