The area around Leicester Square, often called the West End, is the entertainment heart of London. The area also includes Chinatown, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square.
Chinatown is centrally located in the West End, along and around Gerrard Street off Leicester Square. It spreads into Wardour Street at one end and Newport Place at the other. London's Chinatown may not be quite as large as those in San Francisco or Vancouver but it is still a great place to dine out in the evening, authentically Chinese and definitely different from anywhere else in London.
This smallish London square is the site of most British film premieres and the square itself is surrounded by terrifyingly-expensive cinemas — tickets for an evening screening will cost upwards of £17, 3D screenings will cost upwards of £15. At night, Leicester Square becomes exceptionally busy with tourists and locals, visiting the surrounding clubs and bars. In the north-west corner of the square is a musical clock, incorporating a Swiss glockenspiel, that is popular with tourists. It was popular enough that its remodelling and restoration was actually a requirement when permission was given for the demolition of Swiss Centre in 2008, of which it had been a part. The TKTS half price ticket booth is on the south side of Leicester Square for cheap tickets for theatre performances.
Trafalgar Square is a large public square commemorating Lord Horatio Nelson's victory against Napoleon's navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The central monument within the square is a single tall column on which the figure of Nelson stands gazing over London and is one of the great iconic images of London. His monument is surrounded by four colossal lions and a series of large fountains. Much more than just an open plaza, Trafalgar Square is famous as the location of a large number of important buildings and institutions that surround the square and fill the streets surrounding it. Trafalgar Square also marks the northern end of Whitehall, the centre of British government.
In 2003 Trafalgar Square was renovated and expanded to link up directly with the National Gallery on the north side of the square - a great improvement to the traffic which once completely encircled this, the largest public square in the West End. The early 18th century church of St Martins in the Fields stands at the north-east corner of the square. Just by the church, Charing Cross Road gives access to the fabulous National Portrait Gallery, and leads on further to Leicester Square, Soho and the famous collection of bookstores on the road itself. To the south, Whitehall leads to Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and 10 Downing Street.
Christmas time sees the erection of a large Christmas Tree within the square, the annual gift of the people of Oslo, capital of Norway, as a token of gratitude for Britain's help in WWII. Trafalgar Square is also traditionally the scene of lively celebrations for Londoners on New Year's Eve, though an increasingly heavy police presence has meant that some antics (drunks leaping into the fountains) have all but disappeared. More recently, Trafalgar Square has served as an outdoor venue for concerts and VIP appearances, courtesy of the Mayor of London's Office, which is keen to see Londoners use their public spaces better. Visitors to the square on an ordinary day may also discover small-scale demonstrations and public speakers - the Square is a convenient gathering place near to, but not threatening, the seat of British Government down the road at Westminster.
Leicester Square is served by a Tube station of the same name located just off the north east corner of the Square on Charing Cross Road. The station is on both the Northern and Piccadilly Lines and acts as a convenient place to start any exploration of London's West End.
Chinatown is a short walk from both Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly and Bakerloo Lines) — walk east along Shaftesbury Avenue, before turning right at Wardour Street, watch for the ornamental gates — and Leicester Square (Piccadilly and Northern Lines) stations.
The nearest tube station to Trafalgar Square is Charing Cross on the Northern and Bakerloo Lines.
Piccadilly Circus is served by a Tube station of the same name.
Charing Cross mainline station serves the south-eastern region of England.
Walk. This is a small district which lends itself perfectly to exploration on foot.
- Trafalgar Square (Nearest tube: Charing Cross). The main, central square of London, Trafalgar Square is associated with celebration and demonstration - it is the site of London's lacklustre New Year celebrations, and in 2003 was the site of the triumphant homecoming of the British Rugby team from the World Cup, and a centre for demonstration against Britain's involvement in the Iraq War. In recent years, the square has been associated with the many hundreds of pigeons that used to be found here, but London's Mayor Ken Livingstone passed a bylaw in 2003 making it illegal to feed them. Nelson's Column, surrounded by the four bronze lions can be found here, on the south side of the square. The north-west plinth in the square has been vacant since 1841, and controversial contemporary sculpture has been displayed here in recent years.
- National Gallery, Trafalgar Sq, WC2 5DN, ☎ +44 20 7747-2885. 10:00-18:00 daily except F until 21:00. Houses the British national collection of western European art dating from the 13th to 19th centuries. A truly awe-inspiring collection, notable works include Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, Van Gogh's Sunflowers and Constable's The Haywain. The vast majority of art is free of charge to visit. Temporary exhibitions are generally fairly costly, but invariably well researched and presented. The audioguides are very comprehensive, have comments on most of the paintings in the museum, and are free though this fact is not advertised. A donation is suggested. In addition to courses, workshops, lectures and other events, the National Gallery has free talks and tours every day. Free.
