The first bridge across the Thames was built by the Romans near London Bridge and in Shakespeare’s day, the Bankside area was the place for putting on unlicensed plays. It retained its reputation as an area of vice and pleasure well into the 19th century, but successful, large-scale regeneration in recent years has made the most of the area’s character while making the South Bank into London’s cultural playground, with major attractions stretching all the way down the riverfront.
Lambeth Road leads away from the river to the Imperial War Museum, in an 1815 building that was once the Bethlehem hospital for the insane (known as Bedlam). Back by the river, facing the Houses of Parliament, stands County Hall, the seat of the Greater London Council, which ran the city until it was abolished in 1986. It now incorporates two hotels, the London Aquarium, and the Dalí Universe (featuring 500 of Salvador Dalí’s works). Towering over this is The London Eye, the world’s largest observation wheel. At 450ft (135m), it is the fourth highest structure in London.
The Southbank Centre is Europe’s largest arts complex. Its centrepiece is the Royal Festival Hall, while on the upper level of the South Bank complex is the Hayward Gallery, a landmark of brutalist architecture with a cutting-edge programme of changing art exhibitions. Next door is the revamped BFI Southbank, Britain’s leading arthouse cinema complex, which holds more than 2,400 screenings each year. It also runs the BFI London IMAX Cinema, on the roundabout at the south end of Waterloo Bridge.
On the east side of Waterloo Bridge is the modernist National Theatre. At night, one of its towers is lit up in beacon-like bright colour. Waterloo Road leads down to the Old Vic theatre (1811) in The Cut. It was the first home of the National Theatre and is now a repertory theatre with Kevin Spacey as artistic director. Further along The Cut, the Young Vic, known for its adventurous programme, is housed in a distinctively funky building.
Beyond Blackfriars Bridge, the landmark Tate Modern gallery occupies the former Bankside Power Station, identifiable by its tall brick chimney. The Turbine Hall houses massive sculptural works. Giving pedestrian access to Tate Modern from St Paul’s Cathedral over the river is the sleek Millennium Bridge, suspended by horizontal cables.
In the 16th century, Shakespeare’s Globe was built by the river. A replica of the building opened in 1996, staging summer performances in the round. The 18th-century Anchor Inn by Southwark Bridge, is opposite the main entrance of Vinopolis, which offers a visual tour through the world’s wine regions. A single gable wall is all that remains of Winchester Palace, London residence of the Winchester bishops. The prison they founded in Clink Street is now the Clink Prison Museum. Nearby is a full-size replica of Sir Francis Drake’s galleon, the Golden Hinde. Southwark Cathedral, hemmed in by the railway, has a lovely interior and is one of London’s great historic churches. Borough Market, outside the Cathedral, is a renovated fruit and veg market dating from the 13th century that is now hugely popular.
Around London Bridge
London Bridge, dating from 1967–72, is the latest of many on this site. In Tooley Street, the London Dungeon includes ghoulish exhibits of the Black Death and Jack the Ripper’s exploits. Downstream is HMS Belfast, the last of the warships to have seen action in World War II. To its east, the oval-shaped glass building is City Hall, seat of the mayor and the Greater London Authority.
Tower Bridge, a masterpiece of Victorian Gothic (1894), has become a symbol of London. In the old warehouses to the east of Tower Bridge is Butler’s Wharf, where there are several smart restaurants, near to the Design Museum.