The Best Things to See and Do on the South Bank, London

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Mariella Hudson

Winding through the heart of London is the Thames – so why not take a stroll by the river along the South Bank? You can cross via the Hungerford footbridge or over Waterloo to reach a haven of culture, sights, shapes and sounds on the buzzy south side. Here’s what you can enjoy when you get there.

National Theatre

Unlike the rarefied, elegant theatres of the West End, the National is built for more than just passive viewing. You could spend a day here without even seeing a show: browsing an unrivalled collection of theatre texts, investigating the NT Archive, or even admiring the costumes on display. The three theatres within host a diverse range of performances, and celebrated past productions include the first of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in 1993. Although criticised in some quarters for its idiosyncratic appearance, the point of the National is not to be seduced by fancy, inaccessible trappings. The point is to take part in something; to live and breathe theatre.

The Cut

Connecting Lambeth to Southwark, The Cut is a vivid stretch of street where one of the oldest parts of London meets the cutting-edge of its cultural scene. First the Old Vic beckons, with a tradition of classic plays with high-profile performers. And then the hip Young Vic flashes, brash and stylish; a wonderful balcony bar provides a great place to meet friends, while the intimate theatres within make for gripping theatre. Just opposite, you can grab some delicious tapas at Meson Don Felipe, or buy beautiful second-hand books from the Calder Bookshop.

Lower Marsh

More off the beaten track than The Cut, but just as fascinating, is one of the streets it splits off into, Lower Marsh. Together, these two streets formed the centre of Lambeth’s commercial activity in Victorian times, and the street has maintained its historic status as a hub for independent merchants. You’ll find the stylish Cubana restaurant, and also Marie’s Café, serving tasty Thai food for excellent value; there’s a music shop specialising in classical and jazz, a vintage memorabilia shop, and some knitting and haberdashery stores thrown in for good measure. Oh, and there’s a market with 77 stalls.

BFI Southbank

Only on the South Bank could you walk past the vibrant graffiti of a makeshift skateboard park and an outdoor book market before strolling into a deluxe cinema compound. This is the site of the British Film Institute, a charity-run organisation promoting the best of British and world cinema, and home to a vast film archive, the London Imax, with Britain’s biggest screen, and the London Film Festival. Cosy up and enjoy cinema in the best way possible.

Southbank Centre

The various venues that make up the Southbank Centre put on an eclectic collection of shows every year, from world music to poetry readings and beyond; you can usually simply wander in and experience something thrilling without even buying a ticket. Live music and dance fill up the hall; endless nooks and crannies are stuffed with comfy lounge chairs where you can just sit, work or dream. Not to mention a glass elevator that sings to you and takes you up to the brilliant National Poetry Library, the largest of its kind in Britain. One of London’s best ideas.

Looking for somewhere to stay along the South Bank? Book one of the best hotels near the central hub of Waterloo Station now through Culture Trip and secure the perfect base for wandering along the Thames.

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