When I lived in London I actually worked on the Southbank. Back then the highlight of my day was what filling to have in my lunchtime sandwich (from the office sandwich bar) – or, which of the two pubs to go to after work – as there wasn’t a lot around there. Thankfully, the area has got a lot busier since then – and there’s a heap more to do around the Southbank. So, here’s our guide of the most fun and unusual things to do in Southbank, London.
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Where is the Southbank in London?
It’s a important question as officially it spreads from Lambeth Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge – but, when most people talk about the Southbank in a more touristy sense, they’re talking about the walkway that runs directly alongside the southside of the river between Westminster Bridge and Borough Market – and that’s what we’re going to cover in this post.
Now, there’s a good chance you’re going to already end up here doing something fun as there are lots of big ticket attractions around London’s Southbank including The London Eye, The Sealife Aquarium and The Dungeons.
We don’t really cover those on this blog (but if you’re looking for ideas or want to save some money on your tickets, check out advance booking here), instead we aim to find the smaller things that you might also want to check out while you’re here.
So, roughly in order (but not exactly) starting from close to the London Eye, here’s what you might want to eat, see and do on London’s Southbank …
1. Check out the Leake Street Tunnels
If you’re into street art, you’ve probably got exploring the area around Brick Lane and Shoreditch on your list (and, if you’ve read this blog before, you might also know about London’s secret street art area of Penge) – but you should also add the Southbank to your art tour too.
For starters, London artist Stik has a huge mural underneath Hungerford Bridge. It’s actuallly quite hard to find, I walked about for quite a bit trying to work out where it was and eventually spotted it on my second visit.
Basically, head to the area marked Queens Walk on the map and look over the rounded wall. It’s there, right under the railway bridge.
So that’s one mural, but there’s also a revolving wall of art nearby in what’s known as the Leake Street Tunnels (also known as the Graffiti Tunnel or Leake Street Arches on google maps).
This was started in 2008 after the famous street artist Banksy invited some of his friends down to paint the walls and its only grown since then.
When I first came down here (for a fitness rave) many moons ago, the tunnel was still pretty dodgy, but now it’s full of photographers shooting the street art – and, if you’re lucky, people painting something new.
There’s also some smaller graffiti, paste ups and other works in the skate park located by Festival Pier.
2. Have a Drink at Vaulty Towers
If you walk through the Leake Street Tunnels, and come out of the other side, you’ll come out onto a road called Lower Marsh. Walk east on this for a few minutes and you’ll come to a pub called Vaulty Towers.
It looks faintly like a prop shop exploded but its also a good place to get a pint, or even a cocktail, while you admire the interesting decor.
It’s located at 34 Lower Marsh SE1.
If it’s too early for a beer, or, if you like cats with your coffee, then you might want to make Scootercaffe, which is also on Lower Marsh, your stop instead.
3. Spend a Penny at the Jubiloo
This patriotic penny-spending palace full of Union Jacks and British Bulldogs was unveiled for the Queen’s Jubilee – hence the pun-filled name.
This is one of the stops on the London Loo Tour, which has to be London’s most unusual tour and which wanders through the Southbank (see more about what happened when we took it here) but you don’t need to be on a tour to visit the Jubiloo you just pay whatever the entrance fee is right now to get in.
At one point it was a pound which people who actually wanted to use it for it’s intended purpose were NOT happy about! So much for spending a penny!
4. Get on the Afternoon Tea Bus
What could be more London than taking in the sights on a double decker bus while drinking tea and eating scones!
Nothing, that’s the answer (well, unless you’ve got an in with the Queen that is). And the Afternoon Tea Bus departs from just behind the London Eye making it the perfect way to rest your feet after exploring some of the local sights.
5. Find the Singing Lift
I first mentioned this in my post on Hidden London and it’s still one of my favourite things to do around here.
It’s basically a lift with music. As you go up so do the notes – and I’ll let you work out what happens as you come back down!
The lift is located at the back of the Royal Festival Hall. The easiest way to find it is to enter by the far right down and head all the back towards the ladies toilet (which doesn’t cost a quid to get in!).
As you walk around here keep an eye out as the bars and food trucks change regularly and you might find some fun things on offer to eat and drink as well.
6. Look for the Beach Captain
London is full of eccentrics – and the Beach Captain, Ron, is one of them.
Dressed in a sailor outfit he likes to spend the day making sand sculptures on a small patch of sand that appears at low tide by the shops and restaurant of Gabriel’s Wharf (which is also worth a stop on your trip).
There’s a couple of other ‘beaches’ on the Thames too. A bit further east from here, by The Founder’s Arms pub (excellent Ploughmans and one of the few pubs on the river to get direct sun at lunchtime if you grab a seat on the east side of the building early enough) is what’s known as Bayside Beach (that’s the one with the swans above).
Even further east you’ll find what’s known as Bermondsey Beach.
Before you pack your togs and a bucket and spade though, the beaches only appear during low tide and the Thames is definitely not somewhere you want to be swimming – but, it’s quite fun to head down to the edge of the river.
You’ll see people mudlarking (ie seeing what rubbish from the river they can find) – and, you might get fairly close to a swan or two (not too close, they can get a bit grumpy!).
7. Visit The World’s Longest Artwork
You’ll need to do this in the evening as the art involves displays of lights on the bridges and they wake up at dusk.
The project by US artist Leo Villareal, who installed a similar work in San Francisco in 2013, will span from Tower Bridge to Albert Bridge in Battersea. The plan is that 8.3km of London bridges will be lit up between 2019 and 2029.
When I last visited four of them had their glow-up in action – Southwark, London, Cannon Street and the Millennium Bridge, and in the two years of the you-know-what, five more were completed. But the rest are coming.
