Monopoly Guide to London for Tourists - #11: Leicester Sq, Coventry St & Piccadilly
Where are they?
Leicester Square, Coventry Street and Piccadilly are all in the heart of London’s West End, where tourists flock to visit Chinatown, take in a show, buy tat from one of the many tacky souvenir shops or eat in a generic epidemic restaurant.
What’s the story?
Leicester Square was developed in the 1630s by the 2nd Earl of Leicester, Robert Sydney. His mansion, Leicester House occupied what is now the north side of Leicester Square.
Coventry Street is named after King Charles II’s Secretary of State Charles Coventry, whilst Piccadilly is not named after a landowner, architect or any person for that matter …but a type of shirt collar popular in the 17th century. The ‘picadil’ was a stiff collar and ‘must have’ gentleman’s fashion item made popular by a tailor called Robert Baker, becoming so ubiquitous that the street's name changed from Portugal Street to Piccadilly.
How do I get there?
Leicester Square Underground station is on Charing Cross Road, right next to Leicester Square. Piccadilly Circus Underground station is at the east end of Piccadilly, Green Park Underground station is in the middle and Hyde Park Corner Underground station can be found at the far west end of Piccadilly.
What’s it like now?
I understand the attraction for some tourists, but Leicester Square, Coventry Street and Piccadilly Circus are probably amongst my least favourite places in London on account of their tackiness, the overpriced and not particularly great restaurants and the sheer number of tourists clogging the pavements. I’ve always imagined that Piccadilly Circus to be our own half hearted attempt at Times Square in New York. Piccadilly however is rather grander with a sort of French boulevard feel and as you walk away from Piccadilly Circus, the shops and restaurants become more luxurious and high end and the buildings seem to effortlessly ooze grandeur.
Where would I stay?
Although unlikely you’ll stay there, I have to mention ‘The Ritz’, a Grade II listed hotel, opened in 1906 by Cesar Ritz after being sacked by the Savoy Hotel. It’s known the world over and intrinsically linked with glamour, opulence and famous guests. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died in 2013 in a suite at the Ritz, having been staying there for about 4 months.
Just off Piccadilly is the Cavendish Hotel, then a little further towards Piccadilly Circus is Le Meridien. The Ham Yard Hotel recently opened in a newly developed courtyard area a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus. The Thistle Piccadilly is a 4-star hotel on Whitcomb Street, close to Leicester Square and I’ve also been to the Radisson Blu Edwardian on Leicester Square itself. If you’re looking for some 5-star luxury modern sheek then W London might do the trick. There are more affordable options for those travelling on a budget, such as the Premier Inn Leicester Square.
What’s of interest?
Burlington Arcade is a covered shopping street which has been providing a largely wealthy customer base with antiques, silver, jewellery, watches, shoes, perfumes and fashion accessories since 1819.
You’ll notice the arcade has its own private Police force known as ‘Beadles’ (they’re the ones in the top hats and waistcoats) who for the last 200 years have been ensuring amongst other things, visitors don’t whistle, open an umbrella, sing or play a musical instrument or carry a large parcel. There is an intriguing reason why the Burlington Arcade is covered which I’ve written about previously, and just for the record, it’s apparently the longest covered street in Britain.
Situated in Burlington House next door to the arcade is the Royal Academy of Arts which has been promoting the visual arts through exhibitions, education and debate since 1768. The Royal Academy was founded as a privately run and funded charity, run by artists, elected by their peers (still the case today) as well as being home to Britain’s longest established art school.
Fortnum and Mason
Fortnum and Mason (or Fortnum’s as it is known) is a large department store founded in 1707 by Hugh Mason and William Fortnum. The latter happened to be Queen Anne’s footman and as such had to ensure the palace was lit by brand new candles each evening. He kept the old ones, sold them on and used the money to help fund his new business enterprise. As such, you’ll notice candles are a motif throughout the shop, which sells groceries, household goods, men’s and women’s fashion and lots of other things, all at a slightly higher price than you can buy elsewhere. They’ve held Royal Warrants for some 150 years, currently providing ‘general provisions’ to the Queen and as such have garnered the nick name ‘The Queen’s Grocers’. If I’m in the area on a walk, I often take people in to Fortnum and Mason, just to experience the opulence of the place, and on the off-chance they’re handing out samples at the confectionary counter.
