START: Westminster Tube station
FINISH: Trafalgar Square
TIME: Allow 60 minutes, not including time spent in attractions
BEST TIME: Be at the starting line just before noon to hear Big Ben deliver its longest chime of the day
WORST TIME: After working hours, when energy drains out of the area
1 Westminster Tube Station
The best train to take here is the Jubilee line, which was added at great expense in 1999. The station’s concrete-grey, 36m-deep (118-ft.) cavern, ascended by escalators from the Jubilee’s platforms, is one of the city’s finest new spaces, providing a modern-day analog to the majestic space of Westminster Abbey nearby. Portcullis House, where many MPs (Members of Parliament) keep offices, is overhead.
The Victoria Embankment features gardens, statues, and glorious Thames views.
Find your way to the Westminster Underground station, Exit 1, and walk outside.
2 Victoria Embankment at Westminster Bridge
Once you’re outside, you’ll see the River Thames. If you stood here in 1858, in the midst of what came to be known as The Great Stink, you’d have choked on the fumes rising from the fetid effluvia floating in the river below. Until then, the city had no sewers to speak of—only pipes that dumped into the water. The solution was the Victoria Embankment, a daring engineering project, completed in 1870, that saved engineers from having to dig up the whole city. They simply built a new riverbank, laid sewers along it, paired that with new Underground railway tracks, and topped the unattractive additions with a garden and a road. Destructive, but effective—how Victorian.
Today, the embankments’ benches are raised to allow a good view of the water, and it’s dotted with triumphant statuary like Boudicca in her bladed chariot, which you can also see from here. This tribal queen rose up against the Romans; she failed politically but, as you see, succeeded aesthetically.
The London Eye, spinning on the opposite bank, had a tricky birth in 1999; it was constructed lying flat over the river, resting on pontoons, and then it was laboriously hoisted upright and into place. The mock-baroque building behind it is County Hall—it looks old, but it only dates to the early 20th century—which was once the seat of the London city government.
At the bridge’s opposite landing, you can see the South Bank Lion. Weighing 14 tons, 3.6m (12 ft.) tall, and eager-eyed and floppy-pawed as a puppy, he was carved in 1837 by the Coade Stone Factory, which once stood where County Hall stands today. Made of a durable, synthetic ceramic stone formulated by a mother-daughter team, the lion stood proudly for over a century, painted red, atop the Red Lion Brewery that was located past the London Eye. Blitz bomb damage destroyed his roost, but at the request of King George VI, he was saved and placed just feet from his birthplace.
Go back into Westminster station, head down the corridor, and turn left before the set of four stairs. Leave the station via Exit 3, marked Houses of Parliament.
3 The Palace of Westminster
You’re now standing under the iconic Elizabeth Tower of the Houses of Parliament, once called St Stephen’s Tower but renamed in 2012 in honor of QE2’s Diamond Jubilee. This is as close as you can get to it—it’s covered in scaffolding until 2021 for its biggest restoration since its installation. Beneath that metal bramble, assorted crowns, kings, and crests are carved into the facade. These buildings may look like they’re from the Gothic period, but in fact they date to 1859, when they rose from the ashes of the old Parliament House, destroyed by a nightmarish fire in 1834. Big Ben, the name of the largest of four bells inside (2.7m/9 ft. in diameter, 13 tons), was named for the portly commissioner of works who oversaw its installation. (There’s actually a bigger bell in town: Great Paul at St Paul’s is 2 tons heavier.) Each side of the Clock Tower’s four faces is 6.9m (23 ft.) long. Since 1923, the very earliest days of wireless, the BBC has broadcast the 16-note prelude (called “Westminster Quarters” and replicated in doorbells around the world) of Big Ben before its news summaries. Thanks to a crack that developed in the 1860s, the bell is now slightly off from its original note—E above middle C—but you won’t hear it today because of the ongoing works. This Big Ben is actually a ringer; the first Big Ben actually cracked within three months after being struck by bad hammers. A slightly smaller version was recast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry which, 107 years earlier, also made America’s Liberty Bell, which also cracked. Apparently, that happened a lot to big bells and it didn’t affect business. But what cracked bells couldn’t do, gentrification did: After 450 years of bell-making and 250 years in Whitechapel, the foundry finally shuttered forever in May 2017.
