The picture of Piccadilly Circus, with its huge illuminated and animated advertising sign on the northwest corner, is an image that instantly says "London" to people from all over the world. Like Times Square in New York, Piccadilly Circus is a true icon. It's also one of the first places that tourists — from families with kids to young backpackers — flock to when they arrive in London.
Unless they are tourists, most people around Piccadilly Circus are passing through on their way to somewhere else; it's the location of one of London's main Underground hubs as well as a crossroads for dozens of bus routes. So, if you would like a chance to chat with some real Londoners, this is not the place to be.
And while London is a relatively safe city compared to most world capitals, if you are going to get your pocket picked, your handbag snatched or worse, this will be the place for it to happen.
But, if you are heading for London for the first time, you're bound to end up in Piccadilly Circus sooner or later. So just be prepared.
Piccadilly Circus' Location
At its most basic, Piccadilly Circus is a road junction and open public space, built in the early 19th century to connect the avenue known as Piccadilly with Regent Street and later Shaftsbury Avenue — the heart of London's Theatreland. Today it also connects to Haymarket and Coventry Street leading to Leicester Square. Piccadilly Circus Underground Station is beneath it and it sits at the intersection of several London districts — Mayfair, St. James's, Soho and the entertainment area that encompasses Shaftsbury Avenue, Leicester Square and Haymarket.
- The Curve: Piccadilly's huge advertising sign is its most identifiable trademark. It virtually turns night to day and has been promoting goods and services with illuminations of different kinds since 1908. Coca Cola has had a sign there continuously since 1954. Other long term advertisers have included Sanyo, Samsung, McDonalds, Hyundai, L'Oreal. In 2017, the sign was relaunched as The Curve, a huge single electronic, ultra-high definition screen capable of carrying either multiple advertisements or single, large advertisement. Advertisers using the sign in 2019 are Coca-Cola, Samsung, Hyundai, L’Oréal Paris, eBay, Hunter and Stella McCartney.
- The Statue of Eros: The statue popularly identified as Eros, the Greek god of erotic love, has become a symbol of London, appearing on the masthead of a popular daily newspaper and website. In fact, he's not Eros at all, but his lesser known brother Anteros, the god of selfless love and charity. It was commissioned in the 1880s to honor Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, who was known for his philanthropy and charitable works. The subtle distinction of the two kinds of love is lost in English so most people think of the statue as Eros. He's a popular meeting place for tourists and people watchers. At one time, he was in the center of a traffic circle, with cars and buses whizzing around him, but he was moved toward the southwest corner, in front of Lillywhites, a popular sporting goods store.
- The Criterion Theatre: Other than the box office and the marquee, the Criterion is completely underground. It is a 142-year-old Grade II, working Victorian theater, maintained and protected by a charitable trust. It tends to schedule popular comedies and farces. In 2019, the long-running comedy, A Play Comedy About a Bank Robbery, was accepting bookings to November 3, with a two week time-out for refurbishments in March.
- The Trocadero: Until about 2015, the Trocadero hosted a series of regularly changing tourist oriented entertainments, amusement arcades and themed attractions. Those have all closed now and the building is under-consideration for a hotel development. There are still a few family-oriented restaurants with American-style fast food around the edges of the building. In 2019, they included the "Forrest Gump" themed Bubba Gumps Shrimp Company, and The Rainforest Cafe which, despite its exotic sounding name, has a familiar, child-pleasing menu of American classics.
- Several Gambling Casinos: The Empire Casino is a Las Vegas-style casino open seven days a week, 24-hours a day. It hosts World Series Poker and has a DJ bar on weekends.The Grosvenor Casino The Rialto on Coventry Street, the gateway to Leicester Square, is another 24-hour gambling casino.
- The Cafe de Paris: Once a glamorous nightclub, the Cafe de Paris, next to the Grosvenor Casino, is now used for Disco 54, a 1980s style disco as well as for private events.
London's main theater district runs along Shaftsbury Avenue, Haymarket and surrounding streets, all reached from Piccadilly Underground Station. Leicester Square, another popular tourist destination, is the location of London's biggest, first run movie theaters as well as moderately priced restaurants and bars. If you're in town when there's a movie premier, one of the Leicester Square cinemas is where it will take place and where you have the best odds of see some movie stars. Leicester Square is also the location of TKTS, the official London Theatreland ticketbooth for last minute and discounted theater tickets.