I love exploring London. It’s such a vibrant city full of history and culture. I’ve never lived in London but have lived close enough to visit regularly over the years. For me, the capital has a familiarity to it, despite it’s sprawling size. At over 600 square miles, there’s a lot of ground to cover in Greater London. For the most part though, the iconic London landmarks that the majority of tourists want to visit are near to the River Thames. There are so many transportation options available, with the London Underground being the most popular choice thanks to the convenience and speed of getting around the city.
Over the years, I have grown less and less fond of ‘the tube’ though. The crowds and claustrophobia have left me wanting a more relaxing means of transport. I started to walk more, and use the buses. It’s amazing how you get a completely different understanding of the city’s layout, when you travel overground. Buses, however, take a long time, especially covering long distances. Wanting to explore some London landmarks in the east of the city, I decided to use the Thames Clippers river boat service one weekend. Effectively a commuter service running the length of the London Thames from west to east, I found it’s a fantastic way to travel for tourists too.
Why use Thames Clippers to see the best London landmarks?
The Thames Clippers are a fleet of twenty catamarans that run a regular service along the River Thames. As well as being a useful commuter service, they are ideal for tourists thanks to the many London landmarks along the Thames Clipper route. With several different route options, the service runs from Putney in the west to Woolwich (Royal Arsenal) in the east. Not all services visit every stop along the way, so it’s important to check which service that you need to take to get to your chosen destination(s).
The fleet of catamarans are comfortable and nicely fitted out. With comfortable leather seats there are great riverside views from all positions. There is an on-board cafe and licensed bar, as well as toilets. All catamarans are fully accessible and there’s also an outdoor deck at the rear of the vessel, for better photo opportunities of the London landmarks that you’ll pass along the way.
Exploring the stops along the Thames Clipper route
Plantation Wharf and Battersea Power Station
Starting in West London, Plantation Wharf is a great place to stop and take a riverside stroll along the Thames. There are views across to Chelsea Harbour and a fascinating community of fabulous looking riverboats. The pathway leads under the Battersea Bridge and the iconic Albert Bridge, a beautiful structure with an interesting sign at the end telling soldiers to break step when marching across the bridge, as this was thought to potentially damage the structure.
From this point, there’s an opportunity to leave the riverside for a while and take a stroll through Battersea Park, a fantastic open space with meadows, woodland and a large boating lake. Coming out of the east end of the park, the riverside path leads to the iconic Battersea Power Station. The large Victorian building with its four white towers is currently in the throws of a huge mixed use redevelopment of housing and commercial opportunities. Already, the face of the riverside at this location has been completely changed with new restaurants, bars and event spaces. I can’t wait to get back and photograph the area when the building work is complete.
Westminster Millennium Pier
The next stop along the Thames Clipper route featuring some of the most iconic London landmarks is Westminster Pier. From here you can take a stroll to the heart of Westminster and get up close to Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. At the time of writing (Feb 2020) Big Ben is currently hidden under a scaffold as some extensive restoration work is going ahead, but once that is complete, it’s fanstastic to stand under this beautiful London structure and take in all the detail.
London Eye (Waterloo)
A short hop across the Thames, the London Eye (Waterloo) Pier sits directly underneath the popular 443 feet tall observation wheel. The London Eye, now twenty years old, has changed the cityscape of the South Bank and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the UK. To take a ride on the London Eye, advance bookings are recommended, as the queues always build up. A full rotation takes about thirty minutes and offers one of the best available views of the city. The County Hall building next to the Eye also houses a number of tourist attractions including the London Aquarium and London Dungeons.
Another short hop across the river to the north side of the Thames is the Embankment Pier. Leaving the Thames Clippers service at Embankment Pier provides quick and easy routes to the West End. London landmarks such as Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus are only a short walk away from the river at this location. For fantastic London skyline views, the pedestrian Golden Jubilee Bridges are a must and provide awesome views looking both east to the City of London and to the west across to Westminster and the London Eye. It’s worth taking some time to explore the South Bank at this location. A cultural hub of the city, the area is packed full of theatres, restaurants and bars with street performers at every turn. A walk down the South Bank on a sunny day is a great way to spend some time in London.
Blackfriars and Bankside Piers
Heading east from Embankment, Blackfriars and Bankside Piers are located near to each other but on opposite sides of the river. Departing from either of these Thames Clippers stops will provide fantastic views across to St. Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London and the Tate Modern to the south of the river. Both sites can be easily reached on foot from either side of the river by use of the Millennium Bridge – a suspension footbridge that crosses the River Thames at this location.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is open to visitors and the ticket price allows access to the cathedral floor, the crypt and three galleries in the dome. It’s a stunning cathedral and London landmark that shouldn’t be missed.
London landmarks in the London Bridge City area
The next stop heading east is the London Bridge Pier providing access to the Southwark and London Bridge areas. With Southwark Cathedral, the Golden Hinde and HMS Belfast located in this area, there is plenty to keep visitors occupied. Exploring Borough Market is a must, and a walk down to Hays Galleria provides fantastic views across the river.
Read up for more detail on cool things to do and see in the London Bridge area.
