From awesome art to high-speed boat rides, Sara Turner finds much to thrill in the area around Victoria Embankment.
1. Banqueting House
Victoria Embankment runs along the north side of the River Thames, from Westminster Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge. Built in the late 19th century, it changed the position of the river bank so that structures built with direct access to the Thames became landlocked. One of these was Banqueting House on Whitehall, which was built by Inigo Jones for King Charles I in 1622. Some 27 years later the king was accused of high treason and beheaded on a wooden platform in front of the same building.
One of the last things Charles I saw before being led to his death was Peter Paul Rubens’ canvases on the house’s ceiling. The stunning artwork miraculously survived a fire in 1698 that destroyed the majority of the Palace of Whitehall – the only building to remain standing was Banqueting House – and spent the Second World War down a mine in Wales. The ceiling has now been restored to its original splendour, and two of the canvases are of Charles’ father, King James I, while another depicts the union of Scotland and England. The house is open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm and entry costs £4.80. It can also be booked for banquets. Visit hrp.org.uk/banquetinghouse
2. Victoria Embankment Gardens
Stroll along the river and you’ll come to the enchanting Victoria Embankment gardens. Stretching from Hungerford Bridge to Waterloo Bridge, the gardens offer a tranquil escape from the bustle of London, with park benches and soft grass to relax on. Look out for a striking statue of Scottish poet Robert Burns and the old water gate from the now destroyed York House.
Across the road stands Cleopatra’s Needle, a pink granite monument that is older than London itself, dating back to about 1,475 BC. Its inscriptions celebrate the pharaohs of ancient Egypt and have nothing to do with Queen Cleopatra VII, who was born more than a thousand years after its creation.
3. The Courtauld Gallery
Head north towards the Strand to see more of Rubens’ work at the Courtauld Gallery, including the enchanting Landscape by Moonlight and the violent Cain Slaying Abel. The gallery’s collection was created by gifts and bequests from some of the leading collectors of the 19th and 20th centuries, including Count Antoine Seilern and Samuel Courtauld, who donated many impressionist and post-impressionist artworks. Look out for Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère and Cezanne’s The Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine. The gallery is open daily from 10am to 6pm and entry costs £5. (Free on Mondays until 2pm.)
The Courtauld is in Somerset House, which was originally built by the ill-fated Edward Seymour, first Duke of Somerset, and was taken over by the Crown after he was executed for treason in 1552. Elizabeth I lived here before she was made queen, and it later housed the body of Oliver Cromwell as it lay in state after his death in 1658. Visit courtauld.ac.uk/gallery, somersethouse.org.uk
4. The Strand and Fleet Street
Carry on along the Strand, which means “river bank” in Old English and marks the original shore of the Thames. It’s home to the Royal Courts of Justice, King’s College London and the Twinings tea room, which dates back to 1717. Also worth a look are the two churches, St Mary Le Strand and St Clement Danes, which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1682. It now serves as the central church of the Royal Air Force, and the floor has about 1,000 squadron and unit badges laid into it.
Continue along to Fleet Street, which until the 1980s was the heart of the UK press industry. If you have time for a quick pint, pop in to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of the oldest pubs in London, before walking on towards St Paul’s.
5. St Paul’s Cathedral
While not strictly on the Embankment, St Paul’s is within striking distance and is one of the capital’s most popular spots. It was Wren who also designed St Paul’s, who first proposed embankments along the Thames. The site has been home to a place of worship since the seventh century but the present limestone structure was built after the previous cathedral was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. It took 35 years to complete.
Inside the cavernous structure, spend a while among the great and the good in the crypt – look out for William Blake, Florence Nightingale and Wren himself. If you have enough time, take a guided tour for £3, which will give you more insight into the cathedral’s rich history plus access to otherwise private areas, including the Dean’s magnificent geometric staircase, used in the filming of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. St Paul’s is open to visitors from Monday to Saturday between 8.30am and 4pm, and entry costs £11. Visit stpauls.co.uk
6. The Thames Rib Experience
Head back through the maze of streets towards the river and then turn right along Victoria Embankment, where you will pass two dragon statues that mark the boundary between the City of London and Westminster, until you reach Embankment Pier.
Here the Thames Rib (rigid inflatable boat) Experience starts. The river, although murky with silt, is said to be among the cleanest in the world, home to many species of fish and even the odd dolphin or seal. Trips last for 50 minutes (£29) or an hour and a half (£45). The 12-seat high-powered boat is the fastest on the Thames, reaching up to 50 knots. The driver will at first take you gently along the river while a tour guide points out the sights, which include the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge, after which the traffic clears and you’ll experience the boat’s speed-demon credentials. Visit thamesribexperience.com to book.
If you have time to spare, you could head to the South Bank – click here for suggestions on what to do.