London: A Visitor’s Guide
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How long is the walk? Approximately 2½ miles
How long will the walk take? About 1 to 1½ hours. This is based on a leisurely 20-30 mins per mile, but you should add on more time if you plan on stopping at any of the places
Starting point: Get the District/Circle line to Westminster, or catch the 3, 11, 12, 24, 53, 87, 88, 148, 159, 211, 453 bus
This walk begins in Parliament Square, under the shadow of Big Ben. Big Ben is actually the name of the bell, rather than the clock tower, and it’s the second biggest bell in London after the one at St. Paul’s (where this walk will come to an end).
Head up Whitehall, which is filled with grand government buildings like the Treasury and Foreign Office. The stark monument standing in the centre of the road is called The Cenotaph, which commemorates the men and women who died fighting for our country.
A little further on from The Cenotaph is a big black iron gate guarded by some armed police. This is the entrance to Downing Street, where the British Prime Minister lives.
You can go and stand next to the gate if you like, and see if anyone famous comes out (you will probably have to stand there for quite a while). The iconic front-door of No.10 can be seen a long way up the street, to the right.
On the corner of Horse Guards Avenue is Banqueting House, one of the most infamous locations in British history. This is where Charles I was beheaded after losing the English Civil War. They erected a scaffold outside in the street, and he is said to have entered it from a window punched into the wall near the modern door.
Over the road from Banqueting House is Horse Guards, guarded by two mounted soldiers. If you time it right, then you might be able to see one of the London’s most popular parades. The first one is at 11 AM (10 AM on Sundays) and is called the Changing the Guard ceremony. The second one is a bit later in the day – the Dismounting Ceremony (or 4 O’Clock Parade).
Craig has reviewed both of these parades in his London travel blog (with videos). You might like to give it a read before you go.
Continue walking up Whitehall until you come to Trafalgar Square. Be sure to notice the statue of Charles I on his horse at the entrance to the square (on the traffic island). This spot marks the centre of the city. Then cross over the road to admire the grand statues and fountains.
Nelson’s Column stands at the centre of the square, surround by four huge lions. You can see scenes from his four most famous battles around the base, including the moment of his death aboard HMS Victory.
The impressive building on the north-side of the square is the National Gallery, containing artworks by the likes of Cézanne, Constable, Monet, Rembrandt, Renoir, Titian, Turner and Van Gogh.
It’s free to go inside, except for any special National Gallery exhibitions. You might also like to check out our complete guide to art exhibitions in London, which is split up into months: art exhibitions in August, art exhibitions in September and art exhibitions in October.
Walk clockwise around the square and head towards Charing Cross station. You have now entered the Strand. Take a right turn down Villiers Street just past the station. And then turn left when you see Victoria Embankment Gardens.
This little park is a very pleasant place to rest your weary feet, and is surprisingly peaceful being so close to Trafalgar Square. About two-thirds of the way up you will see an exit out into the street. Cross over the road and head back towards the bridge.
The big granite obelisk on the riverbank is Cleopatra’s Needle – an ancient Egyptian monument that dates all the way back to 1475 BC. You might notice some pock-marks around the base. These were caused by a German zeppelin raid in World War I – twenty-five years before the more famous Blitz.
When you reach Waterloo Bridge climb up the stairs and head left, past Somerset House. This is one of the last surviving grand mansions that used to line the entire length of the Strand, and now houses the Courtauld Gallery. Check out our guide to see if there are any decent Courtauld Gallery exhibitions going on.
When you reach the Strand again, cross over the busy main road past the Lyceum Theatre. If you continued going straight then you would reach Covent Garden. If you fancy a bite to eat, then this would probably be the best place to do it. One of our favourite lunch spots is watching the street entertainers in Covent Garden.
Continue walking round Aldwych past the Novello Theatre. You will come to a church called St. Clement Danes. You might recognise this building from Lady Thatcher’s state funeral, as it was where her gun-train halted to take on the casket.
You are now at the beginning of Fleet Street. This was once home to Britain’s newspaper industry, and still lends its name to the journo’s trade. Most of the papers have long since moved their offices to other parts of the country (mostly Canary Wharf and Wapping).
The gothic splendour of the Royal Courts of Justice will greet you on the left, where many of the country’s biggest cases are tried. There are usually a few cameraman waiting outside ready to snap the famous faces as they exit. If you fancy a sit down for an hour, then how about watching a trial at the Royal Courts of Justice? Craig has reviewed this in his London blog.
In the middle of the street stands Temple Bar. This monument marks the spot where one of the ancient gates into the city once stood, and we will see that same gate at the end of our tour. Cross over the road to take a closer look at it – there are some pictures of the gate around its base. Try and remember what it looks like!
We are going to go off the beaten track for a little while now, to see one of the most famous churches in London. The entrance may be wide open, or it might be shut – but look for a big black wooden arch in the wall. Go straight through that and walk down the alley. You will soon come face-to-face with Temple Church. You might recognise it from the ‘Da Vinci Code’ movie. It’s well worth a look inside (don’t miss the slumbering knights on the floor!).
Return to Fleet Street and carry on walking down the road until it morphs into Ludgate Hill. The huge grey-green dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral will eventually loom into view, but before you go inside, head round to the left…
…do you remember Temple Bar? The gate which once stood in the centre of the Fleet Street now stands here. The old Roman gate was rebuilt by Christopher Wren in the 1670s, and that is what we see here now.
Before you enter the cathedral take a moment to look up at the two towers. The south-west one houses Great Paul, the largest bell in the country. (Sadly it doesn’t chime anymore because of damage. The bell you actually hear is Great Tom.)
We definitely recommend ending your walk with a sit-down in the cathedral. They also have a café in the Crypt which is free to enter. If you still have some energy left then you might like to climb the 257 steps to St. Paul’s Whispering Gallery, plus an extra 119 steps to the Stone Gallery – with fine views across London.