LONDON IS NOT A CITY you can see in a single day. You can’t even see it in a single lifetime. The town is 2000 years old, and all of those centuries are still visible, tucked into the corners of the city. There are old walls from the Roman era, there are castles from the Middle Ages, there are pubs that great men once met in, and there are pieces of shrapnel lodged in brick walls from the Blitz. London is the closest thing Western Civilization has to an eternal city, and you need to resign yourself to one fact right now: You’re not going to get to see all that you want to see.
With that in mind, say you have a day. You’ve got a long layover, or you’re just taking a train in and out of town. You want to see as much of London as possible on foot without burning yourself out. What route should you take through this city, which was built long before city planning was a thing?
I think I’ve figured it out. I did this walk dozens of times while I lived in London. This is the route I took on my first date with my wife. It was the route I took with my parents on their 30th anniversary. You can do about a million variations on it, and you can start at either end, depending on where you want to end up.
Starting point: The Tower of London
The tower of London is, in my opinion, too expensive at £28, but it’s worth seeing once, and it looks cool from the outside. So start off at the Tower Hill Tube station, and either visit the Tower or head straight across Tower Bridge. Get a bag of roasted almonds on the bridge to go with your coffee (or tea, if you’re being a true Londoner).
Once you’re across the bridge on the South Bank, head west. You can visit the HMS Belfast, part of the Imperial War Museum, or you can just stroll along the bank and take in the sights. A couple blocks to the South is the Shard, the tallest building in the city, which has an observation deck. It’s expensive, but if you show up early, it’s cheaper than the London Eye (which is really not worth it).
Lunch and a pint
From there, you can continue across London Bridge and move a few blocks south to Borough Market. It’s the city’s oldest (and arguably its best) market. It’s only open on Sundays in December — the rest of the year it’s Monday through Saturday.
From here, cross Southwark Bridge to Bankside, where you’ll reach Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Most of the plays are in the evening, but you can take a tour at any time. If you’re less about theatre and more about art, the Tate Modern is another two minutes down the walk. The Tate, unlike the Globe, is free, and houses some of the best art on the planet.
Right across from the Tate on the banks of the Thames is the Founder’s Arms. Get lunch or a midday pint here. If St. Paul’s is on your to-do list, you can cross Millennium Bridge here and be in the Cathedral in 5 minutes.
Dinner and a show
You’ll cross over to the North side of the Thames at Golden Jubilee Bridge. Get a pint on the boat/pub Tattershall Castle, with an incredible view of Big Ben. From here, walk up to Trafalgar Square, where you can visit Nelson’s Column, The National Gallery, and The National Portrait Gallery (all free).
From there, you have two choices — you can head down Whitehall and towards the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and Buckingham Palace or (my recommendation) up towards Piccadilly Circus, where you can catch a show after getting some food (and maybe a pint) in Chinatown.
This is nowhere close to the definitive London visit — it doesn’t include Hyde Park, Shoreditch, Brick Lane, the V&A, Abbey Road, or the British Museum, for goodness’s sake. But it is manageable in a day, and it does hit more of the major sights than you could hope to hit on most other walking tours.