Leicester Square in London’s West End is not just the place for red-carpet film premieres. It’s a public square with daytime shopping and dining plus evening theatres, clubs and nightlife. The area also covers London’s Chinatown and Trafalgar Square so there’s something for everyone.
It may be full of tourists but I love this area for the cheap eats, amazing theatres and iconic views. I worked here for over a decade and never grew tired of exploring the back streets or people watching in Trafalgar Square.
by Laura Porter;
Laura Porter has been writing about London for over a decade. She contributes to many publications while maintaining an afternoon tea addiction to rival that of the Queen.;
What to see and do in Leicester Square?
1. Live it up in Leicester Square
This West End square is in the heart of Theatreland. It’s where most British film premieres happen so it has the big cinemas as well as casinos and restaurants.
Surrounded by trees, Leicester Square Gardens in the centre was redeveloped in 2012 with fountains added around the Shakespeare statue plus more seating. The TKTS half-price ticket booth is on the south side of Leicester Square for cheap tickets for theatre performances.
And kids (big and small) will love the world’s largest LEGO store with its LEGO tube carriage where you can pose between a Buckingham Palace Queen’s Guard and William Shakespeare.
Across the road is the four-floor chocolate emporium, M&M’s World, where you can get a selfie with the M&M’s characters doing a Beatles imitation Abbey Road crossing. This is London, after all.
2. Wonder at the Fourth Plinth
The Fourth Plinth is the northwest plinth in Trafalgar Square (when looking at the National Gallery it’s on the left).
Bronze statues were planned for all four corners of the square – this should have had an equestrian statue of William IV – but the money ran out. It was empty for years until the debate on what to put there started in the 1990s.
We now have temporary contemporary artworks on display here that change every year or so.
3. Stand in the famous Trafalgar Square
Surrounded by historic buildings, everyone has heard of this public square.
There are four plinths for statues in the corners of the square. Bronze statues stand on three of them and the Fourth Plinth has a changing display of contemporary artworks.
The two fountains are lovely to see and there’s the very tall Nelson’s Column too.
Trafalgar Square is closed to traffic on the north side so this wide promenade has lots of street performers – usually including a few ‘floating Yodas’!
Lots of annual public events take place here including Chinese New Year and St Patrick’s Day celebrations.
Trafalgar Square gets a huge Christmas tree (usually over 20 metres high) which is lit up from the first Thursday in December. There are then choirs around the tree daily leading up to Christmas Day.
— Laura Porter
4. Be impressed by the Trafalgar Square fountains
When the square was first laid out the authorities were concerned about the area available for large public protests. So, to reduce the space, two fountains were built in 1845.
In the 20th century memorials were added to the fountains to commemorate Admirals Jellicoe and Beatty, along with the elaborate sculptures of mermaids, mermen, tritons and dolphins.
Look closely and you’ll see that the mermaid statues do not have the traditional single tail, but instead have long and powerful tails as an extension of each thigh. And as tempting as it may be on a hot day, you’re not allowed to splash in the fountains.
5. Be entertained by the Trafalgar Square street performers
The street performers in front of the National Gallery include plenty of ‘standing still while painted silver’ types and the ever popular ‘floating Yodas’.
But as well as the pretend statues there are often dance troupes doing tricks to attract large crowds. (Do keep your valuables close as we all know pickpockets love a distracted crowd.)
And as this is in front of an art gallery there are also chalk artists creating their own masterpieces on the pavement too.
6. Gaze up at Nelson’s Column
This tall monument is to remember Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson after Britain won the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It’s 52 metres high with a 5 metre-tall statue of the naval hero at the top.
The four reliefs on the pedestal depicting scenes from the battle are made with melted down French guns.
And people love to climb over the four large bronze lions (even though we’re not supposed to!)
From the Vista rooftop bar at The Trafalgar Hotel, you get a better view of Nelson (although his hand can add a rather rude silhouette!)
— Laura Porter
7. Peer inside possibly the world’s smallest police station
It’s a bit of a cheat to call this a police station as it’s so small it could only ever have been a police box (like Doctor Who’s TARDIS but this one isn’t bigger on the inside).
