Southwark is a bustling, historic district by the River Thames. Culture fans take in modern art at the Tate Modern gallery and plays at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
Shoppers buy produce and artisan food at busy Borough Market and grab a pint in cosy pubs like the George, a 17th-century inn. Centuries-old Southwark Cathedral is dwarfed by the soaring Shard skyscraper, which has a viewing platform and restaurants.
Across the Thames from the City of London, Southwark was the lowest bridging point on the Thames for hundreds of years.
London Bridge here was indeed London’s only bridge until Westminster Bridge was built in 1750. Southwark was once a den of free traders, criminals and prostitutes, working outside of the City’s regulation.
People would cross the river for entertainment too, which is how the Globe Theatre came to be built in Bankside at the turn of the 17th century.
The famous modern replica, Shakespeare’s Globe, is by the river, and one of a string of Thames-side sights and attractions in Southwark, counting the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge, HMS Belfast and the inimitable Tower Bridge.
Southwark, the borough, cuts a long way south, as far as Crystal Palace, but for the sake of convenience we’ll stick to the riverside around Southwark proper and Bermondsey.
1. Tower Bridge
Think of a sight that defines London, and this combined bascule and suspension bridge may spring to mind.
Tower Bridge (1894) is in a decorative neo-Gothic style, and today forms a neat river-spanning ensemble, with the Tower of London on the north bank and Norman Foster’s City Hall (2002) to the south.
The bridge’s 1,000 tonne bascules, 8.6 metres over the Thames, open for river traffic around 1,000 times a year.
Linking the two towers are two high-level walkways that were initially open to the public but closed in 1910 when they became seedy.
The walkways are now a highlight of the bridge’s museum, giving you one of the best views in London.
The museum reveals the story and statistics behind Tower Bridge’s construction, and takes you into the preserved Victorian engine rooms where the bascules’ earliest coal-driven engine is still in situ.
2. Tate Modern
Opened at the former Bankside Power Station in 2000, the Tate Modern is one of the world’s largest museums for modern and contemporary art.
The building, started just after the war, was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott (who came up with the famous red telephone box). The museum makes the most of the old power station’s awesome sense of scale, in particular at the cathedral-like Turbine Hall, the scene for landmark installations by Olafur Eliasson and Anish Kapoor.
Tate’s immense collection of Modern art is on show in themed galleries, like Artist and Society, which looks at art in a social and political context, or Materials and Objects, which investigates materials and methods that are out of the ordinary.
For an introduction, Start Display has three rooms filled with the collection’s foremost works, with pieces by Kandinsky, Yves Klein, Alexander Calder, Matisse and William Eggleston.
3. Shakespeare’s Globe
In 1997 this close replica of the open-air Globe Theatre opened on Bankside, close to where the original used to stand.
The first Globe was established by William Shakespeare’s playing company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1599, to be destroyed by fire in 1613, rebuilt and eventually closed by the Puritans in 1642. The new, half-timbered Shakespeare’s Globe is a close approximation, made from oak and with some modifications for the sake of fire safety.
It’s a fitting monument to the English language’s greatest writer, and among the best places to watch one of his works.
As well as the main open-air theatre, The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opened in 2014 and recreates the atmosphere of a Jacobean indoor theatre.
You can come for a guided tour to listen to tales about the 1599 Globe, while there are regular “Study Days” for extra insights on Shakespeare’s plays by Globe artists and renowned Shakespeare scholars.
4. Borough Market
London’s favourite permanent food market has been trading at this location since the 13th century at the latest, and is housed under a beautiful metal and glass structure from the 1850s and 60s.
In the past Borough Market was all about fresh produce, and while there are still plenty of traders selling fruit and vegetables, dairy, meat, poultry, fish, plants and flowers, speciality foods are the main draw.
These might be artisanal chocolates, imported olives, cheese from all over the UK and Europe, nut butters, French pastries, goat milk ice cream, truffles, naturally set preserves, Punjabi chutneys, liquorice from Calabria, Jamaican seasonings, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Samples abound, while the market also shines as a place to go for meals, at the cafes, bars, gastropubs, shellfish merchants and noodle houses on the margins.
