See some of London’s most famous tourist attractions including Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and Number 10 Downing Street.
Most of the places on this free self-guided walk are recognisable to visitors worldwide, making it the most popular walk on this site.
The walk was written and first published in 1997, updated in October, 2004 and again in March, 2014.
This is a circular walk, starting and ending at Westminster tube station
On arrival at Westminster tube station, walk towards Westminster bridge, stopping at the first traffic lights on the corner (at the junction of Victoria Embankment and Bridge Street). Behind you is Portcullis House, and in front of you, Victoria Embankment.
Portcullis House and Victoria Embankment
The building on the corner of Bridge Street and Victoria Embankment is Portcullis House. Opened in 2000, it hosts the offices for British Members of Parliament. There is an underground walkway leading from the building through to the Palace of Westminster.
Victoria Embankment, the road running alongside the Thames from Westminster to Blackfriars, was completed in 1870 and is a classic example of Victorian construction and design. It was the first electrically illuminated street in London.
One of three main embankments in London, it involved reclaiming much of the river bank as a form of flood defence. However, the idea of building embankments wasn’t unique to the Victorians – everyone from the Romans through to Christopher Wren had earlier proposed them.
Did You Know?
You can see many examples of Victorian England along the Embankment. These range from the granite blocks used to shore up the riverwalls through to the streetlamps with dolphins at their bases.
cross Victoria Embankment. Go down the steps on the left, directly after the statue of Boadicea (another example of Victorian England, unveiled in 1902). Stop next to the green turret at the bottom of the steps, overlooking the Thames.
The Westminster Tide Recorder
The turret in front of you is called the Westminster tide recorder. It measures the depth of the Thames at this point. You can climb up the rails on the side of the turret and look inside to see the computerised depth reading.
The Thames is the second oldest place name in England. For 400 years, it was the busiest road in England, like the grand canal in Venice, as the easiest way to cross London was by boat. In fact, until the 1750’s, there was only one bridge across the Thames within central London: London Bridge.
Look across the river to the wall on the opposite side. You will see a number of lions’ heads facing the river, with mooring rings hanging from their mouths. They are part of London’s flood warning system and every policeman on duty near the river keeps an eye on them.
Although the Thames Barrier has reduced the risk, the phrase “When the lions drink, London’s in danger” is still true. If the water reaches the lions’ mouths, the Thames is at danger level and the tube system and all Thames tunnels would be closed.
Did You Know?
Many historians believe that the Romans, who settled London around AD43, used to cross the river near this point. They think the actual crossing point was on the other side of Westminster Bridge, in front of St Thomas’ Hospital, as during Roman times, this section of it was no more than waist deep.
retrace your steps back to Westminster station and continue along Bridge Street to the corner of Parliament Square. Cross the road towards Big Ben.
The correct name for the Houses of Parliament is the Palace of Westminster, which was built in 1040 by Edward the Confessor and was the main Royal residence in London until Henry VIII moved to Whitehall.
The present building dates from the 1800’s and took 20 years to complete. It was built by Charles Barry, who is buried in Westminster Abbey.
It is the largest Gothic building in the world – there are over 1,000 rooms and two miles of corridors in it. In the centre stands Westminster Hall, the only part of the original building that survives.
Many great treason trials have taken place in Westminster. In 1305, Braveheart was sentenced to death here and in 1606 Guy Fawkes, the man who tried to blow up Parliament, met a similar fate.
It is possible to visit the public gallery of the Houses of Parliament for free (although you will have to pass security checks).
Did You Know?
Though many people think Big Ben is the name of the tower with the famous clockface, it is actually the name of the bell within it.
Big Ben is named after the Commissioner of Works, Sir Benjamin Hall, who was in charge of construction of the clock. He was heavily criticised by politicians over the problems he had in building it.
The bell’s familiar ring is caused by a crack which appeared in 1859, within a few months of the bell being installed. The bell was re-cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry Company but soon cracked again. It has never been repaired.
When the light above Big Ben is illuminated, Parliament is sitting.
with your back to Big Ben, stop and face the square.
Parliament Square was built in 1868, and rebuilt in the 1940’s.
On the corner of the square, you will see a statue of Sir Winston Churchill. He was Britain’s prime minister during World War 2 and the London Blitz, when many parts of London were destroyed by bombing.
He led Britain’s war effort from the Cabinet War Rooms, which are nearby and open to the public. They are now also home to the Churchill Museum (admission charge.)
Did You Know?
No pigeons ever land on the statue of Churchill. Why? Because a small electric current runs through it.
