London boasts an enchanting abundance of iconic sights and neighborhoods: Big Ben, Soho, Trafalgar Square, West End, London Eye, South Bank, the River Thames. I just love simply walking through this grand city. And on this summer afternoon — with my guidebook-updating chores finished — I decide to slow down and take the very long way back to the Tube: three miles meandering through the heart of downtown, connecting virtually all of the major landmarks. It’s a Friday, the summer sun is shining, and Londoners are out enjoying their city…just promenading. So let’s join them. Come along with me on a sunny London stroll.
I begin near London Bridge on the South Bank, at Borough Market. One of the world’s great food halls is airy and elegant beneath its industrial green vaulting, despite being tucked unceremoniously between railway viaducts. Borough Market is a commotion of vendors, shoppers, foodies, and gawking tourists. I grab a quality flat white at Monmouth Coffee, a third-wave coffee roaster near the back of the market. Just outside the café’s front door, sun-worshipping office drones — just starting their weekend — lounge around on big green traffic barriers. Sunshine pours between buildings along Park Street, focusing a spotlight of summer cheer into the otherwise well-shaded market.
From here, I plunge through the heart of the market. Along the way, I pass a dizzying array of vendors: meaty roast sandwiches, diver-farmed oysters (bragging “from boat to Borough”), Spanish-style jamón hocks, venison burgers, cheesemongers, greengrocers, Turkish delight, honey, gooey Raclette sandwiches from Switzerland, cheesemongers, colorful chutneys, delicacies from Croatia and Calabria, dry-cured alpine deli meats from Italy’s South Tirol, cheesemongers, exotic teas, mushroom pâté, cheesemongers, sausage and bacon rolls, cheesemongers, and cheesemongers.
Reaching the end of the main market hall, I angle right, crossing a grubby street beneath a rumbling rail bridge (and passing the house where Bridget Jones lived) to reach the scruffier Green Market annex. Here, under naked viaduct girders rather than a genteel Industrial Age market canopy, are gathered yet more vendors: coffee, cheeses, hot sauces, licorice, rye bread, preserves, and much more. Nearby is a tempting row of street food carts: Bavarian bratwurst, Ethiopian injeras, pulled-lamb sandwiches, Balkan bureks (savory phyllo dough pastries), steamed bao sandwich rolls, soul food from the American South, Scotch eggs, and more.
Skirting past Southwark Cathedral, I leave the market bustle and head toward the Thames. Along the riverbank, moored between dirty brown modern office blocks, is a replica of the Golden Hinde — the 16th-century clipper that carried Sir Francis Drake on the second-ever journey around the world…bringing home untold treasures from distant lands, and earning the favor of Queen Elizabeth. From the ship’s masts, I carry on west along Pickfords Wharf, then Clink Street — named for the medieval prison now synonymous with doing time. My stroll reminds me that the South Bank — while architecturally humdrum — has more than its share of colorful English history.
Crossing under Southwark Bridge and rambling along the Bankside promenade, I turn my attention to the Thames itself. The brown water is churning with boats, carrying both sightseers and commuters. Downriver, I glimpse the iconic Tower Bridge. On this sunny afternoon, it seems all of London is out with me…just promenading aimlessly, in a highly weather-dependent northerly variation of Italy’s passeggiata.
Soon we reach the thatched roof of Shakespeare’s Globe. The original Globe Theatre — a circular, open-air, half-timbered venue where Shakespeare watched his own plays performed — burned to a crisp during a 1612 performance. Meticulously rebuilt by a visionary American theater lover in 1997, the new Globe provides one of travel’s best time-travel experiences.
While there’s nothing playing tonight, I reminisce about my first backpacking trip to Europe. I invested £5 in a “Groundling” ticket: standing-room-only in the crowded and convivial pit immediately in front of the stage. The show was Anthony and Cleopatra — with, as in Shakespeare’s time, both the male and female roles played by men — and it went on for three and a half hours. By the end, I was exhausted and footsore, but felt transported back to Shakespeare’s time.
