Things to See in Piccadilly Circus
This post is a short visitor’s guide to one of London’s most famous and busiest landmarks. You will learn about how to get to Piccadilly Circus, what it exactly is and how you can visit.
Where is Piccadilly Circus
Piccadilly Circus is located in the City of Westminster in London’s West End. The closest Underground station is Piccadilly Circus, which is serviced by the Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines. We recommend using this Google map for directions to Piccadilly Circus from anywhere in London.
Click the map to enlarge
Due to its rather central location, Piccadilly Circus is located near other major London attractions:
- Leicester Square
- Trafalgar Square
- The National Portrait Gallery
- The National Gallery
- St. Martin-in-the-Fields
What is Piccadilly Circus?
The word ‘circus’ is often associated with acrobats, trained elephants, and canvas tents but Piccadilly Circus displays none of those attributes! This is because the word ‘circus’ in Piccadilly is being used in the Latin sense – meaning circle. This means Piccadilly Circus is really just a round open space at a street junction in the heart of London! It is quite a glamorous street junction, however, and is famously surrounded by video displays and neon signs, a famous ‘statue of Eros,’ as well as notable buildings such as the London Pavilion and Criterion Theatre. Today Piccadilly Circus is so busy with traffic, pedestrians, and tourists, that the phrase, “It’s like Piccadilly Circus” is used in popular British lexicon to refer to a place which is exceptionally busy. It is said that if a person stays long enough in Piccadilly Circus – they will eventually bump into everybody they know!
Piccadilly is a thoroughfare in London that has been in existence since the early 1600’s. Named after piccadills (a fancy type of neck collar), the road meets with Regent Street in a junction that was designed by John Nash in 1819. The Circus was expanded to connect to Shaftesbury Avenue in 1886, transforming it into one of the largest and most important road junctions in London.
In 1879, Charles Dickens described Piccadilly Circus as follows: “Piccadilly, the great thoroughfare leading from the Haymarket and Regent Street westward to Hyde Park Corner, is the nearest approach to the Parisian boulevard of which London can boast.”
+ Evolution to Today
One of the most famous landmarks in London, the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain (often referred to as the Statue of Eros – as this is the name most associated with the statue that is famously perched on top of the fountain) was erected in 1893 and still stands today. However, it was moved in the 1980’s and now as pride of place in the centre of Piccadilly Circus. On the statue’s creation, it was considered somewhat risqué since the figure was entirely nude! Now it has become so synonymous with Piccadilly Circus and London in general that the outline of the statue is actually the symbol for the Evening Standard newspaper. It also just so happens that this statue was the first in the world to be cast in aluminium – and it is also worth noting that, despite its’ popular name, the statue is not actually of Eros, but of his brother, Anteros (the God of selfless love) – chosen to represent the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury.
Piccadilly Circus Underground Station was opened in 1906, servicing both the Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines. This station is one of the very few on the London Underground to have no buildings on street level – everything here is subterranean. Not long after the Station opening, in 1910, the first electric advertisements in London appeared at the Circus and in 1923, electric billboards were erected – providing the famous lights that visitors now travel from all over the world to see.
+ World-Famous Lights
Piccadilly Circus has been notoriously surrounded by illuminated advertisements for over a century now. Today, there are only six illuminated advertising screens left. On special occasions, the lights are switched off. Most recently this happened to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of World War I. Previously, the lights have been switched off to mourn the passing of Winston Churchill and Diana, princess of Wales.
Coca-Cola – Has had a sign here since 1954! Also, it displays information about line closures and delays on the London Underground. In 2002, it displayed a quote of John Lennon, “Imagine all the people living life in peace,” paid for by his widow, Yoko Ono at a cost of £150,000.
- TDK – Here since 1990 and now an LED screen.
- McDonalds – Displayed since 1987 and is also LED.
- Hyundai – The most recent addition from 2011. Replaced Sanyo, which had been here since the 1980’s.
- Samsung – Twenty years old this year, originally installed in 1994.
- LG – Added in 2007, also displays a rolling feed of Sky News headlines.
Top Trivia: “Piccadilly Circus” was the code name given to the Allies’ D-Day invasion fleet’s assembly location in the English Channel.
+++To learn more, take our famous pay-what-you-like walking tour of Soho, Piccadilly and Chinatown! +++
SELF GUIDED PICCADILLY CIRCUS AND LEICESTER SQUARE
There are many things to see in Piccadilly Circus, so we created this self-guided tour with includes Leicester Square and St. James’s Square. This tour should take you approximately 90 min to 2 hours to complete.
Start: Leicester Square
Finish: Berkeley Square, Mayfair
Link to Map
If you are considering one of London’s double-deck, hop-on, hop-off buses, all 3 major companies have stops at Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. Read our post comparing the different London bus companies to see which one, if any, is best for you.
STOP 1 – Leicester Square (A)
One of London’s best known locations, Leicester Square is right in the centre of town, in the heart of the West End Theatre District. Named after Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester who built himself a house here in 1635, by the 1700’s, Leicester Square was home to posh residential houses and was home to Frederick, Prince of Wales, son of King George II. By the late 19th century, Leicester Square had evolved and was no longer a fashionable neighbourhood, but instead began to be a hub of entertainment activity.
