South Bank Walking Tour, London

South Bank Walking Tour (Self Guided), London

The South Bank is a stretch of the Thames in London that is beautiful to walk through because there are so many iconic and magnificent things to see along the way. A lively and ever-changing area at the heart of London’s cultural scene, it also has the advantage of offering views across the Thames to some of the most famous buildings anywhere. The Palace of Westminster is the major feature in the west, with various other structures such as Somerset House and St Paul's Cathedral coming into view.

Walking along the South Bank means passing alongside some interesting modern buildings such as the City Hall. You can have a good drink and a great lunch at the Borough Market, or look for the unusual shops in Gabriel’s Wharf. Dotting along the tree-lined riverside walkway are some historic pubs and cafes.

The arts are well served as well: the Tate Modern is a well-regarded contemporary art venue, and Shakespeare’s Globe is always a good place to enjoy plays new and old.

It is well worth the investment of time to walk along the South Bank – potentially London's most scenic route and a place full of iconic locations. Take this self-guided walk to explore it at your own pace, and don't miss the chance to admire iconic London landmarks from the London Eye Ferris wheel located here.
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South Bank Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: South Bank Walking Tour
Guide Location: England » London (See other walking tours in London)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 12
Tour Duration: 3 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.8 Km or 3 Miles
Author: clare
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Tower Bridge
  • City Hall
  • Borough Market
  • Southwark Cathedral
  • Golden Hinde
  • Globe Theatre (original site)
  • Shakespeare's Globe
  • Tate Modern
  • Gabriel's Wharf
  • Southbank Centre
  • London Eye
  • London Dungeon
1
Tower Bridge

1) Tower Bridge (must see)

Tower Bridge, surprisingly, only opened its iconic spans in 1894, a fact that often astonishes both tourists and Londoners. Nevertheless, this relatively brief history hasn't stopped it from becoming an iconic symbol of London and the Victorian Era.

Interestingly, Queen Victoria initially harbored reservations about Tower Bridge. Her concern revolved around potential security compromises for the Tower of London, which was serving as an armory during that period. Despite her reservations, the bridge was originally adorned in Queen Victoria's favored hue: Chocolate Brown.

Sophisticated steam-powered engines orchestrate the bridge's ascent and descent, enabling the passage of tall-masted ships through its span. In its inaugural year, Tower Bridge was raised an impressive 6,160 times, and to this day, it continues to open approximately 1,000 times annually. Remarkably, despite this extensive operation, there have been no major accidents. If you happen to be fortunate, you might witness the bridge's operation as it swings open to allow barges and ships to navigate through.

For a memorable experience, take in the panoramic views of the bridge, the river, City Hall (the distinct egg-shaped glass building on the opposite bank), the Shard (London's striking architectural statement), and the vibrant cityscape. Alternatively, consider purchasing tickets that include elevator access to and from the top of the bridge. From there, you can enjoy unobstructed vistas of the east and west banks of the Thames River, complete with a captivating glass floor on the elevated walkways. Visitors also have the opportunity to explore the original steam engines that were once responsible for raising and lowering the two bascules—a genuinely captivating and informative experience. To top it off, there are convenient restroom facilities at the top for added convenience.

Why You Should Visit:
Unique and majestic structure; amazing to see especially at night!
2
City Hall

2) City Hall

At times, it appears that architects make a deliberate effort to ensure that London's visitors recognize the city's deep-rooted history while also acknowledging its existence in the 21st century. City Hall, which overlooks the river, exemplifies this approach, and once you become accustomed to its unconventional design, you'll come to admire the elegance of this futuristic edifice.

The 10-story glass-and-steel office building, which leans to one side, was conceived by Norman Foster in 2002 and emerged as the victor in the competition to determine the best design and location for the new London Assembly headquarters. Standing at a height of 45 meters (150 feet), it occupies a smaller footprint compared to a conventional cubic building of the same volume and incorporates energy-saving features, consuming less than a quarter of the energy of its neighboring structures.

For the very first time, the public had the opportunity to participate in the selection process during the competition, and visitors are encouraged to take a leisurely stroll up the spiral walkway to the second floor to observe activities or visit the café. Regrettably, "London's Living Room" on the 9th floor, offering the finest views of the Thames, is not typically open to the public, except during Open House weekend, which falls on the third weekend of each month. Just outside, The Scoop amphitheater hosts complimentary events, including theater performances, outdoor film screenings, and musical concerts, from June to September.