Some 15 years later, I had another unforgettable Globe experience with my wife. Booking tickets several weeks ahead, I’d decided to splurge on the premium seats: at the very top of the theater, facing the stage head-on. Unfortunately, by the time the show rolled around, temperatures in London crested the 100-degree mark. On the evening of the play, my wife and I slogged through oppressive heat and humidity toward the theater, consoling ourselves with the thought that the open-air Globe should cool off after sunset. But when we reached our primo seats, our hearts sank: Thatch is used so abundantly in England specifically because of its impressive insulation properties. And our seats, immediately under the thatch roof, trapped every little bit of heat from one of London’s hottest days ever. We melted…despite being”outside.”
From The Globe, it’s just a few steps to the Millennium Bridge — the futuristic, blade-of-light footbridge that arcs gracefully across the Thames toward the stately dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. I recall how, when first opened in 2000, the bridge wobbled and swayed like a latter-day Galloping Gertie. They closed it for two years to stabilize it, and now it’s a vital artery for pedestrians looking for a quick route across the Thames.
Facing the bridge, the Tate Modern fills a blocky former power station with world-class modern and contemporary art. Wanting to check out the new annex they just opened out back, I head inside the Tate (like many major London museums, it’s free to enter) and wait my turn to ride the elevator up to the 10th floor. Stepping out onto the terrace, I’m rewarded with exceptional views across sprawling London, with the Tate’s decommissioned smokestack in the foreground.
All across the skyline, brand-new skyscrapers are sprouting like tulips in the springtime. No longer clustered in just one or two modern business districts, it seems that all of London is open to developers. And Londoners have a penchant for clever nicknames. From up here, I can see buildings known as “The Shard,” “The Gherkin,” “The Walkie-Talkie,” “The Cheese Grater,” and “The Scalpel.”
Returning to earth, I carry on westward along the Thames, passing the Founders Arms pub — with happy après-work drinkers spilling out onto the walkway, tipsy from their pints and Pimm’s Cups. Just before Blackfriars Bridge, I turn back and look down to see little kids gathering on the riverbank below me. The Thames is a tidal river, and low tide reveals little “beaches” here and there — even in downtown London. On a hot summer day, Londoners huddle up on the sand and pebbles to sunbathe and pretend they’re in Brighton or Blackpool (if not Ibiza or Mykonos). Kids skip stones toward St. Paul’s, and the glittering forest of skyscrapers dubbed “The Square Mile” rockets up on the horizon — Oliver’s Twist meets The Jetsons.
Crossing under Blackfriars Bridge, I pass the OXO Building and a few more little beaches before reaching a strip of food carts under a leafy canopy of trees. Just beyond is the brutalist National Theatre building, a hulking eyesore that resembles a giant concrete game of Jenga gone catawampus — though, on this sunny day, even that building seems beautiful. (Almost.)
Out in front, I pause at the statue of Laurence Olivier emoting to the handle of a sword. Street performers — the spiritual descendants of Olivier — do their thing nearby.
Passing under Waterloo Bridge, I reach another London eyesore, the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Underneath the concrete stilts that elevate the concert hall’s terrace above the embankment, they’ve created a skate park, with ramps and rails slathered in wild graffiti. The soundtrack is grinding wheels and loud music spewing from a boombox. The London skaters who frequent this little postapocalyptic corner of otherwise idyllic waterfront — anarchists tucked under Queen Elizabeth’s skirt — coexist peacefully with families and tourists strolling past food carts just a few steps away. It’s a reminder of why I love London, where strands of every walk of life imaginable are woven together into a vital urban tapestry.
As if there hadn’t been enough street food on my walk so far, I detour a short block inland alongside the Queen Elizabeth Hall to reach the Southbank Centre Food Market. One of my colleagues recommended that I check out this hidden gem, which attracts some of the city’s trendiest food carts, filling an otherwise drab little concrete plaza between the concert hall and elevated train tracks. And once again on this walk, I find myself regretting that I have no appetite. You could quite conceivably spend two weeks in London, eat nothing but street food, and consider it an exquisite gastronomic experience.
Back on the riverbank, I cross under Hungerford Bridge. Until now, my stroll has been a reasonable mix of Londoners and visitors. But now I’m entering a touristy slog: the London Eye ferris wheel looms just ahead. Called the “Millennium Wheel” when it opened in 2000, today it has been rebranded, with great dignity and restraint, as the “Caffeinated and Carbonated Sugar Water from America London Eye” (or something along those lines).
