London’s packed to the gills with things to do and see, whether you’re a first time visitor, returning again to the capital or a local who has a day off and feels like exploring.
And what better place to stroll than besides the Thames - the longest river in England, home to more than 25 species of fish, 45 locks and a national trail that runs along its entire length.
Of course, you’d need more than a few hours to walk this trail - in fact, you could spend days, if not weeks, exploring sights along the Thames, but today we’re walking just a short stretch of it, beginning at the South Bank and heading east, close to Southwark Cathedral.
So where exactly is London’s South Bank?
Quite literally, it’s the south bank of the River Thames, an area which is generally considered to run through from Westminster to Blackfriars Bridge, through parts of Lambeth and Southwark.
It’s a top London destination, due to its location, proximity to a lot of top attractions (think Westminster Abbey, London Eye, Tate Modern and St. Pauls), a wealth of cafes, bars and restaurants and some top-class entertainment in the form of live music, film and theatre.
As well as all this, just strolling by the river, taking in the city views, is a fine way to spend a few hours…and with so much to see and do in this short space (from Westminster Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge it takes a mere 30 minutes on foot), you’re spoilt for choice.
What to see?
The London Eye and SeaLife Aquarium
The iconic London Eye is the world’s largest cantilever observation wheel and on a clear day there’s no better place from which to see up to 40 km across the city.
The pods move slowly around, giving you panoramic views - you can book beforehand or just turn up and queue!
And for those who don’t have a head for heights, next door is SeaLife, an underworld kingdom that’s an excellent family-friendly activity - with a number of zones, including ‘ocean invaders’, ‘coral kingdom’ and ‘rainforest adventures’ you’ll get to see penguins, sharks, sea turtles and octopuses up close and personal.
Royal Festival Hall/Queen Elizabeth Hall
The Royal Festival Hall seats 2,700 and is one of London’s top venues for concerts and lectures.
Whether you want to hear acclaimed classical musicians, South American samba, attend a literature and poetry reading or enjoy some free art exhibitions, this (and next door’s smaller Queen Elizbeth Hall) are the place to do it.
The British Film Institute and Royal National Theatre
The BFI (British Film Institute) and National Theatre (made up of the Oliver, Lytellton and Dorfman) are both city treasures, and the perfect place to indulge in a little cultural activity.
The BFI hosts all kinds of international film festivals and the Royal National is renowned for putting on unforgettable world-class stage performances that, in their own words, are “entertaining, challenging, and inspiring.” And staging endless productions each year (from classics to new plays) their repertoire really has something for everyone.
Gabriels’ Wharf and the Oxo Tower
Further along, you’ll find Gabriel’s Wharf, which is the perfect place to pop into if you’re looking for a bite to eat, or a caffeine infusion. It’s also home to an eclectic mix of design shops and galleries where you can buy bespoke jewellery, affordable art and vintage treasures.
And whilst you’re there, don’t forget to look up because next to it is the Oxo Tower, another London landmark. Originally a power station for the Royal Mail, it was remodelled in the 1920’s into an Art Deco design. Today, it’s run by Coin Street Community Builders, who are a non-profit - they refurbished the Tower and at its top is a famous rooftop restaurant (not cheap, but the food is excellent and the views are to die for).
Borough Market, the Tate Modern and St. Paul’s Cathedral
Once you get to Blackfriars Bridge, you’re strictly speaking no longer on the South Bank area but within a short walking distance are three attractions every visitor to the capital should try to see - a food market, a world-class modern art museum and a beloved cathedral.
This historic market is a premier food destination these days - and as well as all kinds of food stalls, there’s plenty of organic sustainable produce to buy too.
Gourmet cheeses, fresh fish, artisan delis, excellent coffee - there’s no better place to stop for lunch.
The Tate Modern
Transformed by National Lottery money from a disused power station to one of the capital’s most popular museums, the Tate Modern houses galleries containing paintings, sculptures and enormous installations from artists all around the world (think Henry Moore, Pablo Piccasso and Tracy Emim to name a few).
There’s also a recent addition - the Blahnik Building (an unusually Brutalist design) and if you take the elevator to the top floor, there’s an observation deck you can walk around, offering panoramic views of the capital.
Don’t miss the gift shop either - it’s full of wonderful things (from jigsaw puzzles to gorgeous coffee table books).
St Paul’s Cathedral
Finally, if you’ve still got the energy, walk across the Millenium Bridge, to a true London landmark - St. Paul’s Cathedral. Rebuilt after the Great Fire of London by Sir Christopher Wren, its famous dome dominated the city skyline for years, and although today it’s overshadowed by a host of new buildings in the financial area of the City, its majestic beauty is quite remarkable. There are also pretty gardens outside in which you can sit and take a breather (and rest your weary feet).
How to get to the South Bank?
The quickest way to arrive there is by tube (Waterloo, on the northern line), although there are endless buses that go across the nearby bridges - the 139, 211, 381, 59 and 168 are all good options. Waterloo station also has overground services that stretch to the edges of London (for instance, you can reach Richmond upon Thames in 15 minutes from there).
There’s also the Thames Clipper, a river bus that runs from Putney (in the west of the capital) to Barking (in the city’s east), which is a wonderful way to see London. Even better, you can bring a bike on board at no extra charge, should you want to cycle along the Thames.
Finally, if you’re looking for a place to stay in London, here at La Gaffe we offer comfortable family-owned and family-run hotel in Hampstead. We’re just three minutes walk from the tube then a quick fifteen minute ride into the city centre - and we promise you a warm welcome and a mean Italian cappuccino at breakfast.
Enjoy your day at the South Bank!