- National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Pl, WC2H 0HE, ☎ +44 20 7306-0055. 10:00-18:00, except Th F until 21:00. The National Portrait Gallery is just around the corner from the National Gallery and is an entertaining way to learn about British history since the Tudors. Visitors walk around the gallery chronologically, viewing portraits of notable figures from British history - from Henry VII, painted by Hans Holbein, to Blur, painted by Julian Opie. Free except some non-permanent exhibitions.
- St Martins in the Fields, 8 St Martin's Pl, WC2. A classical church that stands opposite the National Gallery. Since WWI, the homeless have sought shelter at this church, a tradition that continues to this day.
- Edith Cavell Memorial, St Martin's Pl WC2 (just off Trafalgar Sq). Statue in honour of the World War I nursing heroine.
- Piccadilly Circus (tube: Piccadilly Circus). At the junction of five major roads, Piccadilly Circus is the home of the famous aluminum statue of Eros, which sits atop a fountain. The north side of Piccadilly Circus holds an enormous display board of electric advertisements, including Britain's biggest illuminated display (the widest in the world), advertising a popular soft drink.
- Leicester Square Garden. Relax and unwind in the garden, and gaze at the activity going on all around, while listening to the buskers, street entertainers and preachers performing in the area.
- Chinatown. The main sights to see in London's Chinatown are the expressions of Chinese culture and Eastern ambience in Chinatown, and for a good Chinese meal. There are few souvenir shops for tourists and no museums or temples.
- Chinese arches (Paifang), at each end of Gerrard St and at the entrance to Macclesfield St. The three ornamental Chinese arches are worth a look.
- Chinatown phone booths. Chinatown does incorporate some entertaining combinations of British and Chinese culture, such as the phone booths with pagoda-style sloping roofs.
Leicester Square square hosts most high-profile London cinema premieres, on which occasions it is fenced and crowded beyond comfort by people desperately trying to take a look at their celebrity of choice.
- Empire, 5-6 Leicester Sq, WC2 (tube: Leicester Sq), ☎ +44 20 7437-1234. M-F until 17:00 £5, M-F after 17:00 £7.50, £8, £9, Sa Su £7.50, £8, £9.
- Odeon Leicester Square, Leicester Sq, WC2 (tube: Leicester Sq), ☎ +44 870 5050 007. Also includes the Odeon Mezzanine and Odeon West End M-F until 17:00 £5, £6, £6.50 M-F after 17:00 £10, Sa Su £11.
- Warner Village West End, Leicester Sq, WC2, ☎ +44 20 7437-4347. F Sa £10, M-F until 19:00 £7, M-Su after 17:00 £10, Sa Su until 17:00 £10.
- Curzon Soho Cinema, 99 Shaftesbury Ave, W1D 5DY. Voted "London's Number 1 Cinema" by Time Out readers, great bar and a fantastic art-house program.
- Prince Charles Cinema, 7 Leicester Pl (Down a side street to the north, just up from the Häagen-Dazs). The cheapest and in some ways most interesting cinema in the area. They do not screen the latest films but usually have an interesting selection, including foreign and art house films and often have theme nights. Get hold of the program at the door or on the internet and consider buying the discount-granting yearly membership if you plan to come back a few times. M £1.99, Tu-F £2.50, Sa Su £3.50.
Along with neighbouring Covent Garden this is the capital of London's theatreland and the most famous London theatres are in this district. Check individual theatre websites of the official London theatreland website for current programmes and never neglect the official half price ticket booth in Leicester Square itself:
- TKTS (half price ticket booth), Leicester Square (tube: Leicester Sq. Booth is on the south side of the square in the clock tower building). M-Sa 10:00-19:00, Su 11:00-16:00. Tickets can only be bought in person so do not try to contact by telephone. At times, there may well be long queues, so be prepared.
Please note that most of the booking office numbers given below will only work from within the UK. If you want to make a booking from overseas, use the relevant website.
The Leicester Square Box Office, otherwise known as LSBO also offers a great selection of great deals on tickets to top London shows and musicals. Tickets can be booked over the phone on +44 20 7087-2999, or in person!
- Ambassadors Theatre, Ambassadors Theatre, West St, WC2H 9ND.
- Harold Pinter Theatre, 6 Panton St, SW1Y 4DN, ☎ +44 870 060 6637.
- Savoy Theatre, Savoy Ct, Strand, WC2R 0ET.
- Chinese New Year Festival. Worth seeing, though Gerrard St can get unbelievably crowded, as the dragon dancers pass along the street to collect goodies hung from windows above the shops. In recent years, the festival has expanded south into Leicester Sq and Trafalgar Sq to try to alleviate the congestion.