The London Eye area is a round-the-clock tourist circus, jammed with visitors from every corner of the globe desperately trying to turn money into fun. Other corny attractions (most of them owned by the same company that runs the Eye) have sprung up nearby. The County Hall building next to the Eye now houses the Sealife Aquarium (showing off, I have to imagine, catfish and perch from the Thames); a second branch of the London Dungeon torture-and-gore shlockfest (as if one weren’t enough); and an attraction called “Shrek’s Adventure” (because the crack marketing team at Merlin Entertainments is nothing if not on-trend). The strip is salvaged only by the endearingly old-fashioned carousel that spins under the trees.
Trying to ignore the tackiness all around me, I belly up to the railing next to the London Eye and look across the Thames to where the towers of the Palace of Westminster rise up from the prickly Neo-Gothic headquarters of Britain’s government. Big Ben is covered in scaffolding, as if to emphasize the “work in progress” chaos that has characterized the UK’s once-noble system of government since the advent of Brexit — at one time so civilized, and today pure bedlam.
It’s time to cross the river on Westminster Bridge, which — when the Houses of Parliament aren’t scaffolded — provides the quintessential London tableau. Red double-decker buses rumble past, and souvenir stands sell Union Jack everything. But tonight, the reality is far less glamorous. It’s late in the day, and the bridge’s sidewalks are a traffic jam of tourists crossing between two of London’s prime sightseeing zones. Along the banister are stacked neat rows of coffee cups and empty bottles; as an anti-terrorism measure, London doesn’t have garbage cans in high-profile areas like this one. So, understandably, people improvise.
Along the bridge, con artists are making a killing with the classic ball-and-cup game, luring in an ever-replenishing supply of curious and gullible tourists. (Trying to win at ball-and-cup is approximately as foolish, from a personal finance perspective, as dropping $100 on taking the whole family to Shrek’s Adventure.) It’s a textbook scam: A vaguely Eastern European-looking guy kneeling on the sidewalk challenges random passersby to guess which of the three cups the ball is hiding under. Your first guess is free — and invariably correct. Then he suggests that you to put some money on the next one. Occasionally a very skilled player makes a killing, guessing the right cup again and again, and walks away with a wad of cash. This emboldens observers to become participants. And then, miraculously, the ball becomes impossible to track. (The chumps never seem to notice that the big winner bears a striking resemblance to the guy running the game. As if clad in the uniform for the lowest rung of the Macedonian Mafia, they even have the same buzz cut, the same faux-leather vest worn over a grubby sweatshirt, and the same gold chain.)
After watching a few suckers parted from their money, I continue across the bridge, passing under Big Ben and noticing protesters — both pro- and anti-Brexit — lining the fence just behind the Houses of Parliament. I turn right, up Whitehall, which is closed to traffic for the weekend. I take full advantage, strolling right down the middle of the UK’s majestic “government row” — lined with ministries and imbued with a certain grandeur.
Enjoying this wide-open space after the stifling crowds around the London Eye and Westminster Bridge, I breeze past the Cenotaph (a pillar honoring Britain’s World War I and II dead), the fortified gate leading to 10 Downing Street, and the poignant memorial to the women of the UK who died in World War II. I’m too late to see the Horse Guards — the animals have already been stabled for the night — but a dismounted soldier, wearing his “Charge of the Light Brigade”-style tasseled helmet, still stands at attention. He’s swarmed by tourists who take turns to squeeze alongside him for a photo op.
Whitehall culminates at Trafalgar Square — the main square of London, of the UK, and of an empire upon which, at one point, the sun never set. Standing at the foot of the square’s towering pillar (honoring Horatio Nelson, who defeated Napoleon at Trafalgar), I enjoy watching little kids flagrantly disobey the “please don’t climb on the bronze lions” signs.
At the top of Trafalgar Square is the National Gallery. And hiding between the two wings of the National Gallery is a shortcut to Leicester Square — the epicenter of London’s West End theater scene. From the statue of Shakespeare in the middle of the square, it’s a five-minute walk to the left to Book of Mormon, a five-minute walk to the right to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a five-minute walk straight ahead to Les Miz, and a 30-second walk in any direction to rip-off ticket sellers offering bad-value theater tickets. (For the best deals, either book direct with the theater’s box office; drop by the official, freestanding “TKTS” kiosk at the bottom of Leicester Square for same-day discounts; or try to snag some cheap “day tickets.”)
