Our guide to spending the weekend in one of London’s most vibrant areas

Words Helen Brown

From the iconic London Eye to the literary haven that is Shakespeare’s Globe, the Southbank pulls in tremendous crowds. Home to the Tate Modern and a broad range of galleries and alternative spaces, it is unsurprising that a prolific contemporary art scene flourishes along this stretch of river bank. Art isn’t the only offering however, we’ve rounded up where to eat and what you can buy to make the most out of a visit to this bustling part of London. 

Food & Drink

At Albion, breakfast is the main meal of the day, so make this your first point of call when visiting the  area. The menu is superfluent, with dishes ranging from toast and marmite to kedgeree. Prices aren’t modest, however nothing can be said against quality. Later in the day the menu extends to classic British favourites such as fish and chips, pies, bread and butter pudding and afternoon teas. Just a hop across the road, it is the perfect alternative to the Tate Modern’s bustling bistro. For late-night dining, the Oxo Tower is a London landmark, and its dining room, brasserie, and bar emanate a sense of extravagance. Its iconic location and stunning river view make this classy destination perfect for special occasions. The brasserie has an adventurous global menu with fairs such as smoked duck ham with duck rilettes, cider-poached pear and brioche, as well as beef carpaccio and an insanely good burrata sitting alongside squash and an artichoke emulsion. As you would expect, eating here is not cheap, however the glorious view over the Southbank and beyond towards St Paul’s Cathedral, plus decent food are well worth the price-tag. 

For something suiting a more conservative budget, The Green Room serves delicious, ethically-sourced British diner food, from crab and avocado on toast to grilled hake and duck and ham pie. It’s been established as a fantastic collaboration between the National Theatre and local social enterprise, Coin Street Community Builders. Consequently, decorating the airy contemporary space you’ll find props and scenery recycled from National Theatre shows. Surrounding The Green Room is an urban oasis; a sustainable garden maintained by the Bankside Open Spaces Trust with volunteers from the theatre and local area. All profits from this restaurant support the National Theatre and local communities.

Shopping

Whilst you are in the vicinity, make the most of Southbank as the perfect place to source truly unique gifts and to enjoy a relaxed shopping experience. Its design-led holdings offer an alternative to the bustling West End shops, with various riverside boutiques presenting contemporary home ware, stylish furniture, exquisite jewellery and imaginative artwork. Sprawling alongside the Thames, opposite BFI Southbank, the Southbank Centre Book Market offers an endless stream of volumes neatly divided into categories, and most selling for under half their original retail value. Here, too, is a selection of antiquarian prints, first editions, signed editions and specialist magazines, meaning early birds can secure some real treasures. For those still with library space, there is a smaller outpost of Charing Cross’ Foyles bookshop, piled to the rafters with over 30,000 titles. It has an excellent selection of non-fiction, coffee-table books and magazines, as well as all the latest bestsellers and classics.

The walk between the London Eye and Tate Modern offers a wealth of artistic attractions. The Jubilee Gardens contain British sculptor Ian Walters’ 1985 International Brigade Memorial, and the Jubilee Oracle by London artist Alexander in 1980. Next up along the South Bank is the contested Southbank Undercroft, a skate park with a display of notable, like-it-or-lump-it street art. A third bronze sculpture, Frank Dobson’s London Pride, can be found outside the National Theatre displaying two women in a style reminiscent of Picasso. Last but by no means least, Britain’s largest outdoor painting titled Poured Lines by Turner Prize nominee Ian Davenport is exhibited on Southwark Street.

With four cinemas and the the BFI Mediatheque providing access to the BFI National Archive for free, BFI Southbank is well worth a visit. It has a reputation as the best cultural archive for the film industry in the UK and regularly exhibits scripts, costumes, posters, and other film-related materials from the National Archive and the BFI Reuben Library in its Mezzanine space. These exhibitions often coincide with noteworthy films shown at the same time and work wonders to enhance thereby aiming to enhance the cinematic experience.  

The National Theatre has a worldwide reputation for its award-winning shows, with recent successes including War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors. It boasts four auditoriums – Olivier, Lyttelton, Dorfman and Temporary and often has its greatest Live productions beamed to cinemas across the globe. Continually on offer is a broad production spectrum that covers new plays to classics, comedies and musicals. It would be rude not to frequent the shop, whilst you’re there, to peruse its offering of wonderfully original books and gifts.

The Tate barely needs an introduction when discussing the area and unless you spent the summer sunning yourself in the Bahamas or under a rock, you will have undoubtedly seen it welcome a new ten-storey bestowal to contemporary art. Don’t let its daily swarms of tourists deter you, their omnipresence is valid; Tate Modern is one of London’s most prominent art attractions and has certainly earned its reputation as the home of modern and contemporary art. 

For something marginally less busy, the Hayward Gallery is one facet of London’s Southbank Centre and partakes in the organisation’s quest for making art accessible to all. The gallery opened in 1968 as a brilliant example of the Brutalist architecture that was common at the time. The modern and contemporary art displayed within is no less intriguing, representing and exhibiting some of the world’s most innovative artists. Whilst we’re on the topic, the Southbank Centre is the world’s largest single-run arts centre and as well as the Hayward, includes the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room, Poetry Library and 21 acres of creative arts. There is a surplus of culture to be soaked up in the form of music, dance, art, performance and spoken word.

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