The first tourist attraction to be erected here was a giant globe, having been part of the Great Exhibition in 1851, that became a national curiosity and destination. After this, several hotels grew up in the area, marking it as a destination for tourists for decades to come. Rapidly, one theatre after the other was constructed around the Square, and the present-day versions of these still stand today. It is here in Leicester Square that the world-premieres of films take place, and fans can camp overnight here for days hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite celebrity.
In the centre of the square is a statue of William Shakespeare, a nod to the origins of English theatre, now so popular in this area. Most of the restaurants in the Square cater to the tourism industry and are – generally speaking – not worth visiting. But it is a good place to snap up cheap theatre tickets, and perhaps do some celebrity-spotting!
Leave Leicester Square through the NORTH-WEST corner, along the path known as SWISS COURT.
STOP 2 – Swiss Court and M&M’s World (B)
Now you will be standing outside the shining lights of M&M’s World. Officially opened in June 2011, this is the world’s largest candy store, spanning an incredible 35,000 square feet (3,250 sq. m.)! There are over 100 types of M&M’s available for purchase inside and there is also a small display outlining the history of M&M’s over the decades.
Just outside the shop is an odd looking clock, the Swiss Glockenspiel. Before M&M’s world existed, this location was the sight of the Swiss Centre – a building which showcased Swiss culture, constructed in the 1960’s. Rescued from the demolished building and restored in 2011, the glockenspiel here holds a staggering 27 bells and showcases figurines that appear, circling the clock, when the bells ring. The glockenspiel ‘performs’ at 12pm, 5pm, 6pm, 7pm and 8pm Monday to Friday and plays that schedule, plus extras at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm on the weekends/public holidays, so try to see it if you can! https://www.mmsworld.com/. London Pass holders are entitled to 15% off of purchases at M+M World.
Continue along and cross over Wardour Street, leaving Leicester Square behind you. Continue along Coventry Street until you get to the statue at PICCADILLY CIRCUS.
STOP 3 – Piccadilly Circus (C)
To some, Piccadilly Circus is THE heart of the West End! Boasting some of the first electric lights seen in London, the glitz and colour of vibrant Piccadilly Circus has been attracting visitors here for decades. With a somewhat confusing name, there has never been a circus at this location in the way modern visitors know it (acrobats, lion tamers, etc.) but instead circus is the Latin word for “circle.” Essentially a large traffic junction, Piccadilly Circus is where Shaftesbury Avenue, Regent Street, Piccadilly and Haymarket all come together – four of the busiest and most famous streets in the capital.
One of the gems located here is the Criterion Restaurant – an opulent building dating from the 1870’s, and is the setting of a scene in the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. For Sir Conan Doyle fans, Sherlock lovers, or those who fancy a bit of a treat, it’s worth stopping in for a glass of champagne in the ridiculous gorgeous art nouveau bar.
The state of the angel in the middle of the junction is the most famous monument here. Known commonly as the Statue of Eros, the official name of this piece of art is actually the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, commemorating the philanthropic works of Lord Shaftesbury, a Victorian philanthropist and politician. The figure on top is The Angel of Christian Charity and it is on the steps beneath him that thousands of tourists come every year to sit and soak up the vibrant atmosphere of Piccadilly Circus.
Keep going in the direction you were heading before and walk onto Piccadilly itself, crossing Regent Street in the process. Walk along until you pass Eagle Place on your LEFT. Thereafter you will come to Waterstones Book Store.
STOP 4 – Waterstones (D)
You are now standing outside the largest book store in Europe! Worth a visit for bibliophiles, the sheer number of books contained in this building is almost beyond belief. The top floor has a café/bar with wonderful views over the Piccadilly area if you’re looking for a quiet place to take a break, away from the hustle and bustle of the streets below.
Follow the same direction and just after the book store will be Church Place. Turn LEFT down Church Place.Follow to the end and then you will be standing on Jermyn Street. Take a RIGHT and then an immediate LEFT onto Duke of York St. Follow until you get to ST. JAMES SQUARE.
STOP 5 – St. James Square (E)
St. James Square is a perfect example of Georgian architecture, including the beautiful semi-private garden in the centre. It was in 1662 that King Charles II leased the land here to the Earl of St. Albans, Henry Jermyn, who soon began building property on the area, primarily reserved for London’s elite. Therefore, wealthy Londoners have called St. James Square for centuries, and today the area is home to the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), the East End Club, the Naval and Military Club as well as holding the headquarters of numerous businesses such as BP.In the centre of the square is a statue of King William III (1650 – 1702) sitting on horseback.
It is worth having a walk through the park, which is open to the public during daylight hours, as well as enjoying the beautiful architecture displayed here. Notable houses to look out for are No. 1 – BP Head Office / No. 10 – Former home of Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder / No. 19 London home of the Dukes of Cleveland from 1720 to 1894 / No. 31 – London residence for the Dukes of Norfolk and also where U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters during WWII.