Dating from the 1920s, this hollowed out lamp post in the southeast corner of Trafalgar Square made a perfect lookout for police during public protests and demonstrations in the square.
The lamp post has a set of narrow windows to watch the crowds and it’s said there was a telephone line to Scotland Yard for police to call for assistance.
Apparently, when the phone was used the ornamental light fitting at the top of the box started to flash, lighthouse style, alerting any nearby officers on duty that trouble was near. It’s no longer used by the police but look inside and you’ll see that the cleaners use it for storage.
8. Peruse portraits of famous British people at the National Portrait Gallery
This was the first portrait gallery in the world when it opened in 1856. The National Portrait Gallery has a collection of portraits of historically important and famous British people.
Yes, there are paintings of kings and queens but there are also photographs of today’s celebrities.
It’s free to visit the main galleries and there are pay-for temporary exhibitions too.
9. See world-class art at the National Gallery
Taking up the whole of the northern side of Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery is a wonderful art gallery. Free to visit, inside there are over 2,300 paintings dating from the mid-13th century to 1900.
And these aren’t just any paintings as these are European art masterpieces. You’ll recognise loads of the artworks from big names such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Velázquez, Rubens and Leonardo da Vinci.
It’s a beautiful building so it’s worth going in even if you think you’re not an art lover.
Head to the National Gallery Espresso Bar first as the coffee is good, the toilets and cloakrooms are nearby, and there are computers for you to design your own tour of the galleries. Just select the paintings that you want to find and then print out your personalised map for free.
— Laura Porter
10. Stand on the place where all London distances are measured from
Go to the traffic island on the south side of Trafalgar Square and you will be on the spot where all road distances to and from London are measured.
Just behind the equestrian statue of Charles I (looking down Whitehall towards Parliament Square) there is a plaque on the ground to mark the exact point.
The sign mentions the Eleanor Cross that was a series of large ornate stone monuments to Edward I’s wife who died in 1290.
The one that was here was destroyed in the 17th century but there’s a Victorian reproduction outside Charing Cross station.
11. Admire the art and the building at Canada House
This is the High Commission (diplomatic office) for Canadians in London but any of us can go inside to see the Canada Gallery for free. There are paintings, sculptures and more showcasing Canadian talent.
And there’s usually a temporary special exhibition too. The building is also rather lovely so they offer free tours once a month (book on the website).
12. Spot the imperial measures in Trafalgar Square
Need to check the length of a yard while out and about in the West End? Look on the north terrace wall behind Café on the Square and you’ll find the standard units of imperial measurements. (They continue on the steps too.)
The gold plaques were added in 1876 and include such archaic measures as perches, poles and chains.
After the Houses of Parliament burned down in 1834, it was decided to keep the new standard units in three public locations so they wouldn’t be lost again in the future.
As well as in Trafalgar Square, the standards can be found in the Great Hall of the Guildhall in the City of London and outside the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.
13. Can you find the crying cherub in Trafalgar Square?
To the south of Trafalgar Square, there are lamp posts with cherubs on them.
Easily missed, these are nice enough to start with but look closely at the one on the traffic island at the top of Northumberland Avenue as the cherub appears to be crying.
What has actually happened is that the decorators have left a teardrop drip of paint that has dried to give the effect of a mournful baby. Without the added tear, there’s another cherub lamp post across Trafalgar Square on a traffic island at the top of The Mall, by Admiralty Arch.
14. Cross the road at Trafalgar Square to see the LGBT+ pedestrian traffic lights
At 50 pedestrian crossings around Trafalgar Square, the ‘green man walking’ light (meaning it’s safe to cross the road) has been changed to LGBT+ inspired designs including two men and two women holding hands and forming a heart.
These were installed in 2016 for that year’s London Pride and although considered temporary they are still there. See if you can spot all seven designs with gender symbols including a transgender sign.
They are inspired by a similar set of traffic signals that were produced in Vienna in 2015. For now, they are gay and here to stay.
15. Shop and dine at the Japan Centre
In London since 1976, the Japan Centre flagship store has been on Panton Street since 2017.
