For centuries, Southwark was mostly known as London’s poorest suburb, completely dominated by its powerful neighbour to the north, the City of London. These days, Southwark is one of the most dynamic boroughs in South East London full of cultural hotspots, historical attractions, lots of green space and attractive places to live. Here are five things to do in Southwark:
Table of Contents
1. Bankside and Borough Market
The most famous part of Southwark is the southern bank of River Thames opposite the City of London. The area covering the river path and its many attractions is called Bankside and is one of the most popular areas in London. Here are a few of the main sights:
At the end of Millenium Bridge, you’ll find Tate Modern, home to Britain’s largest exhibition of modern art. The gallery building itself used to be a Power Station, and the contrast between fine art and the massive building is striking. Even if you’re not into modern art, the impressive structure is worth a visit in itself. Tate Modern is free to enter and is usually on the top 10 list of main attractions in London. Read more about visiting Tate Modern with children.
During medieval times Bankside and Southwark used to be outside of the city gates, and the riverside opposite of City of London developed into an entertainment district with brothels, theatres and gambling dens. You won’t find any dodgy establishments today, but if you want to get a taste of London during medieval times, a visit to Shakespeare’s Globe teater is still a good option. The Globe is an exact replica of the original theater located on Bankside during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign.
Walking east from Bankside you’ll find Borough Market which is London’s most famous food market where you’ll find a mix of delicious street-food and traditional market stalls selling everything from locally baked sourdough bread to live Scottish lobsters. The market is a celebration for the senses, with wonderful smells and delicious food on display everywhere you look. During weekends the atmosphere is buzzing with people and expect long queues at the most popular stalls. Read more about our favourite stalls at Borough Market.
2. Rotherhithe and Surrey Quays
Continuing east on the Thames Path from Bankside you’ll soon reach Rotherhithe. Rich in maritime history the area used to be dominated by the commercial docks handling cargo from all corners of the world. Walking through the peninsula, you’ll quickly notice place names like Greenland Docks, Canada Water Station, Russia Docks and Norway Gate as living evidence of where the goods used to arrive from. Here are some of the highlights around Rotherhithe:
The Mayflower Pub
Following the Thames Path, you’ll pass the 1600-century Mayflower Pub, named after the famous ship. In September 1620, Captain Jones sailed the Mayflower from Rotherhithe and carried 102 ‘separatists’ 3000 miles in a ship the size of a double-decker bus. The nine and a half week journey cost only one life (and prompted two births) but nearly half of the adventurers died within 3 months of stepping ashore.
The rest were saved by the intervention of two Native Americans, Samoset and Tisquantum. Captain Jones made it back and died a year later to be buried at St Mary’s, Rotherhithe. There was no sentiment for the Mayflower which was broken up for scrap shortly afterwards.
The Brunel Museum
The Brunel museum is a small exhibition, showcasing the construction of the Brunel tunnel and the birth of the first underground train system in the world. In 1825, Marc Brunel, assisted by his son Isambard, started work on a tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping. 18 years later, the world’s first underwater tunnel was complete and the ‘shield’ system for modern tunnel construction established. The inspiration for the engineering was said to have been a wood-boring mollusc (shipworm) which Marc had observed gnawing its way through naval shipyards.
The project was not a commercial success as a foot tunnel and in 1865 it was sold to a railway company which put it to the use which it enjoys to this day. The tunnel was the precursor of the first Tube railway, the Tower Subway (1869-70) built in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost. But it lasted only 3 months as a funicular railway and a further 16 years as a foot tunnel before closing in 1896.
Surrey Docks Farm
Surrey Docks Farm is located on the Thames Path just opposite Canary Wharf on the other side of the river. Here you’ll find all the usual farm animals popular with children, and you can buy feed and well as locally grown vegetables in the small farm shop. Just like the other city-farms in London, this is a community farm that depends on donations and volunteers to be able to operate. Right next to the city-farm you’ll find stairs down to the Thames foreshore, a popular spot for local families going beachcombing/mudlarking at low tide. Read more about Surrey Docks Farm.
Stave Hill Park and Russia Dock Woodland
Walking through Rotherhithe peninsula, you can either follow the curved Thames Path or cut through the peninsula and walk through Stave Hill Park and Russia Dock Woodland. The park is a popular area for locals, and you’ll find several nature trails through the woodlands. Climbing to the top of Stave Hill gives you a good overview of South East London and a panorama of the high rise buildings on Isle of Dogs on the other side of the Thames.
Southwark Park and Playground
In Southwark Park, close to Canada Water Station, you’ll find a well-maintained playground divided into two sections; one small gated toddler playground with the usual swings and slides one playground for slightly older kids with more challenging climbing frames. Southwark park playground is also a great place to start out if you have kids just beginning to learn how to cycle or scoot.
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Dulwich Picture Gallery, the first in the country and designed by Sir John Soane, was opened in 1814. It was founded as a bequest to Dulwich College in the will of Sir Francis Bourgeois who, with Noel Desenfans, had assembled a great collection substantially inherited from the King of Poland. The founders are buried in the mausoleum under a white cupola said to have provided the inspiration for the design of the red telephone box (Sir Giles Gilbert Scott c.1926). Read more about Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Manor of Dulwich
Edward Alleyn, the greatest actor of the Shakesperian era, did well from the stage and his many dubious business interests in Southwark, including his role as keeper of the king’s bull mastiffs and bears. In 1605 he invested his wealth in the Manor of Dulwich and in 1619 a Charter from King James enabled him to establish his College of God’s Gift at Dulwich to benefit education and the poor.
