ULTIMATE Walking Tours of London: Medieval History to Modern Entertainment

Walking the streets is one of the best ways to get to know a city. In this post you will find two unique walking tours that will take you to several fantastic sites around London. The first tour is a day long experience that takes you to some of the most iconic sights of historic and modern London. The second tour focuses on British literature, film, and tv, and is a short experience that can be accomplished in a few hours.

Walking Tour 1: Highlights of Historic & Modern London
Tower of London to St. Paul’s Cathedral

This day-long London highlights tour is the best way to spend a day exploring and taking in some of the most popular sights in the city. You will start your day at the historic Tower of London and Tower Bridge, then you’ll make a pit stop at one of the city’s best modern outdoor food markets for lunch. After lunch you’ll continue on to experience Elizabethan society at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and then wonder at the surrealism of Dali at the Tate Modern. Finally, you’ll cross the marvelously modern, pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge that has a special secret before ending your tour at one of London’s most classic sights: St. Paul’s Cathedral.

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Image Credit: Google Maps.

When you wake up in the morning head to the Tower of London to start your day off with a dose of history. The Tower of London is one of the most impressive sights in all of London, with an epic history spanning centuries. The Tower traces its history all the way back to William the Conqueror, who ushered England into a new age when he was crowned its first Norman king on Christmas Day in 1066. This fortress has served many purposes over the years, including royal palace, political prison, royal mint, wartime arsenal, and place of execution. At one time it even housed a menagerie (an exhibition of wild animals similar to a modern zoo).

To make the most of your visit I highly recommend the free tour offered by the Yeoman Warders (nicknamed Beefeaters). The Yeoman Warders are not just tour guides in costume, but they are actually individuals who have retired from the Commonwealth Armed Forces who have at least 22 years of experience. They officially form the Royal Body Guard and are responsible for the protection of the crown jewels and are tasked with looking after any Tower prisoners. They have also led guided tours since the Victorian era. Tours leave every 30 minutes from a spot near the main entrance. Additional ticketing is not required; simply show up!

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Outer walls of the Tower of London.

William the Conqueror commissioned the building of the White Tower, which now sits as the main keep in the middle of massive defensive complex. The White Tower houses an impressive collection from the Royal Armories, including the Line of Kings, an exhibition which has been displaying the royal armor of various English kings for over 350 years. It is well worth a visit.

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The White Tower inside the Tower of London.

In addition to the White Tower, visitors can enter the Jewel House to view the crown jewels (photography is not allowed). Several other locations can be visited, many revealing the darker side of Tower, such as the Traitor’s Gate, the Bloody Tower, and the Tower Green, which showcases a memorial of the site where Tower prisoners were executed. Interestingly, contrary to popular thought, very few prisoners were actually executed inside the Tower. Most were executed in a more public forum on nearby Tower Hill outside the grounds of the fortress. Those who had the honor of “private” executions inside the Tower included two of Henry VIII’s wives, Queens Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

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The Jewel House.
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The Tower Green.
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Execution memorial site on the Tower Green.
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View of Tower Bridge from inside the Tower of London.

Once you have soaked up all of the history at the Tower of London, head to nearby Tower Bridge. Test your fear of heights on the high-level walkways, complete with glass floors through which you can see down to the bridge and river below. You can also tour the amazing Victorian engine rooms and see how the bridge is powered.

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Crossing Tower Bridge.
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Inside Tower Bridge.
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Tower Bridge engines.

You will have entered Tower Bridge on the North side of the Thames near the Tower of London, and when you exit you will have crossed to the South side to continue your journey. As you walk along the river (west; turn right when you exit the bridge) take a moment to stop and enjoy the views. Looking back at the Tower of London you can see all its historical glory beautifully juxtaposed with the ultra-modern Gherkin building.

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View across the Thames of the Tower of London and the Gherkin and other modern buildings.

Continue your walk along the riverfront until you come to London Bridge. Cross the street and take a left (do not cross the bridge), and on your right you will see a little pedestrian stairway heading under some train tracks. This is your path! Almost immediately you will see stalls set up with amazing treats. Food, snacks, cheese, dessert, and more from all over the world awaits you in this modern underground market. Take a look around and then dive in! Grab lunch and a few snacks for the rest of your trip.

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Borough Market.
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Borough Market.
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Seating area at Borough Market.

Once you’ve finished indulging, follow the tracks out of the market past the Clink Prison Museum. Then continue along the water until you come to the Globe Theatre. Step inside and be transported back to Elizabethan England. Take a tour if you have time, or if you’re visiting during performance season, come back in the evening for a show. No other viewing experience can compare to watching one of Shakespeare’s plays as it would have originally been seen in the early 17th century, standing on the hay strewn floor in the middle of the Globe Theatre under the open sky.

