London: A regal view from the river

By Jennifer Ennion

Cruise past landmarks on the River Thames for a perfect introduction to London, writes Jennifer Ennion

See the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye.
See the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye.

Cruising on the River Thames may be a touristy way to see London but it's the perfect introduction to the city for first-timers.

It's also an easy addition to an itinerary, as you can tick off many major sites on your way to the waterfront such as Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and 10 Downing Street.

I begin my Thames journey after doing exactly that, and then boarding a City Cruises sightseeing boat at Westminster Pier.

If you purchase a Rover ticket you can have a full day of sightseeing and hop on and off the boat at various piers. The first landmark you'll come to is the London Eye - the giant observation wheel that's become part of the London skyline since it opened in 2000.

It's reportedly the most popular ticketed tourist attraction in the city, and cruise guide Paul tells passengers it has carried more than 50 million people.

At 135m high, it's another way to see the city with 360-degree views stretching 40km if you're lucky to visit on a clear day.

You can hop off at London Eye Pier (Waterloo Millennium Pier) and take a ride on the Eye for 19.20 ($37) per adult.

Further along the river you'll pass Shakespeare's Globe Theatre Tour and Exhibition. It is near to the Bankside Pier but City Cruises doesn't stop here, so you'll have to return another time if you want a tour inside. Still, it's nice to see the Globe from the river, away from the crowds onshore.

Shakespeare's Globe isn't the original Elizabethan playhouse but a great reconstruction of the Globe Theatre. "It's the only building in London to be allowed a thatched roof since the Great Fire of London [in 1666]," Paul says as we glide past. If you return, be sure to also visit the Tate Modern museum.

We soon pass under London Bridge (cue the song). Paul says five versions of the bridge have been built over 2000 years.

The first ones were constructed out of timber, then a medieval version was followed by a 19th-century stone-arched bridge. The current incarnation - a rather boring concrete and steel crossing - has been taking traffic since 1973.

Fires, disrepair and even destruction by a tornado were the reasons for so many versions.

London's Tower Bridge.
London's Tower Bridge.

A more aesthetically pleasing structure is Tower Bridge, which is a drawbridge that opens to water traffic about 20 times a week. It dates back to 1894 and was named after the Tower of London - a royal fortress home to the Crown Jewels, guarded by the ceremonial Beefeaters - on the north bank. "It's one of the finest things you'll see in London," says Paul.

Other landmarks include Cleopatra's Needle, an Egyptian obelisk made of red granite and inscribed with hieroglyphs, said to be more than 3500 years old. It was given to the Crown in the early 19th century by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan, to commemorate two victories of war.

The "needle" has a twin in New York City's Central Park, and another pair of obelisks has been split between Paris and Luxor.

At the end of the cruise line, make sure you leave time to disembark at Greenwich Pier. With more than 20 pubs in Greenwich, it's a great suburb in which to have lunch. Move away from the river and explore the sweet shops and market stalls: it's the perfect way to end a day of sightseeing in London.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies to London with stopovers in Los Angeles or Asia.

The writer was a guest of VisitBritain, City Cruises, The Nadler and Princess Cruises.

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