This plot of land has been used by royals since 1050, when Edward the Confessor built a palace here, away from the hubbub of the walled city. Kings ceased living on this block as of Henry VIII, when nearby Whitehall became his main London pad, followed in later reigns by St James’s and, currently, Buckingham palaces. But Parliament’s land is nationally owned, so technically it meets in Westminster Palace.
Head away from the river to:
4 Parliament Square
Parliament Square is an important stop on your walking tour. The heavy metal bars on the spiked fence that distances you from this building are not there out of mere paranoia; as far back as the thwarted Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the Houses of Parliament have been a target for would-be revolutionaries. Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was fatally shot on the steps of the House of Commons by a former convict on May 11, 1812, and in the Blitz, the buildings were smashed on more than a dozen occasions, including one (May 10, 1941) that caused the near-total destruction of the House of Commons.
The section of the Houses that juts into the yards, behind the statue of Oliver Cromwell, is Westminster Hall, from 1097, one of the only survivors from the 1834 fire. Charles I, Sir Thomas More, and Guy Fawkes were all condemned to death in the Hall.
Turn left and walk in front of the Houses of Parliament. Use the first crosswalk to your right, heading toward the church. At the far side of the church, enter the gate to see:
5 St Margaret’s Church
The little side church by Westminster Abbey, the one with the four sundials on its tower, is the Church of Saint Margaret, dating to the early 1500s and much changed over the years. Sir Walter Raleigh, who was executed outside the Palace of Westminster, is buried inside, and both the poet Milton and Winston Churchill married their wives here.
You can see the statues of Parliament Square better from here. Probably the most famous one is that of American president Abraham Lincoln, at the western end; it’s a copy of one in Chicago by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. During the anticapitalist protests of 2000, the statue of Winston Churchill that stands here received a temporary Mohawk made of grassy turf. This square has always attracted well-intentioned screw-ups: In 1868, the world’s first traffic light was erected here. Gas powered, it blew up.
Follow the footpath to the front of:
6 Westminster Abbey
The lawn beside the abbey—yes, the one you just walked across—is in fact a disused graveyard. In a city this old, you simply can’t avoid treading on final resting places. There are an unknown number of plague pits scattered through the city, into which thousands of victims were hastily dumped to avoid the spread of disease, and several city parks likely had the germ of their beginnings, so to speak, as potter’s fields—group graves for paupers.
Although most of the Abbey is in the Early English style, the stern western towers above you now were the 18th-century work of Nicholas Hawksmoor, a protégé of Christopher Wren. Hawksmoor’s designs are famous for emphasizing the forbidding, angry side of God; some critics accuse him of using architecture to frighten people into piety. Most of the time the people who use this main entrance in an official capacity do so in a crown, a gown, or a coffin.
If you peer down Broad Sanctuary, which becomes Victoria Street, you can see the Italianate tower of Westminster Cathedral, the primary cathedral of England. Good news, Catholics: The English don’t execute you anymore!
Cross the street to your right (Broad Sanctuary), and cross again. You should be a block west of Parliament Square on Storey’s Gate now. Walk straight until you find yourself at the corner of St James’s Park. You’re at:
7 Birdcage Walk
You’ve just walked past a variety of European Union offices; the proximity to the Houses of Parliament has appealed to paper-pushers for centuries. The military has a presence here, too. The road that heads to the left, Birdcage Walk, leads to the front of Buckingham Palace. Halfway down, you’ll find the Wellington Barracks, the headquarters of the Guards Division, where a battalion of one of the queen’s five regiments of foot guards (Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish, and Welsh) bunks down. There’s also a small, curio-packed Guards Museum (www.theguardsmuseum.com; tel. 020/7414-3271; daily 10am–4pm; £6), where you learn that their tall “busby” helmets are made of Canadian brown bearskin. Who knew?
