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The best sight-seeing walk through London ever

It doesn’t really matter the weather, this 3 hour or so walking tour of London is the most perfect tour to take yourselves, or when you have visitors, or if you’re visiting London for a specified amount of time and want to do as much as you can. We braved the wintry cold to go out and do this walk, with added historical facts, Jess’s forte! Look out for our other tips for things around in italics during the article too!

Starting tube: Charing Cross

Finishing tube: Tower Hill

Duration: 3 hours (ish)

1. Start at Trafalgar Square (Nelson’s Column).

Nelson’s Column is 169 ft 3 Inches tall (it was finished in 1843). When they refurbished it in 2006, they discovered that it was actually 14 ft 6 inches shorter than previously thought. On the friezes on the plinth, there is an early depiction of the fact that black men were involved in the navy as you can see them depicted there. There are 17 bus routes that go from Trafalgar Square. Every year, Norway give London a Christmas tree – a Norwegian Spruce tree as thanks for Britain’s commitment to Norway in Ww2.

Directions: Walk from there down The Mall.

2. The Mall.

It’s 930m from Whitehall to Buckingham Palace. The street’s name is derived from ‘pall-mall’, a ball game played there during the 17th century!

Directions: Walk all the way down the Mall to the end!

3. Buckingham Palace.

Buckingham Palace was commissioned by King George IV way back when, though it wasn’t until Queen Victoria moved in a few years later in 1837 that the palace became the official royal residence. Since then, many monarchs have come and gone and it remains Queen Elizabeth’s home to this day. John Nash went so over budget when building it that he was fired. By 1828 Nash had spent £496,169 on the changes to the building, far above budget.

Directions: With your back to Buckingham Palace, walk right onto Spur Road and left onto Birdcage Walk

4. Birdcage Walk.

Birdcage Walk is the road which runs along the entire southern side of the park (St James’ Park). It’s so named because King James I had a particular penchant for exotic birds, and kept many of them in cages and aviaries lining this street. The birds continued to reside here into the reign of King Charles II, although it’s worth pointing out that Birdcage Walk was a private road until 1828, only open to the royal family and the Duke of St Albans.

Directions: Keep walking down Birdcage Walk and then Westminster Abbey will be on your right.

5.Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey has been the coronation church for the British Monarch since 1066. In fact, 39 coronations have taken place at Westminster Abbey with the most recent on 2 June 1953. There have also been 17 royal weddings and 3,300 burials or commemorations there.

Directions: walk back out to the road and the Houses of Parliament should be on your left.

6. Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.

The Queen addresses Parliament once a year when it opens – but neither she nor any member of the Royal Family is allowed into the House of Commons, where elected MPs sit. This tradition dates all the way back to the days of King Charles I, when the king stormed in to arrest five MPs for treason and royals have been constitutionally banned from the Commons ever since. So when the Queen gives a speech to Parliament, she must stay in the House of Lords, with the aristocrats and bishops. You may have seen it but she then sends a special Gentleman Usher to knock on the door of the House of Commons to summon them out. The oldest part of the Houses of Parliament is Westminster hall which dates from 1097 and you can see over the roof! Another weird rule in the Houses of Parliament is that there is no dying or smoking there. The Big Ben refurbishment is to last 3 years, the bell itself is the weight of 2 African elephants, it was first rung in 1859. At the top of the Elizabeth Tower is a lantern known as the Ayrton Light, which is illuminated whenever the House of Commons or the House of Lords is in session. Palace historians believe it was installed so Queen Victoria (1837-1901) could gaze out from Buckingham Palace and see if lawmakers were working.

Directions: Keep walking along Abingdon Street and turn right onto Westminster Bridge.

