To experience London’s vibrant cultural life at its best, you need to visit the South Bank. Extending for over two miles along the southern bank of the Thames from Westminster Bridge in the East to Tower Bridge in the West, this pedestrianised thoroughfare features some of the English capital’s finest art galleries, concert venues, markets, theatres, shops, and more. Fabulous riverside views, thrilling modern architecture and a panoply of great eating and drinking venues only add to the appeal. Find out the best things to do on the South Bank with our guide.
Gaze over London from the London Eye
When strolling around the South Bank you won’t be able to avoid the gargantuan London Eye, the largest cantilevered observation wheel in the world. The London Eye has been a much-loved feature of the London skyline since its inception to mark the turn of the millennium in the year 2000, and at 135 metres high it towers over the river Thames far below. Take a ride in one of its 32 enclosed glass pods, which take half an hour to make a full revolution, for unmatched panoramas over the city - including amazing close-ups of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
Delve into the world of modern art at the Tate Modern
There could hardly be a more atmospheric setting for one of the world’s finest collections of modern art than the former Bankside power station that has been home to the Tate Modern’s collection since 1999. Enter through the yawning 3,300 square metre Turbine Hall, which is home to a revolving series of installations by leading contemporary artists from around the world, before ascending through five floors packed to the brim with modern masterpieces. Each gallery is arranged by theme rather than chronologically, tracing a highly original journey through the story of 20th-century art. Amongst the modern masters you’ll encounter along the way are Picasso, Mondrian, Matisse, Warhol, Rothko, Pollock and pretty much any other big name you can think of. Finish off your visit with a well-earned drink at the top-floor bar, which offers amazing views over the city far below.
Step into Shakespeare’s London at the Globe Theatre
Take a trip back in time over 400 years to the heart of Elizabethan London at the ever-fabulous Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Reconstructed exactly as it was during the playwright’s glorious heyday in the early 1600s, the open-air wooden theatre is the perfect setting to experience Shakepeare’s plays in the environment that they were originally intended for. Although you can pay for a seat in one of the theatre’s balconies, if you have the legs for it there’s nothing like joining the jostling hoi-polloi in the standing room only area in front of the stage, where you’re just feet from the action. The story of the Globe Theatre’s reconstruction is fascinating in its own right, the product of a one-man quest in the form of American actor Sam Wanamaker. Wanamaker first had the idea way back in the 1940s, but although it took nearly 50 years for the theatre to get off the ground, it was worth the wait.
Have a gourmet lunch at Borough Market
With a history stretching back over a millennium, historic Borough Market is London’s most famous and best-loved food market for good reason. Spreading out across a series of magnificent Victorian buildings amidst the railway viaducts between London Bridge and Southwark Cathedral, the sprawling complex features hundreds of produce traders selling the finest in British fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and artisan delicacies. In addition to the farmers and wholesalers, the bewildering variety of street-food vendors that set up their stalls here each day have made Borough Market one of London’s leading foodie destinations. No trip to the South Bank is complete without a pit stop at Borough market - for more, check out our online guide here.
Stop off at the Golden Hinde
You’ll be stopped in your tracks by this Renaissance warship docked beside the pedestrian Bankside walk just before you reach London Bridge. The Golden Hinde was the galleon commanded by explorer Sir Francis Drake on his circumnavigation of the Globe between 1577 and 1580, and is named after Drake’s patron Sir Christopher Hatton, whose crest (a red deer) is emblazoned on the hull. Drake pillaged and pirated his way to a vast fortune on his travels, much of which was gratefully received by Queen Elizabeth who made a vast profit on the expedition. This sea-worthy replica of Drake’s flagship was constructed in 1973, and it’s worth stepping aboard to wonder how a crew of 60 sailors could have survived in such tight confines for years on the high seas.
