There are some destinations that every history-loving traveler must visit, and London certainly makes the list. There is evidence of over 2,000 years of human history on the city’s streets – literally – if you know where to look. (There’s also tons of evidence along the River Thames if you don’t mind getting a bit dirty…)
While London’s street map might seem a scrambled mess – especially for those of us from North America with our rigidly efficient grid system –, many of the streets you might walk or ride down date back centuries – if not millennia!
In this post, I’ll cover some of the old streets of London – including most of the oldest streets in London. There are, of course, some questions about historical origin for some of them – and others I chose not to include as I can’t verify all of the facts, but these 15 streets are certainly among the most dated you can find and still follow today.
Strap on a good pair of walking shoes, grab your camera, and head out to imagine London in centuries (and millennia) long gone and picture it today.
Watling Street (Pre-Roman)
Photo courtesy of standhisround via Flickr
When it comes to historic streets in London, they don’t come much older and more iconic than Watling Street. Centuries past, Watling Street was the main trail from Dover to Shropshire via London where it crosses the River Thames. It is traditionally cited for being the location of the Romans’ defeat of Boudica, although there is plenty of disagreement about exactly where along the route this took place.
There are many other stories that have been linked to Watling Street, from myths of ghouls and ghosts to the fascinating tales of the Bletchley Park codebreakers, this humble street has seen an awful lot.
Bishopsgate was one of the first Roman roads built in London, obviously making it one of the old streets of London. It takes its name from the gate on the northern city wall which it passes through, and once connected Londinium to Eboracum (present-day York).
Today it is well known for its historic landmarks, its globally influential financial district, and its bright and vibrant nightlife. Some of the most famous buildings along Bishopsgate include The Gherkin and some of the tallest buildings in London.
Candlewick/Cannon Street (Roman)
This major city street that runs adjacent to the River Thames, was once named Candlewick Street, which was a reference to the candlemakers who operated their business along this street, way back in the Middle Ages.
Over the years the street name evolved – many believe due to the charm of the cockney dialect –, resulting in today it being known as Cannon Street. It is one of the longest streets in the city and is well known for its train station.
If you decide to visit this particular old street of London, be sure to swing by 111 Cannon Street; there you’ll find the “London Stone,” which is an old – possibly ancient – stone of relatively unknown origin and importance.
Fleet Street (Roman)
Fleet Street is a term synonymous with that of the British National Press, as it is a historic thoroughfare that has been dominated by this particular industry for many years. The street became known for both printing and publishing in the early 16th century, and it just grew so that by the 20th century most British national newspapers operated from here.
Today, in addition to the journalists’ offices and printers that are still very much in residence on Fleet Street you can also find some super British pubs, some of which have fascinating historic tales to tell!
Lombard Street (Roman)
Lombard Street is packed with architectural genius in the form of both modern contemporary office buildings as well as historic landmarks.
When you visit be sure to look out for the collection of ancient hanging signs which are dotted along the street and showcase the region’s medieval era. The signs were originally hung by goldsmiths located along the street to attract customers, in the same way as we use logos and signage today.
Lombard Street is known fondly by many as England’s Wall Street, due to its historical links to the financial sector.
Oxford Street (Roman)
When it comes to famous and historic streets in London, Oxford Street is certainly one of the big guns!
An impressive fact is that It is the busiest street for shopping in the whole of Europe with over 300 shops, including many of the biggest and most influential brands. These stores are spread along the entirety of Oxfords Street’s 1.5 miles of length, and plenty of bars and restaurants can also be found along here.
People come from all over the world to experience Oxford Street at Christmas time when it transforms into a festive wonderland with magical window exhibits, stunning garlands, and incredible light displays.
The Strand (Roman)
One of the most well-known old streets in London, The Strand is the home of entertainment for Londoners and tourists alike. The Savoy, The Adelphi, and The Vaudeville theaters are all located along The Strand and there are copious amounts of upper-class restaurants and bars.
The Strand’s name was first recorded way back in 1185 and derives from the Old English word meaning ‘shore’. Prior to the construction of the Victoria Embankment, the Strand ran adjacent to The Thames which probably explains the name!