7. Westminster bridge.

Westminster Bridge was known as the bridge of fools, but we’ve  no idea why. In the early 1700’s, there really wasn’t much choice if you wanted to cross the river, for the previous 600 years, you could opt between crossing at London Bridge, or at Kingston Bridge.When Westminster Bridge was proposed to in 1664, the Corporation of London, the watermen (who ferried people across the river all day), and other people with vested interests, all opposed it. (Surprise, surprise.) One of their arguments was that if the watermen lost their jobs, there’d be fewer readily available seamen for the navy if England went to war.

Directions: turn left towards to the big wheel!

8. Southbank.

Spanning approximately two miles between the London Eye and Tower Bridge, the Southbank is known as it is the Southern bank of the Thames! The ugly brown building is the National theatre, described in 1988 by Prince Charles  as “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”. While the Prince of Wales may not be a fan of the building’s Brutalist architecture, others call it beautiful – and 1994 it gained a Grade II heritage listing.

Directions: keep walking along the river!

9. London Eye.

The London Eye (or Coca Cola London Eye as it now is) is the most popular paid tourist attraction in the UK. When it was built, it was the tallest Ferris wheel in the world, but it has since dropped to fourth place behind similar cantilever-style observation wheels in Nanchang, Singapore and Las Vegas. A ride on the Eye takes 30 minutes and offers some of the best views in London.

Directions: keep walking along the river – the Southbank Centre is on your right with the yellow branding!

10. Southbank Centre.

Clement Attlee laid the foundation stone of the Hall in October 1949. Today, the Royal Festival Hall, part of the Southbank Centre is Grade I listed — it was the first post-war building to be given this protected status. Hugh Casson who was the architect, also designed the elephant house at London zoo!

Directions: keep walking – past the restaurants it’s under the bridge!

11. Southbank Book Market.

Southbank Centre’s Book market is unusual for its outdoor location, but it has plenty of shelter from the wind and rain. It’s open daily and sells a variety of second-hand and antique books, as well as maps and prints.

Directions: keep walking – if the tide is low you’ll see it if you look over the edge!

12. Thames foreshore.

At low tide, the Thames foreshore is a slimy bazaar of London history. You can often see people searching for London treasures!

Directions: Keep walking again!

13. OXO Tower.

The OXO tower is 8 storeys high. The building’s iconic windows in the shape of the letters O, X and O were designed to promote the brand without falling foul of a law at the time prohibiting skyline advertising along the Southbank. The windows were ‘coincidentally’ designed in the shape of 2 circles and a cross. The building was originally built as a power station, before being bought by the Liebig Extract of Meat Company (producers of OXO stock cubes) in the 1920s for use as a cold store. The site remained derelict for many years, before being adapted into its current form in the 1990s.

Directions: Keep walking – look out for the brown building before the bridges on your right.

14. Tate Modern.

Henry Tate was a 19th century sugar merchant (we think of Tate & Lyle fame). The Tate Modern is housed in the former Bankside Power Station. The building is almost the same size as Westminster Abbey with the signature central chimney standing at 99m tall. The building was converted and opened to the public in 2000.

Directions: keep walking, past the bridge and you’ll see a big round Tudor-looking building.

15. The Globe.

The Globe Theatre was built between 1597 and 1599 in Southwark on the south bank of London’s River Thames, funded by Richard Burbage and built by carpenter Peter Smith and his workers. Shakespeare owned 12.5% stake in the globe so profited from his own popularity. The Globe Theatre burnt down in 1613 when a special effect on stage went wrong. A cannon used for a performance of Henry VIII set light to the thatched roof and the fire quickly spread, reportedly taking less than two hours to burn down completely. No one was hurt except a man putting out on fire trousers with a bottle of beer!

Directions: Turn around and go back on yourself to the Bridge by the Tate Modern – you know it’s the right one because of how well St Paul’s Cathedral is framed from it!

