How To Do London By Boat

How To Do London By Boat
The captain steering a small motor boat on the canal, with Paddington buildings in the background
The Paddington Water Taxi. Image: Londonist

The tourist-laden river boats that roam up and down the Thames are a well-known sight in London, but they're far from the only way to see the city by river. From pootling about on canals to crossing the Thames by ferry, here's a guide to faffing about on boats in London.

River Thames river boat services

An Uber Boat passes underneath London Bridge heading east on the Thames, with buildings in the background
Uber Boats by Thames Clippers are also known as TfL's River Bus. Photo: Matt Brown

Confused about all the different boat services which whizz up and down the Thames in central London? Here's a guide:

Uber Boats by Thames Clippers, also known as TfL's River Bus

Previously known simply as Thames Clippers, Uber Boats by Thames Clippers is the TfL River Bus service, albeit contracted out to someone else. It serves 23 piers and stops all along the river between Putney and Woolwich, under the route names RB1, RB2, RB4, and RB6. It's generally intended as a commuter service rather than a pleasure boat, though there's nothing stopping you riding up and down the Thames to your heart's content.

Oyster or contactless is the cheapest option to pay. You can buy paper tickets at the pier, but that's more expensive. It works on a similar zone system to the rest of the transport network, though the river has its own zones.

Thames River Tours

A City Cruises boat on the Thames to the east of Waterloo Bridge, with the London Eye, Big Ben and trees on South Bank in the background
There are various river cruises you can do. Photo: Matt Brown

Beyond the official TfL/Uber Boats by Thames Clippers river bus services, other boat routes on the Thames are known as River Tours. These are your more touristy options, including hop-on/hop-off services, sightseeing tours and dinner cruises. Various companies are given permission by TfL to run these services, but the best known and most visible are City Cruises, London Eye River Cruise, and Bateaux London, all of which use some of the same piers as the River Bus services.

For a whistle-stop tour of London's landmarks, take a ride on a speed boat down the river. Thames Rockets operate from piers at Tower Bridge and the London Eye, and is one for speed demons — pass Tower Bridge, Canary Wharf, The 02, and Greenwich, before looping round at the Thames Flood Barrier and making a return journey, all within 40 minutes.

River Bus and River Tour services run all year. Check with individual operators for up to date timetable and ticket info.

Paddington Basin Water Taxi

Looking down from a footbridge onto a motor boat on the canal at Paddington
Venice? Nope, Paddington. Image: Londonist

We know we shouldn't have favourites, but we do have a soft spot for the Paddington Basin Water Taxi. It's a free passenger service operating between Bishop's Bridge and Merchant Square in Paddington Basin in the summer. No booking, no tickets, only a loose timetable — just turn up and ride.

The distance is short, and the views are limited, but on a summer's day, you could convince yourself you're on a speedboat in the French Riviera. The entire ride takes about 10 minutes, and it only operates 12pm-2pm on weekdays in the summer, but it's one of those charming London quirks that we so adore.

At time of writing, this service has been suspended due to Covid and winter, but we hope to see it back when the new season begins in April 2022. Watch this page and the Paddington Water Taxi Twitter account for updates.

London Waterbus, Regent's Canal

The Waterbus canal boat moored up at Camden Lock, next to a chalk board with times and prices
The Waterbus stop at Camden Lock. Photo: Londonist

Just round the corner from the Paddington Water Taxi is Little Venice, a gathering point for London's boaty folk, and their vessels. Sit here for long enough and you might notice a queue forming on one of the perimeter paths surrounding the triangle of water; they'll be waiting for the London Waterbus, a canal boat service which runs between Little Venice and Camden Lock on Regent's Canal a few times a day.

The fleet consists of three traditional working canal boats, which have been converted to contain front-facing, bus-style seating. It's disconcerting at first, sitting so low in the water, the water level outside the boat up to your knees, but it quickly becomes very relaxing — one of the most calming transport experiences you can have in London.

A one-way trip takes about 45 minutes, passing through Little Venice, Maida Vale and the Maida Hill Tunnel, skirting around Regent's Park and through the middle of London Zoo (look out for warthogs, African hunting dogs, and birds in the Snowdon Aviary), before wending up to Camden Lock. Or vice versa, depending where you boarded.

London Waterbus. See website for details, timetable and booking information (at present time, all tickets need to be booked online in advance).

Woolwich Ferry

The Woolwich Ferry on a stretch of water with trees in the background
Ben Woollacott, one of the newer Woolwich ferries, photographed before it began service in London. Image: TfL

Another TfL owned and operated service, the Woolwich Ferry links the two sides of the Thames close to Woolwich and London City Airport, using two boats. The good news? It's free to use. The not-so-good news? It's not what we'd class as a 'pleasure cruise', more a journey of necessity than of choice.