5. The Shard
The London Skyline is forever changing, but was completely transformed in the space of a couple of years when this Renzo Piano-designed skyscraper sprouted.
Topped out in 2012, the Shard was more than a decade in the planning, and at just under 310 metres is the tallest building in the UK and the tallest in Western Europe.
Piano’s design was intended to evoke the many church spires on the London skyline, while the term, The Shard, stemmed from a derogatory description of the early plans.
You can go to the top of this tower via “The View from The Shard”, which opened to the public in 2013. There’s a triple-level indoor gallery at the 69th floor and a partly outdoor platform at 72. The experienced is soundtracked by an original score played by the London Symphony Orchestra.
The 360° views stretch out for more than 40 miles over the entirety of Greater London, and special interactive “Tell:scopes” help you identify more than 200 landmarks.
6. Southwark Cathedral
From its foundation in the early 12th century until 1538 the solemn riverside Gothic church belonged to an Augustinian priory.
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it was spared as a parish church, and in 1905 would become a cathedral when the Diocese of Southwark was created.
Southwark Cathedral’s layout dates to a 200-year phase of construction that began after the Great Fire of 1212, and hasn’t been altered much, although the nave was reconstructed in the late-1800s.
Inside, look out for the various monuments, most of all the one for the poet John Gower (d. 1408) at the east end of the north aisle.
This is unusual for retaining its vivid 15th-century polychrome painting.
Also in the north aisle is a rare wooden recumbent effigy for a knight, dated to around 1280.
7. Millennium Bridge
The suspension footbridge crossing the Thames from the entrance to the Tate Modern has been here since June 2000. The Millennium Bridge literally got off to a wobbly start, and was closed just two days after opening until February 2002 to fix stability problems.
As a piece of architecture the Millennium Bridge is something to behold, especially at night, but it’s the views that make a visit special.
There’s a clear line of sight through to St Paul’s at the north end.
The river view extends to Tower Bridge in the east and Charing Cross Station in the west, while in the foreground is the City and its outlandish modern towers.
8. Imperial War Museum London
The old Bethlem Royal Hospital, with grand portico and dome, sets the scene for the Imperial War Museum London.
The museum moved here in the 1930s and in 1968 the pair of 15-inch gins from First World War battleships HMS Resolution and HMS Ramillies were unveiled on the lawn in front.
The hospital building is mostly occupied by museum offices, while the galleries are in a five-floor extension from the 1980s.
There are three permanent displays to check out.
“Turning Points: 1934-1945” has artefacts and personal stories from the Second World War, chronicling bombing campaigns, the fronts in African and Russia, D-Day, and the lives of civilians caught up in the war.
“The Lord Ashcroft Gallery” holds the world’s largest collection of Victoria Crosses (the highest UK military ward for gallantry), documenting the acts of bravery that earned these awards.
Finally, the “First World War Galleries” exhibit more than 1,300 objects from the conflict, charting the war from the British and British Colonial perspective.
9. HMS Belfast
Managed by the Imperial War Museum is the WWII-era Town-class light cruiser moored between London Bridge and Tower Bridge since 1971. This is the most important surviving Royal Navy warship from the Second World War.
HMS Belfast was damaged by a mine in 1939, then escorted Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union in 1943, and was involved at the Battle of North Cape in December 1943. The ship’s guns also fired some of the first shots during the Normandy Landings in 1944. You can explore all of HMS Belfast’s nine decks via ladders, while scores of personal accounts along the tour add extra realism.
10. The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret
The oldest surviving operating theatre in Europe is concealed in the garret (attic) of the 18th-century St Thomas’ Church, atop a 52-step staircase.
Dating to 1703, the Baroque church was built by the governors of St Thomas’ Hospital, which had been on this site since the 12th century, and moved from Southwark to Lambeth in the 1860s.
For the first hundred years or so, the garret at the top was used as a store for medicinal herbs, and in 1822 some of this space was turned into a surgical theatre.