Storey’s Gate, the street you just walked, was named for the keeper of Charles II’s aviary. Birdcage Walk, the street you’re now on, was named after a royal aviary that stood in St James’s Park; until 1928, only the Hereditary Royal Falconer was permitted to drive on Birdcage Walk. The park continues its tradition of hosting bird menageries; the pond is a haven for ducks and geese, and a small flock of pelicans has been in residence since the 1600s. They are fed fresh fish daily at 2:30pm.
Cross Birdcage Walk and walk 1 block up Horse Guards Road, passing the Treasury Building on your right, until you reach Clive Steps at King Charles Street on the right. On your left, peek into:
8 St James’s Park
St James’s Park offers pleasant strolling around a graceful pond with ducks. See if you can spot the lake in the park. The body of water was originally a formal canal belonging to St James’s Palace, the official royal residence from the burning of Whitehall in 1698 to the time Victoria moved into Buckingham Palace in 1837. The old canal was prim and straight in the French style and outfitted with gondolas, a gift of the Doge of Venice. In winter, as Samuel Pepys described in the 1600s, it would freeze over, and people would frolic upon it using skates made of bone. It was later sculpted into something calculated to appear more random and thus more English. St James’s Palace, which is not open to the public (except for Clarence House, in summer, is located on the north (far) side of the park. You might be able to make out a rustic-looking shack just inside the park. That’s Duck Island Cottage, built in 1840 as a dwelling for the bird keeper. Not shabby for a servant’s quarters.
You’d think that if London were under attack from flying bombers that you’d be much safer if you were a little farther from the Houses of Parliament. Yet in the basement of the sturdy 1907 Treasury Building, Britain’s leaders orchestrated their country’s “finest hour.” Unbeknownst to the world, it was the hideout of Winston Churchill and his cabinet. Famously, but hardly wisely, that daredevil Churchill went onto the roof of the building so he could watch one of Goering’s air raids slam the city. The cellar, preserved down to its typing pool and pushpins, is now the Churchill War Rooms, a superlative museum paying homage to the bulldoggy prime minister.
Who is Robert Clive, the cutlass-wielding subject of this statue on the steps? He was the general who helped the East India Company conquer India and Bengal, partly through a series of underhanded bribes, thus delivering the region into the control of the British Empire for nearly 2 centuries. Don’t be too hard on this hardened colonialist; the opium-addicted fellow committed suicide by stabbing himself with a penknife.
Walk down King Charles Street and through the arches at the end. You are now on Parliament Street. Look into the center of it. The somber stone column in the traffic island is:
9 The Cenotaph
The Cenotaph (from the Greek words for “empty” and “tomb”) is a simple but elegiac memorial to those killed in the two World Wars. A 1919 plaster parade prop that was made permanent in stone by Edwin Lutyens the next year, it was executed with inconceivable restraint when you consider that nearly a million British subjects died in the Great War alone. Its inscription to the “Glorious Dead,” coined by Rudyard Kipling, is repeated on other memorials in Commonwealth nations; the Cenotaphs in Auckland, New Zealand, and in London, Canada, are replicas. Uniformed servicemen and -women will always salute it as they pass, and on the Sunday closest to November 11, Britain’s Remembrance Day, the sovereign lays the first wreath while other members of the Royal Family observe from the balcony of the Foreign Office. You may see flowers around it, or possibly silk poppies (red flowers with black centers), the national symbol of remembrance.
