It’s one of London’s most iconic landmarks, and thanks to its central location, most tourists will pay a visit to Trafalgar Square. While at first glance it might seem that the square is a just a couple of fountains and a big column, there’s a lot more to the area and it’s worth stopping for a while to take a closer look around.
1. Nelson’s Column
It’s hard to miss Nelson’s Column. This enormous structure in the middle of the square was designed and erected to honour Admiral Horatio Nelson after his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
The monument comprises a granite column of the Corinthian order, topped with a sandstone statue of Nelson. It stands on a large pedestal, which is decorated with bronze relief panels. The panels were cast from French guns that were captured and depict images from Nelson’s career: the Battle of Cape St Vincent, the Battle of the Nile, the Battle of Copenhagen and his death at Trafalgar.
Completed in 1843, the entire monument, from the bottom of the pedestal to the top of Nelson’s hat measures 169 feet and three inches tall.
2. The Landseer Lions
London has a lot of lion statues – around 10,000 according to some estimates. But, the most famous of these big cats are the four enormous bronze felines that have been guarding Nelson’s column since 1867. Named the after Edwin Landseer, the artist who created them, each of the Landseer Lions is around 20 feet long and 22 feet tall.
At first glance, the lions may seem identical, but if you look closely, you’ll notice slight differences in their manes, faces and how they’re positioned. When designing the statues, Landseer spent time at what is now London Zoo, observing the lions living there. He also obtained dead lions from the zoo to study in more detail. However, it’s believed that these specimens began to decay before he was finished, so some details are not accurate. Specifically, this explains why the feet of the lions resemble the paws of domestic house cats.
Climbing up to sit on the lions is a popular tourist photo op, but it’s generally recommended that everyone view the big cats from ground level. For one thing, they’re very high up and it’s not unusual for someone to be taken to hospital after a fall from these magnificent beasts. For another, the lions have suffered considerable damage due to the many thousands of people who clamber up them every year.
3. The Fountains
The two huge fountains were installed in the 1840s to help counteract the heat and glare from the paved square. They also helped with crowd control, as the large footprints reduced the number of people who could gather within the square.
Towards the end of the 1930s, new centrepieces for the fountains were installed. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, these were designed as memorials to Lord Jellicoe and Lord Beatty. Busts of the admirals were also planned to be installed in the fountains. However, these were placed against the northern wall of the square and water-spouting sculptures of Triton, mermaids and dolphins were created by William McMilllan and Sir Charles Wheeler for the fountains. Work was stalled throughout the second world war, and the finished fountains were not unveiled until 1948.
In 2009, the fountains were refurbished, getting new pumps capable of sending water 80 feet into the air. An LED lighting system was also installed, which enables the fountains to be illuminated in a range of colour combinations.
4. The Fourth Plinth
Sculptures now stand on plinths at all four corners of Trafalgar Square – however, until fairly recently the north-west plinth was empty. Known as the fourth plinth, this space is now used to display specially commissioned artworks that change on a fairly regular basis.
Since 1999, ten different works have been placed on the fourth plinth – these have included a marble sculpture of artist Alison Lapper, who was born with no arms and shortened legs, a giant ship in a bottle and a giant blue rooster.
5. Britain’s tiniest police box
At the south-east corner of the square, in what looks like an ornamental light fitting, you’ll find the UK’s smallest police box. It was commissioned to provide shelter for a single police officer and could also be used to detain up to two prisoners. However, today it serves a less glamorous purpose as storage space for cleaning supplies.
6. The National Gallery
At the north end of Trafalgar Square is the National Gallery, an art museum that was founded in 1824. Its collection includes more than 2,300 paintings that date from the mid-13th century to 1900, including works by well-known artists like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Titian, Cezanne, Seurat, Monet, Bellini, van Dyck, van Gogh, Michelangelo, Turner, Constable and Canaletto.
7. Canada House
Sitting on the west side of Trafalgar Square is Canada House. This Grade II listed building is the home of the High Commission of Canada in London. It was built between 1824 and 1827 by Sir Robert Smirke, the same architect who designed the British Museum.
8. South Africa House
Located near the south-east corner of Trafalgar Square, this Grade II Listed Building was build by Holland, Hannen & Cubitts in the 1930s. It is the home of the High Commission of South Africa.
The building has been the site of various demonstrations over the years, but today it’s no longer as controversial. Instead, it is considered a focal point of South African culture in the UK. Nelson Mandela made appearances on its picturesque balcony twice – in 1995 and 2001. Be sure to keep an eye out for the golden sculpture of a winged Springbok at the corner of the building. It was designed by Charles Wheeler in 1934.
9. St Martin-in-the-Fields
An Anglican church on the eastern side of Trafalgar Square, St Martin-in-the-Fields has a Neoclassical design and was completed in 1726. The crypt below the church houses a cafe and the London Brass Rubbing Centre. The courtyard behind the church has another cafe, which providing a lovely place to relax on a sunny day.
10. The Admiralty Arch
This ornate archway provides road and pedestrian access between Trafalgar Square and the Mall. It was commissioned by King Edward VII in memory of his mother, Queen Victoria, and the Latin inscription at the top says: “In the tenth year of King Edward VII, to Queen Victoria, from most grateful citizens, 1910”.
The arch provides a ceremonial entrance to the Mall and often plays an important role in ceremonial occasions. The space inside the arch has served a number of purposes over the years and in 2000 the Cabinet Office moved into the building. More recently, a 125-year lease on the building was put up for auction as part of the government’s austerity measures and the winning bidder plans to turn it into a luxury hotel.
Bonus: Some sort of event!
Trafalgar Square has been a popular spot for demonstrations and events throughout its history. It’s still regularly used for political demonstrations and it’s also a popular spot for cultural events and festivals around the year.
A Christmas ceremony has been held every year in the square since 1947 – the event includes turning on the lights of London’s Christmas tree. The tree itself is presented to London by Oslo and is a traditional gift for Britain’s support of Norway during World War II. The Passion of the Christ is performed every Easter, while St George’s Day, Diwali, Eid, Canada Day and the Dutch Koninginnedag are just some of the other events that take place.
Even if there’s not a specific event going on in Trafalgar Square, you can almost always find street performers on the pedestrianised area between the square and the National Gallery.
Park Grand London Kensington is located 3.2 miles asway from Trafalgar Square.