London - South Bank

23 Aug 2007 by business traveller

London cab drivers are notoriously reluctant to cross the river, but everyone else is flocking to trendy South Bank to eat, drink and catch up on a bit of culture, says Anna Thomas

1. Borough Market

The origins of a food market on London's South Bank can be traced back as far as Roman times, although Borough Market in its present guise officially opened just over 250 years ago in 1756. It remains an important market for the wholesale trade of fruit and vegetables, but in recent years its popularity has soared as a foodie's paradise and tourist attraction in its own right. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday the area under the arches of London Bridge Station comes alive with stalls selling everything from freshly-made baguettes and sandwiches to thirst-quenching smoothies, free-range eggs and homemade honey. Several restaurants have also cashed in on the area's reputation - Fish! and Roast are both located within the borders of the market, and neither should need any explanation as to their specialities. Market opening hours Thurs 11am-5pm, Fri 12-6pm, Sat 9am-4pm, visit boroughmarket.org.uk.

2. Vinopolis

Located just past Borough Market and next to the Clink Museum (reputedly England's oldest prison), the vast Vinopolis complex (covering two and a quarter acres) is billed as a "unique wine-tasting attraction and stunning conference and events venue". Visitors take a self-guided tour through the history of wine, passing through exhibitions on well-known wine-producing regions such as France and Italy, as well as some that might not immediately spring to mind (including Thailand and India). There are plenty of opportunities to sample the good stuff along the way, and for beginners a wine-tasting lesson covers the basics of distinguishing your merlot from your cabernet sauvignon. Over the years Vinopolis has branched out to include whisky, beer and (for the more adventurous) absinthe tastings, as well as a champagne bar and Bombay Sapphire gin experience - and if all that works up an appetite then there are several restaurants including Cantina and Wine Wharf where visitors can literally soak up the atmosphere. Opening hours Mon, Thurs and Fri 12-10pm, Sat 11am-9pm, Sun 12-6pm; tour prices from £16. Visit vinopolis.co.uk.

3. Millennium bridge

From the cellars of Vinopolis, head on up to the river and take a stroll along Bankside and onto the Millennium Footbridge. Finished in 2000, the bridge stretches 325m across the River Thames, and was the first to be built across the river since Tower Bridge in 1894. The pedestrian-only span links the restored Globe Theatre and Tate Modern with St Paul's Cathedral and the City across the water. The bridge's short history is a chequered one - at its opening in June 2000, unexpected "lateral vibrations" caused by nearly 2,000 pedestrians walking in relative synchronisation with the bridge's natural sway made for a frightening and shaky crossing experience. Three days later, the "Wobbly Bridge" closed for retrofitting to fix the problem, and after a series of improvements, additions and tests to ensure safety and limit vertical movement, it finally reopened two years later. Today the bridge is safe, decidedly un-wobbly, and a perfect spot for picture-taking and scenery-gazing - the views across the river towards St Paul's and the City's skyscrapers are some of the best London has to offer.

4. Tate Modern

After taking in the views from the Millennium Bridge, turn back towards the vast bulk of Tate Modern - a former power station - for a unique cultural experience. One of four Tate galleries in the UK, Tate Modern has one of the finest collections of modern art in the world and has been showcasing ground-breaking exhibitions since its opening in 2000. The gallery is worth visiting for the unique building alone, which was converted by cutting-edge architects Herzog & De Meuron: the old power station's turbine hall (main picture) is a gargantuan, open entrance area with ramped access and room for large displays and changing exhibitions, while the former boiler house now houses the museum's galleries on three separate levels. The permanent collection of modern and contemporary art includes works by Rothko, Pollock, Matisse, Dali and Picasso, as well as the obligatory pop art populism of Lichtenstein and Warhol. Tate Modern recently rehung its collection for the first time, with new displays on the third and fifth levels focusing on specific periods in the development of modern art: surrealism, minimalism, post-war innovations in abstraction and figuration, and the movements of cubism, futurism and vorticism. The gallery is so vast that if you're planning to do the whole gallery in one go you'll probably need a shot of espresso from the riverside balcony bar on the fourth floor to keep you going; and there is also a restaurant on the seventh floor for those in need of something more substantial. General admission is free, charges for specific exhibitions vary. Open Sun-Thurs 10am-6pm, Fri-Sat 10am-10pm, tate.org.uk/modern.

5. Gabriel's Wharf

Wandering further along the bustling riverside walk, past the landmark Oxo Tower, look out to the left for this endearingly makeshift-looking collection of café, restaurants and craft shops, most of them housed in formerly derelict garages. Gabriel's Wharf is officially a temporary development, although it was opened back in 1988 and there's no sign of it being replaced anytime soon. A popular lunchtime spot for South Bank workers, the wharf has a great crêperie called House of Crêpes, with dozens of sweet and savoury choices on offer, while the wooden benches outside the Studio Six bar are always packed on summer evenings. The London Bicycle Tour Company is also based here, with bikes for hire from £3 per hour, and guided tours also available. Visit gabrielswharf.co.uk.

6. Bincho Yakitori

If you fancy something a little more substantial in the way of eats, head on up to this funky new Japanese diner on the second floor of the Oxo Tower. Grab a table near the window (if you can) and look out on the river while wolfing down little skewers of delicious eatables, all flamed in the charcoal burners lined along one wall. Strictly speaking, yakitori refers to the poultry part of the menu, which includes wonderfully flavoursome sori (chicken oysters) and tangy aigamo (duck with spring onion and wasabi). Meat, fish and veg options are also available, however, under the heading of kushiyaki - treat yourself to some melting cubes of fatty belly pork (buta) or stick to the diet with tiger prawns (ebi) or eringi mushrooms. Prices start at £1.20 but the portions are quite small, so if you've brought a healthy appetite expect to end up with a pile of  empty skewers. Alternatively, fill up on the delicious rice dishes - the grilled rice cake flavoured with soy sauce and wrapped in seaweed (yaki-onigiri) is particularly good. And if you're not familiar with the yakitori drill, don't worry - a flock of attentive staff are on hand to explain the concept and steer you through the menu, while you sit back and enjoy an ice-cold beer or a glass of top-quality sake. Tel +44 (0)20 7803 0858, bincho.co.uk.

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