The traditional ‘depachika’ (the Japanese word for a basement food hall) has specialist food rooms, all set around open kitchens and a central dine-in courtyard.
There’s a miso room, a dedicated tea room where you can try and buy lots of different blends, and a sake room with experts on hand.
The take-out deli section of the store has noodles, including ramen and hand pulled udon, Japanese curry, and a range of gyoza and tempura.
In the main shop, you can buy dry goods like seaweed as well as fresh fish for making sashimi. And there are non-food items such as cookware, beauty products and manga comics too.
16. See a West End show in Theatreland
London Theatreland covers a large area of central London including the Leicester Square district. It’s London’s equivalent to New York’s Broadway and it’s where we have the biggest and best shows in the country.
Some shows have been running for many years (such as Les Miserables at the Queens Theatre and The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
Many of the West End theatres are stunning buildings both inside and out so you do really need to see a show in London.
17. Grab cheap theatre tickets at TKTS
Originally known as the Official Half Price Ticket Booth, TKTS has been on the south side of Leicester Square since 1980.
There are other theatre ticket sellers in the square but this is the only official one as it’s run by the Society of London Theatres (SOLT) with all profits supporting the theatre industry.
Open seven days a week, TKTS has tickets for shows on the day and up to a week in advance. Not all are discounted but many are and the range available is always good.
The queues can be long but you can see the full list of what’s on sale on the website or on the displays outside the booth. Booking fees are included in the advertised prices and you can pay by MasterCard, Visa or cash.
If you don't know what you want to see, but know you don't want to miss out on seeing a show in London, the staff at TKTS are great at giving advice. Just tell them if you like musicals, big dance numbers, offbeat plays or only want to see a show with a big name star and they'll sort you out.
— Laura Porter
18. Bow down to the Bard at the Shakespeare Monument
In the centre of Leicester Square Gardens, there’s a statue of William Shakespeare sculpted by Giovanni Fontana.
It is the only outdoor statue of the bard in central London and has been here since 1874. (It’s based on Peter Scheemakers’ 18th-century monument to Shakespeare in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.)
The Grade II listed (must be preserved) marble figure stands on a pedestal flanked by dolphins at the centre of a fountain. Jets of water shoot up 2 metres into the air and the fountain is lit at night.
The scroll he’s holding is inscribed with a quotation from Twelfth Night (Act IV, Scene II): “There is no darkness but ignorance”.
19. Pose with the Charlie Chaplin Statue
Another prized memorial in Leicester Square Gardens is the bronze statue of Charlie Chaplin sculpted by John Doubleday.
It portrays the actor as his best-known screen persona: The Tramp. Chaplin, who died in 1977, had a career spanning 75 years and is widely considered to be one of the most important figures in the history of the film industry.
The statue was first installed here in 1981, was moved for the refurbishment work in the square before returning in 2016. The inscription on the plinth is “The comic genius who gave pleasure to so many”.
20. Be a big kid in the LEGO Store
With fun on two floors, this is the largest LEGO store in the world. And it’s very ‘London’ from the 6.5m Big Ben (with a working clock that’s illuminated at night) to the life-size LEGO tube carriage where you can sit between a Queen’s Guard and William Shakespeare to pose for pics.
There are photo opportunities aplenty here as there’s also a red telephone box, Royal Mail postbox and the Leicester Square tube roundel (just so you don’t forget where you are). Obviously, they want you to buy while here so the shelves are lined with loads of kits and the Mosaic Maker is a real highlight (if you have deep pockets).
You sit in what looks like an ordinary photo booth yet the photo it takes is transformed into your own personalised LEGO kit! You get a box of all the pieces needed plus a printout of your photo to use as build instructions.
The store is open until 10pm Monday to Saturday (and to 6pm on Sundays). At busy times (think Saturday afternoon shopping crowds) there's a queuing system to enter but I've never waited long so don't miss out as the store is a really happy place.
— Laura Porter
21. Buy brightly-coloured candy at M&M’s World
Why is an American chocolate shop one of the most popular tourist attractions in London? Well, it’s the only M&M’s World in Europe and there are four floors of chocolate!