The oldest bookshop in London has been selling books on Piccadilly since 1797 when it was founded by John Hatchard. Although now owned by Waterstones, Hatchards are bookseller of choice to The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles.
St James’s Piccadilly
A rare example of a church designed by Sir Christopher Wren outside the ‘City of London’. St James’s was badly damaged in 1940 during an air raid, and subsequently restored. The spire is apparently made of fibreglass. Today you’ll no doubt stumble across the market in the courtyard and the church hosts regular concerts; mostly classical, but also welcomes well known faces from the world of folk and pop.
Waterstones Piccadilly is the bookseller’s flagship shop and the largest bookshop in London, housed in an imposing 1930s art deco building that once once home to Simpson’s department store which in turn was the inspiration for the classic British sitcom ‘Are you being served?”.
Running parallel to Piccadilly on the south side is Jermyn Street which has been a mecca for high end gentlemen’s fashion for 300 years. You’ll still find an abundance of shirt shops, but also everything a gentleman could possibly need in the form of shoes, cuff links, ties, grooming, cigars, whiskey, natty dressing gowns and lots more. Just to stand out in the crowd you’ll also find Paxton and Whitfield (the Queens cheese shop) and Floris (the Queen’s perfumeries), both of which have been in operation since the 18th century.
The term ‘circus’ literally comes from the Latin for ‘circle’ and like many junctions in the area, it was once a roundabout. For some reason, many people meet at the ‘statue of Eros’ which has been moved a number of times since it was originally installed in 1893 as a fountain and called the ‘Angel of Christian Charity’. The Eros moniker seems to have stuck, and even appears on maps.
You’ll be unable to avoid noticing a huge wall of advertising which is able to exist because it is apparently the only plot of land in the vicinity not owned by the Crown estates (The Queen) who have an incredible dislike for advertising on their buildings. To make up for it, all the advertising is on that one building.
The Criterion Restaurant
Established in 1874 (and recently renamed Savini at the Criterion), this beautiful restaurant is a window back to a time when Piccadilly Circus wasn’t chock full of cheap souvenir shops, human statues and burger restaurants. It’s been used as a backdrop in many a film, and Sherlock Holmes fans might be interested to learn that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used it as a setting for the initial meeting between Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes in the very first Sherlock Holmes story; ‘A Study in Scarlet’.
Café De Paris
Just off Piccadilly Circus is Café De Paris which opened in 1924 as one of London’s first nightclubs; its dance floor modelled on the ballroom of the Titanic. Today, they still host ‘the most debaucherous cabaret show London has seen’ (their words, not mine) and regular club nights.
Just north of Leicester Square is Chinatown, based around the very un-Chinese sounding Gerrard Street, which as you’d expect is brimming with Chinese food options which have been multiplying since the first Chinese settled there in the 1920s. A favourite amongst Londoners is the fabulously named ‘Wong Kei’ on Wardour Street, largely due to the legendary rudeness of the waiting staff.
In the centre of Leicester Square, a rather bemused looking statue of William Shakespeare looks out at the overly expensive cinemas, chain restaurants, tourists and street performers, adorned by a quote from Twelfth Night which reads ‘There is no darkness, but ignorance’ which currently strikes me as being particularly pertinent.
The large Odeon Cinema on the east side is often the venue of choice for Film Premieres, but I’d really recommend checking out the nearby Prince Charles Cinema, who specialise in showing cult, art house and classic films alongside recent mainstream releases at a much more affordable price. When I moved to London 20 years ago, the Prince Charles Cinema was a home from home.
The TKT half price ticket booth is situated on the south side of the square; great if you’re looking for bargain tickets to a West End show for that day. Like every tourist hotspot around the world you’ll find an M & Ms World and also a Lego Store.
Leicester Square is generally somewhere I avoid, unless I’m required to pass through it en-route to somewhere else.
You are in Theatreland. There are theatres everywhere, but I just wanted to mention the Jermyn Street Theatre, a small studio theatre with an audience capacity of 70. If you’re looking for theatre that is intimate and independent, then you should definitely see what the Jermyn Street Theatre have to offer.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.