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London (Tilbury)

9 Tips for a London River Cruise

London (Tilbury)
Jamey Bergman
Jeannine Williamson

Aug 22, 2023

Read time
6 min read

A London river cruise on the Thames is one of the most leisurely and easiest ways to see some of the top sights in the U.K. capital. The River Thames spans 215 miles and is an iconic landmark of London, flowing through the heart of the city. You can hop on and off at piers all along the river to visit the attractions, without the hassle of expensive cab fares or figuring out the subway system.

While boats continuously traverse the waters of the River Thames, there aren't many overnight or longer river cruise itineraries offered. The majority of London river cruises available on the Thames are day cruises or shorter excursions on larger sightseeing boats that take in London's historic sights.

That said, river cruise enthusiasts can find overnight cruises up to a week in length leaving from West London on luxury barges like European Waterways' intimate eight-passenger, 117-foot Magna Carta.

Here are nine tips for taking a London river cruise and some sights and experiences to look out for along the way.

1. Beat the Weather on Your London River Cruise

London skyline along the Thames River (Photo: TTstudio/Shutterstock) (Photo:Pawel Pajor/Shutterstock)

No matter when you're traveling to the U.K., be prepared for rain and showers. While the U.K. has four distinct seasons, that doesn't mean you won't experience Britain's famously rainy and cloudy weather, even in the height of summer.

Be sure to pack layers, a light raincoat, sturdy shoes and an umbrella. The summertime can be very warm, but temperatures generally stay between 50- and 80-degrees Fahrenheit, and will dip below freezing in the winter.

2. Soak in the History While on a London River Cruise

A view of London's Tower Bridge on the River Thames. (photo: chrisdorney/Shutterstock)

Britain is known for its rich history, which began over 1,000 years ago when the Romans left the island they called Britannia. The River Thames is lined with historical and cultural attractions, and those you can see on a London river cruise include St. Paul's Cathedral, Big Ben and the Palaces of Westminster, the Tate Modern museum, the recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the Tower of London, to name just a few.

And if you take a longer trip from West London, you'll wend your way through quaint country towns to places such as Oxford's ancient "City of Dreaming Spires" and the birthplace of Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon.

3. Pick up a London Pass for Even More Sightseeing on Your London River Cruise

The London Pass is a digital sightseeing package which, in addition to access to 80-plus attractions, provides unlimited hop-on hop-off travel on City Cruises. The Thames riverboat company operates vessels from four different boarding points -- Westminster, the London Eye, Tower of London and Greenwich -- with an informative live commentary. Passengers can stay on for the whole of the round-trip duration or get on and off as many times as they wish.

4. Try the Local Food in London

Indian takeaway food from a local London market. (photo: Alex Hubenov/Shutterstock)

The days when Britain got a bad rap for its food have long gone. Whether you're after a great burger or cuisine from virtually any country you can think of, you'll be able to find it in this city.

Take a trip to Borough Market, London's most famous fresh food market, to browse around stalls laden with artisanal produce. You can also soak up the color and aromas of the largest Chinatown in the U.K., go to Brick Lane for Indian and Asian cuisine and Golders Green for kosher restaurants.

Fish and chips is a must when you're in the U.K. and for a real and historical taste of London, try eel pie and mashed potato or jellied eels. At one time, the eel population in the Thames was so plentiful that in the 19th century, jellied eels became the most popular dish for people working in and around the docklands in the East End neighborhood.

The culinary tradition continues at F. Cooke Pie & Mash in Hoxton, which first opened its doors in 1862 and continues to serve cockney favorites.

5. Leave Your Cruise Ship in London and Pop into Pubs, Then Stand on the Prime Meridian

Partake in the London culture with a local brew. (photo: William Perugini/Shutterstock)

A trip to the U.K. would hardly be authentic if you didn't pop into a pub and partake in the local brew. If you want to kill two birds with one stone and get some history with your pint, head down to Greenwich for a guided tour and tasting at the Meantime Brewing Company which creates a range of craft beers using U.K. hopes and local malts.

Afterwards, stand (as steadily as you can) on the Prime Meridian line where east meets west at zero degrees latitude. There are two main reasons the Prime Meridian runs through Greenwich: the first was the fact that the U.S. had already chosen Greenwich as the basis for its own national time zone system and the second was that in the late 19th century, more than 70 percent of the world's sea charts used Greenwich as the key reference point.

6. See "Downton Abbey" Off of Your London River Cruise

People queuing to visit Highclere Castle, the main setting for Downton Abbey. (photo: Dutourdumonde Photography/Shutterstock)

Don't miss a chance to see the real country manor where the hit period drama "Downton Abbey" is set. Highclere Castle in Hampshire is 65 miles outside London and was the backdrop of the TV series and two movies.

Home of the fictional Crawley family, it is the real-life home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon. In 1922, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon discovered Tutankhamun's burial chamber alongside British archaeologist Howard Carter, and Highclere Castle houses an extensive collection of Egyptian artifacts.

European Waterways offers excursions on select sailings aboard the Magna Carta and they are also available on pre- and post-cruise ocean and river cruise extensions with Viking. If you are not booked on an ocean or river cruise, there are also day tours from London to Highclere Castle that can be booked independently.

7. Enjoy Tea Time on the Thames and Your London Cruise Ship

Afternoon tea is a U.K. institution and you can combine the national tradition with a cruise along the Thames. Savor the most British of meals -- with delicate sandwiches, cakes and scones -- as you glide past iconic riverside sights. Alternatively, see the city after dark on a dinner cruise including sailings that feature live music.

8. Take in the Thames Barrier Right off Your London River Cruise

For a river-related attraction with a difference, visit the Thames Barrier Information Center. Opened in 1984, and spanning more than 1,700 feet, the barrier is a marvel of engineering which protects a 77-mile area of central London from flooding caused by tidal surges.

It comprises ten steel gates which are as high as a five-story building. The exhibition includes a movie on the construction of the barrier and a model showing how it works.

9. Soar above the River Thames on the IFS Cloud Cable Car

Take to the sky for another unusual experience. The IFS Cloud Cable Car is the U.K.'s first and only urban cable car. Located between Greenwich peninsula and the Royal Docks, the gondola ride crosses between the banks of the Thames at a height of nearly 300 feet. It provides a wonderful bird's-eye view of ancient and modern sights, including St Paul's Cathedral and the "the gherkin," a distinctive tower block.

Updated August 22, 2023
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