Sunday, January 12, 2014

What not to do in London's Leicester Square - 6 things to avoid


Welcome to arguably the most happening part of London - Leicester Square, the heart of London's West End. In fact, most of everything that is worth seeing in London is within a fifteen minute stroll from Leicester Square - only Tower of London and St Paul's Cathedral fall outside this area.

Having a bit of everything within the vicinity also means that there are more distractions. If it's your first time in Leicester Square, I don't blame you for wanting to try a bit of everything. But the last thing you want to do is waste that precious hours on something that you would kick yourself for on your flight back home.

Before you head to tips for visiting London, here are the six things to avoid doing in Leicester Square.

1. Getting a caricature of yourself

This is one of things that it is far better to be a spectator than a participant. Far safer to mill around to see images with too large a nose, mouth, ears, chin, hair, eyes, well almost any part of the face, than having to sit very still on a stool while wondering what the others are sniggering about.

If you are looking for a portrait that actually looks like you, you are better off relying on Photoshop's pencil sketch feature.

2. Spending an afternoon in Trocadero 

The Trocadero is no longer the great entertainment centre that it once was. Most of the gaming machines have been carted off leaving the impression that there is major renovations going on. Even that seems to have come to a standstill.

These days, a small gaming arcade resides in the basement with a buckling bull machine, which operator gives an occasional spin to show that it is functional.

Other than a motley selection of souvenir and candy shops, there is a photo gallery where you get to dress up in Medieval, Victorian or Wild West theme costumes for a set of photos. Something to show the folks back home - "Look ma, I get to dress up as a cowboy in London, yeeyaw!"

3. Wolfing down a pizza slice taste of cardboard

It used to be £1.50 each just three years back, now it is going at £2.50 per slice. These thick baked dough with barely there cheese topping floating on an equally thin tomato base is the staple for hordes of hungry tourists on a budget.

Tellingly, these takeaway pizza stalls seem to be unique to Leicester Square, at least in central London. They survive by ensnaring undiscerning customers catching a play or venturing out after an entire day in the nearby museums. Even then, one such stall, just off Piccadilly Circus was replaced by Jamie Oliver's Diner. Even the excellent could not prevent its demise.

If you find the cardboard slices hard to swallow, overpriced cans of Coke are also available. Ah, how convenient. Just north of Leicester Square is London'c Chinatown where a number of decent cheap eats await. See the top 5 cheap eats in Chinatown.

4. Trying your luck at the casinos

While the wives and girlfriends do their shopping along Regent Street or in Covent Garden, middle aged men who are neither interested in shopping nor museums are in a fix: where are they to go then? Rather than tagging along their teenage children or hulling shopping bags, some decided to head for the casinos instead.

Casinos are no longer small dingy corner shops with bright neon lights and curiously doubled up as amusement arcades. No one in the right state of mind would decide to shoot some zombies after a losing streak at the jackpot machines. With the opening of The Hippodrome Casino London, gambling is now glamourous. Craps, roulette and blackjack with live entertainment are available 24/7. The allure is tremendous.

Thing is if you are a Londoner, I suppose you can still hitch a ride home if things go south. It's a tad tougher explaining to your family that the money meant for the rest of your European holiday is lost on the poker table.

Just don't step in. Not even to shoot zombies.

5. Dining at any restaurants with someone at its doors

Have you ever wondered why some Chinese restaurants have someone (usually a young petite Chinese lady with winning smile) stationed beside their entrance, waving their menu at you and asking you to step in?

Short answer - the restaurants desperately need to fill up their otherwise empty tables. They depend on tourists for their survival, those who descend in London's Chinatown for only a day and would dine at any restaurant just so that they can tell someone they did that. The locals, on the other hand, would never come within a mile of them and for good reason too. Words spread fast; there is only so far a restaurant can go with plying its customers with overpriced wine without conjuring up something credible from its kitchen.

Go instead to those that looks almost forbidding. Even better, with a queue forming outside. Check out where to eat in Leicester Square instead.

6. Watching a movie

In recent years, Leicester Square has scored some coups of its own by premiering a handful of Hollywood blockbusters. Cue in the red carpet, the actors in dashing suits, the actresses in their skimpy number and a horde of adoring fans.

That's is probably the only use for the handful of cinemas standing on the Square itself. Surely, catching a movie at Leicester Square ranks just just below sitting in front of the jackpot machines on the big no-no list. With the premium in the cinema tickets (20-30% more than other cinemas in Central London), you are better off opting for the circle seats in multitude of West End theatres watching a musical, comedy or drama.

Or, if you fancy, some in your face stand up comedy at London Comedy Store.

Have you got anything to add to the list? @OliviaChungUK suggested M&M World but I ended up spending two hours there instead. Oh well. For more ideas on how to spend your time in London, download a free copy of London in a Weekend Guide.

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