The River Thames runs through the heart of London, England. Famous landmarks on both sides of the river can be viewed via sightseeing bus or on foot, but seeing them from the river itself provides a unique perspective. As England’s longest river and an important trade route, the River Thames has shaped the city’s history. Viewing London from the Thames gives you a deeper appreciation of the river’s importance to this great city.
Several tour companies offer River Thames sightseeing cruises with commentary, often with refreshment services on board. Thames River Sightseeing offers two different cruise tours. One route runs from Westminster to Greenwich. A shorter hop-on, hop-off route covers five piers from Westminster to Saint Katharine’s Pier. Viscount Cruises offers daytime sightseeing cruises and a Sunday evening cruise. One of the ticket options on City Cruises is a 24-hour pass that allows you to get on and off at any of four piers. The more adventurous may be interested in a speedboat tour. Both Thamesjet and Thames RIB Experience offer tours on rigid inflatable boats (RIB).
Thames Clippers is a water bus service with 23 pier stops on its routes and departures every 20 minutes. They offer a River Roamer fare that allows you to hop on and off boats on any of the piers all day long. You won’t get the commentary offered on the other cruise tours, but you will have a great deal more flexibility. This was the way I saw London from the Thames.
As you sail down the river, watch for some of these London landmarks.
1. London Eye
The London Eye is the world’s largest cantilevered observation wheel. Launched in 2000, this giant Ferris wheel offers 360-degree views of the city. It has changed the London skyline and is now an icon of the city. As you travel through London, you’ll notice that the top of the wheel is often visible behind other buildings. Sometimes you’ll catch glimpses of larger portions of the wheel. The wheel is situated along the South Bank of the Thames across from the Houses of Parliament, and you’ll get an unobstructed view of the entire wheel from the river.
2. London Skyline
The river also offers an unique view of the London skyline. The London Eye is not the only structure that has changed the London landscape over the past 20 years. Today, modern skyscrapers stand among centuries-old buildings. The Shard, a 95-story building that looks like a glass pyramid, sits at the edge of the South Bank. You’ll see new structures -- like the Gherkin, and the commercial skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street that has become known as the Walkie Talkie because of its shape -- towering behind old buildings. You’ll see the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, and Big Ben. From the river, the city is spread out before you on both sides.
3. London’s Bridges
A number of bridges, many of which are themselves London landmarks, cross the River Thames, linking the South and North Banks. You’ll likely travel over the bridges several times as you explore London. During a river trip, you’ll sail under the arches of Westminster Bridge and Southwark Bridge, the beams of the modern London Bridge, and the dampers of the pedestrian Millennium Bridge. As you approach the majestic Tower Bridge, you’ll spot people on the glass-floored high-level walkways running between the two towers.
4. Houses Of Parliament
The sand-colored limestone Palace of Westminster, built between 1840 and 1870 on the North Bank of the River Thames, is the home of the United Kingdom’s Houses of Parliament. The image of this iconic symbol of Great Britain is found on many souvenirs. The Elizabeth Tower, the clock tower housing the famous Big Ben clock, stands at the north end of the Houses of Parliament.
5. Cleopatra’s Needle
An original Egyptian obelisk sits on the Thames Embankment; it commemorates the British victory over Napoleon. It was made in 1460 B.C. for the Pharaoh Thutmose III. It became known as Cleopatra’s Needle when it came to London via the city of Cleopatra in 1878. Two large bronze Sphinxes lie on either side of the obelisk.
6. Globe Theatre
The Globe Theatre is a reconstruction of the original open-air playhouse where Shakespeare worked and where many of his plays were staged. The circular white-and-black timber-frame building with its thatched roof, located on the South Bank in London’s Bankside district, is easily visible from the river.
Pro Tip: If you wish to explore more of Bankside on a self-guided walking tour, get off at London Bridge or Bankside Pier.
7. HMS Belfast
The HMS Belfast is a Royal Navy warship that fired some of the first shots of World War II’s D-Day landings. It served in the Arctic convoys and in the Korean War and is now permanently moored as a museum ship in the River Thames.
8. Tower Of London
In the 1070s, William the Conqueror built a massive stone fortress with a stone tower at its center on the banks of the River Thames. The Tower of London remains an impressive landmark today. Between 1275 and 1279, King Edward I added a new water gate to provide access from the river. The Tower has served as a royal palace, a storehouse for weapons, and a home for the Royal Mint. It was also used as a prison for enemies of the state, although it was not specifically built for that purpose. The new water gate became known as Traitor’s Gate. As you glide past Traitor’s Gate, you can imagine what it might have felt like for prisoners to approach the fortress via boat.
9. Docklands And Canary Wharf
Canary Wharf is an urban hub of apartments, businesses, shops, and eateries. As you approach the modern skyscrapers, you’ll pass old buildings and former warehouses that speak to the area’s history as a busy shipping center. The West India Docks were built in the early 1800s, and other docks followed. For many years, the Docklands area was a major commerce center, full of ships coming and going. Over time, the ships became too big to travel up the Thames. The port industry began to decline in the 1960s, and all the docks were closed by 1980. Redevelopment began in the 1980s.
Pro Tip: If you venture off the boat in this area, two pubs are worth visiting. The Grapes is a 16th-century waterside pub on Narrow Street in Limehouse. It was once frequented by Charles Dickens. Actor Sir Ian McKellen is one of the current owners of the pub. The Prospect of Whitby is located on the banks of the Thames at Wapping between Canary Wharf and Saint Katharine’s Pier. It is one of London’s oldest pubs and is thought to be the oldest riverside pub on the Thames.
10. Historic Greenwich
Maritime Greenwich is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The impressive neoclassical Old Royal Naval College makes a striking impression as you approach the pier. It is easy to see why it has been used many times as a film location. Alongside the historical buildings, you’ll see more recently constructed landmarks such as The O2 arena with its massive dome and the Emirates Air Line cable car overhead.
Pro Tip: The highlights of Maritime Greenwich -- the Old Royal Naval College, the Royal Observatory, the Queen’s House, the National Maritime Museum, and the Cutty Sark historic sailing ship -- are within walking distance of the pier. If you wish to stop for refreshments, head to the Trafalgar Tavern, a Victorian riverside pub, or the Cutty Sark pub, a Georgian riverside pub with cozy decor and views of the river.
11. Thames Barrier
The Thames Barrier is one of the largest movable flood barriers in the world. It has 10 steel gates that can be raised into position across the River Thames to protect central London from flooding caused by tidal surges. When raised, the main gates stand five stories tall. The Thames Barrier became operational in 1982 and has been closed 186 times between its opening and October of 2019.
Note that not all river tours go as far east as the Thames Barrier. For many, the easternmost point is Greenwich. Those tours that do include it may do so seasonally. If touring by river bus, you’ll need to pick a boat going to Woolwich in order to pass the barrier gates.
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