Trafalgar Square is one of London’s defining sights. It’s pretty much a permanent backdrop for television series and films, it frequently serves as the pulsating and popular centre for the capital’s celebrations and rallies, from Diwali to Christmas, when the soaring spruce sent over every year from Oslo as thanks for British support to Norway during WWII sparkles for all souls. The square is also the daily stuff of traffic hold-ups for locals, but for guests at the Strand Palace Hotel, the jams don’t apply, as it’s just a short walk away.
Once there, there are the well-known and well-loved motifs to delight in – Landseer’s looming lions, Nelson on his lofty perch, pigeons fluttering about, all set against the grand facade of the National Gallery. Many visitors stop in the square for a selfie or two, but there’s so much more to take in. A whole day could be easily, pleasurably spent exploring the treasures around Trafalgar, with excitements beyond climbing a bronze lion, which is admittedly fun a few times.
The obvious starting point is the National Gallery, perhaps after a quick espresso overlooking the square before delving into one of Europe’s richest collections. The National is less feted than the Uffizzi, less flamboyant than El Prado, yet wall to wall it features some of the finest and most easily accessible historical art to be found in the West. Turn into the Sainsbury Wing for an immediate immersion into Italian classics, from early Sienese masterpieces onwards. Or head up the central staircase to discover some of Caravaggio’s finest works, and for contrast take in the bright and intense tones of The Arnolfini Portrait in the Netherlandish galleries. All of Europe is beloved behind these very English walls.
Take a break from the high art to stroll around the square for some air and to appreciate its fine proportions laid out in the 1830s, the fountains designed by Edwin Lutyens, the surprise of what might atop the famous fourth plinth, set aside for singular commissions by contemporary artists. A walk radiating off the perimeter leads past and towards any number of iconic buildings, from South Africa House (where crowds gathered in Trafalgar Square style to protest against Apartheid and years later, to mark the passing of Nelson Mandela), Canada House, and the long-shuttered Uganda House, still emblazoned in stone with the country’s symbolic crested crane.
Admiralty Arch leads through to the broad thoroughfare of Pall Mall stretching towards Buckingham Palace, the cutting edge exhibitions of the ICA on one side, the old-fashioned charms of St James’s Park on the other. Wind your way back to the square and slip into the hushed and historical splendor of St Marins in the Fields. Hushed that is, unless a regular and heart-stirring recital is taking place – the church is as famous for its music as its brass-rubbings and enormous efforts to help homeless charities. Across the road from the church is the National Portrait Gallery, where everyone who was and is anyone has been captured for posterity by the finest portrait artists of their time.
At the end of the day, theatreland stretches all around. Twelve hours isn’t quite enough to discover all that Trafalgar Square has to offer, even two dozen wouldn’t take in all the attractions, but it’s close enough to the Strand Palace Hotel to visit several times during a short stay.
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