London: Places to Explore

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The South Bank

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For decades, tourists rarely ventured south of the river, except to go to Waterloo station. Now a host of attractions draws visitors from all over London: The reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe, the world-class Tate Modern museum, the Southbank Centre, and, dominating the skyline, the London Eye—a giant Ferris wheel—are all huge draws. No longer off the beaten track, South London has become one of London's most popular places to be.

That old, snide North London dig about needing a passport to cross the Thames has not been heard for the past decade. Before, natives rarely ventured beyond the watery curtain that divides the city in half; tourists, too, rarely troubled the area unless they were departing from Waterloo station. But now that the South Bank encompasses high-caliber art, music, film, and theater venues as well as an aquarium, a historic warship, and two popular food markets, South Londoners now sometimes look down on their northern cousins.

A borough of the City of London since 1327, Southwark first became well known for its inns (the pilgrims in Chaucer's A Canterbury Tale set off from one), theaters, prisons, and brothels, as well as entertainments such as bear-baiting. For four centuries, this was where Londoners went to let their hair down and behave badly.

Today, the Thames Path that skirts the South Bank is alive with skateboarders, secondhand booksellers, and street entertainers. At one end the London Eye, a millennium project that's a favorite with both Londoners and out-of-towners, rises next to the London Aquarium and the Southbank Centre, home to the recently renovated Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, the BFI Southbank and the National Theatre. Farther east you'll come to a reconstruction of Sir Francis Drake's ship the Golden Hinde; Butlers Wharf, where some notable restaurants occupy what were once shadowy Dickensian docklands; and, next to Tower Bridge, the massive headlight-shape City Hall. Nearby Bermondsey (or "Beormund's Eye" as it was known in Saxon times), with its bright yellow Fashion Museum, trendy boutiques, and cafés, is rapidly becoming one of the city's hippest enclaves. Meanwhile, younger visitors will enjoy the London Dungeon and the HMS Belfast, a decommissioned Royal Navy cruiser, while food lovers will head for London's oldest food market Borough Market, now reinvented as a gourmet mecca where independent stallholders provide farm-fresh produce, artisanal bread and cheese, and specialty fish and meat.

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