Whitehall to Piccadilly Circus: Exploring London’s Most Popular Tourist Hotspots

Why hello there and thanks for joining me on another walking adventure of the capital. Today’s walk is a tourists dream as I begin in Whitehall and take a stroll down Parliament Street past Downing Street and Horse Guards Parade before getting to Trafalgar Square. I’ll then pass through Leicester Square, stop off in Chinatown and finish in Piccadilly Circus.

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Whitehall to Piccadilly Circus

I’ve done 29 walks of London so far on my blog and normally they take me to the capital’s hidden gems and natural treasures, but I’ve also ticked off many of London’s memorable landmarks, such as Buckingham Palace, The London Eye, The Shard and Big Ben. Although as yet I’ve not discovered any of the well-known tourist hotspots on this walk, so I thought it was about time I explored the history and sights of some of central London’s iconic places.

Whether it’s Highgate Wood, Barnes Common or Stave Hill, these quiet and unfamiliar places don’t attract many people, so you get the chance to take some amazing snaps, though unsurprisingly the areas on today’s walk are very popular so photos can sometimes be a problem, but I think I managed to pull it off! Hope you enjoy the walk and learning more about the capital.

My Journey begins in Whitehall at the Cenotaph, which is a war memorial created in 1920. Cenotaph means ’empty tomb’ and symbolises the unprecedented losses suffered during the First World War and is dedicated to ‘The Glorious Dead’. There are no names inscribed on the Cenotaph, which allowed individuals to assign their own meaning to the memorial. It also provided a tangible place of mourning for those relatives and friends who died during the war without a known grave. This symbolism also resonates through the introduction of the two minutes silence on Armistice Day and the interment of the Unknown Warrior.

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The Cenotaph

The initial wood and plaster structure was commissioned by the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and was designed by British architect Edwin Landseer Lutyens for the Peace Day celebrations in July 1919. However, this structure was only intended to stand for one week, but after it became so popular a permanent replacement was commissioned. The original was removed in January 1920, with the new Portland stone memorial we see today completed and installed, ready to be unveiled by King George V on Armistice Day – 11 November 1920.

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The Cenotaph

Lutyens was also one of the principal architects for the Imperial War Graves Commission – now Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). He was also responsible for the design of the Stone of Remembrance that’s present in some CWGC cemeteries as well as larger memorials including the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing on the Somme and the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. In addition, he was commissioned for local memorials around the UK and his design for the Cenotaph has been replicated worldwide.

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The Cenotaph

Since 1919, the Cenotaph has become the central focus for national commemoration, most notably during the National Service of Remembrance on Remembrance Sunday. Its meaning has developed and the Cenotaph now memorialises those who have given their lives in all conflicts since the First World War. I do love this monument as it pays tribute to those who fought for us so we can live our lives today.

I’ll now leave The Cenotaph and take a stroll down Parliament Street towards Downing Street.

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Road towards Downing Street

Of course, access to Downing Street is a little restricted, so when you walk around London you can’t actually visit it, more the entrance! Downing Street is a street that houses the official residences of the Prime Minister of the UK and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Located in Whitehall, it’s a few minutes’ walk from the Houses of Parliament and was built in the 1680s by Sir George Downing – who was an Anglo-Irish preacher, soldier, statesman, diplomat, turncoat and spy.

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Downing Street

The Prime Minister’s official residence is 10 Downing Street, while the Chancellor’s official residence is Number 11. The government’s Chief Whip lives in Number 12, with the current Chief Whip living in Number 9. The black 10 Downing Street door is one of the most iconic doors in the world, but did you know that it was once green?! Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, who served in office from 1908 to 1916, instructed it to be changed to a shade of dark green. However, after the collapse of the Liberal Party and with Asquith leaving, the door was reverted back to its original colour. 10 Downing Street is also home to Larry the cat, who is the Chief Mouser!

A walk down Parliament Street takes me to another incredible war memorial.

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View of The Cenotaph and Downing Street

The Monument to the Women of World War II was created by John W. Mills and unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II and dedicated by Baroness Boothroyd in July 2005. The war memorial is a national monument to the work that women undertook during the Second World War.

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The Monument to the Women of World War II

The lettering on the sides replicates the typeface used on wartime ration books. On the monument there are 17 individual sets of clothing and uniforms, symbolising the hundreds of different jobs women undertook in World War II. The outfits include uniforms worn by the Women’s Land Army, Women’s Royal Naval Service, a nursing cape, a police overall and a welding mask. Once again this monument is an important and wonderful tribute to those that worked tirelessly through the war.

I’ll keep walking down Parliament Street, which one minute is empty (perfect time for pics!) and the next is extremely busy with traffic.

