Covent Garden may have its shops and Piccadilly Circus has the world-famous lights, but Leicester Square is home to London's vibrant theatre district which has been famous for hundreds of years.

Commonly unpronounced (correctly is “Less-stir”) but not often missed by tourists in London, Leicester Square attracts thousands of visitors each year, most of whom are visiting the area to watch a theatre performance or a movie premiere in London's world-reknown “Theatreland.”

But the area now known as Leicester Square was once a private area consisting of four acres, and closed off to the public for much of the early 1600s. During this time, an elaborate palace was built on the site (called Leicester House), which was built between 1632 and 1636 by Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester.

After many protests from London's residents, Leicester Square was finally opened to the public in 1640, but it wasn't until the 1700s when the area was transformed into the vibrant entertainment area that it's known for today; (although the majority of the theatres in Leicester Square were built during the 19th century).

Leicester Square, Odeon theatre. By Elliot Brown Leicester Square, Planet Hollywood handprint. By Elliot Brown
Leicester Square, Shakespeare statue. By Elliot Brown Leicester Square, Swiss clock. By Steve James Leicester Square, street performer. By Garry Knight

Lester Square Highlights

There are also countless theatres which are scattered in and around Leicester Square, with the most notable being the Odeon Leicester Square, the Prince Charles Cinema, Apollo Theatre, Her Majesty's Theatre, The Phoenix Theatre, Princes of Wales Theatre, Savoy Theatre and Theatre Royal Haymarket (just to name a few). Other popular theatres among visitors to Leicester Square include the Wyndham's Theatre, the Phoenix Theatre, Garrick Theatre, The Criterion Theatre and the Adelphi Theatre.

The Odeon Leicester Square (located on the eastern side of the square) in particular has become one of the most famous theatres in the area, as it hosts many film premieres throughout the year. The nearby Prince Charles Cinema is another popular theatre, as it is best known for showing cult films and marathon movie events for budget prices.

It's pretty hard to miss the Swiss Glockenspiel, the most well-known attraction that greets you as soon as you enter Leicester Square. This ten metre-tall steel clock rings on the hour every afternoon, during which figures inside the clock move around to the sound of chiming carillon bells. The clock was a gift from Switzerland and Liechtenstein and thus it is decorated with the flags of the cantons of Switzerland, and crowned with a Swiss clock.

Located at the centre of the Leicester Square stands the massive Shakespeare Monument, which sits above a giant fountain that was created in 1874 by Giovanni Fontana. Also nearby are the statues of Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Josh Hunter, William Hogarth and Charlie Chaplin, the founder of scientific surgery.

During the winter months, Leicester Square is transformed into a magical wintry wonderland (like much of everything else in London's West End), and during the spring and summer months the Leicester Square Gardens are especially beautiful and worth snapping a picture of.

Also, keep an eye out for the Planet Hollywood floor plaques which includes the names and handprints of famous actors like Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Sir Ian McKellen.

Special Tips

  • For the ultimate London West End experience, start your visit to Leicester Square by walking from Piccadilly Circus along Coventry Street for four minutes. After you're finished strolling around Leicester Square, head down Cranbourn Street for seven minutes to see Covent Garden.
  • To save money on theatre tickets, try to watch a performance on a weekday afternoon, or purchase a ticket from the TKTS half-price ticket booth.
  • Always keep an eye out on your belongings, as the area can be prone to pick-pocketers.
  • If you happen to stumble across a street performance, be respectful and pay them for their entertainment if you watch for longer than a few minutes; (otherwise the performers can get quite pushy for your money).