From increasingly popular British Isles' circumnavigations to Iceland, Baltic Sea and longer itineraries that travel as far as South America, London is on the rise as a cruise destination – both as a port of call and a port of departure where you can begin and/or end your cruise. But visitors to London should not expect to see some of the world’s largest resort-style cruise ships, such as Harmony of the Sea, because the River Thames is not deep enough to accommodate them.
Currently the Port of London has 3 major cruise terminals. The historic London International Cruise Terminal in Tilbury is 25 miles east of central London, near the mouth of the Thames, and home to London's only deep-water, purpose-built cruise facility. The other two terminals are located near the heart of London, and if you are lucky enough to be docking at Tower Bridge Upper or at Greenwich Ship Tier, it means you're on a small, luxury vessel giving you close-up views of the Tower and the City.
London, itself, will soon become a popular destination for large cruise ships carrying fewer than 2,000 passengers with the completion of the new passenger terminal at London City Cruise Port in Greenwich. A terminal that can accommodate large ships will provide a boost for tourism by bringing more cruise options closer to London and delivering thousands of visitors to the city every year.
Situated on the Thames River, London is the largest city in western Europe. It remains a global capital of culture, fashion, finance, politics and trade. Diverse, ethnically and linguistically, London offers an intoxicating mix of grandeur, history, style and culture. From ancient streets, leafy parks and grand architecture to iconic landmarks, neon lights, world-class shopping and a hip arts scene, there's nowhere in the world quite like this thriving metropolis.
In this post, I'll cover first the Port of London followed by noteworthy tourist and "non-touristy" attractions that warrant a pre- and/or post-cruise extension if London is your port of departure and as well as what to do if you're only in port for the day.
The Port of London
London, as cruise destinations go, it's hard to beat! When arriving or departing on a cruise ship, the River Thames is part of the journey. Cruise ships can head up the Thames and straight into the heart of the capital, offering their passengers an unforgettable experience with unrivalled views of stunning riverscape, historic buildings and modern icons alike. Cruising along the River Thames reveals London’s massive redevelopment in a way few visitors get to see.
London is a world-class cruise destination that is served by the Port of London Authority (PLA). The Port of London welcomes cruise ships at one of the following locations: London Cruise Terminal at the Port of Tilbury, Tower Bridge Upper Moorings, or Greenwich Ship Tier.
London cruise moorings offer passengers a rare opportunity to get right to the heart of a world city, close to UNESCO World Heritage sites, at both the Tower of London and Maritime Greenwich.
London International Cruise Terminal
Situated at the gateway to London, where the River Thames meets the North Sea in Essex, the London Cruise Terminal at the Port of Tilbury is currently London's only deep water purpose-built cruise facility. The innovative 1,148 foot (348 meter) long floating landing stage can accommodate passengers arriving on a small boutique vessel or a large resort-sized ship. Just 22 nautical miles (25 miles; 41 km) from the heart of London, passengers can access the city via rail, coach, or private transfer in just over an hour.
Dating from 1930, the London International Cruise Terminal is a unique Grade II* listed heritage building located on the banks of the River Thames. The stunning curvature of the high vaulted ceiling overlooked by the imposing domed cupola, the grand hall with its beautiful stained glass memorial window, and the masterpiece of the adjacent marble tablets encapsulates the warm and friendly atmosphere within. London International Cruise Terminal is also a popular filming venue, so not only will you be walking in history, but also in the footsteps of some major Hollywood stars!
Just a few minutes walk from the cruise terminal, Tilbury Fort is the finest and best preserved example of the 17th century military engineering in England. Henry VIII built the first fort here, and Queen Elizabeth I famously rallied her army nearby with her Speech to the Troops at Tilbury in preparation for repelling the expected invasion by the Spanish Armada. There are three other well-preserved forts in Tilbury and Gravesend, dating mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries, that were built to guard the Thames against the French and Spanish: Coalhouse Fort in East Tilbury and New Tavern Fort and Shornemead Fort in Gravesend. The forts remained in use for defensive purposes until the end of World War II. Today, exhibitions, the powder magazine, and bunker-like 'casemates' demonstrate how the forts protected the Thames.
Tower Bridge Cruise Terminal
London's Tower Bridge – not to be confused with the London Bridge – isn’t just a worldwide icon, it’s also one of the most exclusive cruise ports in the world, open to only a select "club" of cruise ships, the majority of which are from the ultra-luxury market. This prime location near the center of London caters to smaller vessels up to 518 feet (158 meters) in length with maximum drafts of 19 feet (5.9 meters) which enjoy the privilege of sailing through the Tower Bridge and tying up alongside the largest preserved WWII warship in Europe – the Royal Navy HMS Belfast.
