Designed by John Nash in the 1820s, the hub was named after the street Piccadilly, which earned its name in the 17th century from the stiff collars (picadils) that were the sartorial staple of the time (and were the making of a nearby tailor’s fortune).
At the centre of the circus is the famous lead statue, the Angel of Christian Charity, dedicated to the philanthropist and child-labour abolitionist Lord Shaftesbury, and derided when unveiled in 1893, sending the sculptor into early retirement. The sculpture was at first cast in gold, but it was later replaced by the present-day one. Down the years the angel has been mistaken for Eros, the God of Love, and the misnomer has stuck (you’ll even see signs for ‘Eros’ from the Underground). It’s a handy meeting place for tourists, though if you don’t like the crowds, meet at the charging Horses of Helios statue at the edge of Piccadilly and Haymarket – apparently a much cooler place to convene.
John Nash had originally designed Regent St and Piccadilly to be the two most elegant streets in town but, curbed by city planners, Nash couldn’t realise his dream to the full. In the many years since his noble plans, Piccadilly Circus has become swamped with tourists, with streets such as Coventry St flogging astronomically priced cheap tat to unsuspecting visitors.
Coventry St leads to Leicester Sq, while Shaftesbury Ave takes you to the heart of the West End’s theatreland. Piccadilly itself leads to the sanctuary of Green Park. On Haymarket, check out New Zealand House (built in 1959 on the site of the Carlton Hotel, which was bombed during the war), where the Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) worked as a waiter in 1913. Have a look down Lower Regent St for a glimpse of glorious Westminster.
Just east of the circus is London Trocadero, a huge and soulless indoor amusement arcade that has six levels of hi-tech, high-cost fun for youngsters, along with cinemas, US-themed restaurants and bowling alleys.