21 things to do on the Thames, London
5th May 2020
Without the Thames, there would be no London. It has been called ‘liquid history’, the ‘heart of London’ and there has been an official settlement on the banks of the river for at least two thousand years.
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So if you visit London, whether it’s with kids or without, I don’t think you’ve truly explored the capital unless you’ve done something along its banks. Fortunately, that’s not hard: the river is home to some of London’s biggest attractions, museums, historic buildings, walks and activities.
Here are my top 21 things to do on the Thames, London – all either right on the banks or within just a few minutes of the river.
Take a boat trip on the Thames
The best way to experience the river is on the water itself. Several companies run regular boat services along the Thames including the river bus Thames Clippers or Thames River Boats which take you further west towards Hampton, as well as a hop on hop off cruise with Citycruises.
Or swap cruising for speeding with rib boats, including Thames Rockets, Thames RIB Experience and Thamesjet. It’s easy to combine the journeys with some of the sights below too.
Walk the river
The entire Thames path is around 184 miles long if you fancy the trip from the Cotswolds to the Thames Barrier – the section through London alone stretches 40 miles, so unless you’re a dedicated walker, pick a section and a bank.
The Thames Path website has some helpful suggestions with 8-12 mile walks to try and the highlights along the way.
You can also take guided Thames river tours
Explore the South Bank
If you’re not sure where to start, the South Bank is one of the best sections to wander as there’s always something going on – a Christmas market in winter, an urban beach in summer, festivals, events, not to mention the Southbank Centre exhibitions and performances at the Royal Festival Hall, films at the BFI, plays at the National Theatre.
Here’s what I thought of Christmas on the South Bank.
Dig through history
Turn the clock back a century or so and people made a living from mudlarking (well, just about). Today, it’s a chance to explore the city’s history – you never know what you might turn up. Probably not gold sadly.
London Walks runs occasional Thames beachcombing tours [EDIT: Not currently running] or Thames Explorer also runs foreshore walks. If you want to head off without a guide, you can, although be wary of the tides – there are some useful tips in this Go London piece.
Enjoy the view
Don’t miss seeing the Thames from above – it’ll be visible from any of the city’s high viewpoints but the London Eye is one of the best, sitting right above the river.
Perfect for the realisation that the river’s bends mean the city’s geography is laid out a little differently than you might expect. There’s a discount if you buy online in advance and you can also find skip-the-line tickets
Get your heart racing
Or for a view with a difference, how about climbing onto the roof of the O2 – Up at the O2 takes you 52m above the ground, and 2m above the surface of the O2 itself, during a 90-minute climb.
You have to be at least 10 years old and 1.2m tall to take part.
Cross a bridge
33 bridges cross the Thames in London, so you’re guaranteed a few good views as you cross. Tower Bridge is easily the most famous and you can head inside to discover its history and look through the famous glass floor – buy tickets to the Tower Bridge exhibition here.
And if you’d like a chance of seeing the impressive opening as a bigger boat comes through, check the lift times.
But there are plenty of other good spots: Blackfriars Bridge is one of my favourites, especially at sunset or after dark as you look along to the lit-up Oxo Tower, while the Millennium Bridge (which I shall forever think of as the wobbly bridge) has great views to St Paul’s.
Or head west to check out Albert Bridge after dark when it’s lit up by 4,000 bulbs – look down the river from Chelsea Bridge.
Or fly over the river
Jump in the Emirates Air Line and fly over the river in a cable car, taking you between the royal docks and Greenwich peninsula in around 10 minutes – five minutes during morning rush hour, and 12-13 minutes for the night flights after 7pm.
If you have an Oyster card or travelcard, you can get a discount, or simply buy tickets on the day. You can also get combined tickets including a one-way cruise.
One of my favourite parts of London, it’s easy to spend a day (or longer) exploring Greenwich, including the Royal Observatory, Old Royal Naval College, Planetarium, market and the wonderful Cutty Sark.
There are also combined tickets for the Cutty Sark and Royal Observatory
You could hop on the tube but it’s hard to beat a boat trip along the Thames first – just as I did with my daughter for our day out at the Cutty Sark.
