Neighborhood Walk: Trafalgar Square & Soho
1. Trafalgar Square: Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson was cut down at the moment of victory in the naval battle off Cape Trafalgar in southwest Spain in 1805, while engaging the combined Spanish and French fleets of Napoleon Bonaparte. Glory lives on in the square, a place of enjoyment for all Londoners and a frequent focus for rallies and demonstrations, festivals, and concerts. Nelson’s Column, designed by William Railton, was erected in 1843. Four lions by the Victorian artist Sir Edwin Landseer guard the column, and friezes illustrating Nelson’s sea victories, cast in bronze from captured cannon, decorate the base. The Fourth Plinth, in the square’s northwest corner, features a changing exhibit of contemporary sculpture.
2. The National Gallery: The National Gallery houses one of the world’s great art collections, tracing the story of Western European painting from the early 13th century to the turn of the 20th. The collection is arranged chronologically, starting with the early Renaissance galleries in the Sainsbury Wing, continuing in the main building with the great masters of the 16th to 19th centuries, and ending with the postimpressionists. Free admission to the permanent collection underpins the gallery’s founding principle of “art for all.”
3. National Portrait Gallery: Studies of famous living people and heroes from British history, politics, sports, and the arts feature among the National Portrait Gallery’s ever-expanding showcase. Seek out Marcus Gheeraerts’s painting of the richly attired Queen Elizabeth I, highlight of the Tudor collection, and don’t miss the only known contemporary portrait of playwright William Shakespeare. The ground floor shows an eclectic selection of 21st-century figures.
4. St. Martin-in-the-Fields: If this royal church built by James Gibbs in 1726 looks familiar, it is because it has been much copied, especially in New England. The royal coat of arms above the colonnaded entrance indicates that it is the parish church for Buckingham Palace—you can see the royal box on the left as you enter the restrained interior. Known for its music, the church hosts regular concerts. The Café in the Crypt pulsates to jazz on Wednesday nights.
5. Leicester Square: The red carpets are rolled out here for movie premiers. The square has long been an entertainment hub—the Empire on the north side was once a Victorian music hall—and now boasts several movie theaters and the MTV UK studios. Movie stars’ limousines aside, this is a pedestrianized area, and on the sidewalks you can stargaze for handprints of Clint Eastwood, Helena Bonham Carter, and others. Statues of William Shakespeare and Charlie Chaplain grace the gardens. The half-price ticket booth, tkts (www.tkts.co.uk), is the place for same-day theater seats.
6. Picadilly Circus: A few steps west of Leicester Square, the
A few steps west of Leicester Square, the figure of Eros, erected in Piccadilly in 1893, marks the heart of the West End’s theaterland. Around this timeless statue, ever-changing entertainment venues come and go. The sites of the former London Pavilion music hall and neighboring one-time Palace of Varieties have been transformed into the Trocadero shopping mall and entertainment center. Other venues are reassuringly constant: The Criterion Theatre remains sited below ground, and the fabulously decorated Criterion bar and restaurant is a visual treat. Piccadilly’s neon Coca- Cola sign has beamed across the Circus since 1955.
7. Shaftesbury Avenue: Philanthropist Anthony Lord Shaftesbury cleared slums in the 1880s to create Shaftesbury Avenue, running northeast from Piccadilly Circus. Many West End theaters have congregated here. All exude Edwardian grandeur—take a peek at their foyers. The Lyric (No. 29) is the oldest, built in 1888; the Apollo (No. 31) houses the steepest upper gallery in London. The two giants, both seating around 1,400 and dating from 1911, are the Palace Theatre (No. 109) and the Shaftesbury (No. 210). Built as the Royal English Opera House, the Palace has long been popular for musicals—Les Miserables ran here for 18 years—while the Shaftesbury throbbed to the 1960s musical, Hair.
8. Chinatown: On Sundays, St. Martin-in-the-Fields holds services in Cantonese and Mandarin for the local Chinese population. Red-and-gold gateways herald the way to a collection of pedestrian streets based around Gerrard Street on the south side of Shaftesbury Avenue. More than 70 restaurants, serving Cantonese, Szechuan, Japanese, Thai, and Malaysian foods, among others, provide ample choice. Have a specialty tea in Jen Café, where you can see dumplings being rolled in the window. Always lively, Chinatown explodes with excitement during Chinese New Year (late January or early February).
9. Soho Square: Workers and shoppers alike are drawn to the attractive garden in Soho Square, a summer venue for free concerts and festivals. The statue of King Charles II is a reminder that the square was once called King’s Square and was one of the most fashionable addresses in town. Today it lies at the heart of the U.K.’s film industry.
Excerpted from Walking London by National Geographic. Copyright © 2012 by National Geographic. Excerpted by permission of National Geographic, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.