Londoners often turn up their nose at Leicester Square. After all, it's a load of touristy trumperiness isn't it? Don't be so hasty! Here are 9 actually good things to do in the (in)famous locale — and not a Big Mac or M&M in sight.
1. Laugh your head off at Leicester Square Theatre
OK, so the auditorium's awkwardly girthy with no middle aisle (often meaning you have to upend 20 people to get to/from your seat) — but boy, does Leicester Square Theatre knows how to put on a show. The venue — located just off the main Leicester Square drag — serves as a veritable Vegas for the ilk of Stewart Lee and Sh!tfaced Shakespeare, who put on lengthy runs here. It's also where Richard Herring hosts his much-loved RHLSTP podcast — plus where the final of the annual Sketch Off! competition (a chance to see the city's finest up-and-coming sketch talent) happens. Possibly the West End's most underrated theatre.
2. Listen to the bells, the Swiss bells!
What has 27 bells, 11 figures, four ringers and a couple of clocks? Why it's Leicester Square's famous glockenspiel of course; this gaudy old thing was originally stuck on the front of the Swiss Centre but since 2011, that building's been replaced by a certain sugar-coated chocolate candy emporium, and the glockenspiel has been recycled into a kind of musical totem pole. Make a beeline past the Square's beatboxers, to drink in this strange monument's pleasant chimes. The clock by the way is controlled remotely from, erm, Derby.
3. Hang out with Poppins and Potter
The delightful statue of Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp has been hanging around Leicester Square since 1981, but in 2020, it was joined by a galaxy of other bronze stars — among them, Gene Kelly swinging from a lamppost, Harry Potter mastering a broomstick, Mary Poppins taking flight with an umbrella, and Paddington enjoying a nice sit-down/marmalade sandwich. Don't write these off as touristy claptrap — the statues are lovingly crafted, and you can easily kill half an hour with troublesome kids trying to locate the lot of them.
Of course, you may also catch and flesh and blood stars of the screen at one of Leicester Square's star-studded red carpet bashes. Here's a list of upcoming premieres.
4. Catch a tube train with Shakespeare at the Lego Store
While M&M's World most certainly does NOT make our list, it would be plain disingenuous to neglect the Lego Store. Kids (and let's face it, adults) will be in a bricky dream world, what with the plastic palace's endless shelves of kits (covering everything from Jurassic World to Minecraft), plus pick n' mix bricks for those who prefer to mastermind their own grand designs. It reopens August 2022 after a revamp, and by god, they'd better still have that massive Lego tube train with a brick Bard in it.
5. Watch a cult film at Prince Charles Cinema
Perhaps the only cinema in London to encourage the audience to hurl spoons at the screen (It's a The Room thing), the Prince Charles Cinema casts a shadow on the other grand picturehouses of Leicester Square — being THE place to catch everything from Scorsese classics to French arthouse movies to day-long Lord of the Rings marathons (the latter's not for us, cheers). As for The Room, they screen this 'so-bad-it's-good' bit of gold-plated schlock every month without fail. Tickets for films are surprisingly cheap (especially if you're a member), while Quentin Tarantino touts it "everything an independent movie theatre should be". Maybe you'll even have the good fortune to run into him at a screening (or misfortune, if you happen to be Fiona Apple).
6. Quaff a malbec at Cork & Bottle...
This part of town is ripe with old school wine bars; think Gordon's, Beaujolais, and add to that list, Leicester Square's Cork & Bottle. Hidden among shopfronts peddling tourist tat and vapes, you enter this wonderful wine bar descending a winding staircase, arriving into a francophile grotto plastered with vintage champagne posters — and full of delicious candlelit nooks, crannies and snugs. Technically, this is a restaurant, where you can feast on chicken schnitzel with potato and egg salad, but we prefer to just pull up a stool at the bar, order a large malbec and tune into the goss from the surrounding theatre luvvies.
7. ...or have rooftop cocktails at LSQ Rooftop
From subterranean wine bar, to rooftop cocktail bar. For what must be the best view of Leicester Square itself (that's open to the public, anyway), hop in an elevator to the crown of Hotel Indigo, to discover LSQ Rooftop. From the outdoor balcony (or through the huge windows if it's too chilly), you can admire the illuminated tower of the 1930s Odeon from up high — and The Shard beyond it. Though LSQ Rooftop is a restaurant, you can happily come up here for a swish drink; cocktails like The Walkie Talkie and The Shard are named for high-rise icons. As for the Nelson’s Tower — that one might've got lost in translation.
8. Tuck into a steak at the Heliot Steak House
It's easy to dismiss the Hippodrome — currently plastered with the naked torsos of the Magic Mike cast — as a lurid daytripper's honeypot. In fact, it's a fascinating building — one in which Judy Garland chose to perform her legendary London residency of the 1960s. As for its Heliot Steak House, we are reliably informed this cooks a mean USDA aged steak, unashamedly served up with Scottish lobster tail or roast bone marrow. If you ARE in town for Magic Mike, what better place to keep the flesh coming.
9. Repent at Notre Dame church
Once you're done knocking back vino and gorging on tomahawk, a touch of repentance (or at least chill time) might be in order. Thank the Lord, then, that Leicester Square has its own Notre Dame (Our Lady) church — and what a stunner it is. Jean Cocteau painted the murals in the Our Lady’s chapel here in 1959, lighting a candle before he commenced work each day, and apparently holding conversations with the Virgin Mary while he put brush to canvas. As its name suggests, this is a Francophone church, but of course all are welcome to seek solace in this heavenly space.