It was the best of advertisements, it was the worst of advertisements. Charles Dickens’ novels, largely social protests wearing the cloak of entertainment, made readers feel as if they’d traveled to London when they never left their own armchairs. Trouble is, the city that Dickens has primed visitors to expect—the foggy, coal-smudged metropolis teeming with pickpockets and virtuous orphans—is nowhere to be found. Partly thanks to Dickens’ work, London reformed itself. On this tour, you’ll explore what’s left of its darker side—from the libertine London of Shakespeare’s day to the desperate one Dickens sought to solve with his pen. Along the way, you’ll enjoy gourmet food and a beer on the Thames, which conceals a body count of its own.

START:    St Paul’s Tube station
FINISH:    The George Inn, near London Bridge Tube station
TIME:    2 hours, not including restaurant breaks or attractions
BEST TIMES:    Weekend days in good weather, when the area is abuzz; Borough Market is most vital from Thursday to Saturday
WORST TIMES:    After dark, when cobbled streets are too dark to see well

1    St Paul’s Tube Station

If you just took the Central Line here, you rode what was once called the Central Railway. In the first 75 years of the Underground, train lines were independently owned, and separate tickets were required each time a passenger changed trains. Fares were cumbersome, calculated according to the distance traveled and the class of carriage chosen. When the Central Railway held its grand opening in 1900, in the presence of American wit Mark Twain (who lived in London at the time), it soared above its competitors by dint of several innovations, the most important of which was that anyone could ride as far as they wanted on a flat fare. The so-called “Twopenny Tube,” which had one class of carriage like today’s Tube trains, was a sensation. Gilbert and Sullivan, swept along, amended a line in their operetta Patience from a reference to the threepenny bus to “the very delectable, highly respectable Twopenny Tube.” The Central Railway helped democratize public transit and accelerated expansion into the suburbs—even if authorities eventually went back to the old format of charging passengers by distance. The St Paul’s station opened on July 30, 1900, as Post Office station—the city’s main Post Office was then across the street (hence the name of Postman’s Park just north).

Exit the St Paul’s Underground station and turn left, toward:

2    Panyer Alley

Panyer Alley, where you’re standing, was named for the basketmakers, or panyers, who once traded here. Look for a plaque on the wall depicting a child sitting on a basket. This plaque, the so-called Panyer Stone, is dated “August the 27, 1688,” and reads, “When you have sought / the citty round / yet still this is / the highest ground.” The artists behind this stone surely knew that Ludgate is not the highest point in The City; that’s Cornhill, which is about 30cm (12 in.) higher. But the sign has been here so long that it would quite literally be a crime to take it down.

Head left, toward St Paul’s, and make a right through the pedestrian alley, Paternoster Row, to Paternoster Square. Go through the ornate arch at the far left:
3    St Paul’s Cathedral

The area you’ve just walked through, Paternoster Row, ranks among the most sacred in London. There have been major houses of worship on the plot of St Paul’s as far back as 604, and for centuries these narrow surrounding streets have teemed with ecclesiastical scribes and clergy, as well as untold hordes of supplicants desperate for a handout from the merciful church. Paternoster Row was later known as the center of literary London, first for its publishers—who replaced the scribes—and later for its book market. This is where Shakespeare bought the historical texts that inspired him to write his plays. Yet what you’ll see today is modern; even the 23m-tall (75-ft.) column in Paternoster Square was created only a few years ago to appear older than it is. Why would planners permit the wholesale demolition of such a rich heritage? They didn’t. This was Ground Zero of the Blitz in 1940. The Germans, recognizing that the destruction of St Paul’s would demoralize the nation, focused their power on it, and the spillover devastated everything around it. Every firefighter was called to the cathedral, saving it at the expense of just about everything else.

The ornate stone archway that you pass through, however, is a true antique. It’s Temple Gate, one of eight ancient gateways to The City of London, which originally stood where Strand becomes Fleet Street from 1672. Charles Dickens described it in Bleak House as “a leaden-headed old obstruction.” It was dismantled in 1878 and was destined for a dump somewhere when a visionary stepped in and brought the stones home. After spending more than a century in the hinterland of his family’s Hertfordshire estate (and being spared the Blitz), the gate, possibly designed by Christopher Wren, was restored and re-erected here in November 2004. The seven other gates, including Aldgate and Moorgate, were all lost over time.

