If you go down to the Southbank today, you’re sure of a big surprise. Alongside a shimmering array of glittering lights, there are hidden hares to seek out, a daily snow storm, a magical maze of Christmas trees – and a singing glass lift that chirps a heavenly chorus.
You can always count on the Southbank Centre to think outside the box. So forget jolly Santa: this festive season there’s a quintet of larger-than-life bunnies hopping onto the scene, courtesy of Australian artist Amanda Parer. The giant 7m high illuminated sculptures, part of a major public art installation originally created for the 2014 Vivid Festival in Sydney, can be spotted inside the Southbank Centre or languishing on the banks of the Thames – where they will be well camouflagued if it snows!
Alongside the quirky charms of inflatable bunnies, walkways are illuminated with a starry canopy of blue and white lights, while a pretty white Christmas tree with flouncy frills makes a majestic centrepiece.
This year’s Winter Festival is infused with the Gift of Giving theme, inspired by Charles Dickens’ most famous goodwill ambassador Scrooge (after his redemption, obviously), with a charity shop, and Get Your Knit On, a blanket knitting project to help keep vulnerable elderly people warm and a great way to get initiate kids into the clickety-clack craze.
There’s also plenty of opporutunity to flex your vocal chords in a Christmas sing-alongs, with over 60 community and school choirs to animate Southbank Centre with free festive singing twice a day throughout the festival.
The Zones It’s something of a White Christmas on the Festival Terrace, with the giant 18-metre Christmas Tree Cafe and the oversized bunnies (see if you can spot them as they are not always in the same place!) Overhead, there are vibrant strings of sapphire and white lights twinkling above in the Festival of Lights. The Royal Festival Hall hosts the knitting circles, charity shop and performances, including Slava’s Snowshow. The Clore Ballroom on the ground floor will also host a range of free seasonal dances, including the Boxing Day Tango, the perfect way to work off some of those turkey calories or, if you’re still feeling stuffed, as a spectator sport. Next door, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Rooms has Timber!, the wild and wonderful circus show that stars three acrobatic generations of one family, including a daredevil three-year-old!
New for this year is the curated Christmas market, tucked away around the corner from the Royal Festival Hall, with 50 wooden chalets featuring artisanal food and bespoke design and crafts, and the Christmas Tree Maze. And while the giant striped Spiegeltent might look tempting, the saucy burlesque show La Soiree is not recommended for family viewing!
* A walk along the pedestrianised South Bank is the perfect way to burn off some energy and admire all the lights that twinkle on the promenade all the way to the Oxo Tower and beyond. The brave among you might like the fairytale adventure of Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, on til February 2015.
* If little legs are tired (or just for the fun of it), hop on board the Southbank Centre Express at Hungerford Bridge and chug your way merrily along the river to Festival Pier and back. Til Sunday 4 January 2015, 10am–8pm, £4 per rider.
* For young theatre goers, the world premiere of Oily Cart’s The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe brings a touch of on-trend immersive theatre to the toddler set as you journey through the sights, scents, textures and sounds of a multi-sensory wonderland. You are accompanied by a live musician and all sorts of shoes and sing-song shoo-be-doos. Recommended for ages 3–5 years. Til Sunday 4 January 2015.
* Also new for this year is the Christmas Tree Maze, a wooded labyrinth of 300 blue Spruce trees that leaves that gorgeous fresh, natural pine aroma in the air. Here children can (momentarily) lose themselves as they race in and out of the magical wooded setting. Hansel and Gretel style breadcrumb trails are not recommended as the best form of navigation! And don’t worry, help is on hand should you get truly disorientated and can’t find your way out.
* If you fancy a little quiet time, head to the Fourth Floor of the Southbank Centre to the Reading Den, part of the Saison Poetry Library which is open daily. Here little bookworms can enjoy a mix of poetry and story books, or scribes can grab a piece of chalk to jot down a ditty. Be sure to take the glass elevator (on the Blue Side of the Southbank Centre that takes you straight to the library) where you’ll be treated to scales in four-part harmony, which rise and fall in pitch to echo the progression of the lift. Created by Turner Prize wimming artist Martin Creed, it makes a novel and uplifting way to ascend to the heights.
Dining tables There’s plenty of rich festive aromas emanating from the Real Food Christmas Market at the back of the Royal Festival Hall, where you can enjoy tasty curries sizzling in giant pots that tantalise the nostrils (and satisfy the belly), stinky cheeses and artisanal breads, all washed down with a warming mulled wine to give a rosy glow to your cheeks. There’s lots of eateries along the Festival Terrace, too, including Le Pain Quotidien, and beneath the Royal Festival Hall, including the eminently family-friendly Giraffe. If you fancy a smorgasbord of Scandi fare, try the Rekorderlig Cider Lodge near the Christmas Market.
Top Tip If kids need to burn off more energy, head to the Jubilee Gardens Playground, nestling just behind the London Eye. It’s a great little adventure playground, with lots of interesting wooden structures to climb, clamber over and swing on, plus there’s plenty of seating around the edge for parents who want to take a short breather, too.
THE PRICE TAG Entrance free; fees for performances and attractions vary.