The Insider's Guide to Visiting Waterloo, Southbank and Bankside
There's a dizzying array of things to do when visiting Waterloo, Southbank and Bankside, but we've taken the guesswork out of it for you.
…when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
When I think Waterloo, I think date night. It’s certainly somewhere I enjoy going with my husband when we have a bit of time to ourselves. Some of the world’s best theatre is to be found in the area, as are some of London’s leading cultural delights. There is so much to see, do, watch and listen to, the area is a veritable feast for the cultural senses.
Named after the French battle (and not the ABBA song), Waterloo is entirely characterised by its proximity to the Thames river and the iconic buildings along its banks, which is exactly where you need to head to when you are in the area. On a sunny day, there few more lively and fun places to be than on the river, and it’s a prime location for spotting off-duty famous actors wandering around (particularly on Sundays).
In fact, there are few areas that exemplify all that London has to offer quite so well as the South Bank of the Thames, interspersed by its famous bridges - from Westminster to Waterloo bridge, Blackfriars to Southwark bridge, and the Millennium to London bridge, they form a semi-circle around the centrifugal point of Waterloo station. But before we even go bankside, let’s talk about Waterloo station and its environs, which have their very own diamonds to offer.
Finding Yourself by Waterloo Station
Waterloo station itself is an impressively large site. Parts of the station building are listed and it takes its name from Britain’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in France. Filled with shops and cafes, the station is a useful hub for picking up necessities and picnic materials that you can take with you to the river should the mood take you.
In the deep, dark tunnels underneath Waterloo station you will literally find underground art. The Vaults Gallery is a highly experimental subterranean art space featuring young, fresh international artists. The gallery is right by Leake Street, whose graffiti-laden walls were made famous by internationally renowned British street artist, Banksy.
To catch first rate plays in the welcoming atmosphere of a smaller theatre, and without the sometimes unwelcome ‘bustling atmosphere’ of the west end, head to the Old Vic and Young Vic theatres, both of which are within a few a minute’s walk of Waterloo station and housed in beautiful Victorian and 1970s buildings, respectively. The Cut at the Young Vic is also a good bar and a decent restaurant.
If theatre isn’t your thing, the BFI IMAX cinema is just a stone’s throw away. Here, you’ll be able to enjoy a 3D film experience, which is a great experience for anyone, but somehow feels more justifiable if you’ve got kids in tow.
The Best Things to do Around the South Bank
If your taste in films is more refined than blockbuster, just around the corner, on the Southbank, you’ll find the British Film Institute (BFI). Here, you will be able to enjoy a culturally more astute programme of cinema, in the comfort of a large auditorium, with a decent amount of leg-room.
In quick succession along the river you will find an impressive row of very large buildings with cultural offerings, the likes of which you would struggle to find anywhere else in the world. Together, these make up the Southbank Centre, which boasts a diverse cultural programme across the arts - from lectures and literature and poetry readings, to world music performances and exhibitions. The centre has several bars and, if you fancy some alfresco dining, the Riverside Cafe is located on level two.
If you enjoy live music, from classical to contemporary, you are spoiled for choice by the offerings of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Rooms and Royal Festival Hall, all of which sit adjacent to each other. The Royal Festival Hall, at the heart of the Southbank Centre, is London's leading classical music venue, but it also features plenty of other musical genres, engaging with indie artists from all over the globe. If you get the chance to catch the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Queen Elizabeth Hall, you won’t regret it. It’s currently closed for renovations, but will reopen in the spring of 2018.
There are some of the best theatrical performances in the world to be found right next door, on the four lauded stages that make up the National Theatre. The National is also kitted out with a bar and a restaurant. On a summer’s evening, the first-floor balcony is one of my favourite spots for admiring the Thames. That said, the fifth-floor balcony at the Royal Festival Hall is the spot for catching the very last rays of sunshine on a summer’s evening on the river, whilst enjoying a gin and tonic from the bar. Don’t expect seating though.
