What is it?
Built in 1819, Piccadilly Circus is a major road junction and public space in London’s West End that connects Regent Street with Piccadilly. Over the years, it has become a busy meeting place and a significant London landmark in its own right.
Piccadilly Circus’ huge neon signs, mounted on the northern corner, are recognised around the world. It is estimated that 100 million people pass through Piccadilly Circus every year.
So it isn’t an actual circus?
Afraid not. The word ‘circus’ is actually Latin for ‘circle’, so that’s where it gets its name. You won’t find any clowns or acrobatic acts here, at least not on a typical day.
What’s actually there then?
Aside from the striking neon signs, there’s the 588-seat Criterion Theatre, which is almost entirely underground.
The weird and wonderful Ripley’s Believe It or Not! is here, as well as some shops, namely Gap, Boots, clothing brand The Sting, sporting goods retailer Lillywhites, Fortnum & Mason with its expansive food hall and some tourist souvenir sellers.
On the north-eastern side of Piccadilly Circus is London Pavilion, which over the years has been a music hall and a cinema. Today, it is a shopping arcade that has been connected to the Trocadero Centre since 2000.
Tell me more about these signs
While its illuminated signs define Piccadilly Circus, it was almost 90 years before they were actually introduced.
The first to appear was a Perrier sign in 1908 and the earliest signs used incandescent light bulbs before they were replaced with neon lights and the moving images. The first neon sign was for Bovril, while Guinness was the focus of Piccadilly Circus’ first moving sign.
In a further development, digital projectors were used for a Coke sign in 1998, making it the square’s first digital billboard.
Do they ever turn off the signs?
Only on special occasions or for maintenance work. Piccadilly Circus’ lights were switched off to mark the deaths of Winston Churchill in 1965, and Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. They were switched off for an hour in 2007 as part of the Lights Outs London campaign.
Early 2017 saw the start of renovations to install a permanent single screen, replacing the six screens that were previously in place. The new screen will be able to support live video streaming too and it should be ready by autumn 2017.
Does Piccadilly Circus ever close?
Not really. Naturally, the shops close between certain times and the theatre has set showtimes but the actual public space is open all hours. As mentioned earlier, the lights are out of commission until a new screen is unveiled in the autumn.
Where is it?
In the City of Westminster, at the intersection of Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue and Coventry Street. If you need a postcode, enter SW1Y 4QF, which is the postcode of Lillywhites, so it should bring you right into the heart of Piccadilly Circus.
How do you get to Piccadilly Circus?
As with almost anywhere in central London, the best way to get to Piccadilly Circus is by using the Underground tube system, and with its own Tube station (Piccadilly Circus Station on the Bakerloo and Piccadilly Lines), it couldn’t be simpler.
If you prefer to stay above ground, several bus services stop right in Piccadilly Circus, namely the 6, 13, 23, 139, N13, N18 and N113.
What else is nearby?
Plenty of notable theatres including the Harold Pinter Theatre, the Prince of Wales Theatre, Queen’s Theatre, Gielgud Theatre, Piccadilly Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre and Theatre Royal Haymarket.
If you exit east out of Piccadilly Circus and head south down Haymarket and Cockspur Street, you’ll come to Trafalgar Square – another must-see London landmark. From there, you have the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, while Covent Garden is about five minutes’ walk away.
Leicester Square isn’t too far from Piccadilly Circus either, while you can walk to Buckingham Palace and the 350-acre Hyde Park in under 20 minutes.
Piccadilly Circus is a great spot to grab a bite to eat too, with many great restaurants nearby. Pizza lovers can choose Jamie’s Italian, Piccolino Restaurant or Pizza Express. There’s also the tourist-friendly Planet Hollywood on Haymarket Street with its American diner theme and cinema memorabilia, while Coventry Street has a T.G.I Friday’s and the old-school Angus Steakhouse.
Those after something more upmarket could go with HIX Soho, Bocca di Lupo, Savini At Criterion, Ham Yard Hotel or Brasserie Zédel.