- M&M's World, 1 Swiss Ct, WC2H 7DG (Tube: Leicester Square), ☎ +44 20 7025-7171. The largest sweet shop in the world. Unlike the New York City store you can only buy the "regular" M&M flavours here, albeit in a wider variety of colours than you would usually find. There is also a wide array of other merchandise available such as homeware and clothing.
- Nickelodeon Store, 1 Leicester Square, WC2H 7NA (Tube: Leicester Square). The first flagship store in Europe for the Nickelodeon brand. Sells a variety of merchandise with the character Spongebob Squarepants being prominent.
Charing Cross Road and the tiny Cecil Court which leads off it have long been the centre of the specialist and antiquarian book trade in London. There are fewer outlets than previously as spiralling rents pushed out a lot of the traditional booksmiths but many still remain. Any book lover will be in heaven here.
- Any Amount of Books, 56 Charing Cross Rd, WC2H 0QA (Tube: Leicester Square), ☎ +44 20 7836-3697. Rare and second-hand books. Specialist in scholarly academic works and art-related titles.
- David Drummond at Pleasures of Past Times, 11 Cecil Ct WC2N 4EZ (Tube: Leicester Square), ☎ +44 20 7836-1142. Specialises in books and other memorabilia related to the performing arts and old children's books.
- Goldsboro Books, 7 Cecil Ct, WC2N 4EZ (Tube: Leicester Square), ☎ +44 20 7497-9230, e-mail: email@example.com. First editions and signed fiction.
- Paul J Hilton, 12 Cecil Ct, WC2N 4HE (Tube: Leicester Square), ☎ +44 20 7379-9825. Antiquarian and general books, especially first edition English literature.
- Henry Pordes Books Ltd, 58-60 Charing Cross Rd, WC2H 0BB (Tube: Leicester Square), ☎ +44 20 7836-9031, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Secondhand, antiquarian and all out-of print books.
- Quinto Bookshop & Francis Edwards, 72 Charing Cross Rd, WC2H 0BB, ☎ +44 20 7379-7669, e-mail: email@example.com. Huge collection. Francis Edwards have been in business here since 1856.
All sorts of food are available. While London's Chinatown boasts some of the city's best Chinese food, quality and value vary enormously between individual restaurants. While some consistently win awards, others seem to be regularly being refurbished following visits from the local Environmental Health department. Unless you're on an extreme budget, it is worth paying a little more for quality food and service. Be careful especially with the common all you can eat deals.
- Café in the Crypt, Trafalgar Sq. In the basement of St Martin-in-the-Fields church is the Café in the Crypt which offers reasonably-priced cafe food that you can eat amongst the brick-vaulted ceilings, pillars and gravestones.
- The Portrait Restaurant, at the National Portrait Gallery, ☎ +44 20 7312-2490. Offers spectacular food accompanied by spectacular art on the 5th floor of the National Portrait Gallery. A must do dining experience.
- Tokyo Diner, 2 Newport Pl (At the eastern end of Lisle St, near the Prince Charles Cinema). noon-midnight. Offers excellent and well-priced Japanese food.
- China China, 3 Gerrard St, ☎ +44 20 7439-7502. At the budget end of the scale, China China at the eastern end of the north side of Gerrard Street offers Hong Kong diner style meals of cold meat on hot rice. around £5 for a generous portion.
- Friendly Inn, 47 Gerrard St, ☎ +44 20 7437-4170. Offers cheap fare on the southern side of Gerrard Street. The restaurant lives up to its name with very enthusiastic serving staff, but unless you stick to the set menus, the cost of the meal can soon increase.
- Leong's Legend and Leong's Legend Continued... serves Taiwanese fare. Chilli crab and omelette dishes are specialities. So popular they opened a second restaurant which is arguably more busier. Those with a craving for Taiwanese pearl tea, should head over to Bubbleology at 49 Rupert St, Soho.
- CNR Cafe tucked down an alley off Whitcomb St, is worth checking out for cheap Malasyian-Singoporean eats.
- Lee Ho Fook, 15-16 Gerrard St, ☎ +44 20 7492-1200. The best known restaurant in Chinatown, as immortalised in Warren Zevon's song Werewolves of London. The restaurant plays on this tiny crumb of fame, displaying a much-faded image of the singer in its window. Meals here are relatively costly by local standards, and generally not reported to be outstandingly good.
- Luxuriance Peking Cuisine, 40 Gerrard St, ☎ +44 20 7734-0262. This family-owned business that started up in 1980 is famous for its freshly cooked crispy aromatic duck, seafood banquet and pork spare ribs. The interior is comfortable, relaxed and modern.