Whitechapel High Street (Roman)
One of the shortest high streets in London at just 350m long, Whitechapel High Street’s notoriety is perhaps for a more sinister reason than other famous old streets in London.
The serial killer Jack the Ripper is known to have frequented various pubs along this street during his murdering spree. Today those who are morbidly curious can join Jack the Ripper tours which begins on Whitechapel High Street.
Cloth Fair (12th Century)
Today, an attractive relatively short residential thoroughfare, Cloth Fair, is one of the old streets of London with a rich history. Its name came about way back in medieval times. It was the place where cotton and material merchants from around the region gathered to trade their products.
In direct contrast to the peaceful and laid-back demeanor it enjoys today, you can imagine that during the height of its trading time back in the 13th century it was a chaos of noise, color, and excited activity.
Old Street (13th Century)
Old Street is located in Central and East London and runs west to east from Clerkenwell to Shoreditch. As its name suggests, Old Street has been a route used by Londoners for centuries. The first records date from the thirteenth century, when Old Street was part of a heavily used Roman road.
Today Old Street is packed with cafes, eateries, and shops and is a bustle of life and activity.
Haymarket (15th Century)
Haymarket is the home to the Theatre Royal which is a West End theater that dates back to 1720! It is still used today and an afternoon or evening spent here really does feel like you are stepping back in time. Haymarket itself is a street in the borough of Westminster and it connects Piccadilly Circus and Pall Mall.
Threadneedle Street (15th Century)
Photo courtesy of flierfy via Flickr
Located on Threadneedle Street is the Bank of England which has resided here since 1734. The London Stock Exchange was also situated on this ancient street until its relocation in the early 2000s.
Being home to these financial industry giants makes Threadneedle Street one of the most historic streets in London, although you may be wondering how its name relates. Well, in short, it doesn’t! It is believed that the name actually comes from the street’s original role as the heart of the tailoring trade back in the 15th century. It remains today as the financial hub of the city.
Alderman’s Walk (16th Century)
Photo courtesy of It’s No Game via Flickr
Alderman’s Walk is a walkway that is located close to Liverpool Street Station and can be traced back to the late 16th century. Historically, it was an alleyway that led to a large manor house, which belonged to the father of the notable Baron, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and founder of the Hellfire Club, Sir Francis Dashwood.
Today, Alderman’s Walk is still pedestrianized and offers a row of benches and some attractive flower beds to admire.
Brick Lane (17th Century)
Brick Lane may be one of the oldest streets in London as it dates back to the 17th century, but today it is a hive of activity.
Located in the East End of London, in the area of Tower Hamlets it is world famous for the hustle and bustle of its lively markets, its celebration of art and culture, and its rich and fascinating history. It was named Brick Lane as it was once home to the most influential brick traders in the city.
Today you are treated to vibrant street art, some modern and trendy bars and restaurants, and some of the best vintage shops that London has to offer.
Pudding Lane (17th Century)
Ask any Brit about Pudding Lane in London and they will nod knowingly and drawing from their 6th grade history lessons at school tell you about how it was here, in Thomas Farriner’s modest family bakery, where the Great Fire of London started in 1666. This tragic event went on to destroy 85% of medieval London and although thankfully only six people perished, the rebuilding of the city was a huge challenge. The nearest tube station to Pudding Lane is Monument which is just 200m away.
Today, visitors can see a plaque on the wall showing the approximate location of the original bakery.
Bonus: The Roman Road in All Hallows by the Tower
All Hallows by the Tower is an ancient Anglican church in the heart of the city of London, that enjoys views of the imposing Tower of London. In fact, this is the oldest church in the city of London. Located inside the crypt of the church is a tessellated Roman pavement, known as The Roman Road.
Thanks to many various sponsors and donors this thoroughfare has been sympathetically restored. Today, you can visit this historical gem and witness for yourself the Roman craftsmanship on display.
Ready to get out there and explore these old streets of London, along with others from more modern eras? Let me know any questions you have about these famously oldest streets in London in the comments below!