How to Experience Victorian London

Charles Dickens Museum, London
Charles Dickens Museum, London | © Siobhan Doran-VIEW / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Harriet Clugston
6 June 2019

London has plenty of famous throwbacks to the Victorian era, from world-class museums to stunning landmarks. But there are also many less well-known attractions to discover in the city, like shopping arcades, pie-and-mash joints, cemeteries and pleasure gardens.

Head to a Victorian-inspired museum

There are several museums in London where you can see what life was like in the Victorian era. The Ragged School Museum, featuring reconstructed classrooms and a circa-1900 East End kitchen, lets you step into the shoes of a poor Victorian child. For a real-life Victorian home in which you can roam freely, head to Leighton House Museum, the preserved studio of the era’s most famous artist, Frederic Leighton; Dennis Severs’ House, a ‘still-life drama’ in which you can journey from the 18th to the 20th century as you step through its dressed rooms; or the William Morris Gallery, which is filled with interior-design treasures from the late 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement.

Leighton House museum, London | © Rolf Richardson / Alamy Stock Photo

Go for a walk around town

Just going for a walk around central London is enough to get a Victorian experience, given the number of London landmarks that date back to this era. The industrious Victorians were great builders; among the iconic central London structures erected during the reign of Queen Victoria are the Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column, the Royal Courts of Justice and the National Portrait Gallery. To the west, the museum district of South Kensington is another place where you can immerse yourself in Victoriana. The galleries and museums along Exhibition Road – the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Royal Albert Hall and V&A – were built at the request of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, who wanted to create a centre for cultural and scientific learning unparalleled by any other nation.

If you want a more specific Victorian experience, there are a number of themed walks to try. The Charles Dickens walking tour gives you an insight into what inspired the author, perhaps the person who has most influenced our ideas about Victorian life. Other great Victorian-era literary tours include The London of Oscar Wilde and a Sherlock Holmes walking tour, while the Jack the Ripper Walk paints a stark picture of how the killer terrified the East End. Best of all, though, is Darkest Victorian London, a two-hour tour through the ‘real’ London, which encourages you to imagine life in the city for Victorian citizens, from chimney sweeps to pickpockets.

Charles Dickens Museum, London, England, U.K. | © BRIAN ANTHONY / Alamy Stock Photo

Take a stroll in a green space

London’s parks are great for catching some Victorian vibes; many were built during Victoria’s reign and some of the older ones received significant additions during the period. The gigantic Victoria Park, built in 1845, is worth a visit. It was the first public park to be built specifically for the ‘common’ people, to help improve public health among the slums of East London. Although a lot of the original features were destroyed during World War II, one or two ornamental structures remain, including the magnificent Gothic Baroness Burdett Coutts Drinking Fountain, built in 1862. Today, it has a lovely food market on Sundays, a hipster clientele and a nice park café, as well as some good pubs.

The Victorians were particularly big on pleasure gardens (recreational public gardens used for entertainment, largely considered to be precursors to the modern theme park), and built several. Sadly, most have long since vanished, but one significant remaining example is Crystal Palace Park, which was created in 1854 to house the magnificent Crystal Palace when it relocated there after the 1851 Great Exhibition. Alongside a maze, lakes and a concert bowl, the most iconic feature is a range of full-scale models of dinosaurs, newly discovered at the time. Let’s just say they don’t look quite the way we imagine dinosaurs to have looked nowadays.

If you’re after a more unusual and slightly darker experience, take a stroll around one of London’s several Victorian-era cemeteries. Disposing of the dead was problematic in Victorian London, due to severe overcrowding in the city’s small parish graveyards. During the 19th century, seven large private cemeteries – referred to as the Magnificent Seven – were established outside central London. Among the more famous of the seven are Kensal Rise Cemetery and Highgate Cemetery, home to a compelling, archetypal Victorian mix of architectural styles (Gothic Revivalist alongside Neoclassical) as well as the graves of some extraordinary cultural figures (Karl Marx, Harold Pinter, William Makepeace Thackeray and George Eliot). Today, they’re peaceful, beautiful spaces to explore.

Life-size dinosaur statues in Crystal Palace Park, London. Erected as part of the Great Exhibition in 1854 | © Simon Turner / Alamy Stock Photo

Indulge in a spot of shopping

There aren’t many actual Victorian stores left in London, but the development of consumerism and shopping as a pastime in the latter half of the 19th century left an indelible mark on the city. Many of London’s most iconic stores were founded during or on the cusp of Victoria’s reign – Harvey Nichols opened in 1831, Harrods in 1849 and Liberty in 1875 – encouraged by the growth of imported goods from across the empire. Though the stores are very different places today, parts of their interiors still display their Victorian origins – the grand food court at Harrods is a prime example. Elsewhere in the city, the Victorians built covered market halls and shopping galleries, many of which still exist today; Leadenhall Market, Old Spitalfields Market, the Burlington Arcade and the Royal Arcade are great shopping destinations in which to experience beautiful Victorian-style architecture.

You can also still find the odd Victorian store still going strong. James Smith & Sons, for example, have been making umbrellas since 1830, with the store retaining its original fittings inside, as well as its Victorian frontage. Cecil Court, which links Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane, is a fantastic street to walk down; its Victorian shop frontages haven’t been touched in over a century, and the street is still lined with traditional gas lamps. Family-run grocer W Martyn in Muswell Hill has been selling tea, coffee and fine foods since 1897, and is still popular today.

The famous umbrella shop on New Oxford Street, London .UK | © Tony Cortazzi / Alamy Stock Photo

Enjoy a meal out

As far as traditional Victorian grub goes, your best bet is definitely pie and mash. This simple, working-class dish has been popular for centuries but first existed mainly as street food, moving into permanent premises during the 19th century when the traditional pie, mash and eel shops began to flourish; in 1890 there were over 50 of them, doubling to over 100 by the end of the century. One of the oldest of London’s surviving pie shops is M Manze on Tower Bridge Road, which first opened in 1902 and was followed by several others from various members of the Manze family, who still run the business today. Over the years, the family have strayed very little from their original recipes, and the interiors have also stayed authentic.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, visit Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, an 1828 oak-panelled dining room and one of the city’s oldest traditional English restaurants; it was a favourite of Arthur Conan Doyle and Churchill. Head towards Embankment for an after-dinner drink at Gordon’s Wine Bar – established in 1890, it is one of London’s oldest wine bars, and a visit here is truly like stepping back in time – or to Holborn and The Viaduct Tavern, perhaps the last remaining authentic example of a Victorian gin palace.

Gordon's Wine bar, Villiers Street, London, England, United Kingdom. | © Edward Westmacott / Alamy Stock Photo

Additional reporting by Cajsa Carlson.

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