8. Spot The London Dragon
I’m writing this post a bit after my last London trip and while I was checking things were still where I thought they were, I came across something very exciting on Google Maps.
The London Dragon, it said, at the end of Blackfriar’s Bridge, it said. Immediately I needed to know what this was expecting some new modern art installation or something.. but no, it’s a carved black dragon in the middle of the road.
Now, I spent a ridiculous number of years walking across Blackfriars Bridge, I saw this thing every day, I did not even think to investigate why it was there (I’ve got more curious since then), but it turns out it was one of the original markers for the City of London and there’s lots of them all over the city.
If you have a thing for dragons, you can read all about them here.
9. Find the Thierry Noir Crossing
I walked over this a couple of times before I realised what I was looking at!
Painted in 2017, this pedestrian crossing is located on Southwark Street between the Blue Fin Buidling and the Pret A Manger and is full of Noir’s trademarked faces.
The more people walk on the crossing the more it will fade so depending when you read this is how easy it might be to spot!
If you like Noir’s work, you might also want to see what happens when someone asks him to paint their house with this post on a house he decorated in Sydney’s Surry Hills.
10. Go on a Fox Hunt
No, not a real one – that’s not what we’re about over here.
But the Hilton London Bankside hotel in Southwark has a number of fox sculptures and drawings dotted around the property to celebrate the Bankside Fox who left his pawprints in the concrete when they were building the hotel.
The hotel is located on Great Suffolk Street in Southwark.
11. Admire a Gum Painting
There’s a lot of art in this post, but there again the Southbank is full of galleries and theatre spaces so it’s not really surprising that it has a creative bent – and creative is definitely a good way to describe the work of artist Ben Wilson.
You see Wilson paints on tiny pieces of chewing gum that he finds on the streets of London, and while he has work in a few different parts of London, the Millennium Bridge is his biggest gallery with hundreds of tiny paintings created under the feet of passers by.
The minute you spot your first one you can’t believe that no-one else is looking for them (said the person who walked over a giant painted crossing more than one) and you just want to shout ‘look, look at the magic’ – or maybe that’s just me.
12. Look for the Ghost Dog
The Anchor Bankside pub serves a good pint and a good pie, but it’s on this list because it also reputedly has a ghost dog who skitters his way around the bar.
According to Jeremy and Dagney over at the Cultura Obscura blog, said poochy met his end in a bar fight where he tried to protect his owner, losing his tail, and his life, in the process.
We didn’t get to see him, but the pie did make up for things.
If you want more spooky places to drink in London, check out this haunted pub crawl by the Cultura Obscura team which lists a lot of them.
13. Visit Bridget Jones’ Apartment
Scooting past the other big attractions around the pub (like The Glove Theatre and The Golden Hinde) we’re now moving into the area around London Bridge – and the iconic Borough Market.
The most normal thing to do here is to eat all the things – although, look out for a few quirky ones like cheese with wine in it, but, the Differentville tour of Borough Market also suggests having a quick look at the outside of Bridget Jones’ Apartment.
As is the way in movies, despite the fact that she was a lowly publishing assistant, Bridget could afford her own flat in the middle of central London. Specifically one above the Globe pub at 8 Bedale Street on the edge of Borough Market.
Remember though, while Bridget may have moved on, someone else lives in the flat so please don’t disturb them if you visit.
14. Find the Banksy
There’s a few Banksy paintings left around London and one of the small ones is under a bridge near Borough Market.
It’s located by number 1 Tooley Street.
Just so you don’t start cursing me when you get there, I wouldn’t go out of your way for this one. I emphasise the small word above. But if you’re in the area, wander past and see if you can spot it.
There’s also some Jimmy C works around Borough and London Bridge. Including his hearts tribute to the London Bridge terror attacks – which you’ll find on Stoney Street, and other fun little bits of art around here so keep your eyes peeled.
15. See Crossbones Gardens
Okay, so this doesn’t quite fit the ‘fun’ remit of the title as Crossbones is one of the more sombre sights in the London Bridge area. but it’s also one of the most interesting.
It’s believed that over 15,000 bodies are buried here – many of them prostitutes who worked in the local area. They werent allowed to be buried in consecrated ground and so this patch on unconsecrated ground was dedicated to them.
It was then opened up to the poor until it became too full for any more bodies to be buried here.
Today the plot has been taken over as a memorial. The gates are covered in tributes to sex workers who have died more recently.
And interesting fact is that Andy Hulme, aka The Invisible Gardener the person who designed the garden was also Vivienne Westwood’s garden designer!
When I visited in 2019 there was a threat that the garden would be destroyed due to redevelopment in the area but it has been saved and a 30 year lease has been granted to keep the land as a garden of remembrance.
17. See the Old Operating Theatre
You know when you’re visiting somewhere and you have a huge list of things you should do and there’s one you don’t get to… this is mine for this trip.
It sounds fascinating. The tiny theatre located in the attic of the old St Thomas’ Hospital is the oldest survival operating room in Europe and predates the development of anaesthetic – which it’s best not to think about too much.
But, it’s definitely one of the more unusual things to do around the Southbank so don’t make the same mistake as me. See more about it here.
18. Head to Vinegar Yard
A mix of food trucks, bars and fleamarket stalls, this is one of the new areas popping up all around London (Maltby Market is another one in the Southwark district).
I however was not tempted here by food or fleamarkets but by the tube train covered in ants that towers over the site! It’s by artist Joe Rush and there’s some other bits of his work around the site. Considering he’s inspired by Mad Max and worked with Vivienne Westwood (her again), you can imagine it’s not a selection of floral still lives!
So there you have it, our guide to some of the fun and unusual things to do in Southbank, London (and nearby). There’s probably heaps more so if I’ve missed something then please let me know about it in the comments so other people can find it too.