London By Water: How to See an Alternative Side of the City

Written by: Aimee White

How do you usually explore a city: by walking, cycling, or open-top bus tours? Seeing a city by water isn’t exclusive to Venice – you can do it in London, too. Whether you amble along the canals of Little Venice, paddle down the River Lea or even take to the helm of a boat yourself, it’s a great way to see an alternative side to London, without missing out on any of its fun side either.

In this article, we’ve narrowed down a few ways to enjoy London by water, so what are you wading – sorry – waiting for?

1. Go canoeing in Hackney Wick

Hackney Wick River Lea

The Milk Float isn’t just a café on a canal barge; it also hires out canoes, too. We ventured east to Hackney Wick, where the café is moored (just before White Post Lane bridge) and the three of us paid £35 for a canoe for one hour – it’s £10 an hour after that. The super-friendly staff provided us with safety jackets, a sealed waterproof tub for our valuables and a laminated map: there are three routes to choose from, so as canoeing-novices, we chose the route without any locks to change at.

As we (slowly) rowed our way down the River Lea, we listened to birdsong amongst the reeds, counted electric blue dragonflies flicker across the water, dipped our oars through the lily pads and listened to the sync of our oars slice through the water. It felt like we weren’t in London at all – almost. We still passed by the colourful street art that Hackney is so well-known for on the walls beneath the bridges and listened to soothing reggae beats playing at a riverside records fair. You could also take a bag with you and pick up any litter you see floating past (just don’t lean over too much!). If you’re looking for a new angle on the east end, this is it.

2. Be a bookworm at Word on the Water

Word on the Water bookshop

Got a spare half hour before your train at King’s Cross, or simply fancy a stroll along one of London’s prettiest canals? Make sure you have time to visit Word on the Water, a floating bookshop on a canal boat, just behind the station along Regent’s canal towpath.

London has a strong literary presence, from Oliver Twist to Harry Potter, and you can soak it all up by visiting this independent bookshop, which sells new and old titles both up-deck and down below. Don’t just take pics, though – buying a book makes for a great gift as well as sorting out your next read on an upcoming journey. Word on the Water also run talks, live music sessions, readings and poetry slams. Oh, and they have a resident dog who’s usually sprawled out in front of the entrance, if you needed another reason to go.

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3. Breeze down the Thames on a Clipper boat

This is the ultimate way to see the iconic sights of the London Eye, Big Ben, Lambeth Palace, Tate Britain and more. The Thames Clippers can get quite crowded, but once you’ve found a spot, it makes it worth it.

Sunrise London Thames

I got on at London Bridge and breezed down the river to Embankment, where I got off and crossed the bridge to a rooftop bar along the South Bank. Carry on down to Pimlico, where the Tate Britain is just a stone’s throw from the jetty. Or if you’re here during the week, venture further south to leafy Putney and enjoy a drink in the sun by Putney Bridge (where Prince Harry was once infamously stopped for speeding) while watching the other boats judder past. Alternatively, you can head in the complete opposite direction towards Greenwich for the O2 Centre and the Emirates Cable Car (and so starts your next challenge: London by air).

4. Take in a show at the Puppet Theatre

Puppet Theatre barge

Watching a show at the Puppet Theatre Barge is a great way to escape a frenetic London. They’re based in Richmond over the summer and Little Venice for the winter. Climb aboard the converted barge boat and descend below deck to a fifty-seat theatre (yes, really!) and wait for the show to start with the ringing of a ship’s bell.

They use long-string marionettes and have been running shows for children and adults since the early 1980s – which, to be honest, is a much better way to spend your afternoon than rugby-tackling your way down Oxford Street. And Little Venice is somewhere to explore in itself, too. Starting at Paddington Basin, I gazed at the reflections of the huge, full trees, impressive mansions and kaleidoscope of houseboats as I passed the still river along Warwick Avenue, Maida Vale and Camden. You can even hire your own boat down the Regent’s Canal, too, to really enjoy London at a slower, more tranquil pace.

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