Marked by the imposing column of Lord Horatio Nelson, the admiral who defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s powerful navy in 1805, Trafalgar Square was named for the famous Battle of Trafalgar that established Britain’s European authority -- especially over its rival, France. Nelson died during that battle.
The column of Admiral Nelson is so symbolic of London that Adolf Hitler ordered that it not be bombed during World War II so that he could relocate the statue to Germany at the end of the war as a victory trophy.
Here are 20 free (or nearly free) things to do in or near this iconic spot.
1. Gaze Up At Admiral Nelson
Nelson was only 12 years old when he joined the Royal Navy. During his many battles, he lost his right arm as well as his sight in one eye. (Look at the statue closely -- you’ll see that the arm of his uniform is pinned to his breast, and he has no right hand.)
He infamously employed his disability during the Battle of Copenhagen when he refused an order to withdraw by putting his telescope up to his blind eye and cheekily declaring, “I really do not see the signal [to withdraw].” He won the battle.
Today, his statue is somewhat controversial: In June of 2020, a petition presented to Parliament requested that the statue be relocated. It declared, “Nelson was a racist and white supremacist who fought against the abolition of the slave trade in the 19th century, instead encouraging slavery and its atrocities to benefit himself and his associates.” Parliament rejected it.
2. Join A Protest
Built in the early 1800s and officially named in 1830, Trafalgar Square continues its reputation as a symbol for battles. It’s been a rallying point for everyone from demonstrators protesting an 1887 police ban on gathering at the famous square (remembered as “Bloody Sunday”) to maskless mobs protesting COVID-19 guidelines during my visit last month.
Throughout the 1800s, authorities developed creative solutions to quell protesting crowds. In 1945, the famous fountains were built, not to please crowds, but to limit space for rioters!
3. Peek Into Britain’s Smallest Police ‘Station’
In the southeastern corner of the square is a small box that was originally an ornamental lamp. In 1926, Scotland Yard hollowed it out and converted it into a mini-bunker from which to watch protesters, call for help, or detain a couple of the rowdiest rioters. The lamp on the top is from the HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson’s ship that fought in the Battle of Trafalgar.
4. Copy A Masterpiece At The National Gallery
Dive deep into one of the National Gallery’s masterpieces during the museum’s Talk and Draw sessions. Learn about the political and social context of a painting -- and the painter -- and how the particular masterpiece fit into the painter’s life and career. Experienced docents highlight the painter’s technique, composition, subject, and materials. Then, try your hand at copying all or part of the masterpiece!
5. Pay Your Respects To George Washington
Given Trafalgar Square’s reputation as a place commemorating protests, it may not be a total surprise to see George Washington, who led the colonial troops in battle for America’s independence from Britain, memorialized in the grassy area in front of the National Gallery. (Look toward St. Martin-in-the-Fields for the statue.)
However, during his time, Washington was considered a traitor by the royalists -- and certainly would have been deemed one by Admiral Nelson. Furthermore, Washington defeated the British by allying with France, Nelson’s nemesis. One can imagine Nelson rolling over in his grave when the “the Commonwealth of Virginia” presented the George Washington statue to “the people of Great Britain and Ireland” in 1921.
Rumor has it that, in order to honor George Washington’s wish that he would never stand on English soil, the good people of the Commonwealth of Virginia shipped the statue with a supply of American soil to place beneath it!
6. Get Inspired At St. Martin-In-The-Fields
No trip to Trafalgar Square would be complete without a visit to St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Originally built in 1222, St. Martin is known as much for its innovations as for its traditions. Experience free blessings in its Prayer Garden, heavenly meals in its Cafe in the Crypt, or free lunchtime concerts.
The current Georgian church, built in 1726, continues to redefine the role of community churches: It provided London’s first lending library and first religious broadcast and, over the years, it’s been a safe haven for homeless people, Chinese immigrants, and anti-apartheid activists.
7. Recalibrate Your Yardstick
Brits didn’t start using the metric system until 1965. Until then, they used the British imperial system of pounds, feet, and gallons. To ensure consistency of the measurements, bronze plaques were installed around London to help Brits calibrate and standardize their measurements. One set of plaques was installed in Trafalgar Square in 1876. They are located on the walls and steps leading from the fountain up to the National Gallery.
8. Climb The Lions
Climbing the bronze Landseer Lions that grace the foot of the Nelson statue is discouraged, but it’s a rite of passage for many tourists. Designed by Sir Edwin Landseer and unveiled in 1867, they are based on an actual, dead lion provided by the Regent’s Park Zoo. Rumor has it that the paws are quite inaccurate because the dead model’s paws had deteriorated by the time Sir Landseer got around to sculpting that part of the lion’s anatomy!
9. Marvel At The Fourth Plinth
There are four plinths flanking Trafalgar Square, three of which feature statues of military leaders. Built in 1841, the Fourth Plinth was supposed to feature a statue of King William IV, but the money was never raised. Now, 150 years later, the Fourth Plinth features a series of modern art sculptures. It is one of the most talked-about contemporary art platforms in the United Kingdom.