In front of the cathedral, a statue of Queen Anne, who ruled England when St Paul’s was completed, looks down Ludgate Hill. In attendance are ladies symbolizing England, France, Ireland, and North America, which she considered her subjects. The statue is an 1886 copy of the 1712 original, which (like Temple Gate once did) now resides, in scabby condition, in the countryside.

Herbert Mason’s iconic photograph of St Paul’s dome, snapped during the mighty conflagration that engulfed London after air raids on December 29 and 30, 1940, was taken from Ludgate Hill. Next time you see that picture, note that it’s lit by firelight.

Skirt the cathedral along the busy street called:

4    St Paul’s Churchyard

At the crossing, go over the street. Now’s a good time to duck into The City of London Information Centre (Mon–Sat 9:30am–5:30pm, Sun 10am–4pm), located inside the origami-style, wing-roofed building, and stock up on free tourist brochures and timetables. It also runs daily guided walks in the afternoon.

If you don’t need information, turn left. If you do use the office, when you come out again, turn right. After the patch of grass, turn right again. You can see down Peter’s Hill to a white pedestrian bridge over the river. Stroll down:

5    Peter’s Hill/Sermon Lane

On the right is the Firefighters National Memorial, which depicts a young man gesturing wildly toward St Paul’s as two others grapple desperately with a hose. It’s impossible to exaggerate the devastation caused by the Blitz, both in property and in lives. The superheated firestorms created damage greater in area than those of the Great Fire of 1666. More than 20,000 people were killed, and 1.4 million left homeless. The names of some 1,000 victims, all volunteer firefighters defeated by the wild blaze and collapsing buildings, are inscribed on the octagonal base. Winston Churchill dubbed this monument “The Heroes with Grimy Faces.” For their families, the survival of St Paul’s Cathedral amidst utter devastation remains a testament to their sacrifice. Keep going toward the river.

Go onto the:

6    Millennium Bridge

You’re now on the steel Millennium Bridge, the central city’s first new crossing over the Thames since the Tower Bridge in 1894. Its design, which features side-located suspension cables that sag about six times shallower than a conventional suspension bridge’s supports do, was a little too advanced for its own good. When the bridge opened in 2000, it was discovered that the shifting weight of pedestrians caused it to sway, and people had to grasp the rails for support. (At the start of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Death Eaters attack the bridge and make it wobble—that was an inside joke for Londoners.) Engineers closed the 325m (1,066-ft.) span, poured in another £5.2 million to solve the issue, and reopened it in 2002. Now locals love it because it has transformed accessibility to the river’s southern bank, and they’re planning more foot crossings. It’s still not perfect—it’s plagued by joggers with little regard for idle strollers—but crossing the river here, in view of many of the city’s landmarks, young and old, makes for some stirring photos.

Straight ahead is the monumental Tate Modern, signaled by its factory-like “campanile” smokestack, which from 1952 to 1981 belched exhaust from the Bankside Power Station. Energy has been a fundamental part of the district’s character for generations. The power station replaced an earlier one that dusted everything near it with a coating of soot, and that plant, too, supplanted a foul gasworks. Before that, the district was the domain of a legion of coal merchants who shuttled their filthy wares around town in shallow boats. These “lightermen” worked from docks that lined the entire southern shore, where land was cheaper than it was in The City on the northern side. The building you see before you is a direct descendant of the way of life that prevailed on the bank in the 1700s.

How deep is the Thames? The river fluctuates greatly with tides (so it’s dangerous for swimming—in fact, that’s illegal between Putney and the Thames Barrier), but depending on when you measure around here, it’s generally 8.9m (29 ft.) deep at highest tide and 1.8m (6 ft.) at low tide. The Thames’ moodiness is the main reason Southwark, the side of the river where the Tate Modern sits, was written off for so many centuries. Until medieval times, the low-lying southern bank was boggy and mostly uninhabitable, so was instead thought of as part of Surrey, the county south of London. Londoners made use of the waterlogged land by turning it into gardens for secret trysts and fish farms (the Pike Garden, or Pye Garden, stood pretty much in front of you around the Tate’s eastern flank). It wasn’t until the latter part of the 1700s that people figured out how to drain the water and settle the area fully. Southwark was where you went for a rowdy time—that is, until the Puritans quashed the fun in 1642.

