Trafalgar Square is arguably the most important public gathering space in London. It's long been a place where people meet to protest and argue, to debate and discuss. It's riddled with famous sculptures – most notably the towering outline of Nelson's Column – and threaded by some of the most prestigious institutions in the country.

You can come to simply gaze at the landmarks if you like. That's actually part of the fun on Trafalgar Square, thanks to the ever-changing art installations of the Fourth Plinth and the beautiful, babbling fountains in the middle of the plaza. You can also come to check off some lines from the London bucket list, most notably the masterworks of the National Gallery.

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A brief history of Trafalgar Square

The development of Trafalgar Square is an important part of the development of London as a whole. Back in the 13th century, this was the site of the royal stables of Edward I. It continued as the Royal Mews until the 1700s when a massive redevelopment plan was put into action. It didn't finish until around 1830 when the addition of the National Gallery and Nelson's Column turned the space into something like the one seen today.

What are the highlights of Trafalgar Square?

The joys of exploring Trafalgar Square start with the sheer prestige of the place. Everywhere you look is a building or a statue of great importance. Nelson's Column is the obvious eye-catcher. It's 169 ft high and was finished in 1838 to commemorate the great naval victory some 33 years before. Look out for the formidable casts of the lions at its base – they each weigh several tons.

Art lovers should be sure to venture into the great exhibition rooms of the National Gallery. You can't miss it, because the north side of Trafalgar Square is hemmed in by the mighty wings of the collection, which includes works by Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Vermeer – it's seemingly endless.

The buzz of the square itself is another major highlight. Events of all sorts take place here, from dragon parades at Chinese New Year to the lighting of the London Christmas tree in December. And that's not even mentioning the countless marches and protests and sit-ins that come to Trafalgar. They often offer a real, raw glimpse at the zeitgeist of the times.

Good to know about Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square is one of the major hubs of central London. As such, it shouldn't be too hard to reach, provided you're not driving – this is deep in the Congestion Zone and parking is really hard to find. Use the Tube instead, because the plaza is served by the Charing Cross Station, which has links to several Underground lines going all over the city.

It's also a good idea to check ahead of your visit to make sure there's no major protest or march planned for the dates you're in London. Sometimes, the political action that unfolds on Trafalgar Square can result in police cordons and travel disruption.

Getting into Trafalgar Square's museums and appreciating the statues is all free of charge. However, be sure to book ahead if you're keen to attend one of the temporary exhibits at the National Gallery – they often sell out fast.

Trafalgar Square in London

Location: Charing Cross, London WC2N 5DX, UK

Joseph Francis | Contributing Writer