Got an afternoon to spare in London? Save Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square and Oxford Street for a more leisurely visit. Instead, head for the south bank of the River Thames for a concentrated sampling of the best Britain's capital has to offer: history, high culture and some old-fashioned fairground thrills.
Start on the Jubilee Walkway at Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury for over 800 years. Tours of the palace are sometimes available, but must be booked through written application well in advance. Walk east to County Hall, home to the London Aquarium and its 365 marine species as well as the Saatchi Gallery, where "Chapman Brothers," an exhibition of Jake and Dinos Chapman's disturbing tableaux of war and genetic mutation, opened last week. Aquarium tickets are $15; gallery tickets $14.
The next stop is the London Eye, the ultimate Big Wheel. It's 135 m high and you can see for 40 km as far as Windsor Castle from the top on a clear day. If you've booked (go to www.londoneye.com or call 0870 5000 600), you can enjoy the view for $18 without the queuing.
A little further east is the South Bank Centre entertainment complex. Tickets to classical concerts at the Royal Festival Hall range from $10 to $60, but there is free foyer music most days. The Queen Elizabeth Hall offers more classical, jazz and world music, with tickets from $10 to $42. The extensively refurbished Hayward Gallery (it's the first to get a makeover in a 10-year plan for the whole site) reopens Oct. 23 with "Saved! 100 Years of the National Art Collections Fund," featuring paintings, sculpture, textiles and artifacts from the ancient Greeks to the present day. Entrance is $15. Or, for $12.50 (nonmembers), you can catch a classic or foreign-language film at the National Film Theatre. At the National Theatre, Martin McDonagh's new play The Pillowman, about a writer in a totalitarian state, opens in November. A two-part adaptation of British children's author Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, an epic of parallel worlds, premieres in December. Tickets range from $17 to $57.
Stroll a few minutes more and it's hard to miss the imposing bulk of Tate Modern. This converted power station, linked to the north bank of the Thames by a footbridge, features the finest international modern art. Sigmar Polke: History of Everything, which opened last week, showcases the German artist's recent parodies of mass-produced imagery. Entrance is free, special exhibitions are $13. The Elizabethan reproduction Globe Theatre opens again in May.
It'll probably be evening by the time you reach Tower Bridge, a masterpiece of Victorian engineering disguised as a medieval castle. A visit to the Tower Bridge Experience costs $7.50. And if you've made it this far, you'll be ready for that great British tradition: a nice cup of tea and a sit-down. You'll find the real London experience at the Cat and Cucumber at the corner of Druid Street and Tower Bridge Road, or more continental coffee and cakes (and river views) at the Hays Galleria shopping center between London Bridge and Tower Bridge.