- Mr Kong, 21 Lisle St (at the end of Leicester Place, after the Prince Charles Cinema), ☎ +44 20 7437-7341, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Reputed to have the best vegetarian food in Chinatown.
- New World, 1 Gerrard Pl, ☎ +44 20 7734-0396. A well-decorated and plush-looking restaurant which serves excellent dim sum on trolleys from midday until around 6PM. Good quality evening food is available thereafter, and the service is very good overall.
- Wong Kei, 41-43 Wardour St, W1 (opposite the western end of Gerrard St), ☎ +44 20 7437-3071. A Chinatown institution. Popular with Londoners and visitors alike and possibly the best value Chinese restaurant in the whole of London. Spread across four floors, this restaurant is infamous for its surly, abrupt service and this has become part of the experience of dining there. Depending on how drunk you look, the higher up the building you will be sent. Tea is complimentary, though somewhat bland. Set meals present excellent value for money, some being under £5. The sweet and sour pork is remarkably good.
- There are several buffets in Chinatown, of which the cheapest is Mr Wu at £4.95, its and cheerful, and you get exactly what you pay for. Some of them have a larger selection of dishes, but quality varies and can be a lot to be desired. If you do mind, Hong Kong Buffet is the most expensive at £12, but is more tasty and you can be sure you're not eating rat-meat.
There are relatively few decent places to drink in this district and visitors would do better to head north into Soho or east in Covent Garden, for a better selection of bars and pubs. However, if your legs are weary, there are a number of convenient drinking places:
- 1997, 19 Wardour St. Cosy place to visit if you are not feeling in an alcoholic mood. They provide a good selection of iced and pearl tapioca teas which are often hard to come by outside of Hong Kong.
- Cork and Bottle Wine Bar, 44-46 Cranbourn St, ☎ +44 20 7734-7807. More of a wine bar than a restaurant, the extensive wine list featuring selections from Australia and California. They offer reasonable cuisine to wash down this full bodied wines.
- De Hems, 11 Macclesfield St, W1D 5BW (North from halfway along Gerrard St). Dutch-themed pub with an excellent selection of beers. It is often crowded, but has a good atmosphere and a comedy club.
- O'Neil's, Irish chain bar lost in the heart of Chinatown. 3-levels with a houseband on busier nights, who always seem to play the same U2 and Kings of Leon songs.
- Geisha Bar, 75 Charing Cross Rd, WC2H 0NE. A well-known wine bar that also features an extensive and imaginative cocktail menu.
- Trash Palace, 11 Wardour St, W1D 6PG, ☎ +44 20 7734-0522. Fantastic small gay bar, mixed music and a laid back mixed crowd.
- Waxy's O'Connor's, 14-16 Rupert St, W1D 6DD. Irish themed pub with a fibreglass tree inside it. It is almost invariably unbearably crowded. The smaller Waxy's Little Sister opposite it, however, is generally quieter and more relaxed.
- Bubbleology, 49 Rupert Street, ☎ +44 20 7494-4231, e-mail: email@example.com. 11:00-23:30 Monday-Thursday, 11:00-00:00 Saturday, 11:00-23:30 Sunday. Quirky shop selling bubble teas in a very interesting way.
Very few visitors actually stay in this district and the options which are available are not particularly good value. This is a district to visit, not to stay in.
- Radisson Edwardian Leicester Square Hotel, 3 St. Martins St, WC2H 7HL, ☎ +44 20 7930-8641, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Small hotel furnished in a sleek, contemporary design. From £148.
- Thistle Picadilly, Coventry St, W1D 6BZ, ☎ +44 845 3058330. Affordable and centrally located but a tired property. From £159.
- The Trafalgar, 2 Spring Gdns, Trafalgar Square, SW1A 2TS, ☎ +44 20 7870-2900, fax: +44 20 7870-2911. Hilton's first boutique hotel in London. From £240.
Leicester Square is a small and very central district; a very short walk can take you to many other areas of London. Soho is just north, passed Chinatown, with fashionable night life and eclectic shops. Covent Garden is just to the east, with more entertainment and shopping opportunities. Westminster is just to the south, passed Trafalgar Square, with its mix of government offices, parks and historic buildings. Mayfair-Marylebone is to the west, passed Piccadilly Circus, with more up-market places to shop.
|Routes through Leicester Square|
|Bloomsbury ← Soho ←||W E||→ Covent Garden → Southwark-Lewisham|
|Bloomsbury ← Soho ←||N S||→ Covent Garden → South London|
|West London ← Westminster-Mayfair-Marylebone ←||W E||→ Covent Garden → Bloomsbury|