Step by step: Embracing sustainable tourism through walking in London
See it. Say it. Sorted.
I’ve learned to time my lip-syncing of the British Transport Police’s urging for vigilance to certain underground stations. I needed a new distraction, having already memorised most of the London’s tube map for zone 1. Can you tell I’m excited? Well, London has that effect on me. After all, I spent considerable parts of my childhood, and adult life, living, and walking in London. From the streets of Mayfair and Soho, to Kensington, Kingston, Barnes and Canary Wharf, London is home, although I no longer live here.
This trip combines family visits and assignments. Workation, to be specific and trendy. And, as you know by now, work equals sustainable tourism. In addition to using public transport, I’ve always loved walking in London, by far the superior, and green, way to explore the town. There are few places within the M25 boundary I haven’t come across while completing the London Loop, Capital Ring, Thames Path, Regent’s Canal, and a host of other trails. While possible to do sections on established routes, I have customised three inner city stretches, which will take you to famous landmarks, foodie hotspots, parks, and water-ways. 3 walks for healthy and sustainable London tourism.
As a multiple-times-per-year visitor and occasional resident, I can attest to the seismic sustainable development changes London has experienced in the past decades. Bicycling, long considered a dangerous activity, has helped ease gridlock, together with the congestion zone, which the city pioneered. With dedicated infrastructure, cyclists have made London their own. Buses and rail reach every nook and cranny and provide fast access to wherever you want to start or finish your journey. While not a leader in renewables today, Transport for London aims to be carbon neutral by 2030, an ambitious goal.
Hotels with sustainability criteria are easy to find, no matter your budget. The Green Tourism for London Scheme awards establishments meeting certain thresholds. This implies active engagement to reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of their operations. There are several schemes to choose from, all supporting the local economy, providing energy and water in an efficient manner, as well as offering organic and seasonal produce. The city’s food revolution, including the sheer diversity, boggles the mind, featuring good-for-the-planet alternatives.
In Greater London you can frolic in 3000 parks and 140 square kilometres of green spaces. The Mayor’s office unveiled new walking paths to connect natural spaces in the city, in September 2023. Designed to create nature corridors through built-up areas, it emphasises walks as a healthy option to get to your destination. For each of the below suggested routes, I list the nearest tube station as a springboard for the journey. So, grab your Oyster travel card, and off we go.
Walk 1 – A South Bank Amble
Start: Waterloo tube and railway station. End. Borough Market (London Bridge tube and railway station). Length: 3.5-4 km depending on stops.
Once out of the enormous Waterloo, don’t head towards the London Eye. Instead, make your way around the station to enter the Lower Marsh Road, a pedestrian zone brimming with restaurants and cafés. Keep straight until you notice a small passage to the right by the name of Leake Street. Break out your camera because you’re in for a treat. The vaulted tunnel runs underneath the Waterloo tracks, completely covered by outstanding, legal graffiti. The asphalt, the walls, as well as the ceiling are awash in a spectacle of colour, art, and statements. With some luck, you can watch graffiti artists at work as you pass. Big recommend on this rather unknown gem!
After exiting the vault, head for the South Bank walk, crowded with both people and attractions. Start walking from the Jubilee Gardens, with the Sea Life Aquarium at your back, and don’t forget to enjoy the mighty Thames River and the beautiful views on the other side. Glance backwards to catch a glimpse of the Big Ben and the Parliament.
In quick succession, you reach the South Bank Centre cultural institutions; Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, British Film Institute, and the National Theatre. The Brutalist architecture divides opinion, but the performances on the inside provide unanimous joy. Restaurants, food trucks, and a skatepark line the right-hand side as you move under a canopy of trees to arrive at Gabriel’s Wharf, a market with stalls and small eateries. Next you pass the historical landmark of the OXO Tower, where views from the top gallery catch London in all its glory. A narrow stretch follows, leading to an underground passage under Blackfriars station.
Step onto the pedestrian Millennium Bridge, spanning the Thames, to get an iconic sightline between St Paul’s Cathedral to the north and the Tate Modern on the south side of the river. Both are must visits in my opinion, as is the next attraction on your right, the Globe Theatre. The replica, built to resemble the 1599 original, offers open-air Shakespeare plays where audiences either stand or sit on wooden benches. I had an unforgettable experience when I caught Richard III there some years back.