As your cruise ship arrives and the Tower Bridge raises her bascules to welcome you into the heart of the bustling capital, you will know you have officially arrived, and in style. Today the HMS Belfast is operated by the Imperial War Museum and is open to the public. However, cruise passengers cannot cross HMS Belfast in order to go ashore. Instead, they are tendered across the Thames by river boat to Tower Pier where there is a small secure cruise terminal facility awaiting them.
Tower Bridge is the most scenic place to dock, with the Tower of London and the City easily accessible by foot. Tower Pier is a perfect stop-off point for anyone wishing to explore two of London's most famous attractions: the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Experience the spectacular glass floor across the high-level Walkways when you visit Tower Bridge! Visitors get an incredible birds-eye view of London life, from 138 feet (42 meters) above the River Thames. Look down to spy those famous red London buses and pedestrians whizzing over the bridge while river vessels sail under it – and possibly experience the magic of the bascules raising beneath your feet.
Greenwich Ship Tier
The Greenwich Ship Tier, located four nautical miles downstream of the Tower Bridge, is central London’s deep water mooring, and can accommodate ships up to 748 feet (228 metres) in length with a maximum draft of of 27 feet (8.1 meters). In order to process cruise passengers, the PLA has constructed a building containing rudimentary terminal facilities on a 164 ft x 46 ft (50m x 14m) pontoon; this facility is called the 'Welcome’ barge. When a cruise ship moors at the Greenwich Ship Tier, the Welcome barge is moored alongside and passengers and their luggage are security scanned and processed on the barge. Tender boats are used to ferry passengers between their cruise ship and Greenwich Pier onshore where Thames Clippers (London City's river bus service) and various other water taxis and riverboats dock.
Greenwich Ship Tier offers an unique and picturesque setting for cruise ships – the UNESCO Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site. This ensemble of buildings at Greenwich and Greenwich Park in which they are set, symbolize English artistic and scientific endeavour in the 17th and 18th centuries. They include Greenwich Town Centre, Greenwich Market, St. Alfege Church, Cutty Sark, Old Navy Royal College, the National Maritime Museum, The Queen's House, the Royal Observatory, and Ranger's House.
Greenwich is a fascinating, historical suburb. It was the birthplace of King Henry VIII and his daughters Queen Mary ("Bloody Mary") and Queen Elizabeth I ("The Virgin Queen"). It has also seen many famous visitors over the centuries from Peter the Great to Charles Dickens to Bob Hope.
Greenwich is where East meets West. There you can stand astride the prime meridian – the Earth's line of 0° longitude – with a foot in both the eastern and western hemispheres at the same time. It is also where world time is set Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).
London City Cruise Port
There are two major constraints affecting both the Tower Bridge and Greenwich Ship Tier as ports:
Located in a prime location on the banks of London’s river Thames in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, the cruise port is equidistant between the UNESCO Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site and Greenwich Peninsula. The London City Cruise Port is the ambitious project to create the first dedicated purpose-built cruise terminal in central London designed to accommodate medium-size cruise ships from around the world up to 784 feet (240 meters) in length with a maximum draft of 26 feet (8 meters). It will be London’s only cruise terminal with alongside terminal facilities, giving visitors a world class welcome and proximity to major maritime attractions and exclusive experiences in the most cultural and historic hubs of Greenwich and London.
The cruise terminal will be connected to all London airports and be serve by an established transport network of riverboat services and the London Underground ("The Tube"), Docklands Light Railway and National Rail stations. From the port, London City Centre is just 15 min away! There will also be a high-quality onsite hotel for visitors spending more time in Greenwich.
There are three other major ports used by the larger ships carrying 2,000 passengers or more:
Port of Dover: The Port of Dover is most commonly a port of embarkation and/or debarkation for cruises to the Baltics, Northern Europe, or the Mediterranean. Most cruise passengers who want extra time in England will use London as their base. Located is 76 miles (122 km) to the southeast of London and just over one hour commute by high-speed train.
Harwich International Port: The Harwich International Port is also home to the historic Mayflower which carried the Pilgrim Fathers to America in 1620. Located 70 miles (112 km) northeast of London and just over one hour commute by high-speed train.
Port of Southampton: The Port of Southampton served as the historic ocean liner gateway for the British Empire and the intense North Atlantic passenger trade to the U.S. and Canada. Today the port is the UK's number one cruise port, with four passenger cruise terminals in operation, seeing upwards of 400 cruises each year. Located 80 miles (128 km) southwest of London and about an hour and a half commute by high-speed train.
