South Bank Sights

Vinopolis: A refreshing afternoon break from sightseeing.
By Rick Steves

The area stretching from the Tate Modern to London Bridge, known as Southwark (SUTH-uck), was for centuries the place Londoners would go to escape the rules and decency of the city and let their hair down. Bear-baiting, brothels, rollicking pubs and theater — you name the dream, and it could be fulfilled just across the Thames. A run-down warehouse district through the 20th century, it's been gentrified with classy restaurants, office parks, pedestrian promenades, major sights (such as the Tate Modern and Shakespeare's Globe), and some lesser-known ones.

The area is easy on foot and a scenic — though circuitous — way to connect the Tower of London with St. Paul's. Consider hiking across the Tower Bridge, exploring Southwark, and recrossing the river from the Tate Modern Gallery via the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul's. While big money can give a revitalized area a fun ambiance, it can't just create worthwhile sights. Sort through the worthwhile and the gimmicky. While everyone knows to do the Shakespearean time warp at the Globe Theatre and ogle the mind-bending 20th century art at the Tate Modern Gallery, here are more highlights...and a few sights you may want to avoid:

The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret — Climb a tight and creaky wooden spiral staircase to a church attic where you'll find a garret used to dry medicinal herbs, a fascinating exhibit on Victorian surgery, cases of well-described 19th-century medical paraphernalia, and a special look at "anesthesia, the defeat of pain." Then you stumble upon Britain's oldest operating theater, where limbs were sawed off way back in 1821.

Southwark Cathedral — While made a cathedral only in 1905, this has been the neighborhood church since the 13th century, and comes with some interesting history. This was William Shakespeare's local church while he was working at the nearby Globe Theatre, and also the site of John Harvard's baptism (before he moved to America and made his college-founding fortune). The enthusiastic docents give impromptu tours if you ask.

The Shard — Rocketing dramatically 1,020 feet above the south end of the London Bridge, this recent addition to London's skyline is by far the tallest building in Western Europe (for now). Its uppermost floors are set aside as public viewing galleries, but the ticket price is as outrageously high as the building itself, especially given that it's a bit far from London’s most exciting landmarks.

The Clink Prison, proudly the "original clink," was where they threw Southwark troublemakers until 1780. Today, it's a low-tech torture museum filling grotty old rooms with papier-mâché gore. Unfortunately, there's little to seriously deal with the fascinating problem of law and order in raucous, 18th-century Southwark.

The Golden Hinde is a full-size replica of the 16th century warship in which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe from 1577 to 1580. Commanding this ship, Drake earned the reputation as history's most successful pirate. The original is long gone but this boat has logged over 100,000 miles, including its own voyage around the world. While fun to see, the interior is not worth paying and stooping.

HMS Belfast, "the last big gun armored warship of WWII" — now manned with wax sailors — thrills kids who always dreamed of sitting in a gun turret shooting off their imaginary guns. If you're into WWII warships, this is the ultimate. Otherwise it's just lots of exercise with a nice view of Tower Bridge.