When I first visited London as a teenager and tried to find my way around on foot, I ended up going around in circles and getting hopelessly lost. For a long time after that I always relied on the underground: at least I could hop on another train if I found myself going in the wrong direction, which did happen a few times…! I don’t think I could have then imagined myself saying this but London is best experienced and discovered walking. You can cover more ground and get a better overview by travelling by train or bus but to really notice the sometimes quirky details, appreciate the range of architecture on one street alone, and soak up the atmosphere in the fascinatingly different areas, you need a slower pace and a good pair of walking shoes.
A quick look online gives you a multitude of options if you are interested in joining a themed tour with a guide. Whether you are into James Bond, Shakespeare, Harry Potter, cocktails, rock stars, or Westminster Abbey, there is a walk for you. Some are free of charge but many you need to pay for so do check in advance.
If you would rather explore on your own but don’t know where to start, walk books and cards are a great inspiration – and completely free if you get them from the library. In addition to the expected route description and length, they give the minimum time, ascent/gradient, landscape, and even the location of public toilets. Choose from exploring the Docklands or Jack The Ripper’s East End, trace the route of the Great Fire of London, or discover some of the abandoned tunnels and secret doorways of disused underground and railway stations.
I often use a guide book as a starting point and improvise the walk as I go along. After all, there are so many narrow lanes to investigate and beautiful canal paths to follow so you are excused for getting distracted. Among many other quirky and inspiring places, my random walks have taken me to the Marc Bolan memorial in Barnes, Russia Dock woodland in Rotherhite that still contains old mooring chains from the time it was used as a dock, a bat sanctuary in the old Highgate railway tunnels, the ‘curry and street art haven’ in Brick Lane, and the fake building frontage at 23-24 Leinster Gardens (you have to look twice to realise the windows of the ‘houses’ are just painted on the walls!).
Of course, you can just walk. Follow the river, follow the canal, stop for a coffee and croissant at the food market for a spot of people watching, explore the side streets, watch the birds and deer in the parks, climb the hills for fabulous views. Hop on the bus or train to explore a borough you don’t know or venture further afield in an area you do know to see what else is there. Look up for beautiful and eccentric architectural details, look around for surprising bits of street art lurking in the shadows. By simply walking, looking, and absorbing you may cover a longer distance you expected – for many of us a welcome feeling especially after the festive season!