London: A Visitor’s Guide
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How long is the walk? Approximately 4½ miles
How long will the walk take? About 1½ to 2¼ 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
This walk is going to take you along the same route that the Queen follows during the State Opening of Parliament (in reverse). She does it in her Gold State Coach, though – but we are going to have to do it on foot!
If you’re into Royal history, then don’t miss Westminster Abbey. This has been the burial place of many of England’s most celebrated kings and queens including Edward III, Henry V and Elizabeth I. The earliest tomb is that of Edward the Confessor, which dates all the way back to William the Conqueror’s time – one thousand years ago.
Whitehall Palace used to stand around here, which was home to Henry VIII, James I and Charles I. Unfortunately it burnt to the ground in 1698, and only two big bits still survive. The first is the Jewel Tower nearby (2 min walk), and the second is Banqueting House, which we shall see later on. (There are some other little bits and pieces dotted around Whitehall, but none which are accessible to the public.)
Now walk along the front facade of Parliament. At the far end you will see the great Norman Porch (at the opposite end to Big Ben). This is where the Queen’s coach finally comes to a halt, before she proceeds into Parliament and the Robing Room, where she dresses for her speech in the House of Lords.
Cross over Parliament Square and head down Whitehall. This prestigious street is full of government offices – the Treasury, Foreign Office, Cabinet Office and Scotland Office are on the left, and the Ministry of Defence is on the right.
You will also pass by The Cenotaph standing in the centre of the road. On Remembrance Day the Queen attends a service down here, together with thousands of military veterans.
A little further on from The Cenotaph is a big black iron gate guarded by 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 the PM comes out. The famous front-door of No.10 can be seen a long way up the street, to the right. Check out Craig’s review on his blog, which has a little video of the road.
Directly across the road is Banqueting House – the other big bit of Whitehall Palace that still survives. In 1649 Charles I was beheaded here after losing the English Civil War, on a scaffold in the street. Imagine what this street would have sounded like if you were standing there then! Craig has done another video on his blog, to show you what the great Rubens ceiling looks like inside.
When you get to Horse Guards you should see two soldiers standing outside the horseboxes. This is a favourite photo spot for tourists, and the place will probably be packed with people waiting to get a shot in front of the horses. If you time it right, then you might be able to watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony which takes place here every day (11 AM, or 10 AM on Sundays). If you are doing this walk very late in the day (4 PM), then you might be able to catch the Dismounting ceremony instead. (Check out our full list of London’s parades and ceremonies.)
Now head through the central arch, and you will now find yourself on the parade ground. This is where they hold some of the best pomp and pageantry events like Trooping the Colour.
Cross over the parade ground and head into St. James’s Park. There should be some refreshment stands dotted around if you need a drink. Walk along the edge of the lake (dodging millions of ducks, geese and swans), and rest a while on the benches. When you reach the central bridge walk across to the middle for a fantastic view of Buckingham Palace. The view to the right is of a huge fountain and the buildings along Whitehall (where we’ve just come from). Check out Craig’s blog again, for a video of what all this stuff looks like.
Follow the path north from the bridge, until you meet the big red road called The Mall. Cross over the road and look left – you will see the palace. But there are two more Royal buildings along here which we will come to first.
Look out for a couple of sentry boxes with armed soldiers standing outside. This is St. James’s Palace. It is actually a lot older than Buckingham Palace, and is the more senior of the two. It is used for official functions and is not open to the public.
A little further on is the official residence of Prince Charles and Camilla – Clarence House. It’s the creamy-white building behind the wall, but you’ll probably have to peer through the leafy trees to see it – it’s well hidden.
At the end of the The Mall is the Queen Victoria Memorial. Cross over and have a look at the fountains, before turning your attention to Buckingham Palace.
Buckingham Palace is the official London residence of Her Majesty the Queen, and if there’s a Royal Standard flying from the roof then you’ll know she’s at home. (If it’s a Union Jack then she must be staying elsewhere.)
If there are huge crowds gathering outside then you may be in time to see the Changing of the Guard ceremony (although you would have had to have set off from Westminster Abbey at around 9.15 AM to get a good spot – it’s approximately 30-45 minutes to walk to this point).
When you are done taking photos at the palace, head to the right and into Green Park. This is probably the least interesting park in London, so we’ll just walk left up Constitution Hill until we get to Wellington Arch.
This grand monument was built to honour the Duke of Wellington, who led the allied forces to victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, and went on to become British Prime Minister. You can spend a quick half-hour inside if you like, just to see the view from the balcony (check out Craig’s video).
If you cross over the busy main road then you can see where the Duke of Wellington once lived – it’s the brown-brick building called Apsley House. If you walk through the big ornamental gates to the left then you will enter Hyde Park.
Turn left and walk up the main path. Along the way you should see the Hyde Park bandstand. It seems to be deserted for most days of the year, and you’ll be very lucky to see anybody play. Keep on going until you come to the Dell Restaurant.
Follow the path round to the left and walk along the south-side of the Serpentine. This huge body of water is actually man-made, and was created by damming a stream that passed through the park. It was built in the early 18th-century for Queen Caroline, who used it for pleasure, birds and boating.
Follow the riverside path until you come to ‘The Lido’ restaurant. This makes a nice tea-stop. The Lido has some nice seats outside where you can sit and sip your tea. There are also some toilets nearby if you need a wee-break.
Just past the restaurant is the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. This controversial memorial is a bit like Marmite – you’ll either love it or hate it. Personally, I don’t think it does justice to Diana, but it’s a pleasant enough place to walk around. (Our London blog has a video of it.)
Now walk halfway across the bridge for some views up and down the lake, then continue south past the Serpentine Gallery. This tiny gallery specialises in contemporary art and sculptures.
Keep going south towards the Albert Memorial. This is probably the most elaborate memorial in the whole of London. It was built by Queen Victoria to mark the death of her beloved Prince Albert. Take a closer look at all the extravagant marble statues and mosaic work around the top, and the huge golden figure of Albert seated in the middle.
Over the road you will be able to see the Royal Albert Hall – home to the annual Prom concerts, and one of London’s most prestigious music venues. But we will settle for seeing it from afar, and head back north towards the Round Pond.
The Round Pound is the principal feature of Kensington Gardens. Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park are really just one big park, but anything west of the Serpentine is called ‘Kensington Gardens’.
The Round Pond is usually filled with ducks and geese, and the wardens set out some deckchairs in the summer. You can have a look through our events guide to see if there are any events in the park.
Our final stop will be our fourth Royal residence – Kensington Palace. This was the childhood home of Queen Victoria, and where Princess Diana spent the final 16 years of her life. It is now the official residence of Prince William and Kate.
You can walk around a fair amount of the grounds without paying an entry fee, so take some time to see the gardens, Orangery and statue of William III by the big black gates. Once again, Craig has written a detailed review in his London blog, if you want some more info.