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View from The Monument to the Women of World War II

Walking along Parliament Street brings me to 70 Whitehall – the main building for The Cabinet Office, which is a department of the UK government responsible for supporting the Prime Minister and the UK cabinet. Numerous Cabinet committees meet there to deliver the governments objectives. The building is adjacent to Downing Street with its frontage designed by Sir John Soane and completed by Sir Charles Berry between 1845 and 1847. Currently, there are over 2,000 staff who work for the Cabinet Office.

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The Cabinet Office
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The Cabinet Office

If you keep strolling down the street you get to Horse Guards Parade, which is the ceremonial parade ground near St James’s Park and the scene of Trooping the Colour on the Queen’s official birthday in June.

In addition to Trooping the Colour, Horse Guards Parade plays host to the floodlit musical spectacular of Beating Retreat by the massed bands of the Household Division over two successive evenings in June.

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Horse Guards Parade
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Horse Guards Parade
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Horse Guards Parade

Horse Guards Parade was formerly the site of the Palace of Whitehall’s tiltyard, where tournaments (including jousting) were held in the time of Henry VIII. It was also the scene of annual celebrations of the birthday of Queen Elizabeth I. The area has been used for a variety of reviews, parades and other ceremonies since the 17th century.

It was once the Headquarters of the British Army, while The Duke of Wellington was based in Horse Guards when he was Commander-in-Chief of the British Army. The current General Officer Commanding London District still occupies the same office and uses the same desk. Wellington also had living quarters within the building, which today are used as offices.

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Horse Guards Parade

When you enter Horse Guards Parade you get to see the majestic Horse Guards, which is the historical building within the parade area. Designed by William Kent, John Vardy and William Robinson, and built in 1750, it was a barracks and stables for the Household Cavalry, later becoming an important military headquarters.

The building is guarded by two mounted cavalry troopers of The Queen’s Life Guard who are posted outside from 10am to 4pm daily. The Life Guard change takes place at 11am daily and 10am on Sundays. During the Trooping the Colour, the central windows are opened so members of the Royal Family can watch the Queen reviewing her troops below. The Horse Guards building now houses the Household Cavalry Museum which is open to the public.

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Horse Guards
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Horse Guards

When you walk through Horse Guards you enter the vast parade area where so many of the ceremonies have taken place. It really is a fantastic place to behold with all its prestige and grandeur, where the buildings take your breath away.

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Horse Guards Parade
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Horse Guards Parade
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Horse Guards Parade

One of the prominent buildings within the parade is the Admiralty Extension, which dates back to the late 19th century and is the largest of the Admiralty Buildings. It was used by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from the 1960s to 2016.

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Admiralty Extension
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Admiralty Extension

Opposite Horse Guards Parade is The Guards Memorial, which commemorates those from the Guards Division who lost their lives during the First World War, and of the Household Division in the Second World War and other conflicts since 1918.

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The Guards Memorial
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The Guards Memorial
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View from The Guards Memorial

I’ll now leave Horse Guards Parade and take a walk up Parliament Street to another one of London’s iconic areas, Trafalgar Square.

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View of Trafalgar Square from Parliament Street
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View of Trafalgar Square from Parliament Street
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View from Trafalgar Square

Just before you enter Trafalgar Square you’ll pass by the Equestrian Statue of King Charles I, which was created by French sculptor Hubert Le Sueur and erected in 1633 – many years before Trafalgar Square was opened.

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Equestrian Statue of King Charles I

From the 14th to 17th century the area now occupied by Trafalgar Square was the courtyard of the Great Mews stabling, which served Whitehall Palace. In 1812 architect John Nash began developing a new street from Charing Cross to Portland Place. He wanted it to be a cultural space open to the public and in 1830 the site was officially named Trafalgar Square. The name commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, a British naval victory in the Napoleonic Wars over France and Spain that took place on 21 October 1805 off the coast of Cape Trafalgar. Although in 1838 Sir Charles Barry presented a plan to develop Trafalgar Square, which included the Nelson memorial statue and two fountains. This is the Trafalgar Square we enjoy today!

I do love the vibrancy of Trafalgar Square as everyone packs within the surrounding area to take their photos or eat lunch. Whenever you visit it there’s always such a great buzz and excitement.

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Trafalgar Square
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Trafalgar Square
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Trafalgar Square
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Trafalgar Square

One of the most notable statues in the square is Nelson’s Column, which was designed by William Railton to honour Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Opened in 1843, the column is 169 ft. (51 metres) high. The Craigleith sandstone statue of Nelson at the top of the column was created by E.H. Baily. The four bronze panels at the base of the column depict some of Nelson’s battles, while the lions, added in 1867, and designed by Sir Edwin Landseer, are said to protect Nelson’s Column.

