There’s any number of big ferries complete with bars and restaurants, multi-lingual commentaries, and all the usual tourist paraphernalia sailing up and down the Thames, but there’s a better way to explore London on the river.
Opt for the commuter boat, part of the London Transport system. The boats are filled with regular Londoners: mothers bringing children home from school, office workers from the financial hub at Canary Wharf, hip commuters with fold-up bikes tucked under their arms as they board — tourists are actually rare. You won’t see many people with maps of the river in hand and cameras at the ready waiting to catch a commuter boat.
The great thing about traveling on the river is that it is definitely more relaxing than standing in a crowded bus or train, but what you may not expect is the speed with which these boats get down the river from one stop to another.
Depending on the type of ticket you have, you can hop on and off all day at your leisure, visiting most of the city’s major attractions from the river, sailing from one sight to the next. From Hampton Court to the London Eye and Tate Modern, from the Houses of Parliament to the Tower of London, it’s all made easy by the boat.
The redevelopment of the east of London allows you to see historic monuments from what was almost certainly their original, intended perspective. Arriving at the Tower of London by boat lets you enjoy the structure in a more relaxed way than you can from the busy road on the far side, where coaches park and disgorge their tourists.
It’s far more fun to arrive by boat, trying to imagine how differently the Tower and the river must have looked in the 15th and 16th centuries when prisoners destined for the dreaded Tower of London were brought by barge along the Thames to the infamous Traitors’ Gate. As the boats with the condemned passed under London Bridge, the heads of recently executed prisoners were displayed on pikes.
On a lighter note, there is a story that all wicked Londoners like to tell about London Bridge: how it was sold to a naive American in 1967 for over £1 million. The story goes that the buyer thought he was getting the much more famous and iconic Tower Bridge, but ended up with London Bridge instead. Sadly for the story tellers, it’s only partly true. The old bridge is in Arizona, but apparently the buyer knew full well what he was getting.
You’ll also sail past the reconstructed Shakespearean Globe Theatre and historic ships such as HMS Belfast. You’ll see the silhouette of St Paul’s Cathedral on the horizon and then, one of the most beautiful sights the city has to offer, the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, whose magnificent architecture was clearly meant to be seen first from the water.
On your journey, if you hop off at The O2, you’ll join a huge throng of people, hundreds of mainly young city types all out for dinner or a drink in this enormous, stylish dome. Queues form early outside the more popular bars and cafés, even on Monday evenings. If you need visible proof of the success of the development of the east end of London, this is it.
What’s wonderful about travelling this way is that you get to see vignettes of normal river life. You might see a little wooden row boat puttering along the river passing fishing boats moored alongside. These quaint scenes are often mixed with über-smart yachts or power boats racing past. And towering over it all is the panorama of the 2012 Olympic village.