With Shakespeare at my back, I angle left out of Leicester Square and up Wardour Street — instantly transported from glitzy theater-land to Chinatown.
Stepping under a colorful gateway arch, I emerge into a world of florid Chinese calligraphy, red lanterns, pungent spices, stone-carved lions, and naked ducks hanging from little nooses in store windows. Pausing at one restaurant, I watch through the window as an army of chefs lovingly hand-fold dumplings. I do a little lap up and down Gerrard Street, between gateways — savoring the illusion of being in the Far East while still in downtown London — before crossing Shaftesbury Avenue to Soho.
Another block, another entirely different London experience. Surrounded by West End theaters, boisterous Soho is the spot to have a drink or dinner before heading to a show. Consequently, it’s one of London’s culinary hotspots — a proving ground for new chefs attempting to make it big on the city’s restaurant scene. (On this trip alone, I scouted and added to our Rick Steves London guidebook more than a dozen Soho eateries — including Kricket, serving up modern, upmarket Indian dishes that go beyond the corner curry house; Kiln, with a long open kitchen of sizzling kilns cooking up intensely flavorful northern Thai food; Hoppers, offering a delicious crash course in Sri Lankan fare; and Nopi, the upscale Soho outpost of Yotam Ottolenghi’s fast-expanding modern Mediterranean restaurant group.)
Spotting several rainbow flags, I’m reminded that Soho was also an early enclave of London’s gay scene. Of course, these days you’ll find openly LGBTQ people in all walks of London life. But homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967. Back then, members of Soho’s clandestine queer community invented a secret code language of slang, called Polari. Some of these words — such as “togs” (clothes) and “naff” (tacky) — were eventually accepted into the English mainstream…much like the people who invented them. Today the rainbow flags of Soho feel less like war banners, and more like victory flags for the progressive values of today’s Britain.
Many Londoners don’t care for Soho — they find it touristy, crowded, overpriced, and tacky. But to me, Soho is a fascinating little slice of urban London. Anytime I’m in town, I find myself manufacturing excuses to pass through here. And I always wind up making my way a couple of blocks west of the core of Soho, to the rapidly gentrifying red light district (which barely qualifies as one anymore) — not for the red lights, but for ice cream. Tucked down a dead-end lane is Gelupo, with some of the best artisanal gelato I’ve had outside of Italy.
From here, I head northwest a few blocks past a strange mix of gritty old sex shops, top-end boutiques, and chic restaurants. I wind up at Carnaby Street — famous as ground zero of London’s “Swinging Sixties” scene. While today it’s been glitzed up and commodified, I can’t walk along Carnaby Street without conjuring mental images of Austin Powers-style day-glo flower power. (The big, glittery Union Jack they’ve suspended over the street eggs me on.)
Partway up Carnaby Street, at #49, I duck through an eye-catching doorway and follow the passage to Kingly Court, a new restaurant zone that stacks three floors of eateries — Japanese, Italian, Caribbean, Indian, Peruvian, and more — around a cozy courtyard.
It’s starting to get dark, and I’m pooped from my long London ramble. Time to head for the nearest Tube stop. I continue north along Carnaby Street to my favorite shopping facade in the city: The half-timbered, faux-Tudor-style Liberty Department Store. If you could imagine Shakespeare shopping at any store in today’s London…it’d be this one.
From here, it’s just a few steps to busy Regent Street, one of London’s most upscale shopping thoroughfares. Several vendors along here brag about their loyal royal customers. Turning right up Regent Street, I follow its stately, gently curving path up to where it intersects London’s other great shopping strip, Oxford Street — a bit more middlebrow than Regent, with outposts of major department stores and international fashion chains.
Descending through the twilight into the Oxford Street Tube station, I think back on how much of London I’ve seen over the last three miles and couple of hours. There’s a reason why this is one of travel’s great cities — and why, before I’ve even left town, I’m already plotting my next trip. (I’ll be back in October.)
I was in town updating our Rick Steves London guidebook for the upcoming 2020 edition. Any time I’m in London — whether for work or as a tourist — that’s my bible.
If all of these major attractions are too crowded and well-worn for your tastes, never fear — I also love exploring the less touristy corners of London, where you can become a “temporary Londoner.”