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Nelson’s Column
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Nelson’s Column
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Nelson’s Column

One of my favourite parts of Trafalgar Square is its fountains, which were added in 1845. The mermaids, dolphins and tritons (the male figures with tails like fish) were installed later. The fountains were installed to counteract the effects of reflected heat and glare from the asphalt surface.

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Trafalgar Square Fountains
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Trafalgar Square Fountains
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Trafalgar Square Fountains

The square has four plinths on each corner. On the Eastern plinth you’ll find a bronze Equestrian Statue of George IV by Sir Francis Chantrey, which was installed in 1844 – although it was originally intended to be placed on top of Marble Arch.

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Equestrian Statue of George IV

On the south-west corner there is a statue of General Sir Charles James Napier by George Cannon Adams, which was installed in 1855.

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Statue of General Sir Charles James Napier

While on the south-east corner there’s a statue of Major-General Sir Henry Havelock by William Behnes, which was installed in 1861.

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Statue of Major-General Sir Henry Havelock

The fourth plinth in the north-west corner of the square was originally intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV, but remained bare due to insufficient funds. For over 150 years the fate of the plinth was debated, but in 1998 the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) commissioned three contemporary sculptures to be displayed temporarily on the plinth. Shortly afterwards, Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, commissioned Sir John Mortimer to seek opinions from public art commissioners, critics and members of the public as to the future of the plinth.

Mortimer’s final report recommended that the commissions remain a rolling programme of temporary artworks rather than settle permanently on one figure or idea to commemorate. In 2003, the ownership of Trafalgar Square was transferred from Westminster City Council to the Mayor of London and this marked the beginning of the Mayor of London’s Fourth Plinth Commission as it is now known.

The current Fourth plinth, and 12th to be installed there, is called ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’ and was designed by Michael Rakowitz, while being installed in March 2018. It’s a recreation of a sculpture of a lamassu (a winged bull and protective deity) that stood at the entrance to Nergal Gate of Nineveh from 700 B.C. It was destroyed in 2015 by Isis, along with other artefacts in the Mosul Museum. Rakowitz’s recreation is made of empty Iraqi date syrup cans, representing the destruction of the country’s date industry.

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The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist statue
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The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist statue

The Fourth plinth is due to be changed again in 2020 with Heather Phillipson’s statue known as ‘The End’, which will be a dollop of whipped cream with an assortment of toppings: a cherry, a fly, and a drone. The drone will film passers-by and display them on an attached screen.

I’m a big fan of changing the Fourth plinth as it refreshens up the square and is a great way to inspire artists throughout the world who might get their work installed in such a prime location.

At the end of Trafalgar Square is The National Gallery art museum, which was founded in 1824 and houses a collection of over 2,300 paintings dating from the mid-13th century to 1900.

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The National Gallery

I’ll now depart Trafalgar Square and make my way to Leicester Square, which has a parade of restaurants near its entrance.

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Entrance to Leicester Square

Recognised worldwide as the heart of London’s West End, the surrounding area of Leicester Square welcomes over 2.5 million visitors each week. Visitors can enjoy a whole host of fun places from the best shows and theatres to restaurants and clubs, it’s one of the most glitzy and glamorous places there is.

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Leicester Square

Laid out in 1670 it’s named after the contemporary Leicester House, which itself was named after Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester. The square was originally a residential area, with tenants including Frederick Prince of Wales and artists William Hogarth and Joshua Reyholds. After Leicester House was demolished in the late 18th century, it became more down-market with retail developments created. Several major theatres were established in the 19th century, which were converted to cinemas. Leicester Square has a number of nationally important cinemas such as the Odeon and Empire.

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Leicester Square
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Leicester Square

The park within the centre was originally common land. After changing ownership several times during the mid-19th century, the park reached near dilapidation. However, under the direction of Albert Grant it was restored with four new statues and a fountain of William Shakespeare installed. The square was extensively refurbished and remodelled for the 2012 London Olympics.

Like with Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square is a real hive of activity and whenever you pass through it, there’s always a wonderful feeling as everyone is enjoying all that’s on offer in the area.

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William Shakespeare Fountain
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Leicester Square

A short walk from Leicester Square brings me to my penultimate location on today’s walk, Chinatown.

Before its home in Soho, the first area in London known as Chinatown was located in Limehouse, which was where the majority of the Chinese population in the capital at the start of the 20th century were based. Many would set up businesses to cater for the Chinese sailors who frequented in the Docklands.