Before you completely cross the river, look down at the debris near the river wall. Turn back for a stupendous view of St Paul’s dome symmetrically rising from the center of the bridge.

Once you’re on the opposite bank, with the river in front of you, turn right. Stand midway between the cluster of houses and the building with the thatched roof. You’re on:

7    Bankside

This river promenade also continues west, past the Tate Modern, to the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament. In Four Weddings and a Funeral, when Hugh Grant told Andie MacDowell he loved her (in the words of David Cassidy), he did it farther along this walkway by the National Film Theatre. There’s no better place to stroll, people-watch, and appreciate the sweep of the city.

As late as the 1960s, the path you’re on, which at this place is called Bankside, was a vehicular street bearing two-way traffic, as it had been since the 1600s. Each building on the street owned rights to the docks or water-stairs on the river opposite it, so tenants were usually people who needed access to the water, such as ferrymen or sailors. The four-story white house at the left of the blind Cardinal Cap Alley, no. 49, was built around 1710 on the foundations of a pub, the Cardinal’s Cap, which itself was built in 1547 to entertain the people who came to Southwark to carouse. No. 49 was home to successive generations of coal merchants, but not, as its plaque purports, to Sir Christopher Wren as he built St Paul’s. Wren did live nearby, but in a building that was torn down when the power station needed land. This plaque hung on that vanished home, but was appropriated by a D.I.Y. revisionist in the mid–20th century. No. 49 has received its own biography, The House by the Thames by Gillian Tindall.

To the left is Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which made a premature exit in its own era, only to be rebuilt in ours. The circular Globe’s stage is even at the same compass point as the 1599 original’s. Interestingly, the city’s theatrical life was centered here from about 1587 to 1642, when it was illegal to operate a theater in The City proper. Once the laws relaxed, the entertainment venues moved back into town, where they’ve been ever since.

Southwark was the Tudor version of a multiplex, and the biggest blockbuster was bear-baiting—the spectacle of vicious dogs let loose upon tethered bears. Even Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were huge fans; he had a bear pit installed at Whitehall Palace, and she barred Parliament from banning the pursuit on Sundays. One and a half blocks past the Globe, squeeze between modern buildings down an alley called Bear Gardens to find a small courtyard, three-quarters of the way down the street. That’s the rough location of the Davies Amphitheatre, one of the most popular bear pits. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary in 1666 of attending one such slaughter where he “saw some good sport of the bull’s tossing the dogs—one into the very boxes. But it is a very rude and nasty pleasure.”

Under a modern office building in the next street, Rose Alley, lie the foundations of another theater known to have premiered plays by Shakespeare, the Rose. It lasted from 1587 to about 1606. The Swan stood nearby, too, although we may never find the footprint. The Rose’s footprint gave us vital clues about what Elizabethan theaters looked like—architects also studied sketches made of it by a Dutch tourist in 1596. (Are you sketching your trip?)

Historians think they know where the original Globe stood. If you’d like to see it, head down Bear Gardens (between two modern buildings) one block to Park Street, turn left and go under the bridge, and just after it, past the buildings on the right, you’ll find slightly red cobbles showing locations of fragments archeologists found in 1989. Not very suggestive, is it? In 1949, it was even drearier. It lay behind the gate of the decrepit Anchor Brewery, and when American actor Sam Wanamaker (father of Zoë, who played Madam Hooch in the Harry Potter movies) dropped by to pay pilgrimage, the indignity of the meager plaque (still there) so enraged him that he resolved to rebuild the Globe as a living home for England’s great theatrical tradition—which is what came to pass, albeit 4 years after his 1993 death. Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance was its first artistic director, serving for a decade.