You enter through a 1963 London double-decker bus and get sucked into the photo ops everywhere. Make your own blends from a full range of both milk chocolate and peanut M&Ms at the rainbow Wall of Chocolate.
Or try the M&Ms colour mood analyser to hear your colour announced to all. (You want to be blue as it’s the coolest.) The bright lighting, colours and loud music make this an ‘in your face’ type of shopping experience but it is hard to deny it’s fun.
There’s more merchandise than you thought possible from mugs and clothing to jewellery and towels. The candy isn’t cheap here but this is a place for gift shopping that’s open until midnight Monday to Saturday.
Look up outside the building and you'll see the biggest mirror ball in London in the W Hotel above.
— Laura Porter
22. Be Spoilt for Entertainment at the Hippodrome Casino
A stunning late-Victorian building, the Hippodrome has been a theatre, music hall, nightclub and now a huge casino.
There are five floors of gaming, including a dedicated poker deck and private poker rooms. Open 24 hours a day with free entry and no membership required. There’s no dress code so anyone (over 18) can just walk in.
And The Matcham Room (named after Frank Matcham who designed the building) is where they stage the Theatre which is currently presenting the Channing Tatum Magic Mike Live show.
23. Catch a movie at the Prince Charles Cinema
Down a side street off Leicester Square, the Prince Charles Cinema is the only independent cinema in central London. Unlike other West End cinemas, the ticket prices are pretty cheap and there’s an annual membership for further reductions.
You won’t see the latest releases here but you will find a selection of cult, arthouse and classic films, as well as all-night movie marathons, on the two screens.
And the sing-a-long events are great fun as you learn dance moves and practice your cheers before the show so expect everyone to get up when the songs start. Do note, the PCC has drinks and popcorn for sale but no hot or smelly food is allowed.
24. Wander the area on this free Harry Potter Tour
On this free walking tour, muggle tour guides show you buildings and streets that inspired and appeared in the schoolboy wizard films.
You’ll hear about the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 that happened in Leicester Square and go to a very cool sweet shop that sells Dumbledore’s favourite Sherbert Lemons.
The 2.5-hour tour runs daily at 11am and 3.30pm from Leicester Square at the Swiss Flags Monument between M&M’s World & the Lego Store. (Look for a guide carrying a strawberry umbrella.) While the tour is free, you can reward the guide at the end of the tour. In fact, they’d like you to very much.
25. See the latest release at Vue West End (Leicester Square)
If you want to see the latest cinema release, this Leicester Square cinema is a good choice. There are nine screens with 1,388 seats. The stepped seating ensures everyone has a great view.
But be prepared for high prices as West End cinema trips are rarely a bargain.
26. Listen to the bells on the Swiss Glockenspiel
Where M&M’s World now stands was the Swiss Centre until 2008. While most don’t miss the building, there was some sense of loss that the glockenspiel on the outside was gone.
A version of it (redesigned and restored) returned on a 10-metre pole in the pedestrianised Swiss Court in 2011. It features 11 moving Swiss figures against a traditional Swiss alpine backdrop.
There are 27 bells, 4 Swiss Jacomas representing bell ringers and 2 clocks at the top of the structure. The bells chime and a five-minute performance takes place five times a day, Monday to Friday, and eight times a day at the weekend.
It’s a nice quirky find to see in action.
Do also notice the Swiss Flags Monument just a couple of metres away. It features the Confederation's 26 state flags and also used to be on the Swiss Centre building.
— Laura Porter
27. Play the tables at the Empire Casino
This is a 24-hour Vegas-style casino on the north side of Leicester Square. Table games include blackjack, poker and roulette and there are plenty of slots too.
The Carlsberg Sports Bar offers multi-screens of Premier League matches, NFL and more. Or head up to the Icon Balcony Bar for cocktails on the terrace overlooking Leicester Square.
28. See a blockbuster at Cineworld Leicester Square
The Empire Leicester Square is a well-known cinema now operated by Cineworld. It’s one of the Leicester Square cinemas used for film premieres and first runs.
It’s a multiplex with 9 screens including an IMAX with laser projection and 3D options. Be warned, seeing new releases in Leicester Square is never cheap.
