After almost bankrupting myself in the first few days of a recent visit to London, I got serious about finding cheap fun in the staggeringly...
After almost bankrupting myself in the first few days of a recent visit to London, I got serious about finding cheap fun in the staggeringly expensive British capital.
One of my favorite places became a waterfront walkway along the south bank of the Thames River in the heart of the London. Although only about 2 ½ miles long, it links so many historic and modern sights that I kept returning for days.
Along this stretch of the Thames, bridges have spanned the river for almost 2,000 years (since it was a Roman settlement). Shakespeare and his 17th-century fellow dramatists staged and acted in their plays here. When the British Empire ruled huge swathes of the world in the 1800s, this part of the Thames was one of the busiest ports in the world. The river was thronged with sailing ships and miles of riverside brick warehouses bulged with tea, spices and other bounty from India, China and beyond.
Now what became a derelict industrial area, after modern shipping moved out of the city’s heart, has been revitalized. The austere, 19th-century warehouses, many six stories tall and built of brick and foot-square wood timbers, have been converted into trendy apartments, cafes, art galleries and shops. And the riverside walk has been created, winding past ancient and new sights along waterfront promenades and narrow back streets.
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Take this walk from the iconic Tower Bridge to the London Eye, the Ferris-wheel-type ride on the riverbank, passing through the Southwark, Bankside and South Bank neighborhoods. (The walk begins just to the left of Tower Bridge, seen in the photo above.)
Stop along the way at the Tate Modern, one of the world’s top contemporary-art museums. See a play or the exhibits at Shakespeare’s Globe, a reconstructed theater. Or just enjoy the views of the river, bustling with tour boats and river buses and London’s skyline.
Here’s what to see on this river walk (with the numbers corresponding to the map). There are a few spots where the route twists away from the riverfront and goes along narrow pedestrian-only streets; just stay parallel with the river and follow the other walkers.
1. Tower Bridge
This stately bridge with neo-Gothic towers has become a symbol of London. Walk across the bridge from the Tower of London, the must-see 1,000-year-old fortress on the north side of the river, to start this walk. To learn a lot more about the bridge, head to the Tower Bridge Exhibition for displays plus a look at the Victorian-era engines (that opened the bridge) and access to the high-level walkway between the two towers. www.towerbridge.org.uk (about $12 admission).
Don’t miss: Take a short detour to the left (downriver) at the south end of the bridge and wander along the narrow Shad Thames street. It winds between the restored 19th-century Butlers Wharf warehouses that once stored tea and spices and that now contain $4 million riverfront apartments and fashionable restaurants. This riverside area was once so grim and poor that Charles Dickens set part of his novel “Oliver Twist” near here.
2. City Hall
The new headquarters of London’s city government is an uber-modern globular-glass building just upriver from Tower Bridge. It was designed by Norman Foster, the architect whose buildings dot London. The surrounding minipark is one of the few bits of greenery along this urban walk. www.london.gov.uk/gla/city_hall/Don’t miss: Look across the river to another of Foster’s buildings, a rounded skyscraper that dominates the skyline and has become a modern London icon. The striking 40-story office building is dubbed “The Gherkin” for its pickle shape; it looms rather incongruously over the ancient Tower of London.
3. HMS Belfast
The World War II battleship, moored permanently in the Thames, is now a museum. The warship was part of the war’s D-Day landing, and children and military buffs will enjoy roaming its labyrinthine decks. hmsbelfast.iwm.org.uk/(admission about $21, children 15 and under free)
Don’t miss: Hay’s Galleria is a complex of restored 19th-century warehouses just upriver of HMS Belfast; a vast glass roof covers a courtyard full of shops and cafes. A few cranes still remain attached to the exterior walls of warehouses near here; they lifted goods off ships moored beside the warehouses.
4. Southwark Cathedral
One of London’s oldest Gothic buildings, the 13th-century Southwark Cathedral is a few hundred yards back from the river. Pick up a pamphlet in the church to guide you past its monuments, including a memorial to William Shakespeare. www.southwark.anglican.org/cathedral/Don’t miss: Behind the church is Borough Market, one of London’s best specialty-food markets that’s been at this site for more than 250 years. Get lunch at market stalls or one of the surrounding cafes and pubs; the retail market is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday (the wholesale market runs at night). www.boroughmarket.org.uk/
Thirsty? The George Inn across from the market is a 17th-century pub that’s so historic — with a wood-galleried, cobbled courtyard — that it’s owned by Britain’s National Trust, an architectural-conservation group, www.nationaltrust.org.uk
5. The Golden Hinde
The walking route now twists through back streets overshadowed by Dickensian-gloomy brick buildings. Tucked among them, in a tiny inlet off the river, is the 120-foot Golden Hinde. The ship is a modern replica of the 16th-century warship in which Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world. It’s now a museum (in the past it’s taken sailing expeditions, including to the Pacific Northwest), and also offers pirate workshops for kids and “Tudor Days” festivities. www.goldenhinde.org (admission about $12).
