Itinerary Location: The Thames | Duration: 5-8 Hours
“There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” said Ratty to Moley in The Wind in the Willows.
Well, the little rat was wrong.
Because yes, there is a certain ineffable charm to sailing along The Thames, taking in the city’s most striking architectural sights from the water and waving at tourists on bridges – but it’s actually even better if you get off and make a few stops along the way. Like strolling through the old-timey backstreets of London’s old dockyards before stuffing your face with Michelin-approved pasta. Or walking through halls of hallowed artwork (for free) after a glass of wine in a candlelit cavern on the riverbank.
So we’ve put together a route for a casually romantic boat-hop along the Thames, passing some of London’s most iconic landmarks (and stopping in at the most delicious ones) along the way…
For a nautical date, it seems only appropriate to start off in London’s own historic maritime village of Greenwich. The place is steeped in 18th century romance, with winding cobbled alleys and the mast of the Cutty Sark peeping behind the rooftops of peachy Georgian terraces.
It’s the perfect place for a morning stroll, before the streets get too busy. Make a beeline for Heap’s Sausage Café, purveyors of some of the finest breakfast baps in the city, and take your prize for a walk through Greenwich Park. Climb to the top of the hill, by the Royal Observatory, for stunning views any time of year – but in Spring the park also gets blessed with an avenue of cherry trees in full blossom.
From the park, take a walk through the atmospheric grounds of the Old Royal Naval College – the architecture’s so evocative here it’s been used in films like Skyfall, Les Mis, and Muppets Most Wanted.
On the other side, slip past the Cutty Sark in favour of a slightly more modern vessel: an Uber Boat. They dock up regularly by the pier here, and you can get an all-day pass for £20 (with a discount if you book online). Time to set sail…
➋ LONDON BRIDGE
First stop is Surrey Quays! Well, technically it’s ‘Earl’s Sluice’, and it’s just about as appealing as it sounds. So stay on board for a couple of stops and enjoy the scenery – along the way you’ll see the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf; The Mayflower, one of the oldest pubs in London (not far from where the pilgrims supposedly set sail for America); and dozens of old dock warehouses lining the Thames before passing through London’s very own fairytale gateway, Tower Bridge, and parking up opposite the almost millenium-old Tower of London. Hop off, and walk back along the riverside towards the bridge.
If you’re in the mood for a sit-down meal at this point, we’d recommend taking a stroll down Shad Thames. In fact, take a stroll down there anyway – it’s one of London’s loveliest hidden gems, a window to the city’s industrial past with peaceful cobbled streets and old warehouses connected by criss-crossing bridges.
On the ground floor of one of these warehouses, where dockers used to store cardamom, now sits Legare – a brilliant yet understated Italian spot. There’s fresh pasta, of course – made by hand on-site, daily – but it’s artful combinations like whipped lardo bruschetta and seabass carpaccio dotted with Japanese cress that have won the place a Michelin Bib Gourmand. And if it’s sunny, you can enjoy it all with a white negroni sbagliato outside on the cobbles.
If you’re after something more budget-friendly, follow Shad Thames round till it rejoins Tooley Street, cross over and head down Tanner Street. Slip under the railway line to find yourself at Maltby Street Market.
What started out as one of the lesser-known food markets in London has now become one of the city’s worst-kept secrets, but for good reason: it’s great. This little back alley, where ropemakers once laid out and twisted their hempen fibres, is now a bustling marketplace, festooned with flags and lined with stalls rustling up all kinds of cuisines.
On any given weekend, you can take your pick from Argentinian empañadas and Ethiopian street food, or carry on to the (slightly) quieter Spa Terminus arches, where you can pick up all manner of fancy foodstuffs from the likes of Little Bread Pedlar, Monmouth Coffee and Neal’s Yard Dairy.
When you’re ready to move on, head back up to Tanner Street but turn left this time, and then right onto Bermondsey Street. This characterful little street’s worth taking time to explore if you have it – there’s the White Cube Gallery where you can check out some high-profile contemporary art for free, and the fascinating Fashion + Textile Museum, as well as a dozen little cafés and coffee shops where you can refuel. It’ll also lead you to London Bridge station – so you can cross through it, and hop back on the boat at…
➌ LONDON BRIDGE CITY PIER
Along this stretch take a peek at The Golden Hinde; witness 400 years of evolution of theatrical architecture between Shakespeare’s Globe and the brutalist National Theatre; draw speed-portraits of each other as you sail past the Tate Modern; and pay your respects to the Houses of Parliament in whichever way you see most fit.
Next stop: Waterloo pier. Cross over the bridge and head down the stairs, then left up Villiers Street to slip into:
➌ GORDON’S WINE BAR
If Gordon’s Wine Bar is one of those places you’ve heard about twenty times but still have never been in, consider this your sign to carpe the bloody diem and order yourselves a glass of wine. This centuries-old wine bar is half wood-panelled tavern, half candlelit cavern which seems to have been carved from the bedrock of the city itself. It’s a win-win: if it’s sunny, sit outside and soak up the river views. If it’s rainy, tuck yourselves into the most conspiratorial corner you can find, and make that glass a bottle.
Grape-hooch has* been scientifically proven to sharpen your powers of artistic appreciation, so make one final trip down the Thames from Embankment pier along to Millbank, where you’ll find:
➍ TATE BRITAIN
Tate Britain‘s free to enter, so why not squeeze in a little culture into the last hour before closing? This bastion of British art celebrates homegrown artists from the 16th century to the present day, with everyone from David Hockney to Chris Ofili, Tracey Emin to J. M. W. Turner in its halls.
And if you’re still not ready to call it a night? Walk over Vauxhall Bridge and hang a right to find a squat little Georgian mansion sitting incongruously on a roundabout, surrounded by noughties office blocks. Brunswick House is an undisputed champion among London’s most romantic restaurants: a rambling townhouse crammed with hundreds of antiques and scraps of salvaged historic architecture, where the chandelier-laden dining room is overseen by wünderchef Jackson Boxer. Tuck into Cornish skate with suya butter, wood-fired Galloway wing rib with beer mustard or roast delica pumpkin with ricotta and lemon – or just slip down into the cellar bar for a candlelit nightcap. There’s even live jazz down here on Tuesday nights.
Because when it comes to romance, this place doesn’t mess around.
➊ Greenwich Park | London SE10 8QY
➋ Legare | Cardamom Building, 31 Shad Thames, London SE1 2YR
➌ Maltby Street Market | Ropewalk, Maltby Street, London SE1 3PA
➍ Bermondsey Street | London, SE1 3TQ
➎ Gordon’s Wine Bar | 47 Villiers St, London WC2N 6NE
➏ Tate Britain | Millbank, London SW1P 4RG
➐ Brunswick House | 30 Wandsworth Road, London SW8 2LG
Looking for more inspiration? Try