Continue along the river, keeping it to your left. You’ll go through a pedestrian tunnel under:

8    Southwark Bridge

On the wall of the tunnel, you’ll see illustrations of skaters and revelers at the bygone “Frost Fairs” that, starting in 1564, were regularly held on the icy Thames. No matter how many winters you spend in London, you’ll never see the Thames freeze over. But back then, they had the London Bridge, a few hundred yards downstream. Its 19 arches were so narrow, and its supports so thick, that the river’s flow became sluggish, allowing water (and the outhouse filth that churned within it) to freeze. By contrast, during outgoing tides the rush was so fierce that boats capsized and passengers (few of whom knew how to swim, given the filth) drowned. When the bridge was dismantled in 1814, the Frost Fairs melted into history.

Take a look underneath Southwark Bridge where it meets the shore. You can still discern the remains of some water-stairs, dating to before the construction of the first bridge here in 1819. Back then, getting across the river usually required boatmen, the taxi drivers of their day. Ferrymen would court business by shouting destinations to theatergoers after their plays: “Eastward ho!” or “Westward ho!”

In 1912, this bridge’s central 72m (236-ft.) span was the largest ever attempted in cast iron.

Take a Break: The Anchor
Few pubs are more idyllic than the Anchor, situated where Bankside meets the railway viaduct. The riverside patio is open in good weather; otherwise, the interior is charming. This pub was once controlled, as nearly all pubs once were, by a brewery; it was Barclay Perkins, located just behind it from 1790 until about 1980. Even before that, it was a fixture; in 1666, Samuel Pepys watched the Great Fire rage from here before coming to his senses and hurrying across the river to rescue his possessions from his home in Seething Lane, near the Tower of London. In the 1950s, the Anchor was considered a slum and nearly was demolished.

After the Anchor, the path jogs inland. Take the first left onto:

9    Clink Street

Pass under the railway arch. In a few moments, you’ve gone from Elizabethan Southwark (theaters, bear-baiting) to Georgian Southwark (coal merchants, breweries). Now you’re in Victorian Southwark, a claustrophobic underworld teeming with fetid-smelling industry and river rats. You can almost hear distant reverberations on this narrow wharfside street. You might even call the sensation Dickensian, and you wouldn’t be wrong, since when the writer was 12 years old, his father was thrown into a debtor’s prison near where you’re standing, off the Borough High Street.

Prisons were something of a cottage industry for the area; the Clink Street Prison stood here from 1127, when the Bishop of Winchester built it as a lockup for his Winchester Palace, until 1780, when the anti-Catholic Gordon riots saw the dismal hole destroyed. Although the Clink gave its name as slang to all prisons that came after it, no one knows for sure how it got the name itself—Flemish or Middle English words for latch are likely the origin. Suffice to say it was awful—and so is the “museum” here that purports to tell its story. Avoid it.

In the 1800s, warehousing goods instead of people became this street’s stock-in-trade. You’ll still see hints of the street’s past maritime uses, from wooden loft doors to cranes used to hoist crates into upper floors, but in recent years even the original cobbles were removed. Today, these spaces house media companies and architects. During the week, you’ll see them in their fashionable clothes, strutting in their Italian shoes across pavers that until recently were the original rounded cobbles.

The latter Bishops of Winchester were not nice guys. Henry II (1133–89) gave them control of this neighborhood, and because it was outside the jurisdiction of the city, they could pretty much get away with whatever they wanted to. Principally, they cultivated countless brothels and skimmed the profits for themselves—which is how Southwark got its rep as a den of vice. Anyone who annoyed them (heretics, troublemakers) wound up in the Clink, where no one was likely to find them again. As you continue down Clink Street, past the modern building with the rounded grid of windows, on your right you’ll see all that’s left of the Bishops’ palace: a fragment of old stone wall, dating to the 1300s, with a round panel of stone tracery at the top. That tracery once held a rose window, which lit the palace’s great hall. This fragment was forgotten behind a wall until a warehouse fire exposed it again. Double back to Stoney Street.