Continue past the gates to the Houses of Parliament and turn right at the next traffic lights, crossing St Margaret Street.
After crossing the road, you may wish to instead turn left to visit the Jewel Tower, a few yards down St Margaret Street. The Jewel Tower was built by Edward III in 1365 to house his personal treasure, and is one of only two remaining buildings from the original Palace of Westminster. It now contains an exhibition on Parliament Past and Present, for which there is an admission charge.
Otherwise, walk along Victoria Street to the entrance to Westminster Abbey, passing St Margaret’s Church on your left. Stop, facing the entrance to Westminster Abbey, in a small car park area next to the Abbey Bookshop.
The Abbey was built by Edward the Confessor, and William the Conqueror was crowned in it on Christmas Day 1066. Thousands of people are buried, or have their ashes interred, in it. Many others have plaques. Those buried in the Abbey include
* Royalty – Henry III, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, James I, Charles II
* Politicians – Pitt the Younger, Pitt the Elder, Chamberlain, Gladstone
* Poets and Writers – Chaucer, Jonson, Browning, Tennyson
In 1997, the funeral service for Diana, Princess of Wales was held there. (Though she is not buried in the Abbey.)
Did You Know?
One person buried in the Abbey has three separate monuments. He was John Broughton, a famous eighteenth century boxer who invented boxing gloves. He also became a Yeoman of the Guard and a verger of the Abbey.
The last burial in the Abbey was in 1906; since then, only ashes have been accepted. Ben Jonson, the poet, is buried upright.
There is an admission charge to visit the Abbey unless you are attending a service there.
with your back to Westminster Abbey, continue a short distance along Broad Sanctuary and cross the first traffic lights on your right. Cross the road at the pedestrian crossing on Tothill Street and continue along Storey’s Gate, passing the Methodist Central Hall on your left and the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre on your right.
Cross Matthew Parker Street and turn left down Lewisham Street, following it to the end.
At the end of Lewisham Street, continue ahead down Queen Anne’s Gate. As you walk along this road, you will see many buildings on either side, dating from the 1700’s. The old headquarters of the Secret Service, where James Bond would have worked, used to be at no 21 and the buildings on either side of it. At the junction on Queen Anne’s Gate, just after no. 34a, turn right to Birdcage Walk.
Cross the road to enter St James’s park and follow the path in front of you through the park until you come to a footbridge. Cross the footbridge and turn left, following another path, with the pond on your left. Near the end of this path, you will come to a concession stand at the junction with another path. Turn right at the concession stand and continue along this path a short distance to the road.
At the road, turn left and walk towards Buckingham Palace, stopping in front of it.
The home of the Queen, Buckingham Palace was built in 1703. The present building is the third on the site. Around 300 people work there.
Look at the flag pole on top of the Palace. When the Queen is in residence, the Royal Standard flag is raised. A soldier is responsible for taking it down the moment the Queen leaves.
Though the Palace is generally not open to the public, during summer you can visit its State Apartments (admission charge) and see the Queen’s large garden and collection of artwork.
You can however see the Changing of the Guard for free at 11.30 am every morning during summer and every second morning during winter.
(To get a less crowded view of the guards as they march past you, stand anywhere along the Mall between the Palace and Horseguards.)
The large memorial in front of Buckingham Palace is called the Queen Victoria Memorial. Unveiled in 1911, the statue of the seated Victoria is 13 feet tall, yet was made from a single block of marble.
Next to Buckingham Palace, on your left as you face the Memorial, is Green Park, made into a royal park by Charles II. It is likely to have been a burial site for lepers from the hospital of St James, which is supposedly why there are few flowers in the park.
The park was a popular place for duels during the eighteenth century.
Did You Know?
Right beside Green Park tube station at the top of the park, there is a sunken area. This was once a reservoir in which Benjamin Franklin demonstrated to the Royal Navy the technique of pouring oil on troubled waters. The Navy went on to use this technique with great success on the Channel waters.
The first cup of tea drunk in England was drunk in the Palace gardens in 1663.
The balcony from which the Royal family waves to the crowds is actually at the back of the building
with your back to Buckingham Palace, walk around the left hand side of the Queen Victoria Memorial, the large monument in front of you.
Directly on the other side of the monument you will see a pink road leading down to Admiralty Arch, a set of arches crossing the road at the other end. This road is called The Mall. The reason it is pink is due to the material used to make the surface safer for the horses of the Household Cavalry, not to indicate that it leads to the palace. Walk along it a short distance until you reach Queen’s Walk, a path running off to your left along the edge of the park, beside a building (Lancaster House).
