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The Thames is one of the world’s great rivers, its history intertwined with that of London itself, which it slices in half, bringing the city to the ocean and the world to the city. It has been a working river since before recorded history and remains so to this day, with big barges laden with goods from around the world pulling up to its docks daily while little fishing boats putter through on their way upstream or down. There’s something both profound and romantic — not to mention plain old fun — about joining in with this maritime mix and taking a cruise for yourself on the Thames River.
There are many to choose from, from old-style tall ships to adventure boats, luxury liners serving gourmet meals to simple people-movers, designed to get you from one end of London to the other via the one route with no stop lights. Alongside their own on-board merits, all of the above will give you a gorgeous view of this vibrant city from its very best angle, to boot.
Best Basic Cruise: Westminster to Greenwich Sightseeing Thames Cruise
This simple cruise offers an affordable, simple way to see London’s skyline from the water without any particular muss or fuss. You board the sightseeing boat at the Westminster Pier at any number of daily boarding times (boats leave every 30 to 40 minutes) and choose to sit either inside the boat or on the outdoor sightseeing deck for your east-bound trip along the Thames. Live recorded commentary in six languages will help you keep a lookout for some of London’s most impressive landmarks as you cruise past: the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and so much more.
Your tour ends at Greenwich, where you can disembark and tour the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich Observatory, or Greenwich Market. The boat line does offer a return ticket from Greenwich back to Westminster, but you can also choose to save a few bucks and simply hop a city bus or the light rail back to Central London or wherever your London headquarters (or next destination) happens to be.
Best Hop-On/Hop-Off Cruise: Thames Hop-On Hop-Off River Cruise
The Thames is not only beautiful, it’s (not coincidentally) pretty conveniently located adjacent to a huge slate of London’s most exciting points of interest. This hop-on/hop-off cruise works just like those networks of sightseeing buses: there are four separate piers stretching all down the river, and a rotating fleet of boats stops at each several times per hour. You can either ride the loop (about 2.5 hours) and just watch the city drift by, or jump on and off at your leisure, seeing the sights at each — or both! Feel free to take advantage of the fact that the ticket is good for a full 24 hours (the boats only run from 10:20 a.m. to 4:20 p.m., but if you buy your ticket at noon, you can use it until noon the next morning, for example). This tour is wheelchair-accessible and the boats offer a bar and cafe, so it’s easy to get comfy and enjoy the journey.
Best Evening Cruise: London Thames River Evening Cruise
London is always beautiful, but it’s particularly stunning during the golden hour right around sunset, and then into the darker evening, as the buildings each light up, with the London Eye twinkling over the city and the many towers and church spires glowing through the darkness. Take advantage of this gorgeous time of day and enjoy this evening river cruise that departs from and returns to Westminster Pier.
Your romantic cruise is accompanied by a complimentary glass of sparkling wine and tasty canapés. On-board music adds to the atmosphere. The cruise lasts about two hours, departing at 6:30 p.m. and returning at 8:30 p.m., making it either an ideal evening out (for early birds) or a good warm-up to a fun night on the town.
Best Dinner Cruise: London Thames River Dinner Cruise
Live music, a four-course gourmet dinner, one of London’s most luxurious river cruisers, and the backdrop of the gorgeous city itself, lit up for nighttime? There are few more romantic ways to spend an evening, really. Nibble on Severn and Wye smoked salmon while the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben drift past. Dig into a roasted chicken breast with butternut purée and braised leeks as the Dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre rise up in the distance. Sip a digestif from the on-board bar or even boogie down to 1960s hits on the dance floor while the boat slowly returns on its long, round-trip pathway through the city. Weekend cruises are fully formal: black-tie for men and cocktail or evening dresses for ladies, adding to the truly luxurious ambiance. This tour embarks from Embankment Pier in Central London, a particularly convenient location that’s close to many hotels and easy to access by public transport or taxi.
Best Lunch Cruise: Sunday Lunch Jazz Cruise in River Thames
If a dinner cruise is a bit too posh for your tastes (or pocketbook), consider this also-rather-swanky lunch cruise, which takes you out on the Thames for 2.5 hours around midday, complete with a hearty three-course meal of British-inspired gourmet fare and a fabulous live band playing everything from Dixieland and trad jazz favorites to smooth jazz jams to jazz versions of pop hits. While you eat and listen, the city skyline acts as a gorgeous living backdrop. Unlike similarly-programmed dinner cruises, this lunch cruise is comfy and smart-casual, and it’s also kid-friendly (ages four and up). Vegetarian meal requirements can be accommodated but must be declared at the time of booking.
Best Combo Cruise: London Ghost Tour with Thames River Cruise
London is famously one of the world’s most haunted cities and has an undeniably dark past. This tour, ideal for both history-buff skeptics and amateur ghost hunters alike, takes visitors on a deep dive into just some of the city’s thousands of ghost stories and purported hauntings, as well as some historical events that are scarier than anything supernatural. The tour begins in Green Park and starts off with a walking tour of the Royal Parks, past haunted houses and the sites of some of London’s most horrifying historical incidents.
After your walking tour, you’ll board a boat and float down the Thames, with your guide telling you spine-chilling tales from the many famous (and infamous) buildings you can see from the boat. The tour concludes at the Tower of London, perhaps the most famous haunted landmark in London, if not the world.
Best Speedboat Cruise: High-Speed Thames River RIB Cruise in London
Do you prefer your sightseeing accompanied by a bit of an adrenaline rush? Can’t blame you if you do. This tour straps you into a waterproof lifejacket, gives you a brief (but very necessary) safety briefing, and then zips you out on the Thames on an RIB (rigid inflatable boat) for a speedy 50-minute ride on the river, with guided commentary interspersed by high-velocity accelerations, wave jumps, and wild turns in your nimble little boat. From the water, you can see modern London landmarks like the Shard and the Gherkin, as well as historic churches, monuments, and administrative buildings, and you’ll be able to enjoy these fully on the leisurely ride back to your dock after you’ve had a bit of wild high-speed fun. This tour departs from and returns to the ultra-convenient London Eye Waterloo Millennium Pier in the heart of Central London.
Best Tall Ship Cruise: Thames Tall Ship Cruise
History buffs, this is likely the perfect Thames cruise for you: you’ll not only get to see the historic city rising up above you from your perfect view on the water, but you’ll enjoy being on board a real historical ship replica. The ship leaves from and returns to the Royal Arsenal Pier at Woolwich, on the eastern edge of the city, and takes a sail westward past the many maritime-themed landmarks of the Greenwich area: the Old Royal Naval College, the Cutty Sark clipper ship, Canary Wharf and, of course, the prime meridian (invisible to the naked eye but crucial for navigators and travelers in the modern era — your captain will point it out as you cross). Snacks are served on board (baked goods and savory finger foods) and a cash bar is available if you’d like to enjoy a drink while you sail. It’s a rather charming little venture onto the water, and it lasts about two hours and fifteen minutes and takes place several times during the day, in season.