In our capital's bustling, modern streets, Duncan Turner and Simon Calder discover the Victorian city Charles Dickens made immortal, and consider how to have the best of times

Why go now?

Dickens is to London what Joyce is to Dublin, Hugo is to Paris and Kafka is to Prague. The ramshackle wharves, labyrinthine streets and infernal slums have been cleared away now, but their imprint survives. Even though London is no longer swathed in sooty, sulphurous fog, plenty of vestiges of Dickens remain in the capital. With the 190th anniversary of Dickens's birth approaching, now is the time to pack a case full of the master's works and to explore the city that England's greatest social novelist made immortal.

Beam down

Britain's rail network has, in places, improved since the 19th century. The fastest trains are on the east coast main line from Edinburgh, Newcastle and Leeds; GNER currently has a flat fare of £5, £10 or £15 each way; travel off-peak, before 14 February; 08457 225 225, www.gner.co.uk. For other deals, visit groups.yahoo.com/group/Railbargain. BMI (0870 60 70 555, www.flybmi.com) is selling £44/£49 return flights from Belfast, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow to Heathrow.

Check in

The ideal hotel to soak up the Victorian atmosphere is Blooms Town House, 7 Montague Street, Bloomsbury (020-7323 1717, www.bloomshotel.co.uk). Blooms is a small four-star hotel, dating from the 18th century. Two bedrooms are dedicated to the memory of the great man. The Pickwick Room contains a page from the first edition of The Pickwick Papers, and the Dickens Room is decorated with artefacts on loan from the nearby Dickens House Museum. A luxury weekend package costs £290 for a double room, and includes champagne and chocolates. There are cheaper alternatives around Russell Square . The budget option is Holland House in Kensington (020-7937 0748, www.yha.org.uk). The hostel occupies part of a restored Jacobean mansion where Dickens was a regular visitor.

Take a hike

You will be emulating Dickens' chief research technique: walking through the world's greatest city. Start at the Prudential Buildingon High Holborn, the former site of Furnival's Inn, where Dickens lived from 1834 to 1837, married Catherine and wrote much of The Pickwick Papers. Walk west along High Holborn, left along the alley known as Great Turnstile and into the tranquillity of Lincoln's Inn Fields. Pause, if you wish, at Sir John Soane's Museum , which opens free, 10am-5pm, from Tuesday to Saturday. The wildly eclectic collection gives a sense of the time into which Dickens was born. Just south, on Portsmouth Street, is the Old Curiosity Shop – reputedly the oldest shop in London. The chief curiosities about it these days are why it never opens, and what is the purpose of the collection of dusty theatrical shoes in the window. Thread through the campus of the London School of Economics to the exquisite Baroque church of St Mary-le-Strand, now crowded by traffic and marooned just south of the Aldwych, where Dickens' parents, John and Elizabeth, were married in 1809. Except at weekends, take a diversion to Middle Temple Lane, to wander through the winding alleys and green squares of the Temple, described memorably in Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit; Fountain Court is where Tom Pinch customarily met his sister Ruth. Walk west along the Strand, retracing the steps of David Copperfield and Barnaby Rudge's Mr Haredale, noting to your left Somerset House , the government buildings to which John Dickens was transferred in 1814. Until 20 January, you can skate here. At the western end of the Strand is Charing Cross railway station, which is where Dickens places Murdstone & Grinby's wine warehouse in David Copperfield: "It was a crazy old house... literally overrun with rats." The warehouse was modelled on Warren's Blacking Factory, a short way downstream, where Charles was sent to work at the age of 11 after his father was imprisoned for debt. To see how the young man made good, head to the National Portrait Gallery , where the "Nickleby portrait" by Daniel Maclise, used for the etching on the Nicholas Nickleby frontispiece, hangs in room 24.Then aim down Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament, where Dickens worked as a reporter, and finally pay your respects at his grave in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. Dickens' epitaph reads: "He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world." Admission is £6, closed to visitors on Sundays.