For epic views from the London Bridge area, there are two relatively new London landmarks that have become hugely popular tourist attractions in recent years – the Sky Garden and The Shard.
20 Fenchurch Street, aka the Walkie Talkie Building is home to Sky Garden – a stunning observation deck at the top of the building. Covering three storeys, with floor to ceiling glass windows, Sky Garden features an observation deck, an outdoor terrace, bars, restaurants and a beautifully landscaped garden, all on the 35th – 37th floor of the building. Even better, visiting the Sky Garden is free to the public, although pre-booking is a requirement. The curved building is a stunning piece of architecture and Sky Garden is a beautiful space to look out across the city of London.
Directly across from Sky Garden, The Shard features another observation deck at the top of the tallest building in the UK. Standing at 1,106 feet high, The Shard dominates the skyline of the area. Unlike the Sky Garden, there is an entrance fee to The View from The Shard observation deck and pre-booking is advised. As well as the observation deck, The Shard is home to the Shangri-La hotel and a host of bars and restaurants. A fantastic destination in the London Bridge area.
A short distance from London Bridge, Tower Pier on Thames Clippers route is home to one of the most popular London landmarks – Tower Bridge. This beautiful bridge, with it’s iconic towers is a symbol of London and well over one hundred years old. The roadway on the bridge is separated in two and both sides can be raised to allow for larger river traffic to pass through. It’s a lovely stretch of the Thames to explore on foot and the Tower of London, another iconic London landmark, is well worth visiting.
From the Tower Pier, heading east, the Thames Clippers stops are a further distance apart and the catamarans go into high speed mode along this stretch of river. The next stop of note is Canary Wharf, the financial heart of London. Whilst this is mainly a commuter stop, the views from the river at the iconic skyscrapers are great. Canary Wharf does have a shopping area as well as bars and restaurants, so if there is time to spare, it’s worth stopping to explore.
Exploring the London landmarks at Greenwich Pier
It was on a trip to Greenwich where I first discovered the Thames Clippers. Getting to Greenwich from Central London is a slog on the Underground, so the river option sounded ideal. Greenwich is beautiful and one of my favourite areas of London. There’s plenty of open parkland to explore and with attractions such as the Cutty Sark and the Greenwich Observatory, it’s easy to spend a day in the area exploring, eating and drinking. The views from the Royal Observatory Greenwich are fantastic, and ever changing thanks to the constant construction and development of Canary Wharf.
A true icon of the area, and directly next to the River Thames is the stunning Old Royal Naval College – a UNESCO world heritage site. Built on the site of the former Greenwich Palace, the beautiful baroque buildings with their ornate domes and large pillars have served as a Royal Hospital and Naval College. Designed and built by Sir Christopher Wren the buildings and grounds are now open to the public.
Following an extensive restoration project, 2019 saw the reopening to the public of the Painted Hall – the most stunning room and work of art I have seen in the UK. Known as the ‘UK’s Sistine Chapel’, the wall decoration and stunning ceiling was designed and created by Sir James Thornhill and completed in 1726. It is staggeringly beautiful and really left me speechless, staring in wonder at the levels of detail and beauty of the paintings. There are conveniently located benches in the centre of the hall, where you can lay and stare up at the frescos on the ceiling. Stunning, and worth the entry fee alone.
North Greenwich and Royal Wharf Piers
Heading toward the end of the Thames Clippers route, North Greenwich and Royal Wharf Piers serve both The 02 and ExCel London exhibition centre. The 02 has rapidly become one of the most popular event venues in the city, with the 20,000 capacity O2 Arena situated here. As well as the arena, there are bars and restaurants, shopping, a cinema and nearby hotels. A more recent tourist attraction is Up at the O2, which provides the opportunity to climb up to the top of the iconic London landmark. It’s a 90 minute experience walking to the top of the huge domed structure.
The nearby ExCel centre is a huge exhibition and convention centre with several popular events across the year. The centre hosted many events as part of the 2012 London Olympics, at which point a new form of transport was opened between North Greenwich and the centre. The Emirates Air Line is a cable car system that crosses the Thames, providing excellent views over London. For those who are not a fan of heights, the ExCel centre can also be accessed from the Royal Wharf Pier. It’s about a twenty minute walk, which includes a walk across the Royal Victoria Bridge, which also provides excellent views out across London. Docked outside the ExCel centre, the Sunborn London Yacht Hotel offers a luxurious hotel experience aboard the yacht. I’d definitely like to stay there one day!
Travelling along the Thames Clippers route
Travelling along the Thames Clippers route may not be the most cost effective way to cross London. It does, however, provide the comfort that’s missing on the other modes of transport. It’s also not the quickest way to travel across the city, but allow yourself some extra time and enjoy the experience. Grab a coffee or a beer, sit back and take in all of the London landmarks along the route.
For passengers who have a TFL London Underground Travelcard, there are 1/3 off discounts available on the Thames Clippers. For tourists, the River Roamer tickets are ideal as they provide a hop on hop off facility available for a full day. Tickets are priced £17.80 for adults and £8.80 for children when purchased online.
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