It’s pretty easy to figure out which plinth is the Fourth Plinth, as it definitely stands out from the more traditional statues in the square. Located in the northwest corner between the National Gallery and the Canada House, the current sculpture (which will be displayed until the spring of 2022) is a frothy gob of ice cream with a cherry, two flies, and a drone on top. Titled The End, it represents “hubris and impending collapse,” said the artist, Heather Phillipson.
10. Watch A Pavement Artist Create A Painting
For more down-to-earth art -- literally -- check out the pavement artists who create chalk paintings that won’t last through the next London downpour. Much of the artwork features political and thought-provoking statements. Although it’s illegal, authorities seem to turn a blind eye.
11. Enjoy An Art Show At The Canada House
The Canada House, the home of the Canadian High Commissioner’s work, is the stately building that flanks Trafalgar Square’s western boundary. Built in 1829 and remodeled and expanded throughout the decades, the Canada House hosts rotating art exhibits that celebrate Canada’s heritage and natural beauty. They are free and open to the public -- including to non-Canadians!
12. Explore Behind The Scenes Of The English National Opera
A block from Trafalgar Square is the stately London Coliseum, home to the English National Opera and popular venue for the English National Ballet. Guided tours explore the warren of backstage staircases. Since the Coliseum is a working theater, no two tours are alike! (Please note that there is a lot of stair-climbing.)
The Coliseum opened its doors in 1904 as a variety theater -- the “People’s Palace of Pleasure” -- and is still London’s largest West End theater.
13. Get Inspired At The National Portrait Gallery
Around the corner from Trafalgar Square is the National Portrait Gallery. Closed for remodeling until 2023, it’s definitely a must for art lovers! Stay tuned for updated programs and exhibits.
14. Walk In Benjamin Franklin’s Footsteps
Until just before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin lived at a boarding house two blocks from Trafalgar Square. As the only house in the world where Franklin lived that still stands, the Benjamin Franklin House offers an immersive glimpse into the iconic inventor/author/philosopher/politician’s life in London. Two tours are offered -- an architectural tour and a multimedia historical experience that features a live actress interacting with projected characters, including Franklin. Both have nominal charges, and both require some climbing uneven stairs.
15. Spy On Sherlock Holmes And Dr. Watson
The Sherlock Holmes Pub, three blocks from Trafalgar Square, features a recreation of the sitting room shared by Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The detailed display was originally constructed in 1951 for the Festival of Britain before being acquired by local pub owners, who installed the display in their pub’s upstairs dining room in 1957. Here, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional characters come to life -- especially after a few pints!
16. Immerse Yourself In Contemporary Art
Two blocks from Trafalgar Square are the Mall Galleries that host rotating exhibits featuring some of the best of the UK’s contemporary art. Works by members of the Royal Societies of Marine Artists, Portrait Painters, Wildlife Artists, and more, as well as works by up-and-coming artists, are exhibited. Entrance costs £5 or less and the exhibits are extensive, usually featuring several dozen works -- most of which are for sale.
Next door is the Institute of Contemporary Arts that offers art exhibits, film festivals, lectures, and more. Since its founding in 1946, the ICA has been a model for contemporary art institutes around the world by “contextualizing contemporary culture within the socio-political conditions of the times.”
17. Inspect The Queen’s Guard
Across the street from the Mall Galleries is the staging area where the Queen’s sentries dismount after their shift guarding Buckingham Palace. Daily at 4 p.m., visitors can gather in the courtyard of the Horse Guards to watch the guards’ inspection. The parade and inspection take place outside, and there is no charge.
The tradition was started by Queen Victoria in 1894 when she discovered her entire guard drinking and gambling while on duty.
18. Dress Like A Calvary(wo)man
Visit The Household Calvary Museum to peek into the stables and see how the horses that guard the Queen are cared for. You can also watch the regiment in action during the hourly sentry changes and even try on a cavalry uniform!
This living museum offers free audio guides, as well as knowledgeable staff who explain the history of the Household Calvary and describe what being part of the regiment is like today.
Tickets cost £9 or less, and the family packages are great deals!
19. Enjoy A Glass Of Sherry In London’s Oldest Wine Bar
Established in 1890, Gordon’s Wine Bar is located on the vibrant Villiers Street, just three blocks from Trafalgar Square. Not your standard pub, it features seating in a cave-like room that’ll make you feel like you’re in a wine barrel!
Gordon’s features several dozen wines, including vegan wines, low-alcohol or low-sulfur wines, sherries, ports, champagnes, sparkling wines, and dessert wines from both bottles and barrels. Their wines hail from countries as diverse as Lebanon, Hungary, India, and Macedonia.
A small glass of sherry costs only £5.50, with glasses of wine starting at a bit over £6.
20. Play Lawn Chess And Checkers
Tucked away just three blocks from Trafalgar Square, the Victoria Embankment Gardens are a quiet respite from the bustling square. Here you can play lawn chess or checkers (weekends only), enjoy a free summer concert, or treat yourself to a full English breakfast at the Embankment Cafe, served all day!
But Here’s What You Can’t Do In Trafalgar Square…
Feed the pigeons. It’s illegal. But true to Trafalgar Square’s history as a place of rebellion, there’s an organization fighting to protect the pigeons: Save The Trafalgar Square Pigeons.