A Thames river cruise conjures up images of London's beautiful skyline: the ethereal spires of the Palace of Westminster, the fortifications of the Tower of London and the domed Christopher Wren-designed St. Paul's Cathedral.
Most online searches for a London River cruise will turn up results for short sightseeing voyages on the section of the Thames from Greenwich to Westminster, or vice versa. However, the Thames River actually meanders 215 miles through eight counties -- from its Gloucestershire source to its mouth in the seaside town of Southend-On-Sea. River Thames cruises are possible on much of the waterway, with the exception of about 25 miles -- between Lechlade Bridge and the Thames Head.
The river's path weaves through historic towns -- including Oxford, Windsor and Eton -- before passing through London and to the coast. The last 90 miles of the Thames River -- between the Thames Estuary in Southend and the river's first set of locks in Teddington -- are tidal and free of the locks that limit the length of ships using the river in its upper reaches.
From the best River Thames cruises to the lines sailing them, discover everything you need to know about London river cruises below.
The best time for River Thames cruises is March to October. Summer months are warmest, but with Britain's notoriously changeable weather, warm, sunny days are not guaranteed. Spring, too, is a beautiful time of year, with London's exquiste cherry blossom season from late March to early May.
The Magna Carta operates Thames river cruises year-round, though only upon request during winter.
While boats continuously traverse both the tidal and non-tidal waters of the Thames River, unlike mainland Europe's buzzy waterways, it is not often on the itinerary for river cruise ships. The majority of cruises available on the Thames River are day cruises on larger boats taking in London's historic sights. River enthusiasts can find overnight cruises up to a week in length on luxury barges like European Waterways' eight-passenger, 117-foot Magna Carta.
Magna Carta's cosy deckplan features four cabins each measuring about 200 square feet, with shower-only bathrooms. There's a saloon-bar, dining areas and sun deck with loungers and a hot tub. River Thames Cruises include all meals with wine and British cheeses, shore excursions to landmarks such as Hampton Court Palace, Henry VIII's former residence, an open bar and bikes for passenger use. Optional excursions, including hot air balloon rides and golf, are extra.
The barge is also fitted with a lift for wheelchairs.
Some cruise lines, including Ponant, Viking Ocean cruises, Silversea and Lindblad Expeditions, offer a London river cruise experience with port calls to Greenwich Ship Tier or Tower Bridge Upper in the beating heart of the city.
Magna Carta offers a standard six-night cruise from Hampton Court Palace in west London to Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, and the reverse on alternate weeks. The itinerary's (and the ship's) pace is relaxed, and itineraries are flexible and subject to change. A typical itinerary would offer activities like traditional English cream teas, trips to ancient estates such as the 11th-century Windsor Castle and plenty of hours to while away at a leisurely pace pottering along on the Thames River. The ship also offers themed cruises, with a specific itinerary that includes a visit to Highclere Castle, setting for the television series "Downton Abbey."
The ships that stop in Central London often overnight, too, including Viking, offering cruise passengers plenty of chance to explore the capital, including West End shows, dazzling restaurants and fantastic shopping. Thes itineraries are typically part of British Isles and Northern Europe itineraries.
If your primary reason for a Thames River cruise, London, is to take in the history of the British Isles, there are plenty more ocean-going cruise lines that offer port-intensive, round-Britain voyages that visit everywhere from Liverpool, Newcastle and Edinburgh, to Cornwall and the more isolated Scottish Highlands and islands.
If you're in it for the barging experience, European Waterways and others offer a variety of canal cruise itineraries in France, which our French River Cruise Basics describes in detail.)
River Thames cruise prices are typically steep. Six-night River Thames cruises start from £4,650 (priced based on summer 2024 sailings). Be quick, though, due to the short supply of ships offering River Thames Cruises, voyages book up months ahead.
Alternatively, for more of a London river cruise, look to those lines that call in the capital. Prices vary depending on the line.