Once you have walked around St. James Square, go back up Duke of York Street. At the top you will come to ST. JAMES’S PICCADILLY CHUCH.
STOP 6 – St. James’s Piccadilly (F)
This unassuming church is the work of noted architect Sir Christopher Wren, and was completed in the 17th century. The courtyard of the church also holds Piccadilly Market – originally and arts and crafts market, but now holding various goods which alternate depending on the various days of the week. The inside of the church is wonderful to view, the market in the courtyard provides good shopping, and the fact that the church was designed by Christopher Wren means it’s definitely worth a look. http://www.sjp.org.uk/
Facing the church, continue left down Jermyn Street. Turn RIGHT into Princes Arcade. When back onto Piccadilly, turn LEFT until you get to FORTNUM & MASON with the ROYAL ACADEMY across the road.
STOP 7 – Fortnum & Mason (G)/ Royal Academy of Arts (H)
Originally founded as a grocery store, Fortnum & Mason was established in 1707. Today it’s known around the world for its’ high quality goods and representation of ‘British’ tradition, food, and design. Fortnum & Mason holds the Royal Warrant which means that it provides goods to the Royal Family themselves! The store itself is worth exploring – stunning goods are arranged in delightful displays and their teas, coffees and chocolates are surprisingly affordable and always delicious. For those hoping to take in a traditional British Afternoon Tea, Fortnum & Mason is our top recommendation – but be sure to book in advance!
Just across the street from Fortnum & Mason stands the imposing structure of the Royal Academy. The building itself is Burlington House, constructed in 1768. The Royal Academy of Arts is an institution which is funded privately by top artists and architects throughout the country. As a gallery for visitors, the Royal Academy has impressive holdings: work by Michelangelo, one of Gilbert Scott’s original London telephone boxes, library holdings, and a constant changing display of art in the massive centre courtyard. Definitely feel free to explore if you are an art lover. https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/
With Fortnum & Mason on your left, and the Academy on your right, continue down Piccadilly until you get to PICADILLY ARCADE. Walk down the Arcade until you get to the statue of the dandy at the end, on Jermyn Street.
STOP 8 – Jermyn Street Dandy / Piccadilly Arcade (I)
Piccadilly is known for it’s luxuries – shops, houses, and restaurants. The statue of the dandy here typifies Georgian top-class society and is a nod to the fact that London’s wealthy have been outfitting themselves from goods purchased in this neighbourhood for centuries. The shops here are expensive, but provide some of the highest quality goods you can find in the United Kingdom. Piccadilly Arcade itself used to house showrooms for Waterford Crystal and Wedgwood and today numerous shops in the neighbourhood sport the coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth II or Charles, the Prince of Wales – these are giveaways that the royals themselves are shopping at those particular locations!
With the statue on your left, and Arcade on your right, continue down Jermyn Street until you get to St. James’s Street. Take a left and then cross St. James’s Street onto Bennet Street. Walk down Bennet Street until you get to Arlington Street then turn RIGHT. At the corner is THE RITZ.
STOP 9 – The Ritz Hotel (J)
The Ritz really needs no introduction. Opened by Swiss hotelier Cesar Ritz in 1906, the hotel here has been setting trends and typifying style for just over a century. The Ritz typifies English silver-service and hospitality and serves an expensive, but smashing, afternoon tea! http://www.theritzlondon.com/
Walk along Piccadilly under the awning of the Ritz Hotel, keeping the Hotel on your left. At the pedestrian crossing on your right, walk across Piccadilly and then up Berkeley Street until you get to BERKELEY SQUARE.
STOP 10 – Berkeley Square (K)
Originally laid out in the 18th century, Berkeley Square was originally surrounded by residential properties for those with the largest bank accounts in town. Today, the buildings that surround the square are mostly business, although they still maintain the appearance of Georgian houses. For such a small piece of London, the number of notable names who are associated with this neighbourhood is impressive, such as Charles Rolls, co-founder of Rolls-Royce, who was born here in 1877. If that’s not impressive enough, then leading off Berkeley Square is Bruton St. and it was here, at Bruton St. Number 17 (M) that Queen Elizabeth II was born ! It is worth taking a walk around Berkeley Square, and keep an eye out for…
Berkeley Square No. 11 (L) – Home to Horace Walpole, our first Prime Minister who moved in in 1779 and died here in 1797.
Berkeley Square No. 28 (N) – London’s most exclusive private member’s clubs, Morton’s Club (potential members must be invited by a proposer of the club and then will have an application sent to their Membership committee for evaluation!
Berkeley Square No. 48 (O) – Childhood home of Winston Churchill
Berkeley Square No 50 (P) – Maggs Brothers Antiquarian Booksellers, known to be the most haunted house in London, with ghost stories here dating back to the 18th century and the location of suicides and mental breakdowns by those who have come into contact with the spirits that reportedly still haunt the house.
Here your tour ends. Your nearest station is Green Park. Bond Street and Oxford Street are both within walking distance, as well, if you fancy a bit of shopping!
+++Learn more and join us on our Soho, Piccadilly, Chinatown Walking tour!+++