A knitted tent or twisted, honeycomb pyramid? The highly anticipated Tate Modern extension, Switch House, provokes debate – and that’s exactly the intention.
Touted as one of Europe’s most significant cultural openings, the lattice brickwork building is connected by corridors to the converted Bankside Power Station, which has been changing the face of modern art since 2000.
Built to help accommodate Tate Modern’s five million annual visitors, it’s expected to attract even greater numbers. What’s more, the surrounding Bankside area is effervescing with activity.
Streets running along the Thames from London Bridge to Blackfriars once seethed with brothels, animal-baiting pits and base entertainment theatres – including Shakespeare’s Globe. But after venues were closed down and demolished by Puritans in the mid-17th century, Theatreland shifted to the West End and smoke-spilling factories took over. Up until the Millennium, industrial husks were consigned to a dusty, undesirable past.
Now hotels, bars, cafes and restaurants are springing up in forgotten spaces and back streets, all with distinctive character and creative bent. As a result, a former no-man’s land south of the river is fast becoming the most exciting base for a weekend break in the capital.
What to see
Tate Modern: A sweeping, spiral staircase links 10 concrete floors in the triumphant Switch House, designed by architects Herzog and de Meuron, responsible for revamping the original power station.
There are spaces to sit, discuss and ponder works of art created from the 1960s onwards – including a cityscape made from couscous, live parrots on a sandy beach and steel-mesh cages decked out with duvets, should anyone fancy a kip.
Don’t miss a room dedicated to Louise Bourgeois, where eerie stuffed stockings hang limply in the shadow of her trademark spider. Free, although tickets are required for special exhibitions. Visit tate.org.uk
Where to eat
Union Street Cafe, 47-51 Great Suffolk Street: From menu to staff, this buzzy back-street restaurant (part of the Gordon Ramsay Group) is exclusively Italian and standards are suitably high.
Exposed metal ceiling beams lend an industrial feel to the space, but the atmosphere is anything but cold: families are welcome and children eat free.
Head downstairs to the art and antique-filled Berlin-style cocktail bar (open until midnight), where drinks wizard Davide Gagliazzo concocts a smoky mezcal.
n Mains around £22; cocktails £10. Visit gordonramsayrestaurants.com/union-street-cafe
Hixter Bankside, 16 Great Guildford Street: This Mark Hix outpost evokes the cool, sophisticated air of a restaurant in New York’s Meatpacking District. An ideal accompaniment to a Tate visit, it celebrates all that’s great about British art. Sculptures of women wearing metal nozzle masks loom over diners, and Gary Webb’s cheeky embossed brickwork of a boy relieving himself should lift any lulls in conversation.
Dine on beef cuts cured in a Himalayan salt chamber, or tackle a tower of buttermilk-coated fried chicken elevated on a platform of French fries. The menu might sound casual, but the food is first class.
n Mains around £25; cocktails £10. Visit www.hixrestaurants.co.uk
Where to shop
Alex Monroe, 37 Snowfields: Jewellery designer Alex Monroe shot to fame with his signature bumblebee, which features on chains and earrings. Inspired by botanicals, seascapes and the British countryside, his whimsical designs are popular with celebs like Sienna Miller, but with prices starting from £100, pieces are within a regular shopper’s reach. Pop into the terrace townhouse store, where crafters are busy at work upstairs.
Borough Market: Teetering on the edge of commercialisation, this ever-expanding, 2,000-year-old fruit and veg market just about manages to keep it real. From Thursday to Saturday, East End barrow boys flog farm fresh produce alongside smart delis displaying extraordinary delicacies. Come early on Saturdays to avoid Instagramming, click-happy crowds.
Hilton Bankside, 28 Great Suffolk Street: This less-than-a-year-old Hilton hotel bathes in boutique appeal. Although resolutely urban, rooftop wildflower meadows are an attempt to breathe green air into the former industrial heartland. Rooms are comfortable, convenient and neutral in design, with the best views from a new Penthouse Suite. Upgraded rooms benefit from access to a lounge with complimentary all-day refreshments. Doubles from £229 per night. Visit: www.hilton.com/London