The more I head north of the river, the more I wonder what the heck I’m doing on a stuffy Central Line train, air vents lazily exhaling hot recycled tunnel air and failing to facilitate, despite their label, much-needed “ventilation,” while the vessel shudders on tracks beneath the same tired sites on the red ribbon of train line.
This isn’t entirely true. It’s just that it’s been a particularly sweaty week to get intimate with my fellow passengers on the city’s network of underground traveling saunas, and I’ve always kind of loathed the Central Line to begin with. I feel claustrophobic, dehydrated, and anxiety wracked just imagining the sheer density of bodies that reaches peak suffocation around Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus, and I know I’m not alone in my aversion.
Also I have a vivid memory of nearly getting stuck in the closing doors of a Central Line train and, instead of recovering gracefully and nonchalantly as you might expect from someone who once took ballet for three months in elementary school, I just kind of fell forward, belongings scattering, onto my hands and knees, properly scuffed and so painfully American. Disheveled? Rushed? Audacious, even, brashly betting my own flawed human agility against the measured timing and resolute omission of the sliding doors? These are not qualities of the British temperament. At least not on public transportation.
Traumatic experience on Central Line aside, I do love a long stroll through Hyde Park, would gladly spend a day (and the night, if they’d let me) losing all sense of direction among the artifacts in the Victoria and Albert Museum, occasionally splurge for brunch among the pastel paintbox houses and blooming storefronts of Primrose Hill, savor the view of the skyline from Hampstead Heath, and am allured by, but can’t quite emulate (I own too many clothes from Banana Republic), the grungy chic vibe of Dalston and Hoxton. This summer, however, I’m calling Southwark a home, which means spending a lot of time south of the river where the vibe is noticeably different. No major circuses, no stark white rows of posh Mayfair townhouses. Artsy lofts and studios in ashy brick buildings juxtapose with sleek curves and edges of glass and steel. Londoners huddle in cozy wine bars and pubs tucked in narrow corners between or under bridges, and the Shard peeks over it all. It’s also home to the iconic mascot for post-industrial revitalization – the looming smokestack of Tate Modern – as well as the Eye, the National Theatre, the British Film Institute, and Shakespeare’s Globe.
Summer mornings on the Jubilee Walkway, which runs along the Thames, are worth waking up to beat the crowds for. The South Bank also makes for a great run – lots of inspiring sights to distract from the burgeoning pressure of lactic acid accumulating in your lower extremities. I’d start down near Tower Bridge. In fact, a whole day on the South Bank might look something like this.
Spend mid-morning salivating among the stands of and in the tunnels along Maltby Street Market in Bermondsey – perhaps a late breakfast or early lunch, there’s a word for this I think. Bring friends and divide and conquer. Traders shift regularly, but some staples include tender dumplings from the Gyoza Guys, the sugar-dusted progeny of a decadent affair between a waffle and a doughnut deep fried, frosted, and dished by Dhan Waffle, and the “osmosis” of Mediterranean and North African cuisine made with love at Devi’s. There are also a number of smaller cafes and a couple wine bars for drowsy Sunday mornings when the only remedy is the hair of the dog.
I recommend taking the scenic route past City Hall and Tower Bridge on your way to the Tate Modern. I love this area of town for hanging out, reading a book, and people watching. This time of year, there’s a stage for live music and kids activities, as well as ping-pong tables, seating under artfully strewn tea lights for a hipster rooftop party ambiance, and some pop-up drinking and dining options. It’s like a casual lawn party only in the seat of London’s government, which by the transitive property means it’s Sadiq Khan’s London Lawn Party and this is really cool #TeamKhan.
Like modern art? Despise modern art? Pretend to understand modern art in front of your friends from Brooklyn but are actually too ill-equipped to form an honest opinion on the whole concept due to your lack of exposure? The Tate Modern is a great place for a crash course in Kandinsky or a dose of Dali. Right now, I’m into Louise Bourgeois, featured in one of the Artists Rooms, for her haunting, corporeal large-scale sculpture. Go to what draws you in, investigate what repulses you, and take in the industrial vibe of the place itself. Swing back after dark on the last Friday of the month for late nights at the Tate, which feature DJ’s and special lectures and always offer cocktails. Kind of like Night at the Museum, only I’m thankful the sculptures in the Bourgeois room don’t have sentience.
I can’t suggest a day south of the river and not urge a long, leisurely, perusal through Borough Market. Navigate by free samples – especially on slower days – of British cheeses, charcuterie, artisan breads, candied nuts, and the occasional spoonful of curry. Again, bring a crew or several stomachs in order to taste the breadth of cuisine offered under the trestles. My favorite stand is a satellite kitchen from the folks at Gujarati Rasoi (here’s my initial review, a deep cut from the archives, written while still in a warm haze of slow-burning Gujarati spices), though the curry spice mingles enticingly with the berbere of the nearby Ethiopian stand. But please, give this street food mecca the time it deserves. And get dessert.
If you can’t deny the food coma, Southwark Cathedral is a welcome sanctuary to the crowds and heat of Borough Market in the summer. Its hushed interior and spiraling ceilings can only complement your alimentary trance, and the gardens behind it offer the subduing white noise hum of the nearby crowd with the tranquility of the holy space.
Other gems of the South Bank include festivities at the Royal Festival Hall or the guy that sells books under Waterloo Bridge near the National Theatre, where you should book tickets for whatever’s on ahead of time or drop by to inquire about last-minute sales the day of. If you didn’t get tickets to a show (see: my current woe that both parts of Angels in America has sold out Hamilton style), there’s lots of outdoor seating and a bar at the NT. A drink or two with a good book or a close friend during the dusky hours of a Friday evening on the South Bank is definitely my cup of G&T.
You could take a spin on the Eye and should, of course, ogle at the Palace of Westminster and tip your hat the Big Ben across the river, but be back in Bermondsey for dinner. If the tapas gods are smiling favorably down upon you, you’ll squeeze between fellow diners for a smidgeon of counterspace at José, where Iberian ham will melt in your mouth and you will shamelessly order small plates of pisto, prawns, and patatas bravas and wash it down with whatever sherry piques your palate. Maybe go early? I don’t know, this place is always packed, but for good reason.
Don’t think about your waistline.
Any self-respecting anglophile will revel in the presence of the Globe Theatre, and catching a late afternoon, after dinner, or midnight show here is an essential experience for fans of Shakespeare. There are 700 five-pound tickets available for every show, and the price is absolutely right if you’re willing to stand with the plebs on the ground level for the duration of the performance, which is where you can catch me on Saturday, July 22 for the 7:30 showing of Twelfth Night. It will totally be worth it.
Any night in London can be punctuated with proper pub carousal, and my best advice is to wander a bit until you cross one that vibes with your mood. Walking up the bar and ordering a pint is still kind of a satisfying novelty for me. Camden Hells, if they have it. Or anything that dulls the mild ache of miles of South Bank under your feet.
You can take a rest day when you’re not in the greatest city in the world.