Getting Around London
London is a notoriously difficult city to drive in – parking and traffic are challenging. There are plenty of other simpler ways to get around:
London Underground: By far the best way to get around London – besides walking – is via public transit. You have two basic options, the London Underground (also called “the Tube”) and buses. The Tube is clean, safe and handy with 270 tube stations on 11 lines. Purchase a Visitor Oyster Card or Oyster Travelcard upon arrival. Flat rate fares on the Oyster Travelcard are quite pricey, so it’s much more cost-effective to buy the Visitor Oyster Card.
Double-Decker Buses: Sorry, with the exception of the heritage Routemaster lines, the historic red double-decker buses are no longer in operation. But the modern double-decker buses provide just as much sightseeing and equally convenient transit.
Buses: Also a good option for seeing the city as you travel, not the best option if you’re in a hurry. All buses are tracked via the iBus system, making it easy to check for the next bus arrival at any given stop by using your smartphone.
Big Bus London: The Big Bus London tour is a great option that's available on the London Explorer Pass and gives you the flexibility to hop-on or off at any of the 50+ included stops across 3 different routes. Simply show your London Explorer Pass as you board a bus. The buses run on 5 to 15 minute intervals.
Biking: London is super bike-friendly. There are bike lanes all over the city, and drivers are very accustomed to bikes on the roads. London's cycle hire system, called "Boris Bikes" or "Santander Bikes", can be a good way to cycle around London. Check out the maps of their Cycle Superhighways.
Taxis & Rideshares: London’s famous black cabs (also called "London taxis") are ubiquitous, but can be very hard to flag down. Use one of the many cab-booking apps to easily reserve one or use a popular rideshare service, like Uber. Fares are priced via distance/time and tariff (prices at different times of the day and week).
Thames Clippers: River bus services running daily between Royal Arsenal Woolwich in the east and St George Wharf Vauxhall in the west. These river boats are the fastest and most frequent fleet on the river, calling at 22 piers across London, with 17 vessels in operation for you to explore the capital in comfort and style. Touch in and out with your Visitor Oyster Card or contactless to get on board. You can even transport your bike with you. There’s no tour guide on board, but you can download a free app for an audio commentary.
What To Do In London
London is a wonderfully diverse and cosmopolitan city – and it’s also quite large, with various distinct neighborhoods that each possesses its own delightful character. Fortunately for travelers, many of the most popular attractions are all located in central London. If you plan to visit a lot of attractions, consider one of tourist popular discount passes in London:
Major Tourist Attractions
There are many ways to spend time in London. The majority of visitors to London spend their time in and around Central London’s West End. Known for great shopping, theater, and trendy restaurants, the West End is home to Piccadilly Circus, Carnaby Street, Charing Cross Road's book shops, Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Regent and Oxford Streets, Soho, and Trafalgar Square.
Farther west are the pricier neighborhoods of Belgravia, Chelsea (King's Road), Kensington (Kensington Palace, Albert Memorial, Royal Albert Hall), South Kensington (Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum), Knightsbridge (Harrods, Harvey Nichols), Mayfair and Notting Hill (Portobello Road).
London is one of the few cities in the world that can lay claim to having 4 separate UNESCO World Heritage sites. If you don't have a lot of time in London, these sites represent the most significant cultural properties in the greater London Area:
Brit Movie Walking Tours
See a different side of London – the London you've seen on film and TV. Brit Movie Tours offers walking tours of your favorite TV and movie locations. These guided tours show you behind the scenes of sets and fascinating landmarks that have featured in various British films and TV Shows. The tours educate, entertain and appeal to visitors of all ages, nationalities and interests bringing movies and TV shows to life.
Brit Movie Tours offer a fresh and unique way to discover London. Choose from a variety of walking tours including: Doctor Who, Harry Potter, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Paddington Bear, The Crown, Bridget Jones and Downton Abbey.
London Pass holders can enjoy a free public scheduled walking tour run by Brit Movie Tours!
The River Thames is a destination in itself, of course, and most London boat tours will take in famous landmarks. You’ll be spoiled for choice with footage for your Instagram story. But if you fancy something a little bit different, visit another one of London's hidden gems – London Canals. London’s canal system is a marvel of industrial engineering. Over 200 years old, it no longer acts as a commercial artery into the heart of London from the countryside, but instead has become a network of thoroughly pleasant waterside paths.
Learn about the history of London's canal waterways – and the people who lived and worked on the waterways – from the days when they were a vital part of the city’s industrial and commercial life through the years of decline and abandonment to today’s more leisurely pursuits at the London Canal Museum. Located in London’s King’s Cross area, the building that houses this intriguing London museum was itself an ice-warehouse built for Carlo Gatti, the famous ice cream maker, in 1862, where canal boats would deliver their cargoes of ice to be distributed throughout Victorian London. Free entry with a London Pass.
