The London Southbank Centre along the Thames was constructed for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and it is currently the UK’s largest arts centre. This massive arts venue welcomes more than six million visitors each year, hosting more than five thousand dance, theatre, music, literature, art and debate events. To learn more about this unique centre, we joined the Southbank Centre Architecture Tour – and got schooled in history to boot!

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Photo Credit: India Roper

London Southbank Centre Tours

Occasionally the Southbank Centre runs tours, such as the Behind-the-Scenes Tour and the Architecture Tour. Although I have little architectural knowledge, a volunteer named Michael introduced me to the Brutalist architecture of London , and specifically the Southbank Centre, with incredible insight and passion.

On his tour, Michael delved into the history of the Southbank and helped me to see beyond what I originally saw as dreary concrete buildings. Michael showed me the artistry of the Southbank Centre, which is like an “interlocking jigsaw” with intersecting paths and stairwells and the detail of the concrete that was purposefully created with imprints from pine wood forms.

Photo credit: India Roper

The History of London’s Southbank

The tour begins in Royal Festival Hall, the only permanent building from the post-WWII Festival of Britain, constructed alongside temporary pavilions, a boating lake and the 365-foot wide Dome of Discovery. Michael explains that the land along the Southbank used to be marshy and was considered an industrial slum area.

It stood in stark contrast to the area north of the river, which was more developed and seen as sophisticated. The Southbank was home to a brewery and tanneries, and the entertainment was viewed as seedy. However, after the marshland was drained, more than eight million visitors visited the festival spectacle over five months.  

Photo credit: India Roper

The Royal Festival Hall

The Royal Festival Hall in London is the most well-known building of the Southbank Centre. Although most famous for its large auditorium, you’ll also find The Poetry Library, Clore Ballroom, Riverside Terrace Café, Central Bar and Skylon Restaurant and the Southbank Centre Shop within the Southbank Centre Royal Festival Hall. The building has evolved over the years, adding skylights and, but it was recognised and listed as Grade I in April 1988.

Guests enter the hall through the buzzy open foyer, chatter echoing off the marble and limestone interior. The public may visit daily, so you can take advantage of free exhibitions and performances – or just explore the space, searching for fossils embedded in the floor. The clean lines evoke a modern-Scandinavian vibe, and the area overlooking the Clore Ballroom is reminiscent of a ship. In a punny way, that suits well, since the carpet patterns parallel a sound wave.

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When visiting Royal Festival Hall for a show, visitors can take the unique ‘singing lift’ to the auditorium, which is interestingly suspended over the foyer and insulated from the noise. Although it may not be obvious from the building’s exterior, the hall’s performance arts venue looks fittingly regal, indeed, with gleaming blonde wood. And, in 1989, the hall was established as London’s unofficial ‘third opera house’ when it won the Evening Standard opera award in conjunction with The London Philharmonic.

Queen Elizabeth Hall and The Purcell Room

The Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre holds 900 black leather seats, yet the performance space feels compact due to the intentional absence of a balcony. The venue, which also houses the Purcell Room, opened in spring 1967. The intimate space of just under 300 seats was designed for chamber orchestra, but it also suits experimental theatre pieces well – such as Wen Hui’s RED dance performance, complete with video projections.

At the end of the whirlwind tour around the grounds, Michael showed me the underground tunnel connections that can usher superstars off the premises in secrecy. But even if you’re not actually a celebrity, you’ll still feel like a bit of a VIP touring the auditoria and facilities.  

Photo credit: Morley Von Sternberg

If You Go to the Southbank Centre

Address: Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX

Nearest Underground Station(s): Waterloo Underground, Embankment

Nearest Train Stations: Waterloo, Waterloo East

Opening hours: Buildings at the Southbank Centre have different opening hours. See website below.


Phone Number: +44 2038799555

All information correct and up-to-date at time of posting.

Disclosure: The London Southbank Centre provided Dance Dispatches complimentary access to the Southbank Centre Architecture Tour for an honest written feature.

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