Oscar Wilde's London: Then and Now

Experience the capital through the eyes of the great Irish playwrite

For centuries, London has been an inspiration for great writers—so for the young Irish poet Oscar Wilde, there was only one place to be after graduating from Oxford University in 1874.

Soon after arriving in London, he was mingling with Victorian high society. In addition to his highly satirical plays, he also gave hundreds of lectures, wrote poems and the novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray".

Despite Wilde’s literary success, it was overshadowed by his personal life. Even now, it is his vivacious personality, supreme wit and love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas—then an open secret in London—that fascinates us most. It’s more than a century now since Wilde was imprisoned for his homosexuality. Thankfully, while those laws are history, his plays live on and many of his favorite London hangouts remain intact.

Oscar Wilde's Travel in London
Oscar Wilde in his familiar reclining pose, in a photograph at the National Portrait Gallery (©National Portrait Gallery, London)

Dating from 1879, there are few London shopping centres as stylish or historic as The Royal Arcade in Mayfair (28 Old Bond St, W1S 4SD). Head here for fine silverware, art, bespoke shoes and gourmet chocolates. It was inside this arcade, at Goodyear the Florist—now the designer store Paul Smith—that Wilde bought the green carnations for his suits. While some believe the flower was a symbol for gay men, Wilde insisted it meant ‘nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess’.

Royal Arcade, London, UK
You can take a special Oscar Wilde tour at the Royal Arcade, to see where he bought his famous green carnations (courtesy The Royal Arcade)

You don’t have to be a smoker to enjoy visiting prestigious tobacconist JJ Fox of St James’s, which is 225 years old. Aside from being one of the world's oldest cigar merchants, it boasts the biggest sampling lounge in London and houses a small museum below its shop where rumour has it Wilde met with his wealthy friends to drink and debate. See his preferred cigarettes and the court document stating that he owed 7 schillings and 43 pence to the business, in addition to items that once belonged to renowned cigar-lover Winston Churchill.

JJ Fox, London, UK
JJ Fox is one of the world's oldest and most prestigious cigar merchants, where Wilde would hang out with his pals (courtesy JJ Fox)

There’s no shortage of afternoon teas in the capital, but if Wilde were around he’d no doubt recommend five-star Hotel Café Royal (68 Regent St, W1B 4DY). Served in the elegant Oscar Wilde Bar (where he is said to have fallen in love with Douglas), The London Royal Tea is a witty take on the traditional ritual, with edible London icons served alongside generously filled sandwiches, scones and English teatime classic: Battenberg cake.

Oscar Wilde Bar, Hotel Cafe Royal, London, UK
The most appropriate place for you to have afternoon tea is of course a the Oscar Wilde Bar, where else? (courtesy Hotel Cafe Royal)

‘The man who can dominate a London dinner table can dominate the world,’ said Wilde, who had impeccable taste in restaurants. The Savoy Grill at the supberb Savoy Hotel has welcomed its fair share of famous faces over the past century, including Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, so perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that Wilde was a regular too. These days the dining space is as immaculate as ever with restored chandeliers, antique mirrors and the original table plan—so who knows, you might even find yourself in the writer’s favorite spot.

Artesian at Langham Hotel, London, UK
Have a drink at the award-winning Artesian bar, where many a literary meeting has taken place (Courtesy Langham Hotel)

If this all sounds very enjoyable so far, you’re wrong, because according to Wilde, ‘Pleasure without Champagne is purely artificial’. Make amends by ducking into Artesian at the Langham Hotel, voted the World’s Best Bar for the fourth consecutive year in the most recent 50 Best Bars Awards. If it wasn’t for the Langham we might never have had Wilde’s only novel or the "Sherlock Holmes" series by Arthur Conan Doyle, for it was here that the two writers met with the Managing Editor of Lippincott’s Magazine one summer’s night in 1889 and promised to write books for the publication.

The Importance of Being Ernest at Royal Opera House, London, UK
See The Importance of Being Ernest at the Royal Opera House (©ROH/Stephen Cummisky)

It’s all very well going Wilde about London but there’s nothing quite like seeing one of his plays performed live. You can catch Gerald Barry’s hilarious operatic adaptation of "The Importance of Being Earnest" at Barbican Theatre (March 29-April 3), which enjoyed a sell-out run at the Royal Opera House when it was first presented in 2013. ‘When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people,’ quips a character in the play—wise words to take with you as you explore London this spring.