Looking for the top things to do in Southbank London? Southbank is a fascinating neighborhood in London that never disappoints. Many visitors to this great city hit only the big sights; The Tower of London, Westminster and the Abbey, the West End shows, SOHO. If you’re going to London, you DO have to see these sights…and you’ll love everything about them. These are wonderful places, full of history, music, glorious multi-ethnic cuisines, art, you name it, it is all here and it is all top-notch. But if you are looking for the cultural heart of London where the locals go to stroll on the promenade by the banks of the Thames, with spectacular views and world-class entertainment, then London’s South Bank is ideal.
The area of Southbank lies by the river Thames across from Westminster. It is loosely defined as extending from Westminster Bridge in the west to Blackfrairs Bridge in the east and has a history as interesting as any in London. Over the years the area has experienced many transformations; from a marshy outpost, slum, center of prostitution and bear baiting, potter’s field to its current iteration as is London’s cultural and creative center.
THREE OF THE TOP THINGS TO DO IN SOUTHBANK LONDON ARE JUST A FEW STEPS FROM EACH OTHER
Cross the Thames at Westminster Bridge. Immediately you will come to:
The Sea Life London Aquarium, the perfect vehicle for a top-notch learning experience masquerading as entertainment. Here you can come face to face with some of the world’s most fascinating sea creatures and learn about the aquarium’s important conservation efforts. You can snorkel with several types of sharks or witness the shark feeding process. Tip: Don’t do both simultaneously.
Next to the Sea Life Aquarium is The London Dungeon. I love these types of attractions; haunted houses, cemetery walks, Jack the Ripper tours, “Crimes of the Century” wax museum exhibits. Give me a good escape-the-room-with-a-zombie chained-to-the-wall attraction or a scary mummy exhibit and I’m happy. So naturally, The London Dungeon attraction is right up my alley. It is an exhilarating, heart-thumping, rip-roaring good time. With scary rides, a cast of notorious characters and several shows featuring audience participation, there will be nowhere to hide. The London Dungeon is more than a horror funhouse. You also pick up quite a bit of London’s history as you travel through the eras of the Black Plague, The London Fire, highway robbers, religious wars and other events that shaped the city. The London Dungeon is really one of the top quirky things to do in London. Tip: If you have kids, consider their ages before buying a ticket.
Across the road to your right is the famous London Eye, a Ferris wheel that will give you epic views of London during a 30-minute rotation. I’ve taken the London Eye both at night and during the day. Both times have their unique charm. It is a unique experience that shouldn’t be missed. Make sure to explore the attraction’s special offers, such as combined with a 40-minute cruise on the Thames, a private capsule, champagne experience and more. Tip: No time to wait on line? Get a fast-track ticket and enter through a dedicated entrance. See details here.
Need a break? Continue east on the riverbank and stroll through the Jubilee Gardens enjoying the green spaces and manicured landscapes.
SOUTH BANK IS ALSO CONSIDERED LONDON’S CULTURAL HEART
It’s not all about attractions here. If you’re seeking top things to do in Southbank London from a cultural perspective, keep walking. You will soon come to the Southbank Center, a world-class entertainment complex consisting of several venues. The Royal Festival Hall houses important classical music companies including the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The Hayward Gallery is a center for contemporary art. Another important venue in the Southbank Center is the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, both of which are under renovation and expected to open in 2018.
Southbank Center is also a great place to explore dining options. The center has a wide array of choices including street and global food, cocktails, and restaurants in all price ranges.
A little further west by the Waterloo Bridge is the BFI (British Film Institute) your go-to for independent cinema and foreign films. The complex comprises three cinemas as well as cafes and exhibition space. It is also home to the IMAX theatre with its impossibly high and widescreen. The large bar area in the foyer sometimes hosts smaller performances.
