A cultural tour of London's South Bank
- Recommended for:
- Cultural, Short Break, Budget, Mid-range, Expensive
Cosmopolitan, cool and constantly eventful, London's South Bank is the place to be to get away from the Oxford Street crowds while taking in some culture
The South Bank used to be a grotty place. In Shakespeare's time, Londoners used to cross the frozen Thames in winter to visit the numerous brothels that lined the river and take in a show at any of the city's numerous theatres, where some of the world's most popular plays were being given in their debut performances.
Quite a lot has changed - the brothels have been moved out in favour of chic shops and restaurants, art galleries and museums - but one thing remains. The South Bank is still Shakespeare's realm.
A trip to the South Bank isn't complete without a pilgrimage to the Globe. A reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre (burned down in a blazing pyre) on practically the self-same site, it hosts professional revivals of Shakespeare's plays alongside brand new works by the latest playwrights twice daily during the summer season, as there would have been back in the 17th century.
Tickets can be cheap too. For one of the 1,800 seats in the Globe you can expect to pay anything between £12-£33. However, true aficionados of the theatre will try and recreate the classic Globe experience by taking one of the 700 £5 standing tickets available and set themselves up by the raised stage. To see some of the classics of the British theatre, such as Hamlet or Othello, up close and in the way that thousands of groundlings would have four hundred years ago is a humbling and extraordinary experience.
If you're worn out after a few hours standing at the play, head a few seconds west to one of the numerous restaurants that line the riverside. Chain restaurants and grander independent eateries stand side-by-side, ignored by the commuting Londoners who teem along the South Bank day on day.
Further west is one of the places locals will head to every weekend for their groceries, and a culinary tour de force which has to be seen to be believed: Borough Market. Fresh fruit, vegetables and meat can be purchased and artisan coffee makers and bakers from around the nation come to sell some of the best quality products in one of the largest markets in the country. Get there early to avoid the crowds of awed tourists that hinder the progress of locals trying to find the freshest and cheapest food to take home. If you're lucky you might also run into the actress playing Cleopatra down the road at the Globe in her downtime.
Back east and past the Globe is the unique industrial building that is the Tate Modern. Home to one of the world's finest collections of modern art, entrance to most exhibitions are completely free (though some special displays may cost). Over numerous floors in a disused power station, one of the Tate's recent specialities is participatory art installations which sit in the grand turbine hall. Sitting directly opposite the gallery, across the futuristic-looking MIllenium Bridge (if you have kids, let them walk across the bridge dragging their feet and enjoy their delight as they realise they can sound like a lightsabre) is a link to the old London: the dominating cupola of St. Paul's Cathedral, definitely worth crossing to the North Bank for.
If the time in the Tate has given you a yearning for more modern theatre, the National Theatre (a misnomer: it's actually three theatres under a single roof) plays host to many gritty modern dramas in a constantly-rotating season. For music lovers, there is the Royal Festival Hall, recently renovated to improve the acoustics. The unassuming, 1960s-style façade hides what is one of the most revered concert halls in the world.
Next door is the smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall, which has the dual fame of being a jazz hub and the home of British skateboarding. Day in, day out, youngsters pile into the undercroft of the building at ground level and use it as their own skate park, showing off their tricks for an adoring and camera-toting public.
Still further to the east is a massive used-book market which will give you world classics at a distinctly affordable price. The easternmost edge of the South Bank is unofficially marked by the London Eye, looming large over most of London and giving perfect views of the city. If all of that somehow wasn't enough, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are just a short walk across the river on the North Bank.
Staying on the South Bank can be quite expensive. Park Plaza County Hall London has unparalleled views of the London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, and a price to match. It is, however, luxurious to a fault. Much more affordable is the Premier Inn London County Hall: with a similar location, this chain hotel is reasonable and comfortable, but without some of the luxury.