Encompassing the South Bank cultural trail and the off-beat streets of Bermondsey, the SE1 area is undoubtedly at the heart of London’s art scene.
With an innate culture of collaboration and experimentation, there’s a range of venues to explore from the monolithic Tate and well-known theatres to edgier galleries, design hubs and niche playhouses. Here’s a flavour of what lies in store…
Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre
The Menier Chocolate Factory is a charming off-West End theatre with plenty of big awards for a small 150-seat auditorium. Opened in 2004 on the site of the former 1870s Menier Chocolate factory, the building packs bags of atmosphere with original exposed wooden beams, cast iron columns and exposed brick interiors. Head here to see crowd-pleasing plays, new writing, stand up comedy and the next big musical, before it goes big. Arrive early for the on-site restaurant which offers cut-above theatre dinners and the atmospheric underground bar, full of fascinating relics from when the building was restored.
Tate Modern is much more than a typical art gallery – it’s a cultural nerve-centre, an immersive exploration into the modern art scene and the world’s most popular contemporary gallery with over 60,000 works in rotation at any time. Expect the unexpected with large scale sculptures and installations, multisensory exhibits, film and photography, performance art and, of course, works of art spanning the 1900s up to today’s latest creations. Allow yourself at least three hours to explore – the main Turbine Hall is host to larger works, the Natalie Bell Building houses older pieces, and the new Blavatnik Building has art from the 1960s onwards. You can spot the work of many of the greats including Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Andy Warhol through to Damien Hirst, Rebecca Horn, Claes Oldenburg and Auguste Rodin.
The Southbank Centre
Set on the bank of the Thames, the colossal Southbank Centre is the UK’s largest arts centre, encompassing the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Room, the Hayward Gallery, the National Poetry Library and the Arts Council Collection. With over 5,000 annual events, it offers a sophisticated, diverse and boundary-breaking programme that straddles art, music, literature, theatre, performance, talks and debates, and festivals.
Alongside 200 classical concerts a year, it hosts a variety of contemporary gigs and music sessions including ‘Concrete Lates’ – late-night electronic music – and the Purcell Sessions for experimental collaborations and creations. It is also the UK’s home of literature and spoken word events and showcases a year-round programme of talks bringing together leading thinkers, activists, politicians and cultural observers. Its experimental Hayward Gallery is home to six major art exhibitions a year. Last but not least, its festivals include the likes of London’s Literature Festival and the annual WOW – Women of the World – festival. And even if you don’t have a show booked you can still soak up the cultural milieu while enjoying a drink at London’s favourite summer spot, the Queen Elizabeth Rooftop Garden.
The White Cube Gallery
For an alternative to the might of Tate Modern, The White Cube Gallery on Bermondsey Street is a more specialist contemporary art gallery, but no less prestigious. Set in a bright white interior that allows the art to take centre stage, its free exhibitions are bold and thought-provoking with the likes of some of Britain’s best modern artists including Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Dóra Maurer and Danh Vo.
The National Theatre
The publicly funded National Theatre is undoubtedly a world-leading performance venue, nurturing ambitious, experimental work. You won’t miss its brutalist architecture building set along the South Bank. Encompassing three separate theatres, it hosts over 20 new productions a year from classics to new writing to comedies and musicals. It’s been responsible for such hits as War Hose, One Man, Two Guvnors and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. In 2009 it also began the now world-wide National Theatre Live broadcasting productions to cinema venues. In addition to its lineup, the theatre offers backstage tours, free exhibitions, talks and events and is home to a range of cafés and bars. For something different head to its hipster-friendly The Understudy bar which serves craft beer.
Set along the river, Shakespeare’s Globe is an exact replica of the original 1600s stage that was at the centre of the Elizabethan entertainment scene and host to Shakespeare’s great works – he was known to sit in the audience himself and watch. Today you can experience some of the world’s best Shakespearean actors recreate the plays in their original, atmospheric setting. A £5 standing ticket will place you in with the masses at the front or for a more upper-class view you can splash out on a gallery seat. Roasted nuts are sold outside and you can rent a cushion to help with the hard but authentic wooden bench seats. During the winter months the on-site Sam Wanamaker Playhouse takes over with candlelit plays.
For those looking to be inspired or to get their hands on a unique gift, the award-winning Oxo Tower Wharf is the home of contemporary and innovative design. Set on the Southbank, the landmark building was originally owned by the OXO brand and is home to innovative design studios, specialist shops, restaurants, cafés, bars and exhibition spaces – gallery@oxo and The Bargehouse. Gallery@oxo is located on the ground floor where its photography, design, architecture and issue-based exhibitions are staged against floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Thames. Or head to The Bargehouse, a rough-and-ready warehouse space that hosts a huge programme of events from exhibitions to immersive theatre. With cultural exploration under your belt, take the lift to the renowned OXO Tower Restaurant Bar and Brasserie on the 8th floor for an artisan cocktail with panoramic views on the roof terrace.
The Bridge Theatre
Only opened in 2017, The Bridge Theatre, just opposite Tower Bridge, is the first commercial theatre to be built in Central London since 1873. The cool, contemporary theatre feels spacious and yet intimate and has perks over the historic West End offerings: comfort, room and plenty of toilets! There’s a synergy between the plays and the theatre, with productions made uniquely for the space and the 900-seat auditorium adaptable to a variety of settings depending on the play. The focus is on updates of classics and new writing, with productions such as Nicholas Hytner’s critically acclaimed Julius Caesar, one-woman plays starring Maggie Smith and Laura Linney, and Sally Cookson’s take on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There’s a grassy terrace for pre-theatre drinks and a café bar that makes its own pastries and cakes.
Live in SE1
This year, the SE1 postcode will be home to two exciting new additions: Trilogy and Newham's Yard. Tucked behind one of Southwark's most artistic and dynamic quarters, Bermondsey Street, Newham's Yard will see the creation of a brand new public realm, equipped with all sorts of places to shop, relax and dine. Meanwhile, Trilogy – which offers a selection of homes that are ready for immediate occupation – benefits from having many of the locations mentioned above within a 20 minute radius.