14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in London's South Bank
Linked to London's other top tourist areas via Tower and London Bridges (as well as Millennium Bridge, a unique pedestrian-only walkway), the south side of the River Thames around South Bank and Bankside is rich in cultural and entertainment opportunities. It encompasses parts of the districts of Southwark and Lambeth and has become an important sightseeing destination in recent decades.
The area retains its historic connection to great theater and was where many of Shakespeare's first plays were performed, a fact commemorated at the superb Globe Theatre. It's also a fun area to explore on foot, thanks to its many parks and gardens. One of the most popular things to do is take the Riverside Walkway along the Thames, notable for its scenic views over the City of London. Shoppers can enjoy the boutique stores in places like Gabriel's Wharf and Oxo Tower Wharf.
1 HMS Belfast and Golden Hinde II
HMS Belfast is the last surviving cruiser of the once mighty Royal Navy. Commissioned in 1938, it saw action in the English Channel in support of the Allied landings on D-Day, and after WWII was engaged in the Far East before being decommissioned. Today, this huge vessel dominates the River Thames near Tower Bridge and is an excellent attraction operated by the Imperial War Museums. Close by on Pickfords Wharf is the Golden Hinde II, part of an excellent museum dedicated to the life of Sir Francis Drake. Although a replica, the ship realistically portrays the life and times of England's most famous sailor.
Location: The Queen's Walk, London
2 Southbank Centre
Grouped on either side of Waterloo Bridge is London's most important arts complex, the Southbank Centre. Built in 1951, this massive concrete structure covers some 21 acres and includes the Royal Festival Hall (home to orchestral and choral performances), the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the Purcell Room. These venues offer a tremendous repertoire of music, as well as a broad selection of performing arts including dance, mime, cabaret, and comedy. The complex also includes the National Theatre, one of Britain's largest theatrical venues; the Hayward Gallery, a much-visited center for modern art; and The Poetry Library, with its vast collection of modern and contemporary poetry. Also here is BFI Southbank, home of the British Film Institute, with its three cinemas showcasing the best of British cinema (the BFI's stunning new IMAX theater adjacent to Waterloo station is also worth a visit).
Address: Belvedere Road, London
3 Tate Modern
Sister gallery to Tate Britain, across the Thames in Millbank (and connected by high-speed ferry), Tate Modern is home to the country's largest modern art collections. Housed in the impressively transformed Bankside Power Station and ranked among the most visited attractions in Britain, Tate Modern's fine sculpture collection includes works by such greats as Auguste Rodin, Aristide Maillol, Ivan Mestrovic, Jacob Epstein, and Henry Moore. The collection of modern foreign paintings chiefly contains works of the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, including Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Marc Chagall.
Works by the Cubists are represented by Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso, while the gallery's Dadaist and surrealist collection include the likes of Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Salvador Dali, and Joan Miró. Other notable collections include examples of Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimal Art, and Conceptual Art, while contemporary artists featured include Joseph Beuys, Mark Rothko, Tony Cragg, and Lucian Freud. (For a truly memorable visit, book one of the excellent private group or couples tours.)
Location: Bankside, London
4 London Eye
Built to mark the city's millennium celebrations in 2000, The London Eye is Europe's largest observation wheel, with individual glass capsules offering spectacular views on a circular tour rising up to 443 feet. The journey lasts 30 minutes - time well spent on what has become the UK's most popular paid attraction (which accounts for the often long line-ups; if possible, reserve your time in advance). Afterwards, take a stroll through nearby Jubilee Gardens, opened in 1977 to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee.
Location: Riverside Building, County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London
5 Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and Exhibition
The wonderful Globe Theatre is a superb replica of the theater Shakespeare would have known in his heyday. The centerpiece of this educational entertainment facility is an accurate reproduction of the theatrical experience as it would have been in Elizabethan times, with visitors sitting on benches or standing in the yard. Craftsmen used traditional techniques and materials to reconstruct the original theater, destroyed by fire in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII. The exhibition component of your visit includes guided tours explaining how the theater was built.
Address: 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London
6 National Theatre of Great Britain
Although founded in 1963, the National Theatre has been one of the anchor attractions of the Southbank complex since the 1970s. Home to one of Britain's top publicly funded theater groups, it consists of three venues under one roof: the Olivier Theatre, named after the theater's first artistic director, Laurence Olivier; the Lyttelton Theatre; and the smaller Cottesloe Theatre. The theater presents a varied program, including the works of Shakespeare and plays by contemporary playwrights.
Two other equally important theaters worth checking out are located in nearby Bankside. Founded in 1818, the completely renovated Old Vic continues to draw fans of professional theatrical productions, from musicals to Shakespeare (Kevin Spacey served as artistic director here for 12 years), while The Young Vic, founded in 1946, serves up an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic plays.