At that time the hospital’s female surgical ward was right next to the church.
After the hospital moved away, the theatre was forgotten and lay undiscovered until 1957. The exhibition details some of the grisly pre-anaesthetic procedures that would be carried out in the theatre, presenting instruments for childbirth, trepanning, bleeding and cupping.
You can also learn the long history of St Thomas’ Hospital and its connection with Florence Nightingale.
11. Winchester Palace
At the east end of Clink Street, there’s a monument you could easily miss on your riverside walk.
Preserved behind railings as an English Heritage site are the ruins of the great hall of Winchester Palace.
This was the London residence for the Bishops of Winchester, who wielded real power in Medieval England and had a home in the capital in the same way as the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace.
The site is labelled with an English Heritage information board.
Most striking is the tall west wall, which has a remarkably intact rose window.
The great hall dates back to the 12th century, with Tudor modifications.
The palace was repurposed in the 1600s, becoming tenements and warehouses, and was destroyed in a fire in 1814, which revealed the Medieval stonework that you can see now.
12. Clink Prison Museum
In Medieval times the Bishop of Winchester controlled a large part of Southwark, known as the Liberty of the Clink.
Next to Winchester Palace he oversaw a notorious prison, established around 1144 (but possibly older), so it could be the oldest prison for men or women in the country.
The Clink is such a part of English history that the world “clink” became a slang term for prison itself.
People in debt to the Bishop, as well as heretics and religious opponents were tossed into the Clink, but as Southwark was traditionally a seedy place for Londoners to cut loose and enjoy themselves, drunkards and prostitutes often ended up here.
The prison was burnt down in a riot in 1780, and today there’s a light-hearted museum on the site.
This recalls the sights, sounds and smells of the infamous prison, relating the stories of some of its inmates and showing off some replica Medieval torture implements, interspersed with archaeological finds from the prison.
13. Golden Hinde
A few steps from Winchester Palace on Bankside you’ll come across a galleon that has been berthed here at St Mary Overie Dock since 1996. The Golden Hinde was built in 1973 and is a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship (Golden Hind) that he sailed around the world between 1577 and 1580. The replica has travelled a long way to be here, having sailed 140,000 miles and, like the original, circumnavigated the globe.
The Golden Hinde is a museum ship with re-enactors dressed like Tudor sailors and informing you about life on the high seas in Elizabethan times.
You can go aboard to look around, or book a guided tour for an in-depth account of Drake’s voyage.
14. Mercato Metropolitano
This sustainable street food market has cropped up suddenly in two vast halls at a former light industrial site on Newington Causeway by the railway arches.
As you might tell from the name, Mercato Metropolitano’s vendors are primarily Italian, for ravioli, arancini, gelato and Neapolitan pizza, but joined by a globe-trotting choice of other cuisines.
There’s raclette, an Argentine grill, Moroccan tajine, Lebanese food, churros, crêpes, Mexican, barbecue… the choice goes on and on.
Being a trendy sort of place, craft beer, concept cocktails and gin are all on hand, and when the weather’s good you can hang out in the shaded courtyards.
There’s a lot going on besides food, at pizza-making workshops, a yoga studio and a regular vintage market, while some of the stalls’ produce is grown here at an urban farm.
15. Maltby Street Market
Under the solemn arches of London Bridge – Greenwich Viaduct (1836), Maltby Street Market is a small-scale alternative to the nearby Borough Market, trading only on weekends.
Bermondsey is gentrifying at a breakneck speed, and this market reflects a changing area, even if tourists haven’t quite ventured this far from the river.
There are more than 30 stalls at Maltby Street Market, some filling entire arches.
You can shop for artisanal coffee, limited edition wines, craft gin distilled in London, peri-peri sauces from Mozambique and imported Greek olive oil.
There’s a delectable assortment of streetfood, from gourmet hot subs to German sausage, gyozas, charcoal-grilled British steaks, decadent brownies and posh grilled cheese sandwiches.