Southwark stands apart from the rest of London — as it has for centuries. More than 400 years ago, the city’s government passed an act banning entertainment from anywhere in the city limits, which at the time was contained on the north side of the Thames River. Theatres and their denizens shifted south of the Thames and almost directly across from the Tower of London.
The law that banned public performances of plays passed in 1596. It kept late-night bars and their patrons — including musicians, gamblers, and prostitutes — away from the tony, provincial parts of the England capital, and curtailed some fears of the Bubonic Plague spreading through crowds. When William Shakespeare wanted a theatre to stage his plays, he had little choice but to seek it in Southwark, where theatre-goers congregated. Crowds of about 3,000 people would teem in to see the playwright’s works. They would spill out into the streets, making their way to local taverns, possibly in the district’s bustling Borough Market, and might need to find an accommodation for the night.
Four centuries later, you can replicate much of that activity — though in a more civil manner (hopefully).
Southwark is refreshingly un-regal. It is not saturated with emblems of the British monarchy, which makes it feel as if it is for everyman. (Although it is one of the most expensive areas in London, with apartments in the landmark Shard building — the city’s tallest structure — going for 50 million British pounds, or about $70 million USD.)
Here’s how to make the best of your visit to this lively and delightful part of London.
WHERE TO EAT
The Borough Market, which dates to 1014, is a workers’ hangout. It is filled with dozens of food stations serving traditional British and ethnic cuisine. Pubs, some of which have stood since the time of Shakespeare, are so full drinkers balloon out of them and spread along the market streets. A typical sight is men in suits congregating around a wooden barrel with pints of beer in hand while the sun goes down above them.
The market is the place for visitors to search out quality food. You can find a lot of it for cheap. Portena, an eatery run by an Argentinian family, sells excellent empanadas for 3 British pounds ($5) each. You can purchase oysters and chase them down with glasses of sparkling wine or Pimm’s from other retailers in the market. Curries, French cheeses and baguettes, fried chicken and other comfort foods are also popular choices.
For a sit-down meal, head out of the market and toward the nearby Flatiron District, where more ethnic cuisine can be found, or make your way to the Globe Theatre, where you can dine at the adjacent Swan restaurant. You have the choice of either the formal restaurant on the top floor or the casual dining room one level up from the ground. The casual spot gives you the feel of what it was like to be in a tavern in Elizabethan London. You can drink beer on long communal tables while dining on charcuterie, fish and chips, or salads with local ingredients.
WHERE TO STAY
I based my stay at the iBis Styles Southwark Hotel, which was wonderfully up to date with technology and customer service. A staff member, likely someone young and dressed in denim, will greet you at the elevator (not from behind a desk) and quickly locate your reservation and guide you in the direction of your room. Set in a building on Southwark Street that was a former movie house, the hotel plays up the themes of its history. There are antique cameras and lighting stands that act as decor in the lobby. The rooms and hallways have art, posters, and memorabilia that honor the property’s past.
The rooms, though small, are still larger than most that you’ll find at London hotels and best of all they’re filled with USB ports for your electronic devices. North American travelers will appreciate being able to charge multiple pieces of gear without needing a voltage adapter for each one.
Best of all, the iBis Styles Southwark is in the heart of the district. It takes a few minutes to walk to either the Borough Market to the east or the westward to Bankside and the Globe Theatre. A little farther west is Southwark’s Bankside area, where the London Eye towers over the Thames. London Bridge and the underground station that bears its name is about 10 minutes by foot.
The hotel includes a breakfast that features a selection of good housemade breads and pastries.
Address: 43-47 Southwark Bridge Road, London, UK (see map below)
Room Rates: Weekend rates in the fall start at around 130 British Pounds ($175) per night. Check the hotel’s website for rates and specials during your travel dates.
4 THINGS TO DO IN SOUTHWARK
1. Shakespeare’s Globe — Don’t miss the opportunity to see a production in this theatre. The original Globe burned down in 1613 and the current version is a replica lovingly built by fans of the Bard, roughly 200 yards from the original’s spot. You can purchase tickets to stand, as many people did during Shakespeare’s time, or select seats on any of the three levels of the theatre. I took in the 2017 production of “King Lear”, which stars Kevin McEnally, and was enthralled by the experience. It is a riveting and enriching cultural experience. For those of us who love Shakespeare, it is also a bucket-list activity to scratch off. Tickets: Prices range from 30-95 British pounds (about $45-130).
2. Tate Modern — The largest gallery of contemporary art in the world is in Southwark, next to the Globe. The Tate includes a stunning collection of work by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, and more. The collection of masters will surprise you while current works are provocative. In the home of a former power station, the Tate is on the south end of the Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian-only crossing whose northern entrance is close to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Admission: It is free to enter to see its permanent exhibits (though donations are suggested).
3. The Shard — Take an elevator ride to the top of the city’s tallest building and enjoy a glass of Champagne and the breathtaking view overlooking the Thames, the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and many of the city’s other famous attractions. Admission: The ride to the top costs 25.95 British pounds ($35) per person. A glass of Champagne costs another 8 British pounds ($10.75).
- London Eye — Book your tickets in advance to this gigantic Ferris wheel. And be sure to pay extra for the fast-track tickets. Lines are massive and you will not want to be stuck waiting in them — especially given London’s unpredictable weather. Plus, whatever you might save by purchasing the regular-priced tickets will be spent on water or food while you and your party wait in line. Admission: Fast-track tickets cost 32.45 British pounds ($44). Standard entry is $23.45 ($32) when tickets are purchased online.