At some point during your travels in London, it’s likely you end up in this famous square, named after the Battle of Trafalgar.
Museums, statues, fountains, and lions are all on display here, as is an unmissable, tall column with a man on top. That’s Lord Nelson, who led the troops to victory in the battle. He’s sitting on Nelson’s Column… aptly named.
Trafalgar Square has long been used as a site for political demonstrations and protests — in a city the size of London, you need a lot of surface area to hold everyone, which is why this particular spot it so useful.
Stand in the middle of the square, with your back to the street, and read on to get an idea of what you’re looking at.
National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery sits dead center in front of you. If you’re into museums or art, some London lists ran this as a must-see. I, as an avid museum-hater, would give it a miss. London has several other (better) museums, and if you’re short on time, this is a we’ll-see-it-the-next-time-we’re-in-town.
From the National Portrait Gallery, spin slightly right to look at the columned-building with the tall spire.
This church holds little significance, except that it is the sight of a Rick Steves’ debacle from my very first visit to London. In his eloquent way, Rick made the cafe inside sound like you’d be eating amongst the tombs (and in fact, says ‘you’re sitting almost on top of them’), when in reality, you’re just eating at a very sub-standard buffet in basement.
Pop in, if you’re into church architecture.
Otherwise, keep spinning right. Eventually several large statues may impede your view…
The lions were designed in the 1800s by a man who’d never seen a lion in real-life, but was famous for painting dogs and horses.
I’ve heard several stories surrounding flaws with the lions. One says that the sculptor, having never seen one, used the legs of his dogs as a guide for how the lions’ legs would look lying down. While a dog’s legs tend to sit beside it with its ‘knee’ joints upright, a lion splays his legs to the side… thus, the statues are inaccurate.
Another says that as a lion lays down, its back is convex instead of concave, which is how the sculptor depicted these. Seems to me, all of his problems would’ve been solved if he’d sculpted them standing up.
Just past St Martin’s-in-the-Field, on the corner is a building with a large light on top of it.
World’s smallest police box
This small stone structure with its glass-paneled door would almost escape notice if it wasn’t for its history — this is the world’s smallest police box. Built to fit one police officer, it was erected so the Metropolitan police could keep an eye on protests in the square.
They have CCTV for that now, so you’ll find the police box filled with cleaning supplies.
Spin so your back is now facing the National Portrait Gallery, and walk past Nelson’s Column so it isn’t obstructing your view.
While you may see Big Ben from here, that’s not what we’re looking for. Instead, find the tiny, nondescript traffic island. People cross and wait here everyday without knowing its significance.
Known as Charing Cross (you may have seen the name on your Tube map or heard it in an episode of Dr. Who), from this spot, all distances to London are calculated.
Pull up your Google Maps, type your home address and say you’re leaving from ‘London’… you’ll be exactly that distance away if you’re standing in this place.
A statue of Charles I on a horse now sits here, though it used to be a fish shop, and then the scaffolding used for executions.
Other interesting tidbits
I’ve described most of the main sights here, so you can get a grasp of the history of this London square. For more in-depth information (as well as some other interesting facts) you can read this fun piece by the Londonist.
You’ll find Trafalgar as part of my 2-day itinerary for London, as well, because it sits at such a crucial junction between iconic London near the river and the central portion of the city… and my favourite fish ‘n’ chip shop is located just off of it!
Is there anything I’ve missed or that you love about the square? Let me know in a comment!