Once you emerge from under the Southwark Bridge, the path soon takes you away from the river, moving to a narrow mediaeval lane between houses, restaurants, and the Winchester ruins, the latter a bishop’s palace where the Rose Window feature still mesmerises the crowds. Delighted kids rush to The Golden Hind, a copy of Sir Francis Drake’s ship. At the behest of Queen Elisabeth I, he used the original to circumnavigate the world, advancing the British position at the expense of the Spanish. Privateer or pirate?
While you debate history, the immense Southwark Cathedral dominates the scene. A place of worship for 1000 years, it competes with the nearby Shard skyscraper for heavenly reach. You’re now in the busy London Bridge area, and for foodies, this means Borough Market. With roots stretching back to the 11th century, this ever-expanding food temple, operating under the train viaducts, overflows with speciality produce, lots of it organic, delectable street snacks and sweats, and the crowds lap it up. For every year I visit, it seems there is less space to move around, but still I wouldn’t miss it. And neither should you.
After gorging on too much good food, you can choose to end the walk here and use the London Bridge underground or train station. Or head back to the Thames Path and make your way across the epochal Tower Bridge, to reach the one and only Tower of London, famous for the Crown Jewels and the Beefeaters. The nearby Tower Hill tube whisks you to your next destination.
Walk 2 – An East London Food Tour
Start: Liverpool Street tube and railway station. End. Whitechapel Gallery (Aldgate East tube station). Length: 3 km.
Liverpool Street station, another huge London train hub has, together with the surrounding area, undergone serious renovation and looks spiffy. If you’re already feeling hungry, there’s a massive Eataly filled with Italian treats on Bishopsgate. Or you can head straight to the first market on the walk, Spitalfields. The 350-year-old marketplace has also gone through extensive upgrades, and equal to the entire neighbourhood, gentrification is the melody. While the flee market stalls remain, selling bric-à-brac, expensive cafés, restaurants and other retail stores outnumber the food stands. Yet, the mix of new and vintage, budget and upscale, creates a space with something for everyone. It’s become a miniature version of London. Shiny surface with outrageous prices, but the traditional part is still there if you care to look.
During my latest visit, I tried a Neopolitan pocket pizza from Sud Italia and dumplings from Dumpling Shack. For dessert, try some of the delicious treats on offer at Boxpark, a couple of minutes further up on Bishopsgate. Boxpark opened here in Shoreditch in 2011, providing retail and food in pop-up style, housed in refitted containers. A great way for entrepreneurs to experiment with new concepts and to stimulate the local economy. I had the Oh Snap! at Soft Serve Society; vanilla ice cream doused with an espresso, topped with salted caramel sauce, and gingerbread crumbs. Full already, and many stops to go!
A block to the north you hit Redchurch Street, a trendy part of Shoreditch with plenty of quirky independent stores, avant garde eateries and graffiti art. It has a reputation of cool and it doesn’t disappoint. Renowned Thai food, cocktail bars, a boutique hotel with rooftop dining, fashion houses, cafés, and pubs line the pavements, which takes us to yet another legendary London area, Brick Lane.
Brick Lane is part of Banglatown, named after the many Bangladeshi residents who settled here. You might also associate it with Monica Ali’s book, Brick Lane, later turned into a movie. The street name itself comes from a 15th century brick and tile manufacturer. It runs in a north-south direction, housing famous culinary stops like the Beigel Bake, open 24 hours, 7 days a week, the Upmarket and Backyard indoor food markets, and, of course, more curry places than you can count. Weave in and out of the side streets for more graffiti and Banksy pieces before you head to the finish line at Whitechapel Gallery. It’s an amazing creative space to enjoy edgy and contemporary art, emblematic of the diverse neighbourhood in which it sits.
A few minutes to the west of Whitechapel Gallery, you find Aldgate East tube station. Alternatively, extend the tour by heading south on Leman Street to reach St Katherine’s Docks, a redeveloped port full of restaurants and shops, right by the Thames.
Walk 3 – A Green London Jaunt
Start: Trafalgar Square (Charing Cross tube and railway station). End – Kensington Palace (Notting Hill Gate or High Street Kensington tube stations). Length: 4.5 – 5 km.