29. Laugh the night away at The Comedy Store
This is an over 18s only specifically designed stand-up comedy venue. It launched the career of lots of ’80s’alternative comedians’ such as Rik Mayall and French & Saunders, as well as Paul Merton and Ben Elton.
The comedy week has topical news-based comedy on Tuesdays and improv based on audience suggestions on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday it’s classic stand-up comedy, and the last Monday of the month is open mic.
30. Leicester Square Theatre
This 400-seat theatre is just off Leicester Square. It’s been lovingly restored with two bars in the main theatre and an intimate bar downstairs with a capacity of up to 70 for cabaret-style performances.
Expect to find comedy plus improv, magic and family shows, so really, something for everyone.
Oh, and in a previous incarnation, this was where the Sex Pistols played one of their first gigs on 15 November 1976.
31. Have your portrait drawn by one of the caricature street artists
There are usually a few of these street artists waiting to draw your portrait along the north side of Leicester Square.
If you’d like to see yourself with exaggerated features, take a seat and let the artist sketch their view of you.
You’ll be sitting in the street so expect passers-by to watch and possibly take photos. Hold your pose and be patient while you’re the centre of attention. Then be polite when you see your artwork.
None of the caricaturists display a price, so agree on how much before they start. Feel free to negotiate (haggle) and definitely don't pay more than £20.
— Laura Porter
32. See a show or dance the night away at Café de Paris
Since its grand opening in 1924, the opulent Café de Paris has hosted more than nine decades of nightlife. The grand sweeping staircases and glittering chandeliers make this a fine place to make a night of it.
33. Eat and shop in Chinatown
London’s Chinatown is relatively small compared to the Chinatowns in US cities but it’s still great for food shopping or dining at the many restaurants.
Red Chinese lanterns often hang over the side streets and the decorative Chinese gates, at either end of pedestrianised Gerrard Street, make the best photo ops.
Whether you want to grab a pork bun from the Golden Gate Cake Shop on Macclesfield Street or pick up a waving Hello Kitty, this is the right place to be.
Wong Kei on Wardour Street has a reputation for rude waiters but don't let that stop you going as the noodles are fantastic and cheap too.
— Laura Porter
34. Snap a selfie by the Chinatown Gates
The Chinese gates on Gerrard Street were added in the 1980s but are considered more westernised designs in the Paifang style.
In 2016 a new, much larger, gate was added on Wardour Street in the style of the Qing dynasty to mark the expansion of Chinatown.
Positioned according to traditional feng shui, this one is the largest Chinese gate in the UK. And it’s a great place to take a photo of you holding a bowl of noodles, bubble tea, green tea ice-cream, etc.
35. Get snap happy in Piccadilly Circus
A circus just means a junction and there are five busy streets that connect at Piccadilly Circus. Considering there’s not actually that much to do here, Piccadilly Circus still gets around half a million visitors daily.
Consider it a colourful backdrop so take a seat at the Eros statue to people watch, or get a photo of the huge iconic video adverts.
Do look out for the rare police public call box between Piccadilly and Regent Street. It looks like a miniature Doctor Who TARDIS and dates from about 1935.
If you position yourself well, you should be able to get both Eros and the illuminated adverts, plus a red London double-decker bus and a tube sign, in the same photo.
— Laura Porter
36. Hang out with dead people at the Body Worlds Exhibition
Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibition has been touring the world since 1995 but it now has a permanent home in Piccadilly Circus.
As a museum of the human body, on display are a series of plastinated posed corpses and internal organs. Yep, all of the anatomical specimens in the exhibition are real.
This isn’t a small museum as there are seven floors of exhibits, including some animals too. Think of it like Madame Tussauds, except much gorier.
37. Grab a coffee before a movie at Picturehouse Central
This is so much more than a cinema as the ground floor is a rather excellent cafe with top-notch tea and chocolate brownies. And that all-important free wifi too, of course.
The mezzanine level is where to stop for lunch or for a drink in the evening. Back to the movies, this is a seven-screen arthouse multiplex that shows quality blockbusters and independent, classic, foreign-language and documentary films.
You’ll soon see why many become a member here (and it’s not just to get into the Members Only Bar).