Turn down Stoney Street and walk under the railway. On your left, you’ll see:

10    Borough Market

Stop at the frilly grey portico. The mood of the neighborhood has changed drastically again. To your left, behind the portico, is Borough Market, a fantasy for the tongue and the oldest fruit and vegetable market in the city. A market has been held around here since A.D. 43, when Roman soldiers noted passing a market on their way to sack The City. More reliable records date it to 1014, when it served the denizens on the old London Bridge, the city’s only river crossing. The cream-grey portico is not original to this place; it’s the cast-iron Flower Hall of Covent Garden, rescued when the Royal Opera House was renovated in 2003. If it seems to blend seamlessly, it’s because it was made around the same time as the rest of the Borough Market structure (1859–60). You are standing very near the spot, by the Wheatsheaf pub, where police swiftly put an end to a ghastly Saturday night terrorist attack by knife-wielding attackers in June 2017.

The Market is best known for gourmet supplies. Park Street, which runs into Stoney Street, looks as quaint as a movie-set version of old England; in fact, it was used in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and no. 7A was the entrance of The Leaky Cauldron. The Market itself has appeared in films including Howard’s End and Bridget Jones’s Diary. The city’s first railway, a 6.4km (4-mile) run to Greenwich, plowed its route .8km ([bf]1/2 mile) east of here in 1836. Even after tunneling technology improved, railway tycoons thought nothing of barricading thriving neighborhoods with massive brick viaducts, cutting them off from each other and creating slums. On your tour, you have crossed under a number of railway viaducts built that way, and shortly, you’ll see how narrowly one of England’s most historic churches averted its own destruction.

Enter the market to the right of the portico and walk straight. Cross the next street and enter the brick arch marked Green Market. Before you is:

11    Southwark Cathedral

(If for some reason the Green Market arch is closed, turn left down Bedale St.—it’s not marked—until you see a church appear on your right.) Before you stands the oldest Gothic church in the city, and the oldest building in Southwark. You’ll see its tower appear in every old drawing of the city. In Roman times, it was the site of a villa. Its Christian chapter was begun by the daughter of a ferryman in the 7th century; it was rebuilt in the 850s and again 300 years later. There was once a monastery and a chapel in this yard, where office workers now lunch on gourmet items from Borough Market, but those came and went, too. Southwark teemed with the poor, with factory workers, and with grubby river men. One such blue-collar child was John Harvard, one of nine kids of a man who owned a tavern and butcher shop just northeast of here. John was baptized in this church in the early 1600s, but when he grew up, he fled this slum for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where Harvard University was later named for him. In time the place was limping along as a humble parish church called St Saviour’s and dissolving into dilapidation. The rerouting of London Bridge Road sheared away several small chapels, and in 1863, the rumbling railway forced its way alongside the yard. But by 1905, its fortunes reversed when it was elevated to a cathedral, and now it’s so well cared for that it’s hard to discern its true age and sordid past.

The cathedral has some beautiful painted monuments, including one of England’s oldest wooden effigies (1280). Shakespeare’s brother Edmond was buried here in 1607, as was Philip Henslowe, who built the Rose, in an unmarked grave. Other worthwhile sights include Edwardian stained-glass tributes to the Bard’s plays, the Harvard Chapel with masonry from the Norman period, and some of the original ceiling bosses, carved in 1469 and saved when things got bad. How bad? During Elizabeth I’s reign, the retro-choir (the part behind the altar) was walled off and rented to a baker. Later on, vestrymen discovered the baker was also raising swine in there.

Just north of the cathedral, running parallel to its nave, a separate entrance leads into a glass-roofed corridor, which traces the line of an alley that was called:

12    Lancelot’s Link

Nelson Mandela opened this addition in 2001. Have a look at the display inside, which preserves surprising discoveries made in this small area during a 1999 renovation. Look down into the well on the far right, and you’ll see the original paving stones from the Roman road that cut through this space in the 1st century. You crossed over this same road several times already today; you were standing above it when you entered Borough Market. Other relics, piled on top of each other, include a stone coffin, probably from the 1200s, with a carved slot for the head, and a kiln from the 1600s, soot marks intact—bits of the Delftware made here have been found as far away as Williamsburg, Virginia.

