London’s South Bank is a mecca for locals and tourists alike. Whether you’re into classical music, Shakespeare, modern art, or just fancy a long walk in beautiful surroundings, there’s something here for everyone.
A Day on London’s South Bank
If you want to experience Cool Britannia first-hand, head for London’s South Bank. There’s something for everyone, from chamber choirs to street performers, dungeons to Tudor ships, aquariums to art galleries. Whether you’re a wide-eyed visitor or a jaded Londoner, everyone eventually ends up at the South Bank. Take a stroll along the riverside whatever the season, whatever the weather, and you’ll see the best of London.
It’s possible to walk the South Bank in 3 hours or less, depending on your pace. Just follow the riverside walkway that stretches all the way from Vauxhall station to Tower Bridge. But there’s so much to see along the way, that it’s worth setting aside a day to stop as the mood suits you.
Start your walk from Vauxhall Station (Rail and Underground). Vauxhall is 5 minutes on the train from Victoria or Waterloo Stations, or 10 minutes on the bus.
Cross the road to the riverside walkway. You’re on the Albert Embankment, named for Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s Consort. Across the Thames, you’ll see the Palaces of Westminster and Big Ben, while the Millennium Wheel (also known as The London Eye) looms large but distant on your side of the river.
Lambeth Palace and the Museum of Garden History
Ten minutes’ walk down the Embankment from Vauxhall Station is Lambeth Palace, owned by the Archbishops of Canterbury since 1200. The present building has a Tudor gatehouse, a 19th Century Neo-Gothic main building, and a1 3th Century crypt and chapel. Rowan Williams, the present Archbishop, lives at Lambeth Palace with his family and it isn’t open to the general public.
You’ll find The Museum of Garden History next door to Lambeth Palace and it’s well worth a visit. Housed in a deconsecrated parish church, the museum and garden are open from 10. 30am to 5.00pm, Tuesday to Sunday. There’s a £3 voluntary admission charge.
The London Eye
London Eye looms over the skyline like a modern-day Colossus. Illuminated in soft neon by night, the massive Ferris wheel is London’s Eiffel Tower, a temporary millennium construct that proved so popular it’s become a permanent landmark. A “flight” on the wheel takes half an hour, and is well worth the £15 (walk-up and queue) or £25 (fast-tracked) ticket price. You can see right into the private gardens of Buckingham Palace (although you’ll probably be too far away to see if Her Majesty is in the garden with the royal corgis) and will enjoy a bird’s eye view of central London.
Just beyond the Eye is the Southbank Centre, a world-renowned culture and arts hub. The Southbank Centre proper comprises a complex of 19505 buildings; the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Room, the Poetry Library, and the Hayward Gallery. The buildings themselves are unprepossessing. Prince Charles famously once alluded to them in his “monstrous carbuncle” rant. Everyone’s a critic.
If you enjoy music, especially classical concerts, then the Southbank Centre is paradise. There are often free afternoon performances in the mezzanine area, and the site has just undergone a massive renovation, with trendy new restaurants and shops in which to while away the hours, pre and post-concert.
Tate Modem and Millennium Bridge
The Tate Modern houses the UK’s pre-eminent modern art collection. It’s free to get into the general collections (special exhibitions will charge an entrance fee), and there are several restaurants on site. The Millennium Bridge affords fabulous views of St Paul’s Cathedral (which is just across the river). Stand in the middle of the bridge (it’s pedestrian-only) and you’ll see Parliament to the left, and Tower Bridge in the distance to the right.
The Globe is a faithful reconstruction of a 16th century Tudor theatre, and from May to October you can watch Shakespeare’s plays in the round. There’s an exhibition of costumes and props from the Tudor era that will amuse if no play is in the offing.
Southwark Cathedral & The Golden Hinde
You deviate now from the riverside walk to follow the footpath past the modem Southwark Cathedral (there’s been a church on the site for over 1000 years) to St Mary Overie Dock, where The Golden Hinde is moored. The ship is a reproduction of Sir Francis Drake’s famous vessel. In summer, actors in authentic period costume caper on deck
for the amusement of passers-by.
Tower Bridge and the Tower of London
If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see Tower Bridge being raised to allow a particularly tall ship through. It’s quite a sight, watching as the bridge essentially splits in two to allow passage.
You must cross the river at Tower Bridge to get to the Tower of London. Aside from the main attraction of the Crown Jewels, you can also watch the Ceremony of the Keys, performed every night for the last 700 years, by the Chief Yeoman Warder. Tickets to the Keys ceremony need to be arranged in advance by writing to the Governor of the Tower.
There’s a reason tourists and Londoners alike return time and time again to the South Bank. Beyond the obvious attractions and sights, there’s a bohemian, sophisticated, yet friendly feel about the place. Add some world-class views to the mix, and it’s no wonder people compare the area favourably to Paris’s famous Left Bank.
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