Walk left up Parliament Street, which becomes Whitehall. In about 30m (98 ft.) on the left, you reach a black fence with glass lanterns. Look inside the gates. This is:
10 Downing Street
Entrance to Downing Street is heavily secured. On the right, by the tree and tough to make out, is No. 10, the official home of the prime minister. It’s famous for its lion’s head knocker—although to be frank, if you have to knock, you aren’t welcome. Once, you could walk around in there, but Margaret Thatcher made many enemies, so you’ll have to make do with peering down the lane through metal bars. Such security was a long time coming. In 1842, a lunatic shot and killed the secretary to the prime minister, mistaking him for the big man; and in 1912, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and friends pelted the house with stones, breaking four windows, in one of many acts of civil disobedience in the fight for voting rights for women. If sentries prevent you from approaching, then the prime minister might be on the move. Prepare for the black gates to burst open, spew forth an armada of cars, and watch the prime minister’s Jaguar blast onto Whitehall as if fleeing a bank heist.
The lane was laid out by George Downing, the second man to graduate from Harvard University in America and by all accounts a shady individual, a turncoat, and a slumlord. He’s one of history’s great scoundrels; his underhanded dealings resulted in Dutch-held Manhattan being swiped by the British and the slave trade multiplying in the Colonies. Strange that the most important street in British politics should bear his name.
Downing built No. 10 (then, no. 5) as part of a row of terraced houses in the late 1600s, fully intending for it to fall apart after a few years (instead of actually laying bricks, he just painted on lines with mortar). Yet George II had his eye on the house, and he kicked out a man named Mr. Chicken—further information about him, tantalizingly, is lost to the mists of time—to give it as a gift to the first prime minister, Robert Walpole, in 1730. Walpole insisted that the house be used by future First Lords of the Treasury, his official capacity. He also connected it to a grand home behind it on Horse Guards, now nicknamed The House at the Back—this deceptive Georgian facade actually conceals 160 rooms. No. 10 is also connected with nos. 11 and 12, and it’s even linked to Buckingham Palace and Q-Whitehall, a sprawling war bunker, by long underground tunnels. Many prime ministers elected to live in their own homes, using No. 10 for meetings, but not William Pitt, who moved in upon becoming prime minister at the virtually pubescent age of 24 in 1783. He lived here for more than 20 years, longer than any other prime minister, until his death at 46. Whitehall became a slum in the mid-1800s, and the house fell out of fashion, but then it served as the nerve center for the two World Wars and became indispensable to the British spirit. You can see the original front door, now replaced by a stronger one, on display at the Churchill Museum at the Cabinet War Rooms, two stops back.
A little up Whitehall from Downing Street, look for the bronze monument to “The Women of World War II,” which depicts no women, but rather their uniforms and hats, hanging on pegs as if they’d been put away after a job well done. The implication of this 6.6m-tall (22-ft.) tableau is, of course, that the women went back to the kitchen after briefly filling a more robust societal role. This sly bit of statuary-as-commentary was unveiled by the queen in 2005. Some 80 percent of the cost of the memorial was raised by a baroness who won money on ITV’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Continue up Whitehall, past the monumental government buildings. In about 60m (200 ft.), you will reach another black gate broken by two stone guardhouses. Head inside the yard to view:
11 Horse Guards
Built in the Palladian style between 1750 and 1758 on a former jousting field of Whitehall Palace, the Horse Guards is the official (but little-used) entrance to the grounds of St James’s Palace and Buckingham Palace. Two mounted cavalry troops are posted in the guardhouses every day from 10am to 4pm, and they’re changed hourly. At 11am daily and 10am Sunday, the guard on duty is relieved by a dozen men who march in from The Mall behind, accompanied (when the queen is in town) by a trumpeter, a standard bearer, and an officer. Don’t try to crack up guards with your shenanigans. You’ll look boorish and rude—and they still won’t react.
If you think the clock tower arch looks small, you’re right. Its designer made it that way so that its proportions would match the rest of the building. Walk through the clock tower arch to reach the graveled Horse Guards Parade, the city’s largest non-park gathering space, which you may recognize as the setting for volleyball during the Olympic Games.
