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London: The South Bank show

Sixty years after the Festival of Britain rejuvenated a former London wasteland, this cultural quarter is more diverting than ever

Shallow south?

The arc of the southern bank of the Thames, from Westminster Bridge around to London Bridge, was long a wasteland, thanks to the combined efforts of the Luftwaffe and poor planning. But the post-war complex at the heart of the South Bank has enjoyed a profoundly successful 60 years since the Festival of Britain was staged on a site close to Waterloo station. The festival helped a nation, exhausted from war, focus on the future, and created the cultural hub that has become the Southbank Centre, based around the Royal Festival Hall (020 7960 4200; www.southbankcentre.co.uk).

Six decades on, and with the help of three spectacular additions in the past 15 years – the London Eye, Tate Modern and the revived Shakespeare's Globe – the capital's original entertainment centre is back in business. Southwark might be one of London's scruffier boroughs, but it is also at the cultural heart of the nation. The celebrations begin this weekend, with a retro funfair installed to bring the flair of the Fifties back to the South Bank. With chic galleries and shops, plus an eclectic range of bars and restaurants, summer in SE1 has never looked brighter.

Make tracks

Railway lines connect southern England, from Dover to Devon, with Waterloo – a vast station a few minutes' walk from most of the main South Bank attractions. All the other big London rail termini are a quick Tube or bus journey away; four Underground lines converge at Waterloo

While the helipad and air terminal that formed part of the original grand plan operated only from 1953-56, Gatwick, Heathrow and London City airports are accessible with just one change of train.

Check in

The budget hotel chains have all the best locations; even if you are a deluxe kind of traveller, it could be worth trading down for a great riverside experience. The Bankside Premier Inn (0871 527 8676; www.premierinn.com) is welded to the back of the Anchor, the historic Thames-side pub shown in Mission: Impossible. The same chain has custody of part of County Hall (0871 527 8648), adjacent to the London Eye. Usual rules apply: book ahead and be flexible on dates for the best rates; if you beat £100 a night, you're doing well. Expect lower prices if you surrender riverbank status. Europe's first Tune Hotel, in a former building society HQ opposite Lambeth North Tube station, is a no-frills property whose well-tuned rates give it a 97 per cent occupancy rate; book at www.tunehotels.com. Telephone bookings are only offered via Malaysia during local office hours.

Take stock

The Art Deco structure known as the Oxo Tower was designed by the stock-cube manufacturer to circumvent advertising rules. Its top floor, the eighth, is now occupied by an upmarket restaurant. But there is also a free public viewing gallery providing a spectacular view of the City to the north and east, and the West End.

Equally good panoramas can be had from the upper floors of Tate Modern, the former power station so imaginatively converted into the capital's most volumetric venue (020 7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk/modern).

Combine the visual feast of 21st-century London with 20th-century art by Miró: a celebration of the Catalan genius opened last week and continues to 11 September.

The best 360-degree view – in two geometric planes – goes to the EDF Energy London Eye, which in the course of a decade has become an icon for the capital and transferred allegiance from a UK airline (British Airways), to a French utility company. When it opened in 1999, it was the world's largest observation wheel – it is now the fourth, after Beijing, Singapore and Nanchang. Best strategy for stepping inside one of the capsules remains the same: check the weather forecast the night before your visit. If it is fine, then book online for an off-peak ride at www.londoneye.com, to save 10 per cent on the £18.60 walk-up rate, for as early as you can the following day (10am-9pm daily). The crowds, like the pollution that places the rest of the city in the haze, are thinnest in the mornings.

Hunger pangs

One untidy little street behind Waterloo Station will satisfy the most eccentric appetite. At one end of Lower Marsh stands Cubana (020 7928 8778; www.cubana.co.uk). The original – and the freshest – faux Havana in town, it offers minty mojitos that sharpen the tastebuds for the kind of spicy, succulent Caribbean cuisine of which the average Habanero can only dream.

Diagonally across the street, Marie's (020 7928 1050) is a cheerful café that transforms into a good, inexpensive Thai restaurant at night (8am-10pm daily, except Sunday, bring your own wine). With starter, main course, corkage and tip you should have change from £10. Greensmiths, halfway along, combines the role of sustainable supermarket with that of hearty café/restaurant (020 7921 2970; www.greensmithsfood.co.uk).

For a nightcap, visit Scooterworks at the other end of Lower Marsh (020 7620 1421). The loose theme of this conspiratorial bar fits perfectly with the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, being based around Lambretta and Vespa interpretations of La Dolce Vita. And the environment – dark corners, an old Bakerloo Line platform sign – is equally retrospective. Performances are staged here, too; John Hegley plays tomorrow night.

Just around the corner in Leake Street, beneath Waterloo station, graffiti artists converge to compete for the title of best street artist. Some of the displays were created for Banksy's "Cans Festival" in 2008, though much has since been painted over.

Class drama

"The three auditoria of the Royal National Theatre (020 7452 3000; www.nationaltheatre.org) have a fine summer ahead, as well as lovely Thames-side locations to drink and dream. But to see where London's theatrical tradition began, wander along the South Bank to the legacy of the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker: Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, a recreation of the arena for which the Bard wrote many of his plays (020 7902 1400; www.shakespeares globe.com). To understand how the South Bank was the pleasure gardens for the austere City of London, take a morning tours of the premises.

The Festival of Britain is celebrated at the Southbank Centre from 22 April-4 September ( www.southbankcentre.co.uk).

What Google will tell you

"With some 88 million passengers a year, Waterloo is easily Britain's busiest railway station in terms of passenger throughput" (Wikipedia).

What Google won't tell you – until now...

"Buster" Edwards, the most colourful of the Great Train Robbers (and subject of a film starring Phil Collins) ran a flower stall for many years beneath the railway bridge on Waterloo Road. After his death in 1994, a nearby pitch was taken up by a trader selling travel guides, stolen to order from the capital's bookshops.

Who said that?

* "A tonic to the nation" – Gerald Barry, director of the 1951 Festival of Britain

* "Nobody at Waterloo ever does know where a train is going to start from, or where a train when it does start is going" – Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K Jerome

* "As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise" – Ray Davies