Tip:
Before departing the area, don't forget to explore Fiona Banner's gleaming black Full Stops, three-dimensional representations styled in various fonts and cast in bronze.
3
Borough Market

3) Borough Market (must see)

London's most ancient vegetable market and communal gathering space also happens to be the largest and most impressive among the city's numerous delightful food markets. It's a wonderful destination for leisurely perusal, shopping, and indulging in delicious meals. Originating a millennium ago on London Bridge, where rural farmers brought their fresh produce to the city gates, the market now resides beneath a Victorian arcade with a railway line rumbling above, slicing through nondescript apartment buildings. For those who appreciate culinary diversity, there are few places in London that rival it for a lunchtime experience.

The market's primary section forms a labyrinth teeming with fruit vendors, cheesemongers, butchers, fishmongers, and food stalls offering dishes from virtually every corner of the world. To gain your bearings, meander through the maze until you emerge onto Stoney Street, located at the far western edge. Continuing west, you'll encounter Park Street, a charming 19th-century setting frequently used as a backdrop for film shoots. Here, you'll notice a vibrant pub and the aromatic Neal's Yard Dairy cheese shop. Across from Park Street, the Ginger Pig is the go-to place for authentic English bacon and sausages. Delving further into the market's core, keep an eye out for Maria's Market Café, a lively dining spot favored by market workers. Lastly, as you stand within the central market area facing Stoney Street, navigate to the right, through a network of equally enticing eateries, to discover additional covered seating on elevated platforms.

Why You Should Visit:
A haven for food enthusiasts, offering an extensive array of street cuisine and specialty delicacies.

Tip:
Before making a dining choice, take some time to survey the diverse array of options available.
The market is extensive and maze-like, but don't fret about getting lost; in fact, embrace the adventure.
4
Southwark Cathedral

4) Southwark Cathedral

Known as "suth-uck" in pronunciation, this stands as London's oldest Gothic church, with certain sections tracing their origins back to the 12th century. Despite its historical significance, it remains somewhat tucked away from the usual tourist path, even though it houses notable memorials, including a late-13th-century wooden effigy of a knight. Additionally, it hosts a concert program featuring complimentary half-hour organ recitals at 1:20pm every Monday (except for August and December) and classical music performances at 3:15pm every Tuesday during the school year.

Originally established as a priory, Southwark later served as a palace church under Henry VIII until it was purchased by merchant parishioners in 1611. It achieved cathedral status in 1905, but endured significant damage during the London Blitz of 1941. Germany dropped an estimated 1,600 explosive bombs on this site during the war, and remnants of shrapnel damage are still visible on its exterior.

Be sure to seek out the vibrant 15th-century roof bosses (intricate ornamental wood carvings), as well as the brightly refurbished tomb of John Gower, who served as the poet laureate to Richard II and was a friend of Chaucer. Another notable feature is the Harvard Chapel, where John Harvard, a local butcher's son who later founded the American university, was baptized in 1607. In the south aisle, you'll find a memorial to Shakespeare, who worshipped here, and above it, there's a stained-glass window depicting characters from his plays. The churchyard has been transformed into a herb garden, and the charming Millennium Courtyard leads to the riverside.
5
Golden Hinde

5) Golden Hinde

From 1577 to 1580, the infamous pirate and human trafficker Francis Drake completed a global voyage aboard the Golden Hinde, returning to England with a vast amount of stolen treasures exceeding Queen Elizabeth I's annual income. Constructed in the early 1970s, this life-sized replica ship has traveled approximately 160,000 kilometers (100,000 miles), completing one full and one partial circumnavigation of the world. Along its journeys, it made stops at various ports, including many along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the United States, serving as a maritime museum before finally docking on dry land in 1995.

Today, the ship continues to fulfill its educational mission, featuring a "crew" dressed in period attire and exhibiting three decks filled with historical artifacts during weekends. The ship's interior is notably cramped and claustrophobic, especially on the gundeck, where approximately three-quarters of Drake's 80-man crew would have slept, often sharing their sleeping quarters with sheep and goats. Younger visitors are particularly drawn to the puppet shows and pirate training sessions, while the ship also hosts frequent musical events, including performances by sea shanty choirs.
6
Globe Theatre (original site)

6) Globe Theatre (original site)

The original location where the Globe Theatre, which first opened its doors in 1599, once stood is now identified by a plaque and a series of informative panels. In its historical context, Park Street was known as Maiden Lane and was situated within The Liberty of the Clink, an area beyond the control of the City and the Surrey County Sheriff. At a certain point, this area came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester, who chose to impose taxes rather than outright bans on theaters, animal baiting arenas, and even brothels that operated within it. It is believed that approximately 15 of Shakespeare's plays, including many of his most renowned works, had their initial or early performances at this very location.

