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Walk the South Bank

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by Kat Parr Mackintosh (subscribe)
Young and coffee in varying degrees, Kat also says stuff @ThoroughlyMode
Published November 16th 2010
There's always a lot going on on the Southbank, from organised events and festivals, to impromptu acts of one-of-a-kind street theatre, to the constant appeal of some of London's most interesting buildings and best Thames-side views. The best stretch for free and impromptu acts of entertainment is the bit that passes between Westminster Bridge and London Bridge – and here's just some of what you can expect to encounter on the path that runs along the south side of the river.

First you have the opportunity to walk across Westminster Bridge - which isn't just the oldest of London's Thames crossings, it's also the place to take that perfect photo of the Houses of Parliament and the tower that houses the big bell called Ben. On the other side of the bridge is County Hall, which is a nice enough building in itself, but is more interesting for housing the London Sea Life Aquarium and the main ticket office for the London Eye.

Walking between County Hall and the water you're walking right beneath its pods, mingling with the queue of people waiting for their turn to ride it, while hopeful street performers entertain them though the wait. Between the performers who think you should pay them for doing as little as possible, aka the human statues, are buskers really going about the business of entertaining, with music and a bit of dance, or magic or feats of daring do.

Passing under Hungerford Bridge, which is the one that carries trains out of Charing Cross Station, you'll hear some of the best buskers – there's often a jazzy mariachi band.

The next stretch appears at first a bit more sanitised – there's a Foyles bookshop and stairs that will take you up to the Royal Festival Hall - but that's just until you pass under the bright yellow painted stairway of the Purcell Room'svery concrete architecture. This is skateboarder central, where the kids practising their tricks on boards or BMX hang out and these days film themselves in the process. The backdrop is dressed in graffiti art and the kids here aren't dressed to impress, but they certainly know what they're doing and in many cases it's better entertainment than the buskers are offering: and the skater kids aren't expecting you to pay – just to get out of the way.

Cornered safe and dry under Waterloo Bridge are the second hand book stalls whose wares are laid out on trestle tables in front of the Riverside Café of the BFI. Its next door neighbour is the concrete Goliath of 70s brutalist boxy chic, the National Theatre, which makes the glassier BFI appear positively delicate. In the summer there are lots of free events held in the forecourt, which gets a coating of faux grass for the occasion.

Putting the concrete boxes behind you, you'll pass the first highlight on the Thames side: there's a corner between the ITV building and OXO Tower where grown ups build complicated sand castles.

The TATE Modern is the next memorable moment on the path. It has some lovely trees, and more often than not interesting installations, in its 'front garden', and it's always worth having a free look in at what's on in the Turbine Hall. Followed by the opposite looking architecture of Shakespeare's Globe – the building is far newer than the power station-cum-gallery of the TATE, but the style of it is positively ancient.

Beyond the Globe the restaurants, cafés, bars and pubs begin to take over in the lead up to the food fest. that is Borough Markets. This isn't a long or strenuous walk but you could have caught the tube, so you definitely deserve a treat of some kind once you get to Borough – and if it's a market day the smell of it will mean you're powerless to fight against the temptation of the fresh breads, cheeses, meats and the rest.
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Why? There's always a lot to see
Where: London's Southbank, nearest Tube Stations: Waterloo, London Bridge and Westminster
Cost: Free
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