A few steps away and you’re at the National Theatre originally founded by Laurence Olivier. The theater offers a pretty eclectic selection of performances. They showcase everything from Shakespeare and other international classic drama to funky and innovative new plays by contemporary playwrights. The complex houses several theaters: the Olivier, Lyttelton, Dorfman, all of which can run several plays simultaneously. All these choices will make it hard for you not to find a play to your liking. Tip: To score preferred seats and performances at Southbank Center, The BFI and the National Theatre, make sure to research events online beforehand and return later, if possible.
HISTORY IS EVERYWHERE IN SOUTH BANK
Doggett’s Coat and Badge restaurant by Blackfriars Bridge is one of my favorite places to stop for lunch or dinner whenever I am on Southbank. I like the food. I like the view over the river. The service is spot on and pleasant. But most of all I like the history of the place. On one of the restaurant’s walls is a legend stating that “For almost 300 years, there has been an amateur rowing race on the Thames, from London Bridge to Chelsea. Originally organized by Thomas Doggett, the winner was awarded a coat and badge, hence the historic origin of our name.”
Another legend has it that during the Middle Ages the location where this restaurant now stands was a brothel run by two twin sisters with the last name of Doghead. The brothel was named The Dog’s Head. The women became successful entrepreneurs and passed the business on to their children, also named Doghead. Over the years the business remained but the name was distorted and Doghead became Doggett.
WHERE SOUTH BANK TURNS INTO BANKSIDE
Blackfrairs Bridge makes the loosely defined boundary of Southbank. Once you cross this bridge you are in Bankside which is basically a continuation of the wealth of history, museums, restaurants, and markets that make up this area.
The first notable attraction you will come across is the Tate Modern. The Tate showcases modern and contemporary art featuring rotating exhibits from top artists. The outside is an imposing structure, built in an old renovated power station which belies the bright, innovative spaces that form the interior. The fact that it is free to the public is an added perk.
Further west you will come to the Globe Theater, built about 750 feet away from the original structure constructed in 1599. The theater is a faithful rendition of what it looked like when Shakespeare wrote his plays which were performed here. I would argue this is a must-do experience simply due to its unique, open-air architecture and history. The fact that you may be sitting in the same seat witnessing the same performance as someone in 1603 just adds to the appeal. Tip: Plan your visit. Some plays can be had for as little as £5 on certain performances.
A short walk from the Globe Theater, right by London Bridge, is Borough Market, the last stop on your South Bank and Bankside tour. Walk through this colorful market and the song “food, glorious food” will continuously play in your mind. Borough Market lays claim to a 1000-year-old pedigree. The first mention of a market in this area is referenced in a chronicle dated 1014. By the Middle Ages, the market had been firmly established for centuries and became an extension of London in the early 1400s. As London grew over the centuries, so did the market which evolved into a major wholesaling operating by the 1900s. The rise of supermarkets influenced the decline of the market’s wholesale incarnation. By the late 1990s, the artisanal food trend found a welcome home in the market transforming it into what it is today, a large and varied collection of food stalls with a focus on products with a commitment to sustainability.
Many of the vendors are themselves the producers. The stalls include seafood, game, baked goods, every conceivable type of cheese, coffee, confectionery, it’s all here. The market has a definite international component which is to be expected in a cosmopolitan city like London. It also offers prepared foods, sampling, and restaurants. It’s fun to wander the stalls sampling whatever tempts you. Or you can take a three-hour “Taste of Borough Market” gastro tour with well-known travel writer, Celia Brooks.
Tip: Make sure you give yourself enough time to relish Borough Market. You will need it. Come very, very hungry.
This is just a brief sampling of the top things to do in Southbank London. There is so much more to see and so many unique experiences you can create for yourself, especially if you have more time. Here is a handy 4 day London itinerary that hits lots of the best the city has to offer. Can’t afford 4 days? Here’s how you can try to see London in a day, or at least a lot of it. And make sure you pack right for your London trip.
Feeling adventurous? Check out some off-the-beaten path London activities.
What do you like the best about South Bank and Bankside?