Follow Queen’s Walk, where Charlie Chaplin made his first appearance on film (back in 1896 as a seven year old boy), until you see a small alleyway on your right. Turn right and follow this alleyway through to St james Street. Turn right at St James Street and follow it along then stop in front of St James’ Palace on your right. This is where the London home of Princes Charles, William and Harry used to be. (Charles now lives in nearby Clarence House and William and Harry live at Kensington Palace.)
St James’ Palace and St James’ Street
St James’ Palace was built by Henry VIII and though it is no longer used for official royal purposes, it has had a long association with royalty throughout its history. Queen Elizabeth and her successor, James I, both held court here. Charles I also spent his last night here before his execution in Whitehall. And Queen Victoria was married here.
The only surviving part of the original building is the gatehouse.
As you walk down St James Street, look for a small archway on your left, at the side of the Berry Bros and Rudd wine store (No. 3). This archway leads into Pickering Place, which was the location of the Texan Republic’s embassy until the state joined the US union in 1845. It was also where the last duel in England was fought.
You may notice some of the many Gentlemen’s Clubs in this street. One such club is Brooks’s Club, at number 60-61. This club was founded in 1764 and became famous for heavy gambling. It is also believed that the drink known as Black Velvet (being made of champagne and stout) was invented here in 1861.
Other clubs in this street include Boodle’s at number 28 and White’s, the oldest club of all, at number 37.
Also in this area are ‘grace and favour’ houses and flats. They belong to the Crown and are leased to the Queen’s upper servants, the lord chamberlain, private secretary and ladies in waiting at very low rents while they are working for her.
Did You Know?
Though the palace is no longer used for official royal purposes, foreign ambassadors are still accredited to the Court of St James.
Legend has it that when the original building was being built, Henry VIII said to its owner, the Duke of Buckingham, how lovely and big his house was, forcing the Duke to offer it to him.
After passing St James Palace, cross at the pedestrian crossing then turn left and soon, turn right down Crown Passage. At the end, turn right then left down Bury Street. Follow it to the end (Jermyn Street) and stop.
Jermyn Street was named after Henry Jermyn, courtier to the mother of King Charles II. The street was completed in the 1680’s but nothing now remains of the original buildings except for St James’ Church at the far end towards Regent Street.
However, there are some delightful arcades and stores in this street including
Piccadilly Arcade, an elegant arcade filled with traditional old stores
Davidoff (on the corner) the London store for the famous cigar makers from Russia
Turnbull and Asser, the famous shirtmakers, who have had a shop in this street since 1885
Floris, established in 1730 and selling fine old-fashioned scent and lotions
Paxton & Whitfield, established in 1797, and selling fine cheeses, hams, pates and chutneys
Geo.F.Trumper, a barber and royal hairdresser, established in 1875
Piccadilly market (Open from 10am, Thursday to Saturday and FREE). Set in the grounds of St James’ Church, the market includes a peaceful garden with park benches for resting on or perhaps eating your lunch
Did You Know?
At Christmas time, the famous Jermyn Street lights attract people from all over the world.
Either turn left at Duke Street or cut through Piccadilly Arcade if it is open and walk up to Piccadilly. Turn right and stop in front of Fortnum and Mason’s department store. Piccadilly also marks the half-way point in this walk, and is therefore a good place to stop for a rest in one of the many coffee shops in the area.
You might also wish to extend your walk slightly and cross Piccadilly from Piccadilly Arcade and visit Burlington Arcade (not open on Sundays). The arcade was built in 1819 and typifies Mayfair tradition and luxury. Look for the beadles in their top hats. Their duty is to ensure the dignity of the Arcade is not disturbed by people whistling, running or singing. After visiting Burlington Arcade, return to Piccadilly and walk left to Fortnum and Mason, to continue your walk.
Piccadilly is named after a draper named Robert Baker who became wealthy during the reign of Charles I by selling stiff ruffled collars called pickadils. He used his money to build a big house in the area. Londoners, who didn’t like his act of flamboyance, called his house Piccadilly Hall.
As you wander along Piccadilly, you will pass some elegant British hotels and stores, many of which have been granted royal warrants.One such store is Fortnum and Mason. Established in 1705, this store has been on Piccadilly since 1756, and the store staff still wear tailcoats. Go inside and wander around, especially on the ground floor. The store sells excellent tea and chocolates, and has an elegant cafe.
Also, above the entrance to the store, you will see a clock. The two founders of Fortnum and Mason are represented by the figures beside the clock, who emerge from the clock and bow to each other on the hour. Mr Fortnum wears the red coat that indicates he was a footman in the Royal Household. He went into partnership with Mr Mason, a grocer.
