Start at (1) Temple, London's labyrinthine legal district since the 14th century. The Da Vinci Code may have lifted the Inns of Court from obscurity, but it's still possible to get lost in the warren of medieval alleyways. Walk up Middle Temple Lane to (2) Fountain Court, a hidden square.
Turn right into pretty (3) Devereux Court. "Built by Nicholas Barbon, the Donald Trump of his day," says Leo Hollis, author of Historic London Walks.
At the end of Devereux Court you come to the crossroads between two famous thoroughfares, Fleet Street and The Strand, where (4) Temple Bar once stood. Its arch, purportedly designed by Sir Christopher Wren, marked the City of London's western edge and now stands in Paternoster Square, by St. Paul's Cathedral.
The newspaper industry has long forsaken Fleet Street, like the subterranean river for which it is named. Turn left into the Strand. On your left is (5) Somerset House, a former palace whose central courtyard hosts a skating rink in winter and outdoor concerts in summer. "The annual London Craft Fair is great for unusual British ceramics and gifts," says Emma Hope, shoe designer.
Cross over the Strand to Wellington Street into Covent Garden. Wellington becomes Bow and at the corner of Bow Street and Floral Street is the (6) Royal Opera House, a grand old dame with a daring glass extension. Cheapskates can watch opera or ballet projected onto a giant screen in Covent Garden piazza on summer evenings or simply marvel at the view from the Amphitheatre Terrace.
Make a left on Floral and a Left on James Street to hit Covent Garden directly. Make a right on King Street and behind Covent Garden market, in the West End theater district, is a less famous (7) St. Paul's known as the actors' church. "A nice example of Inigo Jones architecture," says Leo Hollis. author of Historic London Walks. "Look for memorials to famous actors like Noel Coward and Vivien Leigh."
Living stars frequent (8) J. Sheekey, a superior seafood restaurant with top-hatted doormen at # 28-32 St. Martin's Court. To find it, walk down King Street, which turns into New Row, and across St. Martin's Lane.
Turn left at Charing Cross Road for the (9) National Portrait Gallery, which helps you put faces to familiar names in British history, from Tudor kings to contemporary novelists. Start on the top floor—stopping to admire the cityscape from the Portrait Restaurant—and work your way down chronologically, from past to present.
On the other side of Trafalgar Square is the (10) National Gallery containing seven centuries of European masterpieces. The collection is divided among 66 intimate galleries, so you never feel overwhelmed.
The National Gallery sits on the west side of (11) Trafalgar Square. At its center, atop a 169-foot granite column, stands Horatio Nelson, who died 200 years ago in the Battle of Trafalgar. Fortunately, pigeon-feeding has been prohibited, so it's safe to look up again.
Cross Trafalgar Square, go through Cockspur Street and continue heading south until you reach The Mall, a tree-lined boulevard leading through (12) St. James Park, one of the loveliest of London's nine royal parks. Dip into the (13) Institute of Contemporary Arts at Carlton House Terrace on your right, a counter-cultural hotbed in the heart of the establishment, before lunch overlooking the lake at (14) Inn the Park, located in the park, catty corner to the intersection of The Mall and Horse Guards Road. At the end of the Mall is (15) Buckingham Palace. If the flag is flying, you'll know the Queen is home.
Subscribe to Nat Geo Traveler
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!