After the Second World War, the growing popularity of Chinese cuisine and an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong led to an increasing number of Chinese restaurants being opened elsewhere, outside the Limehouse area. In the 1950s Soho gained a reputation for great nightlife and cheap commercial rents. British soldiers returning from the Far East had fallen in love with Chinese cuisine, which led to supermarkets and restaurants popping up. Their success attracted more Chinese entrepreneurs away from the East End area to seek their fortunes in Soho, and Chinatown was born.

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Entrance to Chinatown
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Entrance to Chinatown

By the late 1960s, Chinatown became established as the epicentre of London’s Chinese community as more Chinese workers arrived from the British territory of Hong Kong. In the 1980s the area got the full Chinatown treatment with the famous Chinese gates, street furniture and pavilion added.

The thriving area has everything you need from bakeries and bars to souvenir shops and travel agents. The little slice of China in the heart of the capital really adds a lovely multicultural feel to the area and showcases the vast variety on cuisines that are on offer when you visit London.

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Chinatown
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Chinatown
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Chinatown

I’ll now leave Chinatown to make my way to the final stop on my tourist hotspot walk, Piccadilly Circus.

A road junction and public space of London’s West End, Piccadilly Circus was built in 1819 to connect Regent Street with Piccadilly, where the first part of the name derives from. Now you might be wondering is there a circus there? Unfortunately not, as the ‘circus’ part of its name comes from the Latin word meaning “circle”, which is a round open space at a street junction. When Shaftesbury Avenue was built in 1886, the junction ceased to be a complete circle, but the name stuck.

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Piccadilly Circus

Piccadilly now links directly to the theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue, as well as the Haymarket, Coventry Street (onwards to Leicester Square) and Glasshouse Street. The Circus is close to major shopping and entertainment areas in the West End.

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Piccadilly Circus
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Piccadilly Circus

Within the heart of Piccadilly Circus is the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, which was designed by Sir Alfred Gilbert and built in 1893 to commemorate philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury. However, the fountain is mistakenly known as “Eros”, when in fact it’s intended to be the Greek god of requited love, Anteros – who is Eros’ brother.

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Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain

One of the most iconic features of Piccadilly Circus is its famous illuminated advertising hoardings on buildings. The first sign to be illuminated was a Perrier advertisement in 1908, which used incandescent lightbulbs. Neon was first used for a Bovril sign in the 1940s. From December 1998 digital projectors were used for the Coca-Cola sign, which was the square’s first digital billboard. In the 2000s there was the gradual move to LED displays, which would completely replace the neon lamps by 2011. From October 2017, the advertisement boards were turned into one large ultra-high definition curved Daktronics display, which is what we see there now.

I think you have to say the Piccadilly Circus displays are the most famous adverts in the world and you don’t feel like they’re just advertisements, but more an iconic feature of London.

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Piccadilly Circus Advertising Displays
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Piccadilly Circus Advertising Displays

Well that’s all from me on today’s walk where I’ve explored all the best tourists destinations from Whitehall and Trafalgar Square to Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus.

Thanks for reading and in the meantime you can follow all my walks on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and don’t forget to sign up to my blog too so you don’t miss a post! Also why not have a read of my other walks which explore all over London, from north to south, to west to east via central, there’s something there for you! 🙂 Here are the links to them all below for you!

Victoria to Green Park

Marble Arch to Mayfair

The Shard to Monument

King’s Cross to Hampstead Heath

Leadenhall Market to Old Spitalfields Market

Waterloo to The London Eye

St Paul’s Cathedral to Moorgate

Mile End Park to London Fields

Hyde Park Corner to Italian Gardens

Little Venice to Abbey Road

Regent’s Park to Soho Square

Clapham Common to The Albert Bridge

Grosvenor Gardens to Knightsbridge

Holland Park to Meanwhile Gardens

Hackney Downs to Springfield Park

Tower Bridge to Stave Hill

Shoreditch to Islington Green

Highgate to Finsbury Park

Ravenscourt Park to Wormwood Scrubs

Covent Garden to Southwark Bridge

Putney Bridge to Barnes Common

Westminster Abbey to Vauxhall Bridge

Crystal Palace Park to Dulwich Wood

Clapham Junction to Battersea Bridge

Norbury Park to Tooting Commons

Lesnes Abbey Woods to the Thames Barrier

Richmond Green to Wimbledon Common

Chiswick Bridge to Kew Green

Gladstone Park to Fryent Country Park

Sources:

All photos taken by London Wlogger © Copyright 2019

Information about The Cenotaph

Information about Downing Street 

Facts about Downing Street

Information about The Monument to the Women of World War II

Information about The Cabinet Office

Information about Horse Guards Parade

Information about Trafalgar Square

Information about Leicester Square

Information about Chinatown

Information about Piccadilly Circus

8 thoughts on “Whitehall to Piccadilly Circus: Exploring London’s Most Popular Tourist Hotspots

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