Pedestrians, cyclists, cars, vans and lorries are all permitted on board for the trip, which only lasts 5-10 minutes.

Woolwich Ferry, operating times and status updates available via TfL.

Hammertons Ferry, Twickenham

Two men looking at the camera, on board the Hammertons Ferry vessel
Andrew and Francis Spencer, the father-son duo at the heart of the Hammerton's Ferry team, back in 2017. By James FitzGerald.

That's right, the Woolwich Ferry isn't the only ferry operating on the Thames in London — though the Hammertons Ferry is an entirely different, and far more bucolic, experience.

First of all, it's family owned and operated, crossing the Thames between Twickenham and Ham, serving locals, day trippers and dog walkers. The original Hammerton was Phil Collins' grandfather, though the business is in the hands of a different family, the Spencers, now. Sadly, the father, Francis Spencer, has passed away since our trip in 2017.

Secondly, 'ferry' conjures up images of a whomping great seafaring vessel with chimneys and the works. The Hammerton Ferry is a smaller, lower and more sedate vessel, carrying just a handful of passengers at once. Boarding is via a metal, pedestrian footbridge down onto the small wooden pier.

The schedule varies throughout the year — daily in high season, just weekends in winter, and no service at all during the annual 'draw-off' of the Thames in November, which leaves no river to cross.

Keep an eye on the Hammertons Ferry Facebook page for updates. Tickets are £1 adult, 50p for kids, though this may of course rise with inflation.

Turks River Cruises, Richmond to Hampton Court

A blue, white and brown paddle steamer style boat in front of a bridge on the Thames
Photo: Turk Launches

Turks boat company owns three vessels which operate between Hampton Court, Kingston and Richmond in the summer months, aimed more at pleasure cruisers than people with places to be. Wheelchairs, bikes and dogs are all welcome, and the family-run company has been going for 310 years, so we like to think they know what they're doing by now.

As for the boats themselves, the New Southern Belle (pictured above) is a Mississipi-style stern wheeler, the Yarmouth Belle is a smaller, English traditional side wheeler dating back to 1862, and the petite Richmond Royale is a more modern party boat. All have indoor and outdoor seating, so pick your spot according to the weather.

It takes 35 minutes to travel between Hampton Court and Kingston, one hour between Kingston and Richmond, and one hour 45 minutes to do the whole route from Hampton Court to Richmond in one go — if you're heading for a day at Hampton Court Palace, why not get the train tor tube to Richmond, then complete the journey by boat?

Turks River Cruises. Prices, timetables and route available on the website. Summer season only.  

Thames River Boats: Westminster to Hampton Court

The Cockney Sparrow boat with people on the top deck using binoculars to see
The Cockney Sparrow out towards Hampton Court. Photo: Thames River Boats

You can get a long way in 3.5 hours. You could get all the way to Newcastle from London on a train, or from London to Croatia on a plane. Or you could spend those same 210 (ish) minutes floating down the Thames from Westminster to Hampton Court.

Thames River Boats run trips from central London out to Kew, Richmond and Hampton Court, allowing you to eye up south west London's riverside landmarks from your floating vantage point as you go. If you go all the way to Hampton Court, you'll pass the likes of Kew Gardens, Syon House and Ham House on board one of the company's three historic two-level boats (the Cockney Sparrow was built at Eel Pie Island so passes her original home on sailings out to Hampton Court). They all have toilets, a bar, indoor and outdoor seating.

Thames River Boats also offer 45-minute circular tours starting and finishing in Richmond, passing Marble Hill House, Eel Pie Island and Teddington Lock, if 3.5 hours is just too much boating for you.

Thames River Boats. Timetable and fair information available on the website. The boats are wheelchair accessible (though do call ahead so the team are ready to assist you), and bicycles and dogs are welcome on board.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park boat tours

Looking down on a boat in the QEOP, with the West Ham stadium in the background
Photo: Lee & Stort Boat Co

Take a three-hour tour of east London's waterways, and the rivers and canals which criss-cross the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on board a canalboat.

Lee & Stort Boat Co's tours begin at a pontoon outside the London Aquatics Centre inside the Olympic Park, venturing through the Carpenters Road Lock, down the River Lea, the Lee Navigation and St Thomas Creek, and on to City Mill River before heading to the north of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The route offers views of sights including the ArcelorMittal Orbit and other London 2012 Olympic venues.

The boats used are wheelchair accessible, and have toilets and a bar on board.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park boat tours. Summer only, see website for schedule, route and ticket information, and book here.


The above are all vessels where somebody else does the hard bit for you, so you can sit back and enjoy the important job of waving at the other boats. If you're looking for something a bit more self-propelled, check out our guide to boating in London. London's also got a floating bar or two up its sleeve — you won't move (too far) but after a couple of drinks, it won't even matter.

Last Updated 27 April 2022

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