The Hayward Gallery, to the fore of the Southbank Centre, is a world-renowned contemporary art gallery in a building that is a landmark of brutalist architecture. It hosts exhibitions from some of the world’s leading artists and is well worth a visit. It rarely disappoints.
Heading east along the river from the Hayward, just by the Millennium Bridge (from which you’ll have a direct view of St Paul’s Cathedral across the river) you’ll come to the Tate Modern, London’s largest house of modern art. As well as featuring the best in modern art from across the globe, the Tate also has free exhibitions and is centred around the gargantuan Turbine Hall, which is entirely dedicated to installation art and usually features just one installation at a time. The Tate also has three fantastic shops, full of delights and things that you would quite like someone to give you as a gift. This is where I do most of my Christmas shopping.
Waterloo Remix: Alternative activities and delights in the area
Take a ride in a glass bubble to the top of the London Eye – the huge wheel at Bankside that you just can’t miss. From its dizzying-heights 135 metres, on a clear day you won’t find a better view of London. It can be particularly romantic at sunset…
Just a few minutes stroll from the London Eye you’ll find Underbelly Festival Southbank. Open from April until the end of September every year, Underbelly celebrates the best in live circus, comedy, cabaret and family entertainment. Shows are typically just an hour long and it has an outdoor bar and an array of street food to tickle your senses.
If that’s not enough excitement for you, you can take to the helm of the nearby HMS Belfast, a survivor of the Second World War. The warship has nine decks and an engine room fifteen feet below sea level.
A reconstruction of the original Shakespearean Globe theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, the Globe London stages performances of both original and Shakespearean inspired plays. True to its original location, The Globe’s performances take place in an open-air theatre with the vast majority of the audience standing in the centre. Surprisingly, the time passes very quickly and, on a summer’s evening, it’s all over before you’ve had the chance to say, ‘tired feet’. Don’t worry though, there are seats and cushions for those who prefer not to stand and if the sky is foreboding, the theatre roles a protective canvas roof out to shield everyone from the rain.
Where to Eat and Drink In Waterloo
My Top Three Bankside Pubs
- The Swan at The Globe on a summer’s evening. Its small terrace is flooded with evening sunshine and cultural conversation, it’s long bar is alive with the hum of excited Londoner’s, and you are right on the river.
- The Founder’s Arms. A worthy gastro pub with outdoor seating about as close to the river as you can get.
- And at the very top of Bankside, before you hit London Bridge, is the Anchor. Whilst I would not recommend the food, it is perfect for a cold pint on the river on a hot summer’s day. Its large terrace in front of the pub is on the riverside thoroughfare so it’s good spot for people watching.
All of this fun and activity will, of course, require you to be well fuelled. Luckily, Southbank London offers no shortage of choice.
- Iconic Dining at the OXO tower If you’re not sure where it is, just look up! You can’t miss the big red OXO. There’s a more casual brasserie on the xxx floor, where you’ll be able to enjoy a Bloody Mary and good brunch. The top floor of the OXO tower is home to one of London’s more exclusive restaurants, so you’ll need to book in advance.
- Riverside views at Skylon The Festival Hall’s restaurant has a contemporary menu, serves a good cocktail and has stunning views over the river.
- Local Pub Food at the Arch Duke Just by the steps up to the Southbank, this pub is a reliable choice, featuring an eclectic mix of worldly classics. It also does a very good steak.
- Informal Dining at Le Pain Quotidien or Giraffe Set in the Royal Festival Hall, this cafe is perfect for a posh pastry in an impressive setting, and is child-friendly too. Or you’ll find Giraffe, the world food inspired chain, on the river bank, just below the Southbank Centre.
- Quintessentially English Food at County Hall Head to County Hall for high tea in the Library. Complete with cake stands and tiny little sandwiches, it’s the height of elegance.
- Delicious Delights at Dandelyan and The Mondrian The incredibly plush, cosy Dandelyan bar the Mondrian London hotel, with its green marble bar is perfect if you like a good bubbly. The Mondrian’s Rumpus Room is the place for champagne in a lively, lux environment after sunset.