Did You Know?
Royal warrants, such as those held by Fortnum and Mason and displayed above their door or inside their store, are issued by the Royal Household to companies providing services and goods to the Royal Family.
go through Fortnum and Mason and exit back onto Jermyn Street.
Continue left along Jermyn Street, passing St James’ Church on your left, until you reach the junction with Regent Street. At Regent Street, turn left and walk up the hill towards Piccadilly Circus. At the first traffic lights, cross Regent Street and stop in front of Eros, the statue in the centre of the circus.
Originally a crossroad of Piccadilly and Regent Street, the circus took on its present appearance in the late 1800’s when Shaftesbury Avenue was connected to it.
One of central London’s busiest traffic junctions, it features the Statue of Eros (erected in 1893) in the centre and the enormous illuminated advertising signs overlooking it.
Did You Know?
The statue of Eros has pointed in three different directions since being erected, but never in the direction to which it was intended : facing Shaftesbury Avenue.
In the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, Dr Watson and Stamford meet in the bar of the Criterion Hotel.
Lilywhite’s sports store, on the corner behind Eros, was established by James Lilywhite, who captained the English cricket team against Australia in 1876.
walk past the Criterion Hotel and Theatre (behind Eros), then turn right at Haymarket.
Walk along Haymarket, passing Burberrys on your left, and turn left at the end, along Cockspur Street. Walk along Cockspur Street and stop in front of the National Gallery, overlooking Trafalgar Square.
Trafalgar Square commemorates Britain’s victory over France in 1805.
In the centre of the square stands Nelson’s Column, at 170 feet tall. Buildings surrounding the Square include South Africa House, Canada House, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery (both FREE admission) and St Martin-in-the-Fields church.
Even back in the eleventh century, the square was a traffic junction. And until 2000, the square had never been completed. While on the right hand side of it (in front of the National Gallery) there was a statue of George IV on horseback, until recently no statue had been placed on the corresponding plinth on the opposite corner. It is now used for rotating modern art displays.
Did You Know?
In front of Nelson’s Column, on a traffic island at the top of Whitehall, which also marks the site of the old Charing Cross, stands a statue of Charles I on horseback. It was deliberately positioned here by his son, Charles II, to look down Whitehall to the spot where his father had been executed (in front of Banqueting House.)
walk across Trafalgar Square, passing around the left hand side of Nelson’s Column. Cross the first pedestrian lights, then turn right and cross again at the next lights, which lead to the island in the centre of the road.
Stop next to the statue of Charles I on horseback. The road directly in front of you, in the direction the statue faces, is Whitehall.
Walk along Whitehall, passing Banqueting House on your left, until you reach Horse Guards on your right. Stop at Horse Guards, then continue to the gates of Downing Street, a short distance further along Whitehall, on the right, and stop again.
Whitehall and Number Ten Downing Street
The first main building along Whitehall is Banqueting House, on your left. It was built in 1622 and is the only remaining part of the Palace of Whitehall.
The Palace of Whitehall was originally built as York Place in 1245, and renamed as Whitehall by Henry VIII in 1529, when it was confiscated from Cardinal Wolsey. Charles I was beheaded on a stage in front of it in 1649.
The majority of buildings along Whitehall belong to Government departments. They include, on your left just after Banqueting House, the Ministry of Defence, which is the only Government office with its own chapel. On your right, just after Horse Guards, you will pass both the Foreign Office and Treasury.
Horse Guards, on your right just after Banqueting House, is Whitehall’s biggest tourist attraction. The Life Guards (in red) and the Blues and Royals (in blue) have been here since Tudor times.
Through the courtyard you will see Horse Guards Parade. A great tournament was held here in 1540 by Henry VIII and knights from all over Europe attended. The Trooping of the Colour, where the Queen inspects her troops just as monarchs before her have done for hundreds of years, is held here every year on the Queen’s official birthday, which is the 3rd Saturday in June (her real birthday is April 21).
Downing Street is named after Sir George Downing, the second graduate of Harvard College, who bought the land and built the houses in 1680.
Number 10 has been the official residence of the Prime Minister since 1732. There is no general public access to it.
Did You Know?
The Chancellor of the Exchequer traditionally lives next door, in number eleven.
However, when Labour came to power in 1997, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown (who became Prime Minister in 2007) swapped residences to enable the Blair family to have more room. This had never happened before.
you have now completed this walk …… I hope you enjoyed it
Continue along Whitehall to Parliament Square and follow the signs to Westminster tube station.