The Piccadilly – and wider West End – area of London is fit to bursting with attractions and eating-out options (of course it is), but during any short-break in the capital there a few things that you must see and do and one or two restaurants you simply must try in this extraordinary district dedicated to entertainment and enjoyment. Otherwise you’ll surely regret it…
One of the world’s greatest art galleries comprising 2,300 works, the National Gallery proudly takes up the entire north side of Trafalgar Square; its not insignificant frontage proudly and fittingly looks out on the piazza’s four bronze lions and, of course, its sky-piercing monument atop which stands the statue of Admiral Lord Nelson.
Maybe the most visited area is the East Wing (covering the years 1700–1900), for it’s here where visitors find the works of Gainsborough, Constable and Turner and, most popular of all, Van Gogh, Renoir and Monet. Highly popular too is the High Renaissance-dedicated area (years 1500–1600) in the West Wing, where are housed the paintings of Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael and El Greco, while the equally notable North Wing (1600-1700) holds considerable contributions from Rembrandt, Rubens and Caravaggio – look out for the two self-portraits by Rembrandt here.
Meanwhile, the 20th Century-constructed Sainsbury Wing plays host to works from the years 1250-1500; so this means masterpieces such as Leonardo Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks and Botticelli’s Venus & Mars. Neither is to be missed. Also, you’re well advised to make use of an audio guide; they’re highly informative and well worth the money for just £4 each. There are also excellent hour-long taster tours (which depart daily at 11.30am and 2.30pm from the Sainsbury Wing information desk and additionally at 7pm on Fridays). The best thing about them? They’re absolutely free.
National Portrait Gallery
For this blogger at least, the National Gallery’s ‘little sister’ (tucked in behind its ‘big sister’, with its entrance in St. Martin’s Place, so terrifically easy to get to from Piccadilly – or indeed the Piccadilly London West End hotel) is every bit as epic, significant and worth visiting. If you’re at all keen on portraiture or curious about British/ English history, don’t doubt it, this is the place for you.
Containing an incredibly comprehensive collection of portraits of influential, indispensable names that echo down through history – we’re talking royals, scientists, politicians, army generals, social reformers, literary giants, artists and celebrities – it makes you realise just how giant Britain’s contribution to world civilisation has been; or rather how big the contribution from its outstanding leading lights has been. In particular, highlights you must seek out include the ‘Chandos portrait’ of William Shakespeare and the ‘Ditchley’ portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, in which she stands regally and awe-inspiringly on a map of England. Seriously, the images that immediately jump into our minds of so many historical figures can be found on the walls of this place – King Henry VIII, King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, King Charles II and Nell Gwynne among them.
Plus, there are some unmissable, nay quaint curios, such as the kitschy statue of Queen Victoria and her consort Albert in Anglo-Saxon dress and King George IV looking on as his unhappy wife Queen Caroline endures investigative proceedings in Westminster Hall. Also not to be missed is the downstairs section which covers 20th and 21st Century photography and video work, while on the top floor the Portrait restaurant offers truly panoramic views of Westminster.
The Royal Academy of Arts
Founded way back in 1768 (officially) by King George III, the Royal Academy is located in the gloriously grand Renaissance-style environs of Burlington House, itself actually off Piccadilly – undoubtedly then making this one of the very best Piccadilly attractions. It isn’t just a gallery of fantastic art, though; it’s in fact a self-governing, self-supporting society of artists and architects (in centuries past its pupils included true greats; that is, the likes of Constable, Turner and Millais). But nowadays, perhaps rightly, it’s most famous and celebrated for hosting its annual Summer Exhibition of contemporary British artists’ work – anyone (and that means anyone) can submit their work for inclusion in the collection, thus thousands see their efforts framed for a few months. Ticketed seasonal exhibitions are also held at the venue.
(20 Sherwood Street W1F 7ED)
On to the unmissable dining-out options and first up is this French-themed restaurant located in a renovated art deco ballroom. Favourites include choucroute alsacienne (sauerkraut with sausages and charcuterie, which goes for a reasonable £14), while set menus will set you back £8.95 or 11.75 for two/ three courses and the plats du jour (£12.95) are also very good value, especially when you consider the oh-so salubrious setting.
(33 St James’s Street SW1A 1HD)
The attraction of this place is its fantastic North Italian menu. The interiors are far from flashy, stylish or particularly impressive, but the dishes – such as the beef carpaccio, lamb ragu and crab linguine – are what it’s all about. They’re pretty much to die for.
(50 Frith Street W1D 4SQ)
Hugely popular among London locals for its fabulous authentic udon noodles (which are served hot or cold, in soup or with cold sauce), this place will also serve you early or late come an evening, which gets it an even bigger ‘up-tick’. Look out especially for the saba udon noodles. Why? Because they come complete with lashings of smoked mackerel. Delicious.
(42 Albemarle Street W1S 4JH)
Step back into the days of the British Raj in this deluxe Indian restaurant. With the requisite ceiling fans, hunting trophies and period cricket photos all around you, you’ll feel like Flashman as you tuck into its delightfully lively dishes – you have to try the generous seven-course-tasting menu (£65). Game even gets its own menu. Yes, really. But the very best thing? The bar stays open till 1am. Marvellous.