Return from the yard to Whitehall. Across the street you’ll see:
12 The Banqueting House
Built by Inigo Jones, this is not a home but it is the last remaining portion of the great Whitehall Palace. Inside is a bombastic ceiling by Rubens depicting the king as a god. That vainglorious posture, and the king’s grabs for more power, led to the gory event that happened on this spot on January 30, 1649. If you were standing here then, you would have been in the crowd that watched King Charles I mount the scaffold (wearing two shirts so that he wouldn’t shiver—he was no true god, after all), place his head on the block, and be decapitated, handing the reins of the country to a military dictatorship led by Oliver Cromwell. When the executioner held the head aloft, one witness said there was a queasy silence, followed by “such a groan by the thousands then present, as I never heard before and I desire I may never hear again.” Charles I was buried privately at Windsor, not at Westminster Abbey, to avoid more unpleasant scenes. If you want to see what poor Charles looked like, hang on for the next stop. The regicide was somewhat for naught; by 1660, the country grew weary of its leadership and Charles I’s son, the hedonistic spendthrift Charles II, was back on daddy’s throne. In revenge, the second Charles chose the Banqueting House as the site for his restoration party, and then had the nerve to show up late. England was royal again—and how. For more on visiting the Banqueting House.
Continue up Whitehall. Take the next right, Great Scotland Yard (the corner of Scotland Place was the “visitor’s entrance” of the Ministry of Magic in the Harry Potter movies), and then cross Northumberland Avenue, veer slightly left, and head into Craven Passage.
Take a Break: The Sherlock Holmes
Time for a pint and maybe some traditional English pub grub, so head to The Sherlock Holmes (10–11 Northumberland St.). In 1957, a collection of Arthur Conan Doyle memorabilia was assembled as a tourist attraction for the huge Festival of Britain that gave London the Southbank Centre, and it became the centerpiece of this pub. It’s nowhere near 221B Baker St., but it has a roof garden and a terrace.
Return to Northumberland Avenue and turn right. When you reach Trafalgar Square, cross the street so you’re in the oval traffic island.
13 Statue of Charles I
That this bronze statue stands here is a miracle. It’s of Charles I, pre-headectomy, and is a precious Carolinian original from 1633. When the king was beheaded, the Royal Family was deposed (permanently, so people thought). The owner of this statue was commanded to destroy it, but he was clever enough to bury it instead. After the Restoration, it was dug up and placed here, in about 1675. That was even before Trafalgar Square existed (the zone was, as an equestrian statue suggests, used as stables). Charles wasn’t a tall man, and boosting him with a horse went some way toward making the luckless fellow seem imposing. Someone stole his sword in 1867, and he went into hiding again during the Blitz, but otherwise, this is one of the oldest things in this part of London that remains in its original place. Its pedestal, unloved and weathered, could use a restoration, too.
This is a good spot, free of traffic and obstructions, to survey your surroundings and take some photos. Look back down Whitehall, from where you just came, and you’ll see Big Ben’s tower. To the right, the vista through Admiralty Arch concludes in the distance with the grand Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace. Important buildings for two Commonwealth nations stand astride Trafalgar Square: Canada House to the left (west) and South Africa House to the right (east; its country’s name is inscribed in Afrikaans as Suid-Afrika).
Cross again so that you’re on the south side of:
14 Nelson’s Column & Trafalgar Square
Why is Lord Nelson atop that column? Money. The Admiral sacrificed his life in 1805 to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte’s naval aspirations at the Battle of Trafalgar, thus securing Britain’s dominance over the oceans—and pumping untold wealth into London. In the late 1800s, lightning struck Lord Nelson—or at any rate his statue—damaging his left arm. It took until 2006 for the city to finally eliminate the bronze bands that held him together, repairing him with the same Craigleith sandstone with which he was constructed in 1843. During the work, they realized that the monument is actually 4.8m (16 ft.) shorter than guidebooks had been claiming for generations—it’s 51m (167 ft.) from the street to the crown of his hat. The man himself is 5.5m (18 ft.) tall. The column’s base is lined with four bronze reliefs that were said to be cast using metal from French cannon captured at the battle that each one depicts. All are guarded by four huge lions by Queen Victoria’s favorite painter, Edwin Landseer (1867), the mascots of the square. You might think such animals don’t belong here, but in the 1950s, under their noses, archeologists found prehistoric deposits with remains of rhinos, elephants, hippos, and yes, cave lions. Landseer was onto something.