On June 29, 1613, while a performance of "Henry VIII" was underway, the Globe Theatre was engulfed in flames. During the play, a theatrical cannon misfired, sparking a fire that consumed the wooden beams and thatched roof. According to one of the few surviving accounts of the incident, no one sustained injuries, except for a man whose burning trousers were extinguished with a bottle of ale. The theater was reconstructed in the subsequent year but was eventually demolished in 1644–45 to create space for residential buildings. Its contemporary reconstruction, known as Shakespeare's Globe, was inaugurated in 1997 with a production of "Henry V".
7
Shakespeare's Globe

7) Shakespeare's Globe (must see)

This magnificent theater is a faithful replica of Shakespeare's original Globe Playhouse, a structure made of wood and thatch with an open roof. The original Globe was built in 1599 but tragically burned down in 1613 due to a cannon fire mishap during a performance. It was in this historic venue that many of Shakespeare's most renowned works had their premieres. Sam Wanamaker, an American actor and director, dedicated years to tirelessly raise funds for the reconstruction project. Situated 200 yards from its original location, the Globe was rebuilt using authentic materials and techniques, a dream that was finally realized in 1997. In keeping with the authentic spirit of the time, the plays performed here adhere to their original concept, as well as featuring works by the Bard's contemporaries.

For those standing in the "Groundlings" section, sitting during the performance is not permitted; however, this area offers the best view of the stage and the most authentic viewing experience. Fortunately, for those who prefer to sit, the theater offers actual seats on its three levels. It's advisable to rent a cushion (or bring your own) to provide some comfort on the backless wooden benches, and remember to book the cushions when you purchase your tickets. Come rain or shine, warm or chilly weather, the show goes on, so ensure you're prepared for any conditions. Umbrellas are not permitted, but you have the option to bring a raincoat or purchase an affordable Globe rain poncho, which can also serve as a memorable souvenir.

The Globe Theatre's season runs from April to October. Additionally, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on the site, a 350-seat replica of an indoor Jacobean theater illuminated by candles, presents plays and concerts in a setting that is less exposed but equally atmospheric. Some of the benches in the Wanamaker Playhouse are backless, and there are designated standing areas in the theater's upper gallery.

Why You Should Visit:
This theater faithfully replicates the original, providing an unparalleled opportunity to immerse yourself in Shakespeare's world and witness a performance as it was intended. While true time travel remains a mystery, a visit to the Globe gets you remarkably close.

Tips:
During the spring and summer months, you can enjoy fifty-minute tours of the Globe until 4pm (unless there's a matinee performance or another major event, in which case tours are offered until noon). Tours of the Wanamaker Playhouse are available on an occasional basis and must be arranged directly with the theater.
8
Tate Modern

8) Tate Modern (must see)

This impressive transformation of a power station from the mid-20th century has become one of the world's most frequently visited museums of contemporary art. Its extensive permanent collection, spanning from 1900 and featuring artworks from iconic modernists like Matisse to the latest creations by cutting-edge contemporary artists, is organized thematically into eight distinct areas rather than following a chronological order. In addition to this, its highly anticipated temporary exhibitions have highlighted the works of individual artists such as Gauguin, Rauschenberg, Modigliani, Picasso, and O'Keefe, among many others, while also delving into conceptual themes, such as pieces created by Soviet and Russian artists during the period between the Revolution and Stalin's death.

The expansive Turbine Hall serves as a dramatic entrance, specifically designed to showcase large, daring installations that often attract significant attention. Previous notable exhibits have included Olafur Eliasson's colossal glowing sun, Ai Weiwei's intricate porcelain "sunflower seeds", and Carsten Holler's enormous metal slides.

On the lower level of a ten-story addition, visitors will discover The Tanks, dedicated galleries showcasing various forms of contemporary art, including moving images, performances, soundscapes, and interactive creations. At the highest level, a rooftop terrace offers amazing panoramic views of the London skyline. Between these two extremes are three exhibition floors, providing ample space for expansive installations, international (non-Western) art, as well as digital and interactive projects. The Start Display (on Level 2) offers an introductory experience to the collection, highlighting art from diverse countries, cultures, and eras, all connected by the theme of color.

