In the Zone: South Bank, London

Fresh from giving us his thoughts on Camden town, Josh Ferry Woodard returns to Urban Travel Blog with this guide to London’s iconic South Bank… a simply unmissable zone for newcomers to the capital.

The South Bank of the River Thames earned its reputation as an entertainment district back in the Middle Ages when, because it fell outside of official city limits, Londoners used to swarm here at night to enjoy unlicensed theatre performances, as well as more ribald activities such as prostitution and bear-baiting. Although the area is a lot more refined these days, it certainly hasn’t lost its status as a thriving hub of cultural activity.

Its prime location along the river means that very few people can actually afford to live on the South Bank, rather the area is lined with national treasures such as: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the National Theatre and the London Eye. This enviable combination of centrality and top attractions inevitably draws in the crowds. Hordes of tourists and locals alike visit the area everyday to view gallery spaces, watch plays, drink, dine, or simply stroll beside the river and take in views of the city.

The beautiful Brutalist architecture of the National Theatre

Visit in summer and you can expect to find a giant inflatable upside-down purple cow hosting comedy and circus shows (the Udderbelly Festival). Visit in winter to find the South Bank transformed into a wonderland of Christmas market stalls and mulled wine vendors, festooned with pretty fairy lights and festive decorations.

By Day

To make the most of the South Bank, however touristy it made sound, you really have to visit the Tate Modern. This imposing concrete behemoth of a building is a work of art in itself. A little bit of renovation around the turn of the century, and seven floors worth of exceptional multi-disciplinary art pieces, have transformed the cold taupe walls and harsh steel girders of this former power station into the world’s most-visited modern art gallery. From the dreamy surrealism of Salvador Dali’s paintings to the exasperating pretension of Michael Baldwin’s mirror (Untitled Painting), the Tate Modern is sure to evoke a response.

A short walk along the river will transport you from the conceptual world of modern art to the palpable immediacy of contemporary youth culture. Supporters of the Undercroft Skatepark recently won an 18-month battle against developers to ensure that the “long-term home of British skateboarding” will remain just that. A proposal to turn this iconic graffiti-stained skatepark into a row of shops and restaurants was met with widespread vitriol, and luckily an agreement has been reached to keep the park alive.

The Undercroft Skatepark… home of British skateboarding

All this visual stimulation has probably left you hungry, so it’s time to head for Gabriel’s Wharf: a renovated quayside square decked with bars, restaurants and independent boutiques. If Italian cuisine is your thing then try some of Gourmet Pizza’s unusual toppings. But if you’re after a traditional English meal, grab a plate of gourmet pie, mash and gravy at the award-winning Pieminister. After lunch, browse the wharf for ornate wooden sculptures, homemade jewellery or couture garments of clothing.

By Night

The South Bank really comes to life at night. The London Eye glows blue like a giant floating doughnut, the National Theatre becomes the world’s largest crimson building block and the Millennium Bridge is transformed into a space-age bladed walkway (to another dimension, or just the north side of the river?).

The Thames Clipper is the best way to view the river at night. Take a cruise downstream on one of many luxurious catamarans and experience the city at stirring speeds of up to 28 Knots. Alight at the Bankside Pier to grab some pub grub at the Founder’s Arms before catching a play (season permitting) at Shakespeare’s Globe: a scrupulous reconstruction of the Elizabethan playhouse built on this site by The Bard’s very own production company back in 1599. In keeping with the customs of the era, plays are performed on an open-air stage in front of a 700-person standing pit and an 857-seater globular wooden barrack. The thatched roof is the only of its kind permitted since the Great Fire of London decimated the city into a pit of burning embers back in 1666.

View from the South Bank at dusk

If the Globe has closed its doors for winter: don’t despair, you can get your thespian fix a short walk away at the National Theatre. Of all the venues in London – yes even the West End’s most prestigious theatres – I don’t think there is anything that can compare to the impressive stagecraft at the NT. A five-storey high ‘drum revolve’ with multiple elevators allows producers to concoct complex set designs that add another dimension to the performances. And during climatic scenes the bass drum can reach decibel levels usually reserved for Swans concerts.

Talk about the play – and the set – over a cocktail or craft beer at the BFI Riverfront Bar and then head inland towards the area’s more edgy venues. Situated in a network of Victorian archways underneath Waterloo station, The Vaults is a multi-room arts space with an affinity for the unusual. It hosts exhibitions, theatre, music and events 168 nights a year. Check online to see what’s on the bill: The Vaults often holds special events around occasions such as Halloween or Christmas but if you plan to visit on an ordinary weekend there is no telling what kind of imaginative evening they have lined up for you.

Alternatively, venture a little bit further away from the river and you could find yourself at Corsica Studios: one of London’s rawest and most revered nightclubs. Experimental punk bands take centre stage on week nights and world-renowned techno DJs fly-in especially to keep revellers hypnotised deep into the early hours of the morning over the weekend.

Local’s Perspective

Emma

Emma, 24, has been working at the Globe for almost three years as a Friends and Patrons Coordinator. She loves the fact that people can walk up and pay £5 for the best view in the house.

“The South Bank is my favourite area. I love walking along the river, it can be so romantic in the evening with all the lights hanging from the trees.” Her favourite bar is the BFI’s Riverfront Bar and Kitchen and she loves to snack on Mexican food from the Wahaca food stall outside the South Bank Centre.

The only thing she dislikes about the area is the high concentration of tourists and the fact that it is too expensive for her to live there!

Local Digs

The South Bank edition of the ubiquitous St Christopher’s Inn hostel chain is located on Borough High Street, about ten minutes walk from the river and right under the shadow of The Shard. With a different entertainment schedule every night of the week (sight seeing tours, barbecues, movies, karaoke, drinking games etc.) it is easy to see why the chain is so popular among budget travellers.

If the thought of sharing a dorm with drunken youths has you feeling a little flustered, then the upmarket citizenM hotel could be the place for you. This stylish establishment features quirky design throughout, serves a wide selection of mouthwatering food and drinks 24/7 and even publishes its own online cultural magazine. A stay at this luxurious hotel will leave you minutes away from the river.

For more info on the capital, visit our weekend guide, with the lowdown on all the best things to do in the city.