Once the royal inhabitants of Hampton Court – appropriated by Henry VIII from Cardinal Wolsey – would have arrived by barge, and you can still get a boat to Hampton to discover the Tudor palace, complete with maze and Magic Garden.
I visited Hampton Court with a baby and have been back my daughter several times since – one of my family favourite days out.
You can also get a combined Historic Royal Palaces pass including access to Hampton Court and the Tower of London.
Visit the Tower of London
Another royal palace, the very water gate you entered by was significant – kings and queens would arrive in state to be conducted to the royal apartments… apart from a few who entered by Traitor’s Gate, numbered among the prisoners who often never set foot outside again.
From the Norman White Tower to the medieval additions, crown jewels, beefeaters and ravens, plus centuries of history, the Tower of London is one of my favourite London sights.
Stroll around St Katherine’s Dock
Wander a little further along the Thames and nearby St Katherine’s Dock has been turned from a commercial dock into a marina, with shops and restaurants.
On a sunny day, it’s a pretty place to wander past yachts, away from some of the bustle around the tower.
Board a battleship
HMS Belfast was once a Royal Navy light cruiser, now a museum ship permanently moored on the Thames. Operated by the Imperial War Museum, you can discover what life would have been like on board for the crew during the Second World War until 1963.
Whales, seals, dolphins and porpoises have all been spotted in the river since it has been cleaned up in recent years, but if you want to be certain of spotting marine life, head to the Sea Life London Aquarium near the London Eye.
One of the biggest collections in Europe, it houses over 500 species, 14 themed zones and more than 2 million litres of water. You can also get discounted tickets.
Visit a museum
Even if you limit yourself to river-front museums, there’s quite a choice for art lovers in particular among the things to do on the Thames,
Tate Modern has regularly changing exhibitions including the immense Turbine hall, while Tate Britain has a collection of British art from 1500 onwards – both are free to enter.
Less well-known is the London Museum of Water and Steam in Brentford, near Kew, with its historic engines and some great activities for kids.
Explore a botanic garden
Although the entrances most visitors use for the botanical gardens at Kew are a little way from the river, the Thames actually wraps itself around the huge site so it’s easy to get from the water to the plants.
There are constantly changing exhibitions and themed displays so there’s always something new to find – we’ve explored everything from Shaun the Sheep at Kew to displays on poisons and spices on our visits.
Check out my tips for exploring Kew Gardens with kids
See a Buddhist stupa
The 200 acres of Battersea Park have everything from a children’s zoo to a Go Ape course as well as the Peace Pagoda right on the riverfront, one of many around the world built as shrines to world peace.
Experience a Tudor theatre
The famous thatched replica of an original Elizabethan theatre, The Globe is one of the best places to watch Shakespeare, standing under the open skies as theatregoers would once have done.
You can see the theatre from the outside while standing tickets cost as little as £5 to see a performance. You can also take tours of the Globe, including an option to upgrade with afternoon tea.
See a bishop’s palace
Fulham Palace has been the historic home of the Bishops of London since 704 and it’s free to enter and explore, plus information on the site’s very earliest inhabitants dating back around 5,000 years.
Next door Bishop’s Park runs right down to the riverfront with an urban beach, ornamental lake and sculpture garden.
Hear London’s famous bell
One of the iconic symbols of London, the Elizabeth Tower – containing Big Ben, as the Great Bell is known – along with the Palace of Westminster border the river at Westminster.
The tower is undergoing refurbishment from 2017 to 2021 so the tours are suspended until then but you can still book tours of Parliament.
Find treasure or track spies
The Treasure Trail collection has a string of options throughout London, with quite a few heading along the riverside for one of the more unusual things to do on the Thames with kids.
Choose from a treasure hunt in Greenwich to a murder mystery in Bankside to a spy mission in Westminster as well as trails for Battersea and Putney Bridges, and the rather pretty section called Strand on the Green at Chiswick.
First published 2016, updated 2020
PIN FOR LATER: THINGS TO DO ON THE THAMES
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Westminster image courtesy of Depositphotos, all others copyright MummyTravels
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