Take in a Show at the National Theatre or the Old Vic
London’s theatre scene is one of the world’s most vibrant, and much of the action occurs on the South Bank. Located in a forbidding brutalist building that resembles a nuclear bunker, the National Theatre is England’s flagship venue and hosts around 25 important, big-budget performances each year. This year features everything from modern reimaginings of Seneca’s ancient tragedy Phaedra and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to modern classics like Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Even if you’re not going to be attending a play, it’s worth exploring the extraordinary building - the foyers, cafes and bookshop are open to the general public free of charge. If the offerings at the National Theatre don’t float your boat, then check out the season at the nearby Old Vic and Young Vic theatres, whose experimental new productions are always at the cutting edge of London’s theatre world.
Catch a Classic Movie at the BFI
A veritable haven for cineastes, in addition to screening the latest art house and awards-worthy movies, the British Film Institute also regularly showcases classic films from its vaults that you’ll have trouble finding anywhere else. You might find yourself settling down to a classic 1970s Hammer horror offering, silent movies from the BFI archive, or even propaganda reels from World War II. Each October the BFI hosts the London Film Festival, the city’s most important annual cinema showcase. Find the British Film Institute tucked away in the arches beneath Waterloo Bridge.
Admire Street Art on Leake Street and the Undercroft
South Bank’s artistic treasures aren’t all housed in the area’s flagship galleries and museums. Every inch of this long underground tunnel running beneath Waterloo Station is decked out in vibrant graffiti and street-art. It’s worth visiting often, as the ephemeral art on the arched walls is ever-changing. Leake Street is also home to fine pop-up food venues including Polish venue Mamushka and Vietnamese hideaway Banh Bao Brothers.
A no less vibrant side of South Bank’s street culture can be found at the nearby Undercroft of the Southbank Centre, which has functioned as the principal gathering point for London’s skater community since the 1970s. Stop by to admire the daredevil moves framed by more colourful graffiti.
Spend an evening at the Southbank Centre
The sprawling Southbank Centre is Europe’s largest single complex dedicated to the performing and visual arts, and comprises three iconic Brutalist-designed buildings. The Hayward Gallery is one of the city’s premier exhibition spaces for contemporary art. With no permanent collection of its own, the Hayward hosts a few major exhibitions each year. Royal Festival Hall, meanwhile, is London’s premier venue for classical music. The 2,700 seater auditorium features dreamy acoustics, and is host to the resident London Philharmonic Orchestra. The third building in the Southbank Centre is the more intimate Queen Elizabeth Hall, which features a regular programme of jazz, avant-garde music and talks.
Browse the Boutiques of the Oxo Tower Wharf
With its iconic neon sign, landmark art-deco Oxo Tower brings a touch of 1920s glamour to South Bank. The tower owes its name to its former association with the Liebig Extract of Meat Company, who produced the British kitchen-staple Oxo Cube. Liebig sold the building in the 1950s and the site became derelict for decades, before being reborn as a shopping arcade showcasing local designers and boutiques in the 1990s. Today it remains a pleasant destination for some retail therapy at the end of a long Bankside walk.
Enjoy Epic Sunset Views from Waterloo Bridge
As long as I gaze on / Waterloo sunset / I am in paradise. So sang the Kinks in their classic slice of 1960s London Waterloo Sunset, and they weren’t wrong. Few sights evoke the city in all its glory more powerfully than the tangerine skies that envelop the Thames from this panoramic viewpoint, with Big Ben and the London Eye suspended against the sunset in one direction, and Tower Bridge and the skyscrapers of the City of London in the other. Claude Monet obsessively painted the view from here during his sojourns in the English Capital between 1900 and 1904, and taking it all in from Waterloo Bridge is the perfect way to end a day on London’s South Bank.
We hope you enjoyed our guide to London’s South Bank! If you’re planning a visit to London and want to get the best out of your time in the city, then be sure to check out Through Eternity’s range of private, expert-led London tours. We’ve got something for every interest, and are happy to customise our itineraries to suit you - so get in touch today to start planning your London adventure!