Back down the corridor, exit. Go through the yard into the lane (it’s Montague Close; the Thames is in front of you). Turn right, and just before the overpass, look left for:

13    Nancy’s Steps

These are popularly held to be the location, in the Dickens novel Oliver Twist, where Noah Claypool eavesdrops on a conversation that leads to Nancy’s murder by Bill Sykes. In the book, those steps faced the Thames, but these steps are in fact a rare surviving remnant of the New London Bridge, built here in 1821 as a replacement for the 600-year-old, overcrowded London Bridge. (The steps that Dickens wrote about were sold in 1968 to an American oilman. Locals superciliously quip he was duped, but, in fact, he knew exactly what he was doing and preserved what the English wouldn’t. He had most of the New London Bridge shipped, stone by stone, to Lake Havasu, Arizona, to form a tourist attraction, and there it remains today, standing near a marina on a desert lake.) These steps were left behind and attached to the existing London Bridge, a featureless 1973 replacement.

Just so you know, the modern London Bridge was not the source of the nursery rhyme “London Bridge Is Falling Down”—that either referred to the burning of a wooden version in 1013, during a skirmish between Danes and Norwegians; or to Henry III’s “fair lady” Queen Eleanor, who skimmed the tolls of the medieval bridge for her own purse, leaving its maintenance in a parlous state.

Climb the stairs to the road above. You’re now on:

14    London Bridge

At the top of the stairs, you’ll see a pedestal topped by a dragon, the symbol of the city, holding London’s crest. You’ll see these dragons at several of the city’s medieval borders. About 30m (98 ft.) east of here, under modern buildings, is where you would have entered the Stone Gateway, the entry to the disaster-prone medieval London Bridge. For more than 3 centuries, tar-dipped heads of executed criminals were impaled on pikes and stuck atop the Gateway as a vivid warning to would-be ne’er-do-wells.

Turn to the right to use the crosswalk. Go to the opposite side of the street and walk onto London Bridge, over the river. Don’t cross the river—just enjoy the view of the:

15    Pool of London

This section of the Thames between London Bridge and the Tower Bridge is known as the Pool of London. It may be quiet now, but for nearly 2,000 years, it was the heart of international trade. So many goods passed through here that warehouses along the southern bank became known as “London’s Larder.” Ships finally became so large that they had to unload downstream, closer to the sea. The section of river in front of you, parallel to this bridge, is where the medieval London Bridge stood.

Across the river from the Tower, you’ll just make out an egg-shaped glass building. That’s City Hall (2002), designed by Norman Foster (who also did the Millennium Bridge) to be ergonomic, with a huge spiral staircase curling around its atrium and “smart” windows that open on hot days. Just like a politician, it has no edge and you can’t tell if it’s coming or going. Former London mayor Ken Livingstone, a man not known for tact or restraint, called it “a glass testicle.” Anyone can have a ball in its public spaces from 8:30am to 5:30pm on weekdays (

Turn around and follow London Bridge inland, keeping on the left side of the road. This street becomes Borough High Street. You will pass under a railway arch. Just after you pass Southwark Street forking off to the right, look for “The George” sign. It marks:

16    The George Inn

Because the London Bridge was the only crossing to the city from the south for so many centuries, this area became the equivalent of a train depot, and it was dotted with inns, stables, coach yards, and pubs. Everyone going to or coming from southern England or Europe stopped here, often spending the night before pushing into the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of London Bridge. If you’ve ever read The Canterbury Tales, you’ll recall that in 1386, the pilgrims began their journey to the shrine of Thomas à Becket from the Tabard Inn. Until 1873, that was located a short walk farther down Borough High Street, on the left. The George, is the last survivor from this bustling coaching era. Although the wooden building, which once encircled the entire yard, dates to 1677, the inn was here for at least another 130 years before that, if not longer. We know it was typical of the time because John Stow, in A Survey of London (1598), termed it “a common hostelry for travelers.” A drink here makes a fitting end to your journey through time. Look up and you’ll see the jagged glass spire of The Shard, Europe’s tallest building, peering down as you sit where people have lifted beer for nearly half a millennium.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.