It’s London’s Times Square, and for that reason, and that reason alone, you should at least plan on making a brief stop at Piccadilly Circus. This confusing crossroads is the junction of several major London thoroughfares, including Regent Street, Haymarket, Coventry Street, and Piccadilly (not to mention, the A4, A401, and A4201 highways).
Sorry to disappoint, but there are no elephants or clowns here. The word “circus” refers to a “circle” — the circular opening between buildings. It’s not actually circular anymore, and hasn’t been for more than a century, since Shaftesbury Avenue was added back in 1886.
The other unusual word in its name, “Piccadilly”, comes from a tailor who once sold “piccadills”, an outfit with a wide collar, that was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.
But enough about the history. You’ve come here to see the neon lights. And if that’s the case, you might leave disappointed. A few decades ago, several of the buildings at this jumbled junction were plastered with lights, but now, only one facade is illuminated. All of the signs are LED, displaying moving pictures like a TV screen, except for one. The Sanyo sign is the oldest, and it’s still sporting the neon that was installed back in 1987 — though its days are numbered, and will likely be gone by the end of 2011.
I took these nighttime pictures of Piccadilly Circus on my final night in London, after a failed attempt to take the Underground to the Tate Modern (which stays open late on Saturdays). Because it was a weekend, my particular tube line was truncated a few stops away from the Tate Modern, and the only alternative was a bus. Clearly, I ended up on the wrong one, because I ended up here.
Three days earlier, I visited Piccadilly Circus as one of my first stops in London — not specifically to see it, but to get to…
… this building, a short walk down Regent Street, between Piccadilly Circus and St. James’s Park. This is the Britain Visitor Centre — the place where you pick up your pre-ordered London Pass. I retrieved my pass on the afternoon I arrived in London, but I didn’t use it until the next morning, so that the clock wouldn’t start ticking on its three days until I could devote an entire day to it.
You can easily reach Piccadilly Circus via the Underground station of the same name, which serves the Piccadilly and Bakerloo lines (dark blue and brown, respectively).
A very long escalator takes you to the surface, while passing dozens of posters for movies and plays being performed in the theater district (which surrounds Piccadilly Circus).