From St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tate Modern to the London Eye and Battersea Power Station, the London skyline is home to some of the world’s most recognisable landmarks – and the best way to appreciate them is from the water. Many different river cruise options are available, with the majority starting at Westminster Pier, heading both east and west along London’s artery. We take a look at two of the most popular sailings.
Westminster Pier to Kew
Leaving Westminster Pier and heading west towards Kew, we immediately pass two of London’s most famous palaces. Almost but not quite facing each other on opposite sides of the Thames are Lambeth Palace on the south bank, the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Palace of Westminster, better known as the Houses of Parliament on the north.
Just before Chelsea Bridge, the tall white chimney stacks of the long-decommissioned art deco Battersea Power Station stand sentry over south London, dominating the skyline for miles around and defining this part of the river since 1932.
Chelsea Harbour, Putney and the Hammersmith riverside soon give way to more soothing scenes, as the weeping willows and lovely Georgian townhouses of Chiswick and Strand on the Green appear. Just after Chiswick Bridge, which marks the end of the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race, are two great riverside pubs: the Bull’s Head and the Bell & Crown. Tucked in between the elegant houses (some of the priciest in London) they’re perfect for a lazy summer afternoon.
Just a few hundred metres from here, and about 90 minutes from Westminster, is Kew. Home of the world famous and World Heritage botanic gardens and the National Archives which house the Domesday Book, Kew is also an appealing London ‘village’ in its own right, complete with upmarket residential areas, a large green used for cricket matches, and a smattering of independent restaurants, shops and pubs.
Westminster Pier to Greenwich
Heading in the other direction, the London Eye – Europe’s tallest ferris wheel – sits on the edge of the South Bank’s Jubilee Gardens opposite the pier, and is the first major landmark of the journey. For equally revealing skyline views coupled with some perspective on London’s scale, a ride on it shouldn’t be missed.
Contemporary landmarks and grand historic buildings lie at every turn in this part of the city, with the Royal Festival Hall, the Savoy Hotel and the Oxo Tower all passing by within moments of each other. St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Millennium Bridge and Tate Modern are next to come into view, and just past the Tate is Shakespeare’s Globe, a modern reconstruction of the Elizabethan theatre in which most of the Bard’s plays were first performed.
Gliding past the theatre, we start to enter the City of London, marked by one of its most iconic symbols of money and power. The Lloyd’s Building was designed by architect Richard Rogers, and like Paris’s Pompidou Centre which came before it, all staircases, water pipes and lifts are on the outside of the structure, leaving a streamlined, clutter-free space within. An 18th-century dining room known as the Adam Room was transferred piece by piece from the previous building across the road and now sits on the 11th floor.
After Tower Bridge and the Tower of London we start to get into London’s mighty shipping history, cruising past Execution Dock – scene of many a pirate’s downfall – and onwards to Canary Wharf, the Cutty Sark clipper ship, and the Royal Naval College and Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Many cruises end here but some go on further to the O2 arena on the tip of the Greenwich peninsula, and to the spectacular Thames Barrier, a moveable flood barrier whose purpose is to prevent London from being flooded by storm surges raging up the from the sea.
Options abound for seeing London from the river. For tours leaving Westminster and heading west to Kew, visit Thames River Boats, who operate this route between April and October. Times can change due to tidal conditions so check the website before setting out. Thames River Boats also operate tours from Kew to Hampton Court Palace, via Richmond, Teddington and Kingston.
City Cruises operate daily departures from Westminster to Greenwich, which can either be done as one trip, or on a hop-on, hop-off basis. Thames River Services offers similar cruises and are one of the best options for going as far as the Thames Flood Barrier. For a direct boat link between Tate Modern and Tate Britain, visit Thames Clippers.