16. Millennium Bridge.

When it was opened, the Millennium Bridge became the first new crossing to span the River Thames in more than a century. Constructed in three main sections, the bridge spans a total length of 325 metres (more than 1,000 ft) and features two river piers. The 2009 Hollywood blockbuster Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince saw the Millennium Bridge used to represent the Brockdale Bridge, which collapses in one of the film’s most dramatic scenes (you can read our DIY Harry Potter walk here). A severe issue of the bridge wobbling due to the vibrations caused by those travelling across it led to the installation of 91 dampeners to absorb both lateral and vertical oscillation of the structure.

Directions: Walk all the way across the bridge.

17. St Paul’s Cathedral.

St Paul’s sits on Ludgate Hill at the highest point of the City of London. A Roman temple to Diana may once have stood on the site, but the first Christian cathedral there was dedicated to St. Paul in 604 AD, during the rule of King Aethelberht I. That cathedral burned, and its replacement (built 675–685) was destroyed by Viking raiders in 962. In 1087 a third cathedral erected on the site also burned. The present Cathedral, the masterpiece of Britain’s most famous architect Sir Christopher Wren. It was built between 1675 and 1710.

Directions: Walk up to the church and turn right on the road – this should be Canon Street.

18. Canon Street.

Canon Street was originally called Candlewick Street. The London Stone, from which it has been suggested distances were measured in Roman times, was originally situated in the middle of Cannon Street. It was later set into the wall of St. Swithin’s Church, and now rests in a case to the side of the street.

Directions: Keep walking down Canon Street and at Monument Station turn right onto King William Street and then first left onto Monument Street.

19. Monument.

The Monument is a stone column commemorating the Great Fire of London of 1666. It is located near to where the fire started, at Fish Street Hill and Monument Street. The column is 62 metres tall and is the tallest free standing stone column in the world. The viewing platform at the top is reached by a narrow staircase of 311 steps. It is also 62 metres from the exact spot where the Great Fire of London started. The fire started in a bakery in Pudding Lane, soon spreading through London. Christopher Wren designed the column, after it was decided that there should be a memorial to the fire. Wren designed the column so that it could be used as a telescope too!

Directions: With your back to the Monument, walk down Monument Street and turn left on Lower Thames Street, keep going on this road until you see the Tower.

20. Tower of London.

It is now a UNESCO world heritage site. The Tower was founded by William the Conqueror towards the end of the 1066. The primary function of military stronghold of the Tower didn’t change until the late 19th century. 22 executions took place inside the tower. At least 6 ravens are kept at the Tower of London at all time, for superstitious reasons – ‘If the ravens leave the Tower the Kingdom will fall…’. The flock of resident ravens even includes a ‘spare’! Each raven has a wing clipped to make sure they don’t fly too far from home.There are over 23,500 jewels there today. The Crown Jewels were moved to the Martin Tower after the Jewel House was demolished. The total value of the jewels is estimated to exceed £20 billion.

Directions: you can see the grand looking bridge from the Tower of London – there’s a footpath that takes you straight there. 

21. Tower bridge.

Tower Bridge is not London Bridge, although the poor American that bought London Bridge thought it was (or so the sotry goes). It was built between 1886 and 1894. The evaluation of the designs was surrounded by controversy, a design submitted by Sir Horace Jones, the City Architect (who was also one of the judges), was the winning design….hmmmm. Over 40,000 people use the bridge each day, and it is raised about 1000 times a year.

Directions: Do not walk across the bridge, but cross the road onto St Katherine’s way, and follow this to the Docks Marina.

22. St Katherine’s Docks Marina.

Jess’ favourite place in London! There has been a dock to the east of the Tower of London, for about a thousand years. The area had a strong community, with a church ( St Katherine’s), a hospital and school. During the slum clearance in 1827 by parliament these were all got rid of and new docks were built.

Directions: wander around and find somewhere to stop and eat or drink, you deserve it! We would recommend the Dickens Inn as it is truly beautiful and the history of the pub is great!

Whilst you’re at it, looking for things to do, you should visit some of London’s institutions like the British Museum and V&A Museum, and you can click on the links there to see our guide to the highlights of each!