No London visit is complete without Trafalgar. My favourite view is from the top of the stairs, below the National Gallery, and gazing towards Big Ben. What says London more than that?
But enough of concrete, let’s head to one of the many green spaces in town. Pass through the Admiralty Arch and walk in the direction of Buckingham Palace on The Mall. We are going to do a de-tour first, though, turning into the Horse Guards Road to experience the huge open space of the Parade and the grand military buildings flanking it. When you see Duck Island to your right, it’s time to venture into St James’s Park, a Royal Park famous for the free ranging pelicans, a gift from the Russian Ambassador to Charles II in 1664. The park’s origins go back to the 1530s, when Henry VIII enclosed the area for deers, near to Whitehall Palace.
The small lake with its two islands is a haven for waterfowl, but, while social, the squirrels take the price for the cheekiest buggers. Stand in the middle of the Blue Bridge for a photogenic tree-framed view of Buckingham Palace, gleaming in the distance.
Home of the British monarch, the palace needs no further introduction, although I can recommend a visit during the summer months when it opens to the public. Cross Constitution Hill and enter Green Park, another well known London nature spot and Royal Park. Enclosed in the 17th century by Charles II, it has no lakes or buildings, but the trees provide welcome shade for sun soaked locals and tourists. Walk along the perimeter near Constitution Hill to arrive at Wellington Arch in the middle of Hyde Park Corner. The arch commemorates Britain’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars and has a small museum inside with accompanying viewing terraces. Fun fact; until 1992, it housed London’s smallest police station.
Take the tunnels under the busy junction to enter London’s most famous park, Hyde Park. Imagine 140 hectares of nature in central London, complete with the large Serpentine lake, art galleries, countless memorials, statues, gardens, and fountains. In 1536, Henry VIII, as part of his drive to cut ties with the Catholic church, took control of the land, and used it for hunting. In the 18th century it became a popular place for duels, often with nobles among the quarrellers. You also probably heard of Speaker’s corner near Marble Arch, a podium for free speech and debate since the latter 1800s. Here, the suffragettes and anti-war coalitions advocated for their stance. And perhaps you attended one of the big concerts held here?
Walk along the Serpentine road with the lake to your left, you soon pass the boat rental service, and arrive at the North Serpentine Gallery, a Zaha Hadid building. Here I suggest taking the bridge to cross over into Kensington Gardens, the other half of Hyde Park, if you will. The park is the setting for a prelude story to Peter Pan’s adventures in Neverland. Aim for the Round Pond to have the magnificent Kensington Palace in your sights as you near the finish of this green walk. The home has been a mainstay for the British Royal Family since the 17th century, today the official London residence of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Princess Diana also lived here during parts of the 80s and 90s. Behind the palace, you can find London’s most expensive street, Kensington Palace Gardens, with an average property price of £35.3 million. Unless you live there, your next decision is whether to stroll to Notting Hill Gate or High Street Kensington for a much earned break.
Walking in London – the sustainable way to explore the capital
London is made for walking, the sights and neighbourhoods oozing with history and charm, every corner telling a story. The cobbled streets, centuries-old pubs, and iconic landmarks make for tantalising exploration no matter your interests. London roads come paved with childhood memories and thus, the sense of adventure lingers, egging me on to find more hidden gems in tucked-away mews and alleys. I love the distinct characters of Mayfair, Soho, and Shoreditch, which reveal the cultural patchwork of the city, ever fluctuating but always setting trends. The parks, the waterways, and public transport make it easy to experience world-class museums like the British Museum, National Gallery, and the Victoria and Albert. The culinary scene, including mouth-watering street food, ensures you won’t go hungry as you rack up the steps.
There are 6 million walking journeys each day in London, making it the most common mode of transport. Aside from health benefits, it helps to improve air quality, make roads more passable, and connect communities. The Mayor’s office has serious plans for walking, aiming to turn London into the world’s most walkable city by doubling down on efforts to reduce emissions, increase green spaces, and promote pedestrian-friendly zones. Powerful visions become reality when you see a problem, articulate a strategy to fix it, and get to work on implementation. See it. Say it. Sorted.
What’s your normal way of getting around London? Do you have a favourite walk? Tell us in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable travel and tourism.