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Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
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Inside the Globe Theatre.

Step out of the Elizabethan world at the Globe and take a few short steps to the Tate Modern, where you can lose yourself in the surrealism of Salvador Dali and take in other works of modern and contemporary art. Admission to the Tate is always free so step inside and give it a whirl.

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The Millennium Bridge.

Immediately in front of the Tate Modern you will find the Millennium Bridge. This famous, modern pedestrian crossing is the perfect path to continue your tour. It offers great views of the Thames and the city, but as you’re walking along do not forget to look down. So many people bustle along the bridge just to get from point A to point B and miss so much along the way, for there is actually art on the bridge. For years, English artist Ben Wilson has been turning used and discarded gum into works of art. All along the bridge you can see his work (you might even see him, as we did). Interestingly, his work initially drew negative attention from the authorities, and he has even been arrested several times, but the courts found that because he was not painting on the bridge, but merely on the gum, he was not defacing property or breaking any laws. He also received massive public support praising his work.

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Artist Ben Wilson at work turning waste into art on the Millennium Bridge.

After you make your way across the bridge you will arrive at the last stop on today’s tour: the splendid St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s is a working church, so it is closed on Sundays to sightseers, but the rest of the week you can visit. The entrance fee is quite steep, and the last entry is at 4:30pm, so if you want to actually go inside the cathedral definitely plan ahead.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral.

After your tour rest your feet by taking the tube to one of London’s trendy areas for dinner. If you head over to Covent Garden you will find many delicious eateries, and you will also be right next to Piccadilly Circus and the Theatre District for after-dinner activities.

Walking Tour 2
British literature, film & TV: Harry Potter & Sherlock Holmes (and perhaps a side trip to reminisce about the Beatles)

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Focusing on two of the most famous and well-known characters from British literature (who also light up the silver screen), this tour takes you to some of the infamous haunts of Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes. On this tour you will journey from Platform 9 3/4 to 221B Baker Street!

Start you journey at Kings Cross Station. Take in the incredible views down the platforms with the impressive glass ceiling overhead, but don’t actually look for Platform 9 3/4 here. Instead, head past the platforms into the main concourse and you will see a re-creation of Platform 9 3/4 in front of the Harry Potter shop.

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A view of the interior of King’s Cross Station.

If you want to take a photo you will likely have to stand in line no matter what time you arrive, but taking a photo is free and shop employees will adorn you with your choice house scarf and help you make the magic come to life by throwing it into the air as you pretend to jump through the portal. The staff will take photos which you can purchase for a hefty fee, but you are allowed to take your own photos as well, which is what you see below (it was tough to get the lighting right but it worked well enough for me).

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Pose for a photo at platform nine and three quarters!

While King’s Cross Station is where Harry Potter and the rest of the students catch the train to Hogwarts in the books, the station did not actually make the cut for the film adaptation. Nearby St. Pancras Station, with its neo-Gothic red brick stone exterior, served as the station exterior in the films. It is quite literally next door to King’s Cross so you cannot miss it. You can almost see the blue Ford Anglia idling outside as you admire the impressive exterior.

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St. Pancras Station.

Next, leave Harry Potter behind and get into the mindset of Sherlock Holmes. First, continue down the street to the BBC show Sherlock’s exterior filming location for 221B Baker Street (not too far from the actual Baker Street itself). Speedy’s sandwich shop is located at 187 N. Gower Street, and the door to the left serves as the exterior of Sherlock and Watson’s London abode for the tv series.

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Snap a few photos before continuing on to the real Baker Street. Just before turning onto Baker Street you will find a massive statute of Sherlock Holmes. Take a right on Baker Street and soon you will come to the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Step inside and be transported back to Sherlock’s world as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle originally imagined it. You can also take tours of the museum or just visit the shop.

This ends the official tour, but if you like walking (and the Beatles) you can add on an additional stop at Abbey Road. It is a fair distance from the museum (about 25 minutes) without much to see along the way, but if you’re up for it you can certainly manage it (we did). Unfortunately the road was under construction while we were there, but we still posed for the classic shot anyway. A word of caution: this is a working road, and cars zoom around at full speed, so if you do want to try to get a shot crossing the road please be careful and make sure to check for cars (look right first). Also, be sure to plan your arrival for a slower time of the day (do not come at rush hour). Finally, let your friends and family know when you will be there and send them a link to the Earth Cam website where they can watch a live feed of the Abbey Road Crossing and perhaps catch a glimpse (or even a screen shot) of you!

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Posing near the construction at the Abbey Road crossing (couldn’t get a good angle).
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Fuzzy shot from the Earth Cam. Image Credit: Earth Cam and Abbey Road Studios.

I hope you enjoy these walking tours! If you get to try one out, let me know how it went in the comments below!

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Walking Tours of London

 

 

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