The Thames River is London's lifeline. The wide waters are active year-round with boats and barges, and it feeds the city with its signature morning fog. While the famous London Tower and its nearby Tower Bridge comprise the greatest tourist draw, there are wonderful sights and attractions all along the banks. This travelogue covers mostly the south bank and Westminster. Westminster you've probably heard about, but the rest of the south bank deserve more attention than most tourists give it (my opinion).
Westminster is best known for two major structures that face each other across a major road -- the Parliament building and Westminster Abbey. Atop the highest tower in the Parliament is London's famous Big Ben clock, shown in the first photograph. The streetcorner below Big Ben holds the entrance to the Underground, so it is always crowded with people straining their necks upwards at the tower. There's not much else to do at the Parliament, of course, it is after all a government building. If you walk around it the building, you will find some very impressive artwork and architecture, especially the rather impressive royal entranceway for the rare visits the Queen might make to Parliament.
Westminster Abbey's architecture struck me as similar enough to the Parliament that I once thought it was just an annex. Of course, that notion went away once I made it to the back side, shown in the second photo.
The remainder of the Westminster area wasn't all that interesting to me. We walked around several blocks, but it was mostly residential all the way up to St. James Park.
Going across Westminster Bridge to the south (or at this point, east) bank, we came across the London Eye, a massive ferris wheel that was the city's millenium gift to itself. We did not have time to take a ride on it, but we'll definitely do so next time (especially if we go in summer).
Following back toward the Tower on the south bank, we passed by the Royal Festival Hall, Gabriel's Wharf, and the Royal National Theater. It was when we reached the part across from the center of the city when we reach the remaining south bank attractions -- such as the London Bridge. The third photo shows it to be a simple arched bridge, but in the olden days this bridge was a village unto itself, crammed full of houses, shops, and pubs. The bridge was replaced recently with this modern steel structure, while the old stone-arched bridge was purchased by Lake Havasu City and moved to Arizona, where it has been reassembled. (There is an urban legend that Lake Havasu thought they were purchasing the Tower Bridge, but I don't know how much truth there is to that.
There are two attractions on the south bank that are a must. The first is the Globe Theater, shown in the fourth picture, and its associated Elizabethan museum. High school students who suffered through Shakespeare are guaranteed to have heard of the Globe, the place where the Old Bard's famous plays were held. But oddly, despite Shakespeare's centuries-old popularity, the Globe had never been rebuilt until just this past decade. I was there in 1996 when it was still under construction (and I paid £5 to have a wooden peg added in my name), and was very glad to see it finished in 2001.
With a few notable exceptions (such as the necessary addition of flame-retardant straw), the Globe is built to the exact specs of a classic Elizabethean theater. The crowd is closely sardined against the high stage, and prominently behind are the places for the noblemen and women to be "seen". Plays are held there in the summer, and tickets for the seats are tough to get, but the greater fun is in the standing zone below! I also recommend devoting some time to the museum, where you will see the old-style costumes and settings.
For lovers of modern art, there is probably no finer place than the Tate Museum of Modern Art just another block to the west. The Tate used to be a factory, whose massive interior was well suited for some of the monstrous pieces of modern art that now populates it. The center entrance hall was as large as an airplane hangar, with the galleries occupying several floors on either side. A very impressive place!
There were several attractions further along that might interest some, time permitting. Southwark Cathedral is at the foot of London Bridge and is a very impressive bit of architecture (it was under heavy renovation when I went in 2001, didn't get to check its progress in our 2003 trip). The HMS Belfast is a floating battleship museum that always fun for the kids dreaming of sea adventures. Hay's Galleria is a very impressive shopping opportunity, easily one of the best on the south side.
The final part of this travelogue could have been included among any of the three sub-travelogues, but it had to be included. The famous London Underground is just about the most complete network of subways in any major city in the world. One cannot go more than a couple hundred meters in any direction and not encounter such a station, and the schedule is very reliable. New stations are being added on a continuous basis, and connections with the UK Rail system (King's Cross plus others) is supereasy.
Trip taken 30 December 2000 - 7 January 2001 and 23-27 December 2003 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001, 2003 Tom Galvin