6. The Clink Prison Museum
This grisly little museum recreates the dungeonlike feel of one of the 1,000-year-old prisons of this area. The Clink is believed to have gotten its name from the chains and manacles that prisoners rattled; it was the origin of the term “in the clink” — meaning in prison. Visitors to this reconstruction — the prison closed in the late 1700s — descend steep stairs into dungeonlike cells where instruments of torture are displayed and moans come from waxwork figures. www.clink.co.uk/(admission about $10)
Don’t miss: Nearby on Clink Street is a gap between buildings, once the site of the medieval Winchester Palace. Look up to see what remains of it: a majestic stone-framed 13th-century rose window, like those found in Gothic churches, high in a wall. The various Bishops of Winchester, who lived in the palace (which was destroyed by fire in the early 1800s), were no saints; medieval bishops owned prisons and ran brothels in the area.
7. Shakespeare’s Globe
This open-roofed theater is a re-creation of the original Globe Theatre (built nearby in 1599) where Shakespeare and fellow playwrights staged and acted in their works. The reconstruction was the labor of love by expatriate American actor and director, Sam Wanamaker, who struggled for decades to get it built but died before it opened in 1997. Take a tour of the theater; see the exhibits on Shakespeare’s work and life; or see a Shakespeare play. www.shakespeares-globe.org/Don’t miss: The Anchor Pub is next door to the Globe; there’s been a succession of pubs here for more than 800 years. The pub is a warren of low-ceiling, wood-beamed rooms; a riverside deck has prime views of the Thames and city. www.pubs.com/anchse1.htm
8. Tate Modern
Once the disused Bankside Power Station, this massive 4-million-brick riverfront building, with a 325-foot-tall chimney, has been turned into the Tate Modern art museum. It’s been stunningly successful; more than 30 million people have visited the museum since it opened in 2000, and it’s helped revitalize the Bankside neighborhood. Its collection ranges from Picasso and Matisse to Surrealist paintings and pop art — and admission is free, as at all of Britain’s national museums. Special exhibits, from gargantuan sculptures to giant slides, fill its colossal 500-foot-long Turbine Hall. Take a break at the top-floor cafe (there’s also a pricey restaurant) with sweeping views of the river and city. www.tate.org.uk/modern/
(If you want more art, the Tate-to-Tate 220-passenger riverboat shuttles along the Thames to the Tate Britain, the Tate Modern’s sister museum, upriver on the north bank of the Thames.)
Don’t miss: Take a short detour to the north side of the river to see St. Paul’s Cathedral, directly across the river from the Tate Modern. The Millennium footbridge (another Norman Foster design) across the river links the two. The vast-domed St. Paul’s was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1673. The cathedral charges hefty admission of about $20 per person, but visitors can enter the front part of the cathedral for free to get a glimpse, and church services are, of course, free, including the choral evensong. www.stpauls.co.uk/
9. Oxo Tower Wharf
This 1920s-era industrial building, with a distinctive Art Deco-style tower, has been converted from a derelict meat warehouse into upscale restaurants and designer shops plus apartments. The meat company made the very popular Oxo beef-stock cube, and incorporated the word Oxo high up in stained-glass windows on the tower to get around a ban on advertising. www.coinstreet.org/oxotower_wharf.aspx Don’t miss: The nearby Gabriel’s Wharf is a complex of low buildings (once garages) around a courtyard that opens to the river. You’ll find funkier shops and cheaper restaurants/cafes here than at Oxo Tower, plus lots of outdoors seating. www.coinstreet.org/gabriels_wharf.aspxThe London Bicycle Tour Co. is located at Gabriel’s Wharf; rent a bike to explore more of the riverside or join a guided tour, www.londonbicycle.com/
10: South Bank / Royal Festival Hall
The riverside walkway becomes a broad promenade here, with benches and old-fashioned lampposts, plus street entertainers. The South Bank is the arts epicenter of London, with concerts at the riverside Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall and cutting-edge exhibits at the Hayward Gallery (www.southbankcentre.co.uk), plus plays (and some free lunchtime concerts) at the National Theatre (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/) and classic and contemporary films at the British Film Institute (www.bfi.org.uk). Some South Bank buildings are a 1960s “brutalist” design of stark concrete (with ramps beloved by skateboarders), but the cultural offerings are world-class.
Don’t miss: Browse the outdoors stalls of the South Bank Book Market on the riverfront walkway, under the arches of the Waterloo Bridge, for secondhand and antiquarian books and prints.
11. London Eye
This observation wheel, like a Ferris wheel but with dozens of glass-enclosed pods holding about 25 people each, stands on the river’s edge. The 443-foot-tall ride gives riders majestic view of the city and countryside as it rotates; walkers can look down on what they’ve just explored along the Thames. It’s pricey — about $30 for an adult — but a treat. On a clear day you can see all the way to Queen Elizabeth’s Windsor Castle, her country castle about 20 miles from London. www.londoneye.com.
Don’t miss: The Houses of Parliament, the heart of England’s government with part of the buildings dating to 1065, and Big Ben and Westminster Abbey are across the river from the London Eye. www.parliament.uk/
Kristin Jackson: email@example.com or 206-464-2271.