London is such an awesome city. I challenge anyone to visit and not enjoy it! Our second day in London is still a blur. We walked so much, saw so many attractions, and were so exhausted by the end of the day that even Travis could barely remember which route we took or in what order we saw things. That might not seem terribly important, but it is for someone like Travis who prides himself on his memory. He rarely fails to dredge up even the most obscure details from childhood (while my memory is so bad I’m not convinced I didn’t just spring into existence at age 12). It wasn’t until after we mapped out the self-guided walking tour of London we did on our second day that we realized how far we walked and how many famous attractions we visited. If you’re headed to London and want to retrace our steps, you can follow our map at the end of this post. It’ll take you past most of the city’s most famous landmarks.
Our route actually starts from the B. Street Deli on Bermondsey. We explored different areas of London during our three days there, but the one place we frequented every single morning was this fantastic deli right around the corner from our Airbnb flat. Kat, our London Airbnb host, has a standing arrangement for her guests to receive complimentary coffee and a pastry for breakfast as one of the perks of booking with her.
Every morning we strolled in for mochas so rich and chocolatey that we could practically spoon them up like pudding. Paired with their gooey blueberry, chocolate chunk, and orange zest muffins, it was hard to tear ourselves away to actually start sight-seeing each day.
The employees knew we were “Kat’s guests” and treated us with honest-to-goodness British charm, even addressing me as “Love.” In a city as big as London, we weren’t expecting that kind of welcome. If you end up staying at Kat’s Airbnb or just decide to visit the B. Street Deli, the folks there will make you feel absolutely spoiled.
If you don’t want to visit the B. Street Deli, just adjust our walking route map to start from your own location.
After tearing ourselves away from the deli on our second morning in London, we stopped by the King’s College campus where Travis had interviewed the day before. He showed me some cool science stuff before we crossed the campus’s central courtyard. There, we ran into their weekly food gauntlet.
As soon as our noses recovered from the near physical assault of the incredible smells coming from one booth, we’d reach another. Travis deliberated for quite some time in front of one booth with a sign pandering dishes with wild boar, chicken, sausage, pork, steak, or venison – all served with mashed potatoes and gravy.
That’s Idaho lingo right there. Mmmmm, taters and gravy….
London has no shortage of food choices, so this might not make your radar. But if you love hearty street food and happen to be near King’s College on a weekend, you’re bound to find something you like here – unless you’re vegetarian. The choices are definitely meat-heavy.
With no particular plan other than to head toward St. Paul’s Cathedral, we were rather surprised to stumble across Southwark Cathedral, one unknown to both of us. Immediately attracted by the Gothic spires, we decided to go inside after seeing a sign stating it was founded in 606 AD. It’s the oldest Gothic church in London!
Not planning to stay long, we changed our minds after a friendly volunteer warmly encouraged us to explore the cathedral, conspiratorially leaning in to let us know in a hushed voice that it was free.
How could we not at least poke our heads in? We did pay a couple of pounds to take photographs, but considering that it was free and the lady was so nice, we were happy to donate.
Somehow I was expecting the interior to be a bit plain, but I was wrong.
My three favorites in the cathedral were
a funny arched doorway that’s off kilter, built asymmetrically to accommodate a neighboring spiral staircase
a series of intricately carved wooden chairs commemorating prominent patrons of the church such as Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, one of my favorite authors
a stained glass window honoring William Shakespeare with images from many of his plays
One corner of the cathedral is particularly interesting for its history. In this corner, one wall of arcading is in pristine condition, resembling the rest of the building. The adjacent wall, however, is in poor condition – a section that has been left intentionally unrefurbished as a reminder of the medieval period.
Look for the row of small bowls on the floor that make it quite clear that visitors’ four-legged friends are also quite welcome in the cathedral. A church where man’s best friend is welcome is the kind of neighborhood church I can support.
After leaving Southwark Cathedral, we returned to the Thames waterfront, enjoying the river views on a cool, intermittently sunny fall day.
Rounding a corner, we discovered a phenomenal piece of art – the Queenhithe Dock Heritage Timeline mosaic, a 30-meter wall mosaic that spans nearly an entire city block. Newly completed just last year, the mosaic is a timeline of the history of the neighborhood and the famous Queenhithe Dock, “the only remaining Anglo Saxon dock in the world,” which is nearby on the Thames River.
The colorful shards used in the mosaic were harvested from ancient broken pottery discarded in the Thames. Assisted by an archaeologist, the pottery shards were carefully dated and painstakingly grouped accordingly; the dates of the shards correlate with the time period they depict on the timeline. It’s a project that absolutely oozes culture, history, and impeccable artistry.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Just beyond the mosaic is another of London’s most famous attractions – St. Paul’s Cathedral.
It was on our list of attractions to visit, so we filtered in with streams of other tourists. Something that’s impossible to show in photos is how a church makes you feel, which is obviously very subjective. Many cathedrals we’ve seen in Europe have been grand, imposing, monstrous buildings that are so old, we really can’t comprehend their extensive timelines. They often don’t feel warm and inviting. Case in point would be our very brief experience at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which couldn’t have been more different from Southwark Cathedral.
Upon entering St. Paul’s, I felt more like we were at a zoo than a church. Huge tour groups and mobs of school-age kids chattered on the steps and in line for tickets inside.
