All the highlights in a day: a London walking tour

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London is one of the great cities of the world, filled with history and tradition. But it’s a big, sprawling place: how do you go about seeing its best in a short visit? Surprisingly, on my trip to London this year, I found it’s not that hard if you have a good pair of walking shoes. Most of the major sights are close enough together that you can see them in a day without taking the transit.
Here’s my London walking tour, to show you how it’s done. In order to find your way, you can follow along using this map from the London Pass website.

Starting out

The tour starts at Victoria Station, a central hub in the London transit system, right in the heart of the city. The street in front of the station is called Buckingham Palace Road, so you may as well turn right from the front doors and head toward its namesake. Along the way, you see a mix of the old and the new, classic English pubs and modern office buildings. It’s also worth stopping to look at the little park on the left, with this dramatic sculpture of a lion chasing a deer.

lion deer sculpture London

The Palace

 Buckingham Palace Road — as you might expect — leads you to Buckingham Palace. This is probably England’s most famous landmark, although frankly, it’s not the most spectacular building in town, much less in Europe. Still, it’s pretty grand, with its ornate entrance and the huge fountain and statuary across the roadway.
Buckingham Palace

Of course, the palace is usually mobbed with tourists, especially at 11 in the morning to see the changing of the guard. Be aware, though: the ceremony doesn’t take place every day, so check before you go. It’s a great spectacle if you’re there on the right day: otherwise, you’ll have to be satisfied with the red-coated guards who stand at the front gate, sweltering in their busbys.

Buckingham Palace guards

St. James’s Park

Once you’ve had your fill of the palace, head right from the front gates and cross the street to find St. James’s Park, a cool, green sanctuary in the middle of the city. It’s a nice relief from the stone and concrete of the palace compound. Created by King Henry VIII as a game preserve, the park affords some beautiful views across the peaceful lake, and an unexpected view of the city’s east end, including the London Eye. Take a few minutes to stroll around  and admire the ornamental birds, like this tufted duck.
St. James's Park
tufted duck

The Parliament Square Gardens

Leaving the park, head left along Birdcage Walk, a lovely, tree-lined avenue that was once the site of King James I’s aviary. The walk leads you to the imposing national treasury and a large, open square  lined with statues of heroes from around the empire.

The most famous is the statue of Winston Churchill, at the front of the square. You’ll have to line up to get your picture taken with it. I was struck by some of the other historic figures included, however, including Mahatma Gandhi, who stood down the British colonialists to win his country’s freedom. Once he was their adversary, now they erect a statue to him.

Churchill statue tourists

Westminster Abbey

Cross the square and you come to another of the city’s most historic buildings, Westminster Abbey. All the English kings and queens have been crowned in this church since William the Conqueror in 1066. Most royal weddings are held here too, including those of Queen Elizabeth and Princes William and Andrew. As well, countless ancient kings and nobles are buried in the church. It’s well worth a few minutes to look through, though it’ll cost you 22 pounds to get in — 20 if you book online.

Westminster Abbey

 The Parliament Buildings

Back across the Parliament Square and it’s only a few metres to the Westminster Bridge, from which you can get a great view of the Parliament Buildings and the London waterfront. Of course, if you want a closer look, the buildings are open to visitors at certain times, depending on what’s going on there. A guided tour will cost you 28 pounds if you book on the spot, less if you pre-book. And good news, there’s a seniors price of 23 pounds.

The London Eye

Crossing the bridge, you’ll see a wharf where you can take a boat tour on the Thames. But if you resist that, take a left onto Belvedere Road and youLondon Eye come to London’s most famous modern attraction, the London Eye. It’s so big you can hardly gt it into a photograph, but it’s a sight to see, and the gardens surrounding it are a pleasant walk. If you do want to take the 30-minute spin, a ticket will cost you about 23 pounds, but prices vary depending on when and how you buy them.

Trafalgar Square

Crossing the Thames again on the Jubilee Bridge just beyond the Eye, you’ll find yourself on Northumberland Ave., which leads you to another landmark, Trafalgar Square. The square itself is not that brilliant, but this is where you’ll find the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. If you’re an art lover, you could spend the rest of the day here.

Covent Garden

If you’re hungry, however — or if you want to do do some shopping — head right from Trafalgar Square to The Strand, and walk a few blocks to Southampton Street. Turn left and you’ll find Covent Garden, an enclosed square that was once the orchard garden for Westminster Abbey, later London’s first residential square and then a market. It was also the site of the first recorded Punch and Judy show. Today it’s a pleasant shopping and entertainment centre, and a good place to relax in the middle of the day, or shop for everything from London souvenirs to high-fashion clothes and jewellery.

Covent Garden London

St. Paul’s Cathedral

Back on The Strand, if you continue walking east, you’ll pass the magnificent-looking Royal Courts of Justice and the old Bank of England. The Strand then turns into Fleet Street, and in a few blocks you’ll see this iconic view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Built in the 17th century by architect Christopher Wren, the cathedral is a symbol of London, and its 111-metre (365-foot ) dome towered above the London skyline for centuries. Inside, it’s grand though not overly ornate, with acres of white marble under the famous dome.

Fleet Street London

Piccadilly Circus

If you’re not up for the walk to St. Paul’s, you can head back to Trafalgar Square, and find your way to the Pall Mall. Then, head up Haymarket St. and in a few blocks you’ll find yourself in London’s most famous intersection, Piccadilly Circus. It’s one of those things you have to see if you come to London, but don’t stay too long — this is one of the most polluted streetcorners I’ve ever experienced. So take your photos and head out.

Piccadilly Circus

That’s the end of our walking tour. If you don’t dally too long in one place and walk briskly, you can easily do it in a day. And there’s really no need to take a taxi or the transit unless you have some mobility issues. However, you may find yourself stopping here and there to look at some of the thousands of tiny points of interest London has to offer; it seems almost every corner is the former site of some historic event, or the home of some illustrious person now long deceased.

If you do the whole walk and end up at Piccadilly Circus, you can be excused for rewarding yourself a little. So head down Piccadilly for a couple of blocks and pick up some tea, or wine, or fancy food at Fortnum & Mason, purveyor of fine fare to England’s hoi-polloi and another emblem of old London. If not, you can walk down the stairs to Piccadilly Station and take the tube back to your hotel.

Fortnum & Masons store

Finally, one note about London transport: it can be very expensive, I was shocked to find my single ride across central London on the Underground cost me almost $9 Canadian. If you’re travelling around the city more than a little, it can pay to buy a Day Travelcard or an Oyster Card, which you can load with money and just tap when you take the tube or bus. The London transport website can help you figure out which works for you. One good deal: you can get to Heathrow Airport on the underground from central London for around 6 pounds. That’s a winner in this expensive city.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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