Lutyens, who did the Cenotaph, also designed the plaza’s two fountains (from 1845 originals), which were ostensibly for beautification but conveniently prevented citizens from gathering in numbers. Trafalgar Square has long been the setting for demonstrations that turned from complaint to unrestful, such as infamous riots over poll taxes and unemployment. The English gather here for happy things, too, as they did for the announcement of V-E Day (May 8, 1945), and as they still do for festivals and free summer performances. In the southeast corner, you’ll see a stone booth big enough for a single person, built in 1926. Once a closet for a phone that was used to summon backup, now it’s used mostly to store chemicals for the fountains.
You may have heard about Trafalgar’s Square’s famous pigeons. So where are they? Banished for overactive excretion. Until the early 1990s, the square swarmed with them—the fluttering flock was estimated to peak at 35,000—and vendors made a living from selling bird feed to tourists. Eventually, the GLC, London’s government, grew tired of shoveling streaky poo off the statues and decided to return the square to its original function as a great public space to edify its great museum, the National Gallery. They began feeding the pigeons themselves first thing in the morning, and then hired a team of hawks (from the superhero-sounding Hawkforce, tended by a leather-gloved keeper), to patrol the square. The flock learned to chow down and then clear out for the day; anyone who feeds the birds is subject to a £500 fine.
Head to the other side of the fountains to:
15 North Trafalgar Square
At night when landmarks are picked out by lights, the views down Whitehall are sublime. Most of the statues dotting the square are of forgotten military men and nobles: James II (1686; in front of the National Gallery) is finely crafted, but he looks ridiculous, pointing limply in those Roman robes. He was deposed in the Glorious Revolution just two years after the statue was cast. It used to stand outside the Banqueting House; for years, detractors joked he was pointing in the direction he planned to flee. (And yes, that’s George Washington, who wrested the Colonies from the Crown, standing nearby. Feelings are no longer hard—he was a gift from Virginia a century ago. Urban legend has it the pedestal contains a layer of Virginia earth so he can be said to remain on American soil.) The northwestern plinth of Trafalgar Square was designed for an equestrian statue of its own, but money ran out and it stood empty from 1841. More than 150 years later, the naked spot was named The Fourth Plinth and filled by works commissioned by a subversive panel of top artists. Sculptures show for 12 to 18 months, and they get the city talking. Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant (2005) depicted a snow-white, nude woman born with limb deformities and heavy with child, and Hahn/Cock (2013) was Katharina Fritsch’s two-story, ultramarine rooster, a sly send-up of the pompous military iconography elsewhere in the square. In early 2018 it’s David Shrigley’s elongated thumbs-up Really Good (2016), followed by Michael Rakowitz’s re-creation, out of Iraqi date-syrup cans, of a statue destroyed by ISIS.
Along the north terrace, by the Café on the Square, look for the Imperial Standards of Length, which were set into the wall in 1876 and moved in 2003 when the central stairs were installed. They are the literal yardsticks against which all other British yardsticks are measured, showing inches, feet, and yards, plus mostly obsolete measures such as links, chains, perches, and poles.
And now, reward yourself with a visit to the loo, left of the stairs, and a spot of tea in the cafe. Or, if you crave some more substantial victuals, head over to the street east of the square to St Martin-in-the-Fields church, finished in 1724. Its combination of spire and classical portico was controversial at the time, but today, it pleases people of all persuasions with its excellent Café in the Crypt . And, of course, two of the city’s greatest museums, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, share the same block and tower above you now.
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