Unlike the disastrous Millennium Dome, (1) The London Eye is now a well-loved feature of the London skyline. Its 32 glass pods provide a thrilling overview of this vast metropolis—best at sunset as the city lights twinkle on. Look out for flags designed by British artists in Jubilee Gardens at the base of London Eye.
Wander east along the Thames to the 21-acre (8.5-hectare) Southbank Centre, "a gathering point for all the city's artistic and cultural tribes," according to artistic director Jude Kelly. Built for the 1951 Festival of Britain, the (2) Royal Festival Hall reopened in June 2007 after a two-year refurbishment. Performances range from classical concerts to contemporary dance. The fifth-floor Saison Poetry Library houses the most comprehensive collection of modern poetry in Europe.
Stroll past the skateboarders to the secondhand book market outside the National Film Theatre. "Behind the cinema is the new (3) Mediatheque, a wonderful, free resource where you can watch forgotten films from the British Film Institute's archives," says choreographer Gaby Agis. Colorful (4) Benugo Café next door does a mean Bloody Mary and brunch.
Continue east along the river, past the National Theatre and tourist traps of Gabriel's Wharf to the (5) Oxo Tower Wharf. "Most people go straight to the top-floor viewing gallery and miss the interesting design shops on the first two floors," says Leo Hollis, author of Historic London Walks.
Press on beneath Blackfriars Bridge to the (6) Tate Modern, an architectural masterstroke in a former power station. The vast sweep of Turbine Hall makes a dramatic backdrop for specially commissioned installations.
Outside the Tate Modern is another turn-of-the-century success story: Norman Foster's (7) Millennium Bridge, known as the Wobbly Bridge because of early engineering troubles. It's now perfectly safe and quite spectacular. "Crossing London bridges on foot you get a fabulous sense of freedom as you look down at all the exciting activity along the river," says Emma Hope, shoe designer.
Return to the south bank or you'll miss (8) Shakespeare's Globe, a reconstruction of the open-air playhouse designed in 1599. Plays are staged from May to October, with standing room for "groundlings."
Farther east, at St. Mary Overie Dock, is another Elizabethan reconstruction: (9) The Golden Hinde, Sir Francis Drake's 16th-century galleon, a popular venue for children's parties including sleepovers in period costume.
Turn right into Cathedral Street and peek at the stained glass windows in (10) Southwark Cathedral, where John Harvard was baptized in 1607.
"Follow your nose through the crowds to (11) Borough Market, a diet-flouting congregation of tempting smells, tastes, and sights," says Jack Lohman, director Museum of London. The food market, 250 years in its current location, is open Thursday to Saturday. If you can't face long queues for delicious street food, Jay Rayner, restaurant critic of The Observer, recommends (12) Magdalen at 152 Tooley Street for "new British cuisine with French sensibilities—venison and trotter pie or snails with bone marrow."
Turn left at Vine Street to Queen's Walk. The wonky bubble of green glass is (13) City Hall, fondly known as "the glass testicle." On selected weekends, you can tour restricted areas, including London's Living Room on the 9th floor with stunning views of Tower Bridge.
Just beyond the bridge, make a left on Horselydown Lane and a right on Shad Thames. At number 28 is the excellent (14) Design Museum on Butler's Wharf, where you can pick up unusual gifts and reward yourself with a cake from the White Café.
Nat Geo Traveler All Access
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!