Tip:
For those seeking picturesque views of the Thames, consider heading to the restaurant located on Level 9, the café on Level 1, or the Espresso Bar on Level 3. The 3rd-level balcony, in particular, offers one of the most exceptional vistas of Saint Paul's Cathedral in all of London. Near the café, you'll also discover the Tate Draw, where you can create artwork on one of several digital sketch pads and then project your creation onto the gallery wall for all to see.
9
Gabriel's Wharf

9) Gabriel's Wharf

Gabriel's Wharf boasts a variety of riverside attractions, providing a distinctive combination of dining and shopping experiences with stunning views of the Thames. What was once an empty space has undergone a remarkable transformation, illustrating how waterfront areas have a special potential not only as public spaces but also as opportunities to bolster local businesses and entrepreneurs.

The diverse range of unconventional activities, artistic events, and local artisanal creators harmonize perfectly with the site's South Bank location. Now recognized as a unique destination for visitors, it proudly carries the distinction of being London's oldest pop-up establishment. It continues to host an array of designer boutiques, quirky art galleries, fair trade shops, as well as a selection of bars, restaurants, and cafes. Interestingly, each storefront boasts a unique design, with artists involved in the design process.

Many regard Gabriel's Wharf as a waterfront town square—a remarkable achievement, especially considering that the entire project was developed in just three months at a cost of a mere £78,000.
10
Southbank Centre

10) Southbank Centre

At the heart of the city's renowned arts scene, the Southbank Centre stands as a prominent and highly respected multidisciplinary arts complex, sharing the limelight with other esteemed cultural institutions on the South Bank, such as the National Theatre and the British Film Institute. The centre itself encompasses four primary venues: the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the Purcell Room. This concrete complex is constantly abuzz with activity, featuring lively bars and restaurants seamlessly integrated into its terraces, platforms, walkways, and rooftops.

Visitors flock to the Southbank Centre to attend a wide array of performances, predominantly in the realm of classical music but also spanning opera, folk, world music, and various contemporary and avant-garde genres. Additionally, the venue hosts comedy shows, talks, and dance performances, with a plethora of regular festivals, seasons, and weekend events taking place here. These include the London Jazz Festival, Women of the World (WOW) Festival, the London Literature Festival, and Meltdown, among others.

Why You Should Visit:
Boasting a significant art gallery and three world-class auditoriums dedicated to music, dance, and various other events along the riverfront, the Southbank Centre rightfully holds a place as one of London's foremost cultural and performance venues.
11
London Eye

11) London Eye (must see)

This enormous Ferris wheel, towering above London and situated across from Big Ben, ranks among the world's tallest observation wheels and serves as London's equivalent to the Eiffel Tower; a captivating sight, whether you choose to take a ride or simply admire from afar. Its design resembles that of a colossal bicycle wheel and represents a collaborative effort from across Europe, featuring British steel and Dutch engineering, along with mechanical components from German, French, Czech and Italian sources. Remarkably eco-friendly, it operates with exceptional efficiency and near-silence.

Each of its 32 air-conditioned capsules, representing London's boroughs, accommodates up to 28 people for a 30-minute rotation (one full circuit). From the pinnacle of this 443-foot-high wheel—the city's second-highest public vantage point—even Big Ben appears small.

Originally constructed to celebrate the new millennium, the London Eye has since become a permanent fixture on the city's skyline, inspiring numerous other cities to construct their own observation wheels.

Why You Should Visit:
Excellent means to gain a broader perspective of the city, particularly if it's your first visit. You'll revel in great vistas, with the Shard and London Bridge on one side, and Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster on the other, and you can choose to either stand or sit.

Tip:
The same company operates the other two attractions within the same complex, Madame Tussauds Waxworks and the London Dungeon. If you anticipate visiting more than one of these, consider purchasing a combo-ticket to save money. Booking online in advance is always more cost-effective—and it saves you time by allowing you to skip the regular line and proceed directly to the ticket holders' line.
12
London Dungeon

12) London Dungeon

Rescued by its self-aware embrace of its own outlandishness, this gruesome attraction is replete with extravagant scenes portraying the violent demise of well-known figures alongside the torment, execution, and ritual sacrifices of lesser-known individuals, all set to a soundtrack of screams, wails, and anguished moans. Vivid reenactments involving the Great Plague, Henry VIII, the fictitious Sweeney Todd, and the historical Jack the Ripper, among others, feature costumed actors emerging from the shadows to animate the narratives, intensifying both the terror and enjoyment.

Perhaps most startling are the throngs of children eagerly clamoring for admission, as most youngsters absolutely revel in this place, although those with a more sensitive disposition, including adults, may find it too unsettling. Anticipate lengthy queues on weekends and during school breaks. Additionally, there are evening tours designed for adults only, which include beverages.

Tip:
Purchasing tickets online and in advance can yield savings of up to 30% compared to on-the-spot prices.

Walking Tours in London, England

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