South Bank area guide

Keep abreast of all the cultural happenings along this lively stretch of the river

Ed Marshall

An estimated 14 million people come this way each year, and it's easy to see why. Between the London Eye and Tower Bridge, the South Bank offers a two-mile procession of diverting, largely state-funded arts and entertainment venues and events.

The area's modern-day life began in 1951 with the Festival of Britain, staged to boost morale in the wake of World War II. The Royal Festival Hall stands testament to the inclusive spirit of the project; it was later expanded into the Southbank Centre, alongside BFI Southbank and the concrete ziggurat of the National Theatre. But the riverside really took off in the new millennium, with the arrival of the London Eye, Tate Modern, Millennium Bridge and the expansion of Borough Market.

South Bank highlights

BFI IMAX

London's – indeed, the UK’s – biggest cinema screen at 540 square metres, the BFI Imax stands alone in the centre of a busy roundabout next to Waterloo station. Like a princess in a fairytale it’s surrounded by a labyrinth of eerie tunnels, which heroic filmgoers must brave if they wish to sample the delights within. But trust us, it’s worth it. The screen is, of course, absolutely massive, the sound quality is spectacular and the seats are arranged at such a vertiginous angle that there’s no chance of a head blocking your view. It’s not cheap – as much as £20 for a premium seat – but if you like your blockbusters vast and noisy (and who doesn’t?) there’s really nothing else like it in town. One word of advice – locate your nearest loo before the film starts if you’re prone to a mid-film pee, because they’re all but impossible to find.

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Things to do

London Eye

On a clear day you can see as far as Windsor Castle, 25 miles away, from the top of the London Eye, one of the world's largest observation wheels. A circuit on the Eye will show you all the city's key sights in 30 minutes, and each of the 32 pods (one for every London borough) is equipped with a touchscreen to explain what you're looking at. There are usually tickets available for walk-ups, but tickets are more expensive than if you book ahead online; disabled visitors and wheelchair users must book in advance. These days there are also a number of variations on the basic trip: afternoon tea, champagne, perhaps a private pod, or combining your visit with a river cruise. See our guide to London Eye   The London Eye is closed for its annual repair and maintenance period from January 5 to January 16 2015

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Restaurants

South Bank restaurants

After a lengthy stroll along the riverside, the many budget and mid-priced chain restaurants on the South Bank can come as great relief. But for something a bit more special, Skylon is modern and chic (with amazing views), and Benugo has solved BFI Southbank's long-running problem of feeding its cinemagoers properly. House at the National Theatre is also a treat. Think we've missed a great restaurant along the South Bank? Let us know in the comment box below.

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Art

Tate Modern

Thanks to its industrial architecture, this powerhouse of modern art is awe-inspiring even before you enter. Built after World War II as Bankside Power Station, it was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of Battersea Power Station. The power station shut in 1981; nearly 20 years later, it opened as an art museum, and has enjoyed spectacular popularity ever since. The gallery attracts five million visitors a year to a building intended for half that number; the first fruits of work on the immensely ambitious, £215m TM2 extension opened in 2012: the Tanks, so-called because they occupy vast, subterranean former oil tanks, will stage performance and film art. As for the rest of the extension, a huge new origami structure, designed by Herzog & de Meuron (who were behind the original conversion), will gradually unfold above the Tanks until perhaps 2016, but the work won’t interrupt normal service in the main galleries. In the main galleries themselves, the original cavernous turbine hall is still used to jaw-dropping effect as the home of large-scale, temporary installations. Beyond, the permanent collection draws from the Tate’s collections of modern art (international works from 1900) and features heavy hitters such as Matisse, Rothko and Beuys – a genuinely world-class collection, expertly curated. There are vertiginous views down inside the building from outside the galleries, which group artworks according to movement (Surrealism, Minimalism, Post-war abstraction)

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Venues on the South Bank

Cinemas

BFI Southbank

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Art

Hayward Gallery

Prince Charles famously lambasted Hayward's divisive brutalist architecture, though for many the building is an excellent example of 1960s design. Casual visitors can hang out in the industrial-look café downstairs (which becomes a bar at night), aptly called Concrete, or catch one of the leftfield events occasionally programmed in association with the temporary exhibitions. Free contemporary shows are curated in the Hayward Project Space (take the stairs to the first floor from the glass foyer extension) while the versatile main space programmes an excellent bill of major exhibitions.

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London Wonderground

This summer-long pop-up cabaret festival offers an embarrassment of riches. International performers include sensational chanteuses Meow Meow, who blends tenderness, satire and seat-of-the-pants showmanship, and the achingly soulful Camille O’Sullivan, who’s presenting a whole raft of shows. Also not to be missed is the Boom Boom Club’s ‘Prospero’s Tavern’, a theatrical shindig directed by Dusty Limits in which Jonny Woo’s magus oversees a Shakespearean lock-in starring cabaret’s finest. Come July 9, the neighbouring Udderbelly – the purple inflatable cow crammed with comedy – heads north to Edinburgh and the Wonderground expands to become a whole Coney Island-themed playground environment of sideshows, bandstands, food stalls, roving performers and barnyard oddities. ‘It’ll be like entering a new world,’ promises Ed Bartlam, co-director of Underbelly, who are creating the Wonderground with the Southbank Centre. We think he might be right.

