The River Thames is the lifeblood of our capital as it snakes and winds its way through many of the city’s top tourist attractions. But London has many more canals and waterways to explore as well. Once the backbone of the city’s industrial activity, transporting cargoes from the docks across the capital and beyond, London’s waterways now provide a peaceful haven to enjoy boat trips, wildlife and water sports. Follow our guide for the best way to see London through watery eyes:

the thames

London’s stretch of the Thames, which forms part of the longest river entirely in England, is a tidal river, rising and falling as much as 26 feet between high and low tides. Although once the source of the “Great Stink” when it was an open sewer, it is now one of the cleanest rivers in Europe.

The River Thames shore near the Millennium Bridge

The Roman city, Londinium, grew up around the point of the river that was easiest to cross and where the Romans erected the first London Bridge.

Nowadays, the Thames is the focal point of the heart of London used by commuters to get from one part of the city to another and offering everything from sightseeing trips to water sports, not to mention the opportunity to take advantage of waterside restaurants and bars year round.

The Thames has 45 locks, is home to over 25 species of fish and is the only river in Europe to have a national trail which follows its entire length.

For more information, go to:

the river lee

The 28-mile-long River Lee runs through London from its source near Luton all the way to the Thames at Stratford and its backwaters, the Bow Backs, are London’s least-known waterways.

That is set to change, as they form the heart of London’s Olympic area, with major development in the coming months for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. This will place an emphasis on sustainability, leaving a legacy of facilities and good transport links for the waterways that flow through the Lower Lee Valley.

The Lee Valley area is vast and includes a number of country parks, nature reserves and heritage sites. The local council is even planning an entirely new 1.5-mile-long canal.

london’s canals

As the Thames meanders through London to the sea, it is joined by several man-made canals which are used by boaters, cyclists and wildlife enthusiasts.

View of Little Venice on the Regent's Canal

Regent’s Canal, which starts at Little Venice and ends at Limehouse Basin in Docklands, is part of London’s Grand Union Canal and is among the most well known canals; its route covers some of London’s most beautiful green areas, such as Regent’s Park and London Zoo.

The Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal is effectively an extension of Regent’s Canal, running through West London suburbs to join the main Grand Union Canal near Slough.

The Grand Union Canal, created by famous industrial engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel as the Grand Junction Canal, winds its way along a 137-mile course all the way to Birmingham.

For more information on London’s canal network go to: or


London’s river and canals are linked by a series of locks, many of which date back to around 1811, when the Corporation of the City of London realised the need to improve navigation on the city’s waterways.

The new Three Mills Lock controls the river above Three Mills, on the River Lee, creating a green gateway for barges entering the Olympic Park and helping to remove thousands of lorry journeys from local roads.

Many of London’s locks are manual and fun to try your hand at when hiring a boat for the day.

sightseeing and more

London’s major sights take on a different slant when seen from the water and there are many ways to enjoy the rivers including jet boats, paddle steamers and river cruises. Commuter travel using riverboat and riverbus services is also becoming increasingly popular.

The EDF Energy London Eye River Cruise is a 40-minute circular sightseeing cruise with live commentary, provided by specialist guides, with regular departures from the London Eye Millennium Pier.

London Eye River Cruise

Take in amazing views of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London from the cruises.

Waterways online

The following websites have a wealth of information on London’s waterways, with everything from boat hire to finding a riverside restaurant:

All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before visiting London's rivers and waterways.