The 200th anniversary of novelist Charles Dickens’s birth is an excellent excuse for taking a walking tour of his old haunts, many of which remain today.

Charles Dickens was a tireless walker of London, the English city that served as the main setting of many of his novels. According to Claire Tomalin’s new biography, Charles Dickens: A Life, he routinely traipsed the capital’s central neighbourhoods before dinner and after midnight.

In the 200th anniversary year of the author’s birth (7 February), a walking tour of central London brings a new appreciation to Dickens’s novels, as fans can still see many of the same details that the author observed during his (often nocturnal) travels around town.

Though London was heavily damaged by the bombings of World War II, vestiges of the city's 1800s architecture survive in quaint pubs, spooky alleyways and monkish courtyards ringed with Georgian features. Some of the most relevant and evocative Dickens-themed spots can be reached in a two-hour walk within a few miles northeast of Big Ben and not far from the River Thames.

Start at Charing Cross railway station in the centre of the city. Much of Dickens’s formative experience came from working at Jonathan Warren’s blacking, or boot polish, factory when he was 12 years old. (He pasted labels on ceramic pots while his father John was in jail for unpaid debts.) The factory was at the since-demolished Hungerford Stairs on the Thames, where the train station stands today.

From Charing Cross, dogleg a block to Buckingham Street, lined with pretty, well-preserved redbrick Georgian houses. An office complex at number 15 was once a lodging place for Dickens, as well as  the first residence of the fictional David Copperfield, a character in Dickens’s eighth novel, The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account). Be sure to check out the adjacent, large stone watergate, dating from Dickens’s day, which was a passageway to river docks before city officials pushed the border of the Thames southward in a bid for more real estate.

Head along the shop-lined street called Strand, resisting the urge to stop into the fine art galleries and new restaurants at Somerset House, a mansion complex that once housed the Navy Pay Office and where Dickens’s father worked as a clerk.

Where Strand merges into Fleet Street is the epicentre of Temple, the centuries-old legal quarter. Dickens’s working days as a law clerk and court stenographer began here, as detailed in Walter Dexter’s book, The London of Dickens. Look for the signs on Fleet Street’s south side for Middle Temple Lane, leading to Middle Temple, which is one of four Inns of Court ( or squares lined by legal buildings), along with Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn and Inner Temple.

At Middle Temple Hall, where law students often dine, duck into Fountain Court with its monkish atmosphere. This leafy plaza, within view of the Thames, is where Pip, the main character in Great Expectations, was living when the convict Abel Magwitch turned up one night to reveal a life-altering secret. In the book, Pip says, “We lived at the top of the last house and the wind rushing up the river shook the house that night, like discharges of cannon or breakings of a sea.”

This same Fountain Court turns up in the novel Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty, in a description that remains apt today: "There is yet a drowsiness in its courts and a dreamy dullness in its trees and gardens; those who pace its lanes and squares may yet hear the echoes of their footsteps on the sounding stones."

In real life, Dickens wasn’t charmed by the legal world. He is credited, for instance, with coining the term “red tape” as a metaphor for rigid rules and procedures; and he was familiar with the red tape that bureaucrats used to wrap many documents. Dickens also satirised the law in his novels, such as Bleak House, the tale of a decades-long court case that destroys most of its participants.

Double back to Fleet Street (which, until a few decades ago, was home to the city's newspapers) and detour left into a small passageway called Cheshire Court for the entrance to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub where Dickens once drank. Ease yourself into a seat at a wooden table in the warren of low-ceilinged stony nooks. This 345-year-old boozer is a proper, old-school English pub, and is a perfect daytime stop, as locals come here to chat over pints of bitter. (By the way, no one in Dickens’s day pronounced “Ye” in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese as “Ye”. They said “The”, for which “Ye was a typographical shorthand.)

Backtrack to where Fleet Street and Strand converge, and veer north on a eight-minute walk up Aldwych and Kingsway to Portsmouth Street, home to the city’s most enduring tourist monument to Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, which was founded while the author was still alive. The cottage structure dates from 1567. Today it tempts customers with various Dickens-themed paraphernalia, though scholars seriously doubt its claim to be the inspiration for the novel of the same name.

Dickens said he never wanted statues erected in his honour, and when he died the city laid him to rest in a simply marked grave in Westminster Abbey. But recently, fans of the author could not resist installing a bust of him near the site of Furnival’s Inn, where the author lived for a few years and wrote The Pickwick Papers. To pinpoint it, leave the Old Curiosity Shop and circle round Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a large park, heading north to the main thoroughfare of High Holborn. Walk a few blocks to 142 High Holborn and find the passageway to Waterhouse Square, between Brooke Street and Leather Lane. In the courtyard, suss out the covered nook on the far wall, next to the Prudential Assurance Company. The bust comes complete with a plaque commemorating the novelist. An interesting note: the architect of London’s Natural History Museum, Alfred Waterhouse, also designed this surrounding courtyard in much the same grand Victorian style.

Cross High Holborn, and make your way back one block toward Chancery Lane underground station, where a set of 16th-century Tudor-style black-and-white wooden buildings named Staple Inn (9 Staple Inn), loom above the station. Enter through a passageway wedged under those buildings and stroll into an inner courtyard that Dickens described in Edwin Drood as a “little nook composed of two irregular quadrangles.” His novelistic descriptions of the spot still bear true today: “It is one of those nooks, the turning into which out of the clashing street, imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his ears and velvet soles on his boots.” This courtyard was familiar to Dickens in the late 1820s because he worked in a solicitor’s office on the other side of High Holborn at Gray’s Inn, another of the four Inns of Court.

North of Gray’s Inn is the Charles Dickens Museum, closed for refurbishment between April and December 2012. When open, it is worth a peek, located on the same street as a since-demolished house where the author once lived and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. The museum simulates the former residence and holds several of Dickens’s possessions, such as the upholstered leather chair on which the prolific writer penned A Tale of Two Cities.

More impressive is the Dickens and London exhibition being hosted from now until 10 June at the Museum of London, one stop from Chancery Lane station near St Paul’s tube on the Central line. On display are many evocative artefacts, including the hand-inked manuscripts of major novels such as Bleak House, David Copperfield and Great Expectations in Bible-sized notebooks, along with paintings of what the city was like in the author’s day.

The highlight of the exhibition is a 17-minute documentary by William Raban called The Houseless Shadow, which follows a route described by Dickens in his 1861 essay Night Walks. A voiceover artist reads Dickens’s descriptions of night-owl activity by Londoners, such as policemen, butchers and train passengers, while documentary footage unspools the modern-day counterparts to the Dickensian scenes on the same street corners 150 years later – a living history anyone can see, day or night, on their own walking tour.

Resources
The best online map of key sites is David Perdue’s Dickens’s London map for 2012, though it omits a few of the locations mentioned in this article. Alternatively, iPhone users may like the Museum of London’s Dark London app (free), which offers a GPS-guided tour to locations resonant with associations with Dickens’s life and works.

If you prefer having a guide, many companies offer walking tours with a Dickens theme, and the city’s official website, Visit London, provides listings. London Walks runs the most lyrical and evocative two-hour tours, such as its Friday afternoon Charles Dickens’s London itinerary, led by enthusiastic storytellers.