Since tickets are required, visitors are required to pass through a gated entry, leaving me to wonder how many people “sneak in” under the guise of coming only to worship. I also wondered how on earth they could possibly determine that, and how worshipers could find it peaceful to pray in such a madhouse.
We were already put off by the carnival atmosphere and exorbitant ticket prices (£18.00/$27 per adult), so when we noticed their prominently displayed signs banning photography – even without flash – we were out. I have no doubt that the interior is beautiful – what we could see of it from the entry was beautiful, but so are lots of beautiful cathedrals. Many of them are free, like Notre Dame in Paris. We almost never decide not to tour an attraction once we’ve already arrived, but we don’t regret our decision.
Ready for a break, we popped in to a Costa Coffee for mochas, our favorite coffee place in London. It wasn’t our first stop for their coffee during our stay, nor would it be our last.
Later we’d get a good laugh at the size difference between our own giant Costa cups and someone else’s thimble sized cup we saw discarded on the ground.
Costa Coffee in hand, we continued strolling past some Roman ruins. Ancient remnants of the city’s history, the ruins are from London’s first city wall dating back to AD 200.
Royal Courts of Justice
One of Europe’s largest court buildings is the Royal Courts of Justice. It’s located roughly half way between St. Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace on the east bank of the Thames. Those interested in law can tour the interior, but for those of you like us who just want to pass by, the architecture alone is worth a brief visit.
One of London’s most famous landmarks is Trafalgar Square, which dates back to the 1400s. It was named to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar, a naval battle in which the British vanquished the French and Spanish during the Napoleonic Wars. The battle took place near Cape Trafalgar off the coast of Spain.
Still owned by the Queen, the square features a central column flanked by four lion statues, each weighing seven tons. Contemporary artists regularly feature work in the square, and during our visit, tourists were lining up to take selfies with a giant pair of eyeglasses.
Since there’s very little to actually do at Trafalgar Square, it’s interesting less as an actual destination than as a waypoint to check off on the way to Big Ben and other nearby attractions.
For folks planning to visit Buckingham Palace, you’ll likely first visit Admiralty Arch. Crossing under the arch, you’ll walk beneath giant trees along The Mall – the long, broad avenue leading to the palace.
Visiting Buckingham Palace via Admiralty Arch will put you at the eastern entrance. Most of the walking route along the Mall skirts the grassy edge of St. James’s Park.
When we arrived at the palace, we actually had no idea that visitors could even tour the palace. We first just peeked through the front gate to the palace grounds inside, snapping a few photos of the exterior.
Turns out, you can.
Wondering if the Queen would be available for us to “pop in” (she strikes me as the kind of gal who loves drop-ins), we bought tickets for the last available tour of the day.
Sadly, the Queen was off gallivanting elsewhere, perhaps at one of her numerous other castles, so we just scoped out her digs without a personal audience.
We were bummed to again find that we weren’t allowed to take photos during the self-guided tour. Effective July 1st of this year, even the White House now allows interior photography on group tours.
I was especially disappointed since ticket prices for Buckingham Palace are even higher than St. Paul’s Cathedral. We both became a bit impatient during the tour – I did find one room that was interesting; it was filled with unique gifts from a variety of countries – but I expected to learn more about the history of the palace than about how many heads of state the Queen has invited to dine with her, how many courses are served at these meals, and who designs her little pillbox hats and dresses. All that pomp and circumstance is really lost on us.
It’s just not our cup of tea, if you will.
Ultimately, Buckingham Palace is the only attraction in London we wouldn’t recommend to other visitors, in part because the ticket prices are just too high for the value of the tour. If you’re madly in love with the Royal Family though, you might love it.
From Buckingham Palace, the walking route loops back to your starting point. But first, Westminster Cathedral is just south of the palace.
It’s a newish building, officially opened in 1903. The striped brick towers are quite distinctive along the modern-day street. Resembling a mosque more than a church, it’s actually the main Catholic church of the UK (excluding Scotland).
When you’re nearly back to the Thames River, you’ll reach Westminster Abbey (often confused with Westminster Cathedral.) Since 1066, this has been the official site of coronations for all British monarchs. Royal weddings are also held at the abbey.
Adjacent to the Thames, the Palace of Westminster is where the members of the two houses of Parliament – the House of Commons and the House of Lords – meet. Probably the most famous feature of the Parliament building is the clock tower of Big Ben.
The London Eye
By the end of our walking tour, we were famished and exhausted. Popping into a little shop for a couple of pasties, we devoured our meat and potato pastries with a lovely view of the London Eye, the giant ferris wheel along the Thames.
From there, it took us about an hour to walk back to our little Airbnb over 2 miles across the city. By then, my feet were in pretty shabby condition as a result of wearing poor walking shoes, but Travis patiently shortened his stride to my pathetic, limping gait. He kept insisting we catch a bus or cab, but we didn’t see either pass during most of our walk back on darkened residential streets. In the future, my running shoes will not be left at home when we travel.
For the ambitious traveler, the map below of our day’s walking tour in London might be useful. Beware -the route covers 13 kilometers to a handful of London’s most famous landmarks, all in a single day. It’s a lot of ground to cover, depending on your starting point. If it’s too much, you can always hop on a bus or catch the Tube to the next attraction. We just prefer walking because we always find unexpected hidden treasures. Whatever you prefer, enjoy London!