Location: Upper Ground, South Bank, London
7 Imperial War Museum London
Imperial War Museum London was founded in 1920 and moved to its present premises in Lambeth in 1936. The historic building has since been completely renovated, with new displays and exhibits grouped around an atrium that opened in the summer of 2014. Much of the focus is on its extensive WWI collections, considered the most comprehensive in the world, with galleries showing why the conflict started and its impact. Artifacts on display include tanks and bi-planes, souvenirs from the front, as well as photos, art, and film. Other permanent displays include exhibits relating to the Holocaust and the world of espionage. Be sure to check out the IWM's other museums: IWM North in Manchester, IWM Duxford near Cambridge, the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall, and HMS Belfast.
Address: Lambeth Road, London
8 Hayward Gallery
Part of the Southbank Center arts complex, the Hayward Gallery is built in a style that aptly reflects its role as a modern art gallery. Opened in 1968, the gallery presents various national and international exhibitions, including major temporary modern exhibitions, and has included exhibits of work by such greats as Leonardo da Vinci and Edvard Munch, as well as contemporary art by Antony Gormley.
Two other art-related attractions worthy of a visit (and just a short walk away) are the Bargehouse, a gallery noted for its avant-garde and design-based installations, and the House of Vans arts hub located in the deep tunnels beneath Waterloo train station.
Address: Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London
9 Florence Nightingale Museum
Detailing the life and times of Britain's best-known nurse - famous for caring for British troops during the Crimean War - the Florence Nightingale Museum displays items from her wartime service. Other materials are drawn from the Nightingale School and St. Thomas' Hospital, as well as portraits and a library collection. Exhibits tell the story of her privileged upbringing, her struggle against inequality, and how she later coped with the hardships of the military hospitals where the legend of the "Lady with the lamp" was born.
Address: Gassiot House, 2 Lambeth Palace Road, London
10 Southwark Cathedral
Beautiful Southwark Cathedral is famous as the resting place of William Shakespeare. Built on the site of an 11th-century monastery, the oldest surviving sections date from the 13th century, including the lower part of the 165-foot-high tower, the choir, and ambulatory. Its interior houses many excellent historic features, including carved wooden bosses from the 15th century (check out the kilt-wearing Judas Iscariot being devoured by the Devil); the 13th-century North Transept with its preserved Norman wall paintings; and the Harvard Chapel, named after its restoration by Harvard University.
Location: London Bridge, London
11 The Garden Museum
If proof were needed that the British are a nation of gardeners, look no further than the excellent Garden Museum. Reopening in early 2017 after a major renovation, the museum is housed in the deconsecrated parish church of St. Mary-at-Lambeth (adjacent Lambeth Palace). The focal point of the museum is the final resting place of John Tradescant, England's first "celebrity" gardener (albeit in the 1600s). Tradescant's magnificent tomb is the centerpiece of a garden planted with the same varieties of flowers he would have grown in his London garden four centuries ago. Inside, exhibits explore the making of British gardens, and you can participate in a program of talks and lectures. Also on permanent display are paintings, historic artifacts, and garden tools.
Address: Lambeth Palace Road, London
12 Lambeth Palace
Lambeth Palace, for more than 700 years the London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury, can now be enjoyed via guided tours. Almost immediately across the Thames from the Palace of Westminster, the property was acquired by the church in the 13th century and has the country's largest collection of church-related records. Highlights of the 1.5-hour tours include the Archbishop's State Rooms; the Chapel, Atrium and Crypt; as well as the wonderful Library with its 200,000-plus volumes, many of them dating from before the 1700s. Also notable is the impressive garden, established in the 12th century with "newer" features such as its pleasant paths and extensive groves of trees added in the late 18th century.
Location: Lambeth Palace, London
13 The London Dungeon
The London Dungeon is a gruesome display of the sometimes horrific side of Britain's history. Its fascinating exhibits include the Black Death, the burning of martyrs at the stake, scenes of torture, and Jack the Ripper. Many of the newer displays include rides and interactive experiences involving costumed actors to add an air of realism. While in the area - and if you're in the mood for more displays of torture devices - visit nearby Clink Prison, the site of the oldest prison in England.
Address: Riverside Building, County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London
14 Horniman Museum and Gardens
Frederick J. Horniman had many interests, particularly musical instruments and animals, and at the end of the 19th century opened his extensive collections to the public. The Music Room includes numerous wind and stringed instruments, as well as drums and other percussion instruments. Comprehensive documentation and interactive displays provide a unique insight into the history of music and the development of instrument making.
Address: 100 London Road, Forest Hill, London
15 SEA LIFE London Aquarium
The London Aquarium is home to more than 500 species and features some 50 displays with 14 zones representing different areas of the world. Experiences include watching sharks, fish feeding, and exploring a touch pool. Popular species represented include clownfish and sharks, as well as sea turtles, many of them raised as part of the facility's expansive conservation efforts. The London Aquarium is in the historic Lambeth County Hall and is family oriented and entertaining for all ages.
Location: County Hall, Riverside Building, Westminster Bridge Road, London