His charity is now administered by the Dulwich Estate. Beneficiaries include some of the well known schools of Dulwich, schools within the state sector at Elephant and Castle and in the East End, and Almshouses in Dulwich Village housing elderly brethren and systeren from Parishes with which the great man was connected.
Among the quiet suburban streets of Dulwich lurk memories of the infamous wartime traitor, William Joyce. Lord Haw-Haw left for Germany in 1938 and his house (1923-27) at No 7 Allison Grove was said to be the first to be bombed in Dulwich. After the war he was tried for treason and hung on 3rd January 1946 – wrongly, many assert, for he was never a British citizen and the case rested on his possessing a fraudulently acquired British passport.
4. Elephant & Castle
In about 1760, the smithy at an important road junction was converted to a pub. The smith had had connections with the Worshipful Company of Cutlers whose Arms incorporated an elephant with a howdah, a reference to the use of ivory in the best cutlery. The pub lifted the name and sign from the smithy.
Another notorious tavern was the more traditionally named Dog and Duck at St George’s Fields. By 1815, the pub had been replaced by a grand edifice built to house the Bethlehem Hospital or Bedlam.
Bethlehem (“house of bread”) had been founded in 1247 to provide lodging for the ailing poor and was on land now occupied by Liverpool Street Station. In the late 17th century it moved to Finsbury Circus. Over the years its purpose had shifted towards the accommodation of lunatics. Despite early good intentions, the asylum slipped into bad management and inmates became subject to various abuses. In the 18th century, the idle classes would pay one penny to visit for amusement (as many as 100,000 visits a year).
As part of long-overdue reforms, new premises were commissioned on the edge of town. The buildings have been occupied by the Imperial War Museum since 1930.
Imperial War Museum (IWM)
The Imperial War Museum (IWM) building is spread across six floors covering several of the most important periods in British military history. The exhibitions are quite compact, which makes it easy for visitors to get a good overview without going too much into details.
5. Crystal Palace
You won’t find a palace made of glass anymore, but if you’re fascinated by dinosaurs Crystal Palace in South East London should be on your radar. Taking the kids on a day out in Crystal Palace Park in the borough of Southwark you can combine several things;
- Playground – The only dinosaur-themed public playground in London.
- Farm – A small farm with all the typical farm animals, plus a little gang of adorable meerkats.
- Dinosaurs – Check out the vintage statues in Crystal Palace Park to see how the Victorians first thought dinosaurs looked like.
What happened to the Palace?
The iron-and-glass behemoth was built in 1854 in Upper Norwood as the successor to an exhibition hall erected in Hyde Park and consisted of 900,000 square feet of glass. Crystal Palace was also considered the world’s first modern theme park.
A man named Henry Buckland and his daughter Crystal, named for the London palace, were walking their dog when they noticed a small fire and sounded the alarm. The flames spread swiftly, engulfing the structure – and prompting London Fire Brigade commanders to summon a total of 88 fire engines and 438 firefighters, including some from neighbouring cities, according to the BBC.
News of the disaster sped around the world and the next morning and The New York Times reported on its front page:
LONDON, Nov. 30 – Engulfed in a roaring sheet of flames, which towered so high into the night sky that it could be seen almost from the English Channel, the world-famous Crystal Palace, architectural pride of the Victorian era, crashed to the earth tonight a raging inferno of twisted girders and molten glass.
Within a half hour, the great arcade of glass, towering 175 feet, collapsed, sending up showers of sparks and blazing embers. Then as if drawn by a flue the flames swept the whole length of the nave.
The first fire alarm must have been turned in soon after the blaze was discovered, for neighboring fire brigades arrived before the flames had begun to reach their fury. But efforts to check the spread were futile, as were those of London’s most powerful fire-fighting forces, which were quickly notified and sped over all bridges leading to the south bank of the Thames.
Within three hours after the outbreak, the celebrated showplace, known to millions in three generations, lay smouldering in charred ruins.
Southwark’s Eiffel Tower
Built on the ruins of the Victorian Crystal Palace building, this BBC tv mast is towering 719ft (219m) high above Crystal Palace Park and resembles a small version of the famous Eiffel Tower.
Other areas worth checking out in Southwark
FAQ Borough of Southwark
What area of Southwark is best for families?
Like always, it depends on what’s important for you. Keep in mind that Southwark is very diverse economically, so it also comes down to your budget. If you’re looking for an area with lots of green space coupled with proximity to Central London, great areas to explore are Greenwich, Eltham, Crystal Palace, Dulwich and Peckham Rye.
Is Southwark safe?
The crime-rate for Southwark in 2019/2020 was 121.7 cases of crime per 1,000 citizens. This was the 8th highest crime-rate among London’s 32 boroughs. Source: Finder.com It’s also important to keep in mind that Southwark is very diverse and that the crime-rate varies greatly among the districts in the borough.
What are the main attractions in Southwark?
You’ll find many of Southwark’s most famous attractions along Bankside on the opposite side of the City of London. Among the best know attractions are the Shard, Borough Market, Shakespeare’s Globe and Tate Modern.