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Theatre

National Theatre

The concrete-clad, 1960s modernist grandmother of them all: no theatrical tour of London is complete without a visit to the National, whose three auditoriums – Olivier, Lyttelton and Cottesloe – offer a rolling repertory programme, often with a choice of several productions in a week. The National Theatre may have once had a fiercely inaccessible reputation, but the arrival of maverick artistic director Nicholas Hytner in 2003 rocked theatreland as he set about changing the venue's staid ethos with daring productions such as 'Jerry Springer the Opera' and an ambitious adaptation of Phillip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials'. The change of tack proved a success, attracting audiences of mixed race, age and class – and Hytner's budget £10 Travelex-sponsored tickets still help pull in the crowds in the summer season. The home stable for Michael Morpurgo's 'War Horse', which opened here in 2007 and went on to break West End records, the National is now developing a reputation for family-friendly blockbusters, cue its current production of Mark Haddon's 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time'. Meanwhile the National Theatre Live initiative has extended the theatre's reach by broadcasting high-publicity productions such as Danny Boyle's role-swapping smash-hit 'Frankenstein' and the comedy 'One Man, Two Guvnors', which introduced James Corden to the stage, live to Picturehouse Cinemas. A recent run of the post-modern musical 'London Road' proved it hasn't lost its edge. You

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Theatre

National Theatre, The Shed

The latest, temporary addition to the National Theatre family is this striking temporary structure in front of the main building (occupying the area normally take up by Watch This Space, which is taking the summer off). A replacement for the Cottesloe – which is currently being done up, and will reopen next year as the Dorfman – The Shed is a more intimate black box studio, with a seating capacity of just 200 and no backstage area to speak of. It sports a hipper, more lo-fi programme than the Cottesloe, with acclaimed visiting shows and experimental original work.

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Restaurants

Queen Elizabeth Roof Garden Bar & Café

First planted as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, this rooftop area was left to become concrete tundra for decades. But with guidance from the Eden Project, this rooftop is now replanted every summer. In addition to the Astroturf there is now a real lawn, large planters of vegetables and a wildflower ‘meadow’. The café is run by caterer Company of Cooks, so expect a selection of decent pastries and savoury snacks (with the occasional hot sarnie, too), plus glasses of Pimm’s or pink gin lemonade (both £6.90).

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Queen Elizabeth Hall

The second largest space within the sprawling Southbank Centre, the Queen Elizabeth Hall is where more prominent dance, music and performance events play out. QEH's brutalist architecture sits well with fellow venue the Hayward, both designed in the 1960s, and skaters have found a lively use for the vacant car park-like enclosure beneath it, turning it into a graffitied performance space.

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Music

Royal Festival Hall

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Theatre

Shakespeare's Globe

The original Globe Theatre, where many of Shakespeare's plays were first staged and which he co-owned, burned to the ground in 1613 during a performance of 'Henry VIII'. Nearly 400 years later, it was rebuilt not far from its original site, using construction methods and materials as close to the originals as possible. Shakespeare’s Globe has been an unbridled success, underpinned in part by its educational programme (you can drop in for talks and readings) and its commitment to faithfully recreating an original ‘Shakespeare in performance’ experience - the season runs from April to October. The open-air, free-standing Yard is the best bet for those after complete authenticity – the absence of seating may test your stamina but tickets are excellent value – while the Middle and Upper Galleries afford a (marginally more comfortable) atmosphere of their own. The only thing that tends to mar a performance is the theatre’s somewhat noisy, flight-path location. In the UnderGlobe beneath the theatre is a fine exhibition on the history of the reconstruction, Bankside and its original theatres, and Shakespeare's London, including elegantly displayed costumes from early productions in the new theatre, filmed video interviews and touchscreen exhibits on Elizabethan special effects; visitors can also edit a page of 'Hamlet' to their own specifications and print the result. Guided tours of the Shakespeare's Globe theatre run throughout the year (taking in the archaeological site of the Ro

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Museums

Southbank Centre

This riverside titan of arts and entertainment has morphed and expanded in the past few years securing its position as one of the most attractive cultural hotspots in London, helped by its accessible location and proximity to the National Theatre and Tate Modern. The Southbank Centre caters for the widest spectrum of people and interests, peddling visual art, music, literature events and performance in its several venues – the Royal Festival Hall, The Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall (including the Purcell Room) and the Saison Poetry Library. Recently it has become a go-to destination for foodies too. Skylon, a swanky British-themed restaurant within RFH, caters for those with a bit of cash, while a range of spanking new chain restaurants (Wagamama, Strada, Ping Pong) jostle for attention alongside the pie-touting Canteen.

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Art

Tate Modern

International modern art from the collection.

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Things to do Buy tickets

Udderbelly

The giant inflatable upside-down purple cow known as the Udderbelly has become one the most distinctive and best loved venues at the Edinburgh Festival since it first landed in its August home on Bristo Square in 2006. This summer this glorious eyesore returns to the South Bank, cocking a snook at the politicians in the Houses of Parliament a few hundred metres across Old Father Thames. For 12 weeks it will hold a tremendously varied festival of comedy, music, magic, circus, theatre and children's shows.

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Comments

2 comments
John L
John L

Growing up, the South Bank was desolate until the skaters came in. It's been great seeing the spaces come to life around it, and we now have a buzzing vibrant place with lots to see, do and eat but hats off to the pioneers who brought their own street culture there and I hope it is retained exactly as it is. I'm a big fan of the food market at weekends and love the bigger food festivals which spread along the front.

Sue B
Sue B

Just love the southbank. so much to see and do. perfect day out whatever the weather, from the Tower to the nooks and crannies, around the Cathedral and the Golden Hind. what an adventure. have done this walk several times and I still love it.