The London skyline is filled with some of the world's most recognisable landmarks, from St. Paul's Cathedral and the Tate Modern to the London Eye and Battersea Power Station - and the best way to appreciate them is from the water. There are many different river cruise options available for visitors, with the majority starting centrally at Westminster Pier and heading both east and west along London's artery. We take a look at two of the most popular sailings...
Westminster Pier to Kew
Leaving Westminster pier and heading west towards Kew, you'll immediately pass two of London's most famous palaces. Almost but not quite facing each other on opposing banks of the Thames are Lambeth Palace on the south bank, the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Palace of Westminster, better known as the Houses of Parliament on the north.
Just before Chelsea Bridge, the tall white chimney stacks of the embattled but much-loved art deco Battersea Power Station stand sentry over south London, dominating the skyline for miles around and defining this part of the river since 1932.
Chelsea Harbour, Putney and the Hammersmith riverside soon give way to more soothing scenes, as the weeping willows and lovely Georgian townhouses of Chiswick and Strand on the Green appear. Just after Chiswick Bridge, which marks the end of the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race, are two great riverside pubs: the Bull's Head and the Bell & Crown. Tucked in between the elegant houses (some of the priciest in London) they're perfect for a lazy summer afternoon, as described in our recent post Getting away from it all in London.
Just a few hundred metres on from here, and about an hour and a half from Westminster, you will arrive at Kew. Home of the world-famous and World Heritage botanical gardens and the National Archives which house the Domesday Book, Kew is also a beautiful, typical London 'village' in its own right, complete with a large green used for cricket matches, upmarket houses and a smattering of independent restaurants, shops and pubs.
Westminster Pier to Greenwich
Heading in the other direction, the London Eye - Europe's tallest ferris wheel - sits on the edge of the South Bank's Jubilee Gardens opposite the pier, and is the first major landmark of the journey. For equally revealing skyline views andsome perspective on London's scale, a ride on it shouldn't be missed.
In this part of the city there are grand and historic buildings at every turn, with Old Scotland Yard, the Royal Festival Hall, the Savoy Hotel and the Oxo Tower all passing by within moments of each other. St. Paul's Cathedral, the Millenium Bridge and Tate Modern are next to come into view, and just past the Tate is Shakespeare's Globe, a modern reconstruction of the Elizabethan theatre in which most of his plays were first performed.
Gliding past the theatre, we start to enter the City of London with one of its most iconic symbols of money and power coming into the frame. The Lloyd's Building was designed by architect Richard Rogers, and like Paris's Pompidou Centre which came before it, all staircases, water pipes and lifts are on the outside of the structure, leaving a streamlined, clutter-free space within. An 18th century dining room was transferred piece by piece from the previous building across the road, and now sits on the 11th floor, open for visits at certain times of the day.
After Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, we start to get into London's mighty shipping history, cruising past Execution Dock - scene of many a pirate's downfall - and onwards to Canary Wharf, the Cutty Sark clipper ship (re-opening in 2012 after renovations from the 2007 fire) and the Royal Naval College and Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Many cruises end here, but some go on further to the O2 concert arena, formerly the Millenium Dome, on the tip of Greenwich's peninsula, and to the spectacular Thames Barrier, a moveable flood barrier whose purpose is to prevent London from being flooded by storm surges raging up the from the sea.
There are plenty of options for seeing London from the river. For tours leaving Westminster and heading west to Kew, visit Thames River Boats, who operate this route between April and October. Times can change due to tidal conditions so check the website before setting out. Thames River Boats also operate tours from Kew to Hampton Court Palace, via Richmond, Teddington and Kingston.
City Cruises operate daily departures from Westminster to Greenwich, which can either be done as one trip, or on a hop-on, hop-off basis. Thames River Services offer similar cruises and are one of the best options for going as far as the Thames Flood Barrier. For a direct boat link between Tate Modern and Tate Britain, visit Thames Clippers.
Fly to London with Virgin Atlantic from any of our destinations - just hop on over to www.virginatlantic.com for all the latest fares and offers.
Thanks to Jim Linwood on Flickr for the header shot.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.