Abstract A coupled experimental/numerical analysis of turbulent flow past a square cylinder is performed at the ERCOFTAC Reynolds number Re = U ∞ D/ ν = 21,400, where U ∞ is the inflow velocity and D the cylinder height. Complementary Laser Doppler Velocimetry (LDV) and high-order large-eddy simulations (LES) approaches, based on a spectral vanishing technique (SVV-LES), provide a comprehensive data base including both instantaneous data and post-processed statistics. Beyond these results, an achievement of the paper is to investigate the coherent structures developing on the sides and in the wake of the cylinder with a special focus on the flow features in the near-wall region. The flow is found to separate at the leading edge of the cylinder with the occurence of three-dimensional Kelvin–Helmholtz (KH) pairings localized in the separating shear layer. The interaction between these KH vortical structures and Von Kármán vortex shedding (VK) in the near wake is discussed based on both visualisations and frequency analysis. In particular, signatures of VK and KH vortical structures are found on velocity time samples.