There are some charming London tours on traditional narrow boats along the historic Regent’s Canal, many leading to the incredibly picturesque Little Venice. The London Canal Museum offers an alternative to a boat trip with its mobile Web Walk using your phone as your walk guide. The museum also offers a free MP3 audio tour of the canal towpath. You may see the wildlife which thrives on the canal. If you are lucky, you may see a heron fishing! There are plenty of cafes, pubs, and fast food outlets at both these places.
London in 48 Hours or Less
London is a city that never sleeps. If you only have 24 hours in London and want an eclectic mix of touristy and authentic local experiences, then check out this travel vlog.
If you have at least 48 hours to spend in London, the below itinerary will whet your wanderlust with an exciting mixture of a few of the city's main sightseeing attractions as well as several little-known attractions to create the perfect pre- or post-cruise extended stay in London.
London's Retail Therapy
Big Ben, River Thames, and Tower Bridge are certainly some of the best attractions in London. But, they aren’t the only attractions that makes the city so famous. The chic culture and the ultimate London shopping experience are also what makes it so extraordinary among all the places on the map.
When it comes to fashion, London is a town of contradictions. But it's the chic contrast of high street and high end that makes shopping in one of the world's fashion capitals so exciting. From smart dressing to vintage gold mines and all the luxe department stores and flagships in between, London won't disappoint those looking to get a fashion fix. While shopping here may not be so cheap, it is definitely an experience worth having if you wish to glam up your wardrobe or home!
London has several distinct shopping areas and shopping streets, many of which have their own themes or specialties. Shopping in London is exciting and varied: from luxury goods in Mayfair to quirky finds in Covent Garden, to large shopping centers such as Westfield and famous London department stores including the likes of Harrods and the legendary Selfridges. You can easily spend an hour, an afternoon or a whole day browsing shops in London.
London's Wellness Scene
If you thought London was just pints and pubs, fish and chips, and (watching) rugby, you're in for a surprise. London is a cosmopolitan icon shaped by history, texturized by tradition, elevated by luxury and enriched by an evolving wellness scene. Whether it’s a deeply relaxing reflexology treatment, a high-tech facial, or a go-to raw eatery. From delicious cafés and serene spas, to trendy boutique fitness studios and the latest classes, London has it all.
Discover the ultimate in food, fitness, mind, body and soul in the vibrant, crazy, fun, ever-evolving city – London.
There’s an ever-growing consciousness surrounding how we care for and what we put into our bodies and perhaps the most poignant sentiment is the one surrounding food. London has seen a tremendous rise in the amount of not only healthy but diet-specific restaurants over recent years. Here are some of the best coffee shops, juice bars, cafes and restaurants in London specializing in healthy foods to inspire you to keep well-being at the forefront of your mind while indulging in the best the capital has to offer.
Tower Bridge invites you to enjoy an once-in-a-lifetime London experience with exclusive sunrise yoga classes in the award-winning high-level Walkways above the River Thames. London-based yoga teachers will have you striking the perfect downward facing dog through energetic vinyasa-flow yoga classes that will help you kick-start your day. Daring yoga enthusiasts can position themselves on the glass floor for a suspended view of road and pedestrian life, all moving at pace 138 feet (42 meters) beneath their feet. Participants may even witness the magic of the Bridge’s famous bascules raising for a river vessel!
For those going to London, you may be surprised to learn that it is actually a haven for staying fit while seeing all of the great sights the city has to offer. But London offers you everything from beautiful parks to running, cycling and walking routes, yoga and meditation, friendly gyms and peaceful places to go.
For those of a stylish disposition, the capital knows no shortage of refined fitness facilities to make use of. Taking care of yourself has never been more fashionable and luxury fitness services have been gaining ground in response to London’s growing appetite for healthy living.
No need to suffer the angst of trains, taxis and unforeseen delays – things that often make escaping the city to relax and rejuvenate, hardly worth the effort. Relax and indulge at one of the many spas in London where a range of pampering treatments are on offer, from massages to body wraps, to aromatherapy, and facials with luxury products. You can usually visit a hotel spa, even if you are not a guest. So treat yourself with a spa day in London.
Experiential and Wellness Travel are where it's at. Experiential Wellness Travel is a hybrid of both. But Transformative Travel is the next evolution in travel. Like many land-based resorts, the global cruise industry has kept apace of this current trend with vacations that are fun, authentic, and meaningful by offering travelers on board and on shore fitness and wellness activities, healthy meal options, local cooking classes, culturally immersive shore excursions, participation in the local communities they visit, and a variety of tailor-made experiences that are transformative in a deep and personal way.