Updated on February 21st, 2020
“London is an amazing city & this guide will help you to navigate your way around the iconic capital. It’s the perfect route to start your trip, so you can decide where you want to spend more time during the remainder of your stay. However, I will always encourage you to take detours along the way & enjoy just exploring anywhere that captures your curiosity. If you do this, I promise you will not be disappointed!”
Central London. Including St Paul’s Cathedral, Millennium Bridge, Tate Modern, London Eye, Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Regent Street, Oxford Street & lots more in between!
I grew up just outside London & have now travelled to almost 70 countries. Despite this, I still believe London is the best city in the world. Here, I am going to share my favourite walk which I have done hundreds of times through the years.
It is my go-to tourist recommendation as this walk takes in so many of the major sites in one go, along with lots of smaller & fascinating places in between. I am also going to include a number of extra activities or detours which help you to explore even more along the way.
London is not a budget city to visit. Many of these iconic sights have tours which you can choose to take & I have attached links & current prices (July ’19) for your information. However, if I’m honest, I rarely do these & just like to walk the route. That’s free! So I hope you enjoy…I know I have…many, many times!
What do you need to know?
My starting point is Farringdon, ending in Leicester Square but I will include the closest tube station too which will make it easier to customise to your needs (& enthusiasm) as you go.
“You may well find places which draw your attention along the way which I completely encourage you to explore.”
Either way, I would suggest using Google Maps or Maps.me to navigate between locations & save you from getting lost. For the most part, all of these sites are really close together so navigation should be generally easy. Also, advantageous would be to download the London Tube Map on your phone so you can cut the tour along the way, or start at a different point. Just make sure you have comfortable shoes & enjoy!
As I stated before, to start this tour, please head over to Farringdon Tube Station. This is going to be a long day with a lot of walking so my recommendation for the first stop is breakfast at Smiths of Smithfield. I love this restaurant & especially the breakfast which offers communal dining & excellent food. Once satiated, it’s time to move!
1. Smithfield Market.
Not the most famous or picturesque building along the route but it is the site of the largest wholesale meat market in the UK. The market is 800 years old & housed in a complex which includes 3 listed buildings. It is unlikely that you will visit during the night when this is a bustling market supplying all the restaurants across the city. The market opens at 2am Monday – Friday & closes by mid-morning. I am not suggesting that you try & visit during open hours but it is an interesting landmark in the foundations of this fascinating city.
2. St Bartholomew’s Hospital (St Barts).
This is a busy, renowned London institution with a lot of history. It is actually the oldest hospital in England & first started treating patients in 1123.
“I’m not recommending that you enter the hospital (fingers crossed you won’t need to), although it does have state of the art treatment facilities!”
But, as you walk around the perimeter you will see the Church of Saint Bartholomew The Great which has a historic façade & small courtyard. You don’t have time to dwell but it also marks the site of the execution of Sir William “Braveheart” Wallace in 1305. There is a small plaque in the courtyard & a bigger memorial built into the wall.
3. The Old Bailey.
This building has been the site of London’s Central Criminal Court since 1673. It has tried the most notorious cases in British History, from Dr Crippen & the Yorkshire Ripper to the Kray Brothers. You can recognize the building due to its domed roof which is topped by a 12-foot gold-leaf statue of a lady holding a sword in one hand and the scales of justice in the other. Once you hit the main road, Ludgate Hill, turn left & soon the first famous name on this walk will come into view.
4. St Paul’s Cathedral.
St Paul’s world-famous dome marks the highest point in the city & the Cathedral has occupied this spot for 1400 years. However, this is the 5th building which has stood on the site. The present Cathedral is the masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren (remember him for later). This is an icon. If you would like to go inside, it is best to buy tickets online which cost £17 for adults (£20 if you just walk up).
“If you can, climb the 259 steps up to the Whispering Gallery. Once at the top, face the wall & whisper, it can be heard on the opposite side of the dome.”
If you choose not to enter the Cathedral, head to the right-hand side for the next stop & here is where the big names start to come thick & fast.