Lunch on the run

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Wine Office Court, off Fleet Street, was not only a favourite watering-hole of Dickens – it was also visited by Congreave, Pope, Voltaire, Thackeray and Yeats. Dickens mentioned it in A Tale of Two Cities, and a brass plaque marks the author's favourite seat. Lunch costs around £5 in the bar (020-7353 6170).

Window shopping

Jarndyce Antiquarian Books on Great Russell Street is named after the infamous court case at the heart of Bleak House, and is worth peering into at any time; this week it has a second edition of A Christmas Carol for £550. The window also contains such priceless old tomes as a language book entitled Correctly English in Hundred Day.

Cultural afternoon

During two years of intense creativity living at 48 Doughty Street – a large Georgian house in the heart of Bloomsbury – Dickens completed Pickwick Papers and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. It was here that his beloved sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, died in his arms. The building was saved from demolition in 1923, and has been restored to look roughly as it did in the writer's day as the Dickens House Museum . This is one of Britain's finest small museums. It opens Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm, adults £4, children £2, families £9 (020-7405 2127).

Aperitif

Dickens was a regular at the Lamb & Flag, and there are records of Johnson and Dryden drinking in one of Covent Garden's oldest pubs. Dirty Dick's in Bishopsgate also has a tale to tell. For here once lived Nathaniel Bentley, the patron of what was then the Old Port Wine Shop. When Bentley's wife died on their wedding day, he refused to wash and allowed the shop to become suffused with grime and cobwebs. He provided Dickens with the inspiration for Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.

Dining with the locals

Rules at 35 Maiden Lane in Covent Garden (020-7836 5314, www.rules.co.uk), claims to be the oldest restaurant in London (est 1798). Dickens had a regular table. Rules has a private dining-room – the Charles Dickens Room – which seats up to 16. There is a minimum spend of £400, so you may choose to eat downstairs, where dinner costs around £40. For something cheaper, cross the river to the George Inn in Southwark (77 Borough High Street, 020-7407 2056). The White Hart from which Sam Weller set off in The Pickwick Papers has been demolished, but its neighbour, The George, remains as the last galleried coaching inn left in London. Dickens took coffee at the George and mentioned it in Little Dorrit.

Sunday morning: go to church

The French Protestant Church in Soho Square has a service each Sunday at 10.30am, but the exterior of this late-Victorian gem is worth seeing any time. It has a tympanum above the door celebrating Edward VI's granting of asylum in 1550. The Dickens connection is flimsy: some say he mentions this church in A Tale of Two Cities, which does not seem likely, as he died before it was built.

Take a ride

...along the Thames, for glimpses of Dickensian London. Numerous sightseeing vessels depart from Charing Cross Pier, which is the same location as Hungerford Stairs, from where Mr Micawber departed for Australia. Take the 75-minute journey to Greenwich. While passing under London Bridge, imagine poor Nancy waiting to meet Rose and Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist, oblivious to the stealthy tread of an eavesdropper. The gloomy wharves of London docks provided the backdrop to Dombey and Son and Our Mutual Friend. Dickens' godfather ran a sail-making business in Limehouse. Look out for The Grapes tavern, which appeared in Our Mutual Friend under the guise of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters. In Dickens' novel, drink-sodden customers were rowed out into the river, drowned, and their corpses sold to anatomists for dissection.

Bracing brunch

Dickens enjoyed one of the famous whitebait suppers at the Trafalgar Tavern (020-8858 2437) in Greenwich, and chose this venue for the wedding feast of Bella Wilfer and John Rokesmith in Our Mutual Friend. The inn has huge bay windows that overhang the Thames.

A walk in the park

From Greenwich, take the Docklands Light Railway through east London's version of Manhattan, to Bank and take the Northern Line Tube to Hampstead. The Heath was where Bill Sikes fled after killing Nancy: "Crossing the road which joins the villages of Hampstead and Highgate, [Sikes] made along the remaining portion of the heath to the fields at North End, in one of which he laid himself down under a hedge and slept." More cheerfully, Dickens read to friends from the manuscript of The Old Curiosity Shop in Jack Straw's Castle pub, on the edge of Hampstead Heath.

Comments