A River Thames Cruise is a great way to do some sightseeing in London. It was recommended to me by one of my readers before I departed on my trip across the pond, and was probably the best bit of travel advice I received for the trip. I saw a lot of sights right there from the boat and, for only a few extra pounds, was able to hop on and off at all of the stops, thus allowing me a more up-close look at the locations I had traveled thousands of miles to see.
The night before the River Thames Cruise in London I highlighted a bunch of sights on my map that I wanted to see with my friends who I was visiting. It was a long list of things, but with a little strategic sightseeing planning I knew we could fit in most of it. The first leg of that, which entailed a lot of stops, was the recommended river cruise. After taking the train into central London from Hoddesdon, where my friends live, we transferred at the Liverpool Street Tube Station and then continued onto the Westminster Station. Emerging from the station we stood at the foot of Big Ben and Parliament.
I never understood what was so special about the 153-year-old clock, Big Ben – which is actually the name of the bell inside, but has now transferred over to the tower as well – other than Chevy Chase drove his family in repeated circles around it in the movie European Vacation. Other than being attached to Parliament and being incredibly picturesque, it didn’t hit me as anything overly special. It is really just a giant clock. But, before departing, reading a little history about it made me appreciate the sight with more than a little shrug and a photo.
In October 1834 the Palace of Westminster – the Medieval residence for the monarch which may date as a royal residence back to almost the year 1,000 – largely burned to the ground by an overheated stove. It was replaced by the Gothic-style palace designed by architect Sir Charles Barry, who submitted one of 97 proposals to a Royal Commission tasked with redesigning the building. Part of Sir Barry’s design included what is once again the Houses of Parliament, but also the largest four-faced chiming clock in the world – Big Ben.
We had a busy day planned, and new we’d see Big Ben and Parliament again, so we did not linger. Instead we walked down a nearby ramp to a host of stands selling tickets for various cruises on the River Thames. The one we chose was the Circular Cruise, which offered roundtrip cruises from Big Ben and Parliament to the Tower of London for only £12.
As we set off along the river, immediately opposite us, we could see the famous London Eye. Opened on December 31, 1999, the London Eye is the tallest Ferris wheel in Europe, standing 443-feet-tall. I was interested in going for a ride, but, due to a lack of time, it would have to wait for another trip over.
We passed under the Waterloo, Blackfriars, and Millennium Bridges before making a stop at the Bankside Pier on the south side of the river. This is a popular stop with lots of shopping, restaurants, and sights to see. The one I was most interested in touring was the Tate Modern, a modern and contemporary art museum opened in 2000 in an old power station.
Tate Modern had a few works I appreciated by the likes of Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly (above), and, of course, Pablo Picasso, but the bulk of the art I found quite unappealing. It was truly modern and contemporary art at its most extreme, works that left me questioning in whose eyes exactly was that art. The main exhibit was free, though, and ultimately worth the stop to see the handful of highlights that are on display and not in the special paid temporary exhibits.
Walking back toward the pier we stopped briefly to snap a few photos at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, a modern approximation of where the poet’s plays were performed in the 1600s, as well as the Millennium Bridge. Due to the lateness of the day, we did not have the time to walk across the bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral – which has the second largest unsupported dome in Europe – or to see a performance at the Globe. I was instead eager to continue on and see two of my most desired sights in all of London, the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London.
Passing under Southwark and London Bridges, the Tower Bridge came into view behind the H.M.S. Belfast, a Royal Navy light cruiser that was used in World War II which is now a museum. There were no stops there to see it or the nearby London Dungeon, so the boat continued on and under the Tower Bridge to St. Katharine’s Pier. From there we walked up the ramp, climbed a small set of stairs, and came out on the deck of the famed bridge.
I had to pause and take a breath when I first stepped out onto the bridge, which was decorated with the logo for the upcoming Paralympic Games. This was something people who don’t live in England usually only see in books. But there I was, standing on one of the world’s most famous landmarks. And I could not have been happier for the opportunity.
Looking north from the iconic bridge the Tower of London, from where the bridge gets its name, sprawled out before me. A giddy feeling rose up in my stomach, that sense of excitement I only get when I’m truly about to burst because I’m going to see something which I have only previous dreamed. Simply put, I was geeked.
The Tower of London was founded during the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 and was originally viewed as a symbol of the oppression by William the Conqueror. Today it houses the Crown Jewels – “I have never been more proud to be English,” said my friend when he saw them – and is one of the most visited spots in all of England. It was a dream for me to tour it, soaking up all of the fantastic and dreadful history surrounding the fortress, and something I will write about more completely later this week.
We left the Tower of London as light rain began to fall. (We had been blessed all day with dry, albeit overcast, weather.) Walking around to the north side of the complex we hopped on the train and headed back north to my friends’ home for a night with our feet up. After all of the steps we took that day – several thousand, according to my friend’s pedometer – I was ready to take a load off and rest up for the next day, another full day of sightseeing in London. We skipped out on the return ride on the River Thames Cruise, but, I must agree with the reader’s suggestion, it was definitely one of the best things I did while I was in London.