Nearest Tube: St Paul’s
5. Millennium Bridge.
This is known to all locals as the “Wobbly Bridge”. It was built to commemorate the turn of the century. However, when it first opened, the structure moved when people walked across so it had to be closed & reinforced! The bridge is for pedestrians only & takes you across the Thames from St Paul’s to the Tate Modern. To your left, you will see the Shard (tallest building in London) & the beautiful Tower Bridge. To your right is where you are heading for the London Eye. Don’t forget to look behind you as this is also the best view of St Paul’s.
Once you’ve crossed the river, you’re on the Southbank & there are lots of interesting & historic buildings right in front of you.
6. Shakespeare’s Globe.
This is a reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre which the famous playwright originally helped to build & perform his plays. The current theatre was rebuilt close to the original site using construction methods from the time (1599). It was opened as a theatre in 1997. If you would like to visit for a tour or a performance then you can book tickets here.
7. Sir Christopher Wrens House.
Here is the first of my suggestions if you would like to take in a few other options. If you missed breakfast or are hungry in any way, then turn left & head for Borough Market.
“This is one of my favourite spots to visit in the whole of London as it combines 2 of my key drivers for loving this city, beautiful iconic landmarks & food!”
Nearest Tube: London Bridge
If you are more interested in visiting Tower Bridge & the Tower of London, then this is where you head left. Also, if you would like to see London with a view from one of the tallest buildings in Western Europe, then you can make a detour to The Shard for a drink at Aqua Shard.
8. Tate Modern.
If you are a fan of modern art, then you’re in for a treat! Even if you’re not, it’s well worth heading inside to see the installation on offer in the massive Turbine Hall. As with most of London’s Museums, Tate Modern is free (donations are encouraged) although you do need to book ahead & pay to visit some of the exhibitions.
During the summer months particularly, the Southbank is a buzz of activity for the Underbelly Festival. Here, you find buskers creating an ambience, food trucks & stalls to satisfy any hunger pangs and plenty of shopping opportunities to spend your well-earned pounds.
Nearest Tube: Blackfriars
Along the way you can also be distracted by Gabriel’s Wharf (shopping & eating), OXO Tower (shopping, eating or go to the 8th floor for a view & a drink), Festival Hall (skate park), Barbican & the National Theatre.
10. London Eye.
If you would like to see THE view in London then you can’t beat the Eye as a memorable experience. It costs £27 to take a “flight” online (£30 if you don’t book ahead) but they also offer all sorts of champagne & combination tickets. You can opt for the Fast Track which, for a bit more money, enables you to skip the queue.
11. County Hall
This was once the headquarters of the London County Council but is now the location of numerous experiences such as Shrek & the London Dungeons. Don’t let that distract you from this beautiful & historic building right on the river. It is now also home to a Marriott Hotel.
“If you go around the corner & across the courtyard, you can get away from the crowds. Having tea in the lounge, overlooking the river is a memorable & very British experience!”
Whatever you decide to do at this point, if you’re staying with the walk, there’s a lot more still to come. First, cross back over the river on Westminster Bridge towards…
12. Palace of Westminster & Big Ben.
Home of the British Parliament, this majestic & iconic building still takes my breath away every time I see it. Whatever your views on the politics at work, it’s hard not to marvel at the beauty outside. Unfortunately, at this moment in time, there’s a lot of work going on around the facade of Big Ben & Westminster. The clock has even been silenced (usually it chimes every hour, on the hour) until 2021. Be warned that you may be disappointed if you’re looking for those Instagram worthy shots. You can take a tour of the parliament buildings which will need to be booked online for £26.50.
Nearest Tube: Embankment
13. Westminster Abbey.
“Since 1066 it has been the home of all coronations & the final resting place of 17 monarchs. That’s over 10 centuries of British History!”
Even more impressive is that it is still a place of worship, which needs to be considered if you plan on taking a tour. I like to just focus on the outside & head through the archway into Deans Yard for a different perspective. This offers a great place for a bit of peace in the chaos of the city full of tourists.
14. St James’s Park.
Here, you may need to double-check your maps to find Birdcage Walk (I have to admit even I do at this point!) & enter one of my favourite London parks. It’s hard to believe that you can find this peaceful oasis of park life so close to all the big sites. Enjoy the green space, friendly squirrels, pretty lakes, swans & aim for a bridge where you can get great photos with a backdrop of our next stop…
15. Buckingham Palace.
I’ve used the word iconic a lot, but this “house” truly is a one-off! The London home of The Queen (check the flagpole & if the flag is flying, it means she’s home). Buckingham Palace is the backdrop for any royal occasion & well worth closer inspection. The State Rooms are available to tour for 10 weeks in the summer. The gardens just outside set the house off beautifully & the Victoria Memorial is also worth a few photos.
If you’ve done the rest of the walk super quick or joined it late, then you may be in luck to see the Changing of the Guard between 10.30 – 11am. This is a real sight of traditional British pageantry as the current guards go off duty & the new crew arrive. You can check the schedule here before you visit.
If you’re fed up of the sites (not many more to go now!) & want a bit more park action then you can peel off here & go into Hyde Park.
Churchill War Rooms is a sinister-looking square building covered in ivy. It was home to the underground nerve centre where this famous Prime Minister & his team directed the victory of the Second World War. Tickets for a tour cost £22.
16. Horse Guards Parade.
Walk across the parade ground & under the archway to see the equally well turned out (& very unsmiling) guards of the Household Cavalry. On the other side of the building, you will find 2 mounted cavalry troopers of The Queens Lifeguard (as long as you make it here between 11am & 4pm). They change guards every day at 11am (10am on Sundays).
Watching the mounted guards means you are now in Whitehall.
If you want to get your final fix of politics then you can head right on Whitehall to the Prime Ministers home of 10 Downing Street. There are police guards & gates, so any photos or close-ups of the door are pretty much impossible. Along here you can also spot Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the London Metropolitan Police.
For the final part of the walk, as you leave Horseguards Parade, turn left which brings you to…
17. Trafalgar Square.
“He is guarded by some impressive lions, surrounded by beautiful fountains & populated by a lot of pigeons.”
At weekends, in particular, there’s always a lot of activity in the square as it’s a key congregation site for protests, marches & events.
When you are in Trafalgar Square, have a look at each corner. You will see a statue placed on a high concrete plinth. 3 of these are traditional soldiers on horses. The fourth changes & could be anything modern from a giant blue cockerel to a sphinx made of syrup cans (currently), to a very tall thumbs up!
The National Gallery.
The entrance for this amazing gallery forms the backdrop for Trafalgar Square & is an impressive construction in itself. It is free to enter (donations again) & houses classics in the form of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers as well as works by Turner, Constable, Michelangelo, Da Vinci & too many more masters to mention.
Nearest Tube: Charing Cross.
18. Leicester Square.
Leicester Square is very touristy & kind of unimpressive in comparison to most of the other sites here. The Square is famous as the centre of cinema in London & if there is a UK premiere on the cards, it will be held here. It is also the site of street performers & where you can pick up cheaper, last-minute West End theatre tickets from numerous booths around the square.
Nearest Tube: Leicester Square.
If you’re hungry & feel you’re ready to stop then there are a few (very tourist-centric) options in the square, or you can head to nearby Chinatown & Soho for something a bit more individual…or oriental!
19. Piccadilly Circus.
Just next door to Leicester Square is the final destination on my epic walk, Piccadilly Circus. This spot is famed for its bright city lights which form a great backdrop for bus & taxi shots.
Nearest Tube: Piccadilly Circus
And if you still want to keep going…
20. Regent & Oxford Street Shops.
By this time, I’m usually very ready to finish. If you do still have a bit of energy in your legs & fancy sampling the famous shopping streets of London, then take a slow stroll up Regent Street. You can then finally finish at the junction with infamous Oxford Street.
Liberty of London is famous for its prints & a quintessentially (expensive!) British shopping experience.
“There really is no store in the world which can really rival the grandeur of Liberty, inside & out. In my opinion, it is much better than Harrods!”
This will then lead you onto Carnaby Street. The pedestrian walkway is iconic as the centre of cool during the “Swinging 60’s” London scene. Now it is still a great place to hang out for a bit of shopping, eating & drinking.
Nearest Tube: Oxford Circus or head back to Leicester Square.
That’s it! You must be exhausted!
London is an amazing city & I hope this guide helps you to navigate your way around this iconic capital. All I can do is encourage you to meander at your leisure. It’s a great route to start your trip so you can then decide where you want to spend more time during the remainder of your stay. However, I will always encourage you to take detours along the way & enjoy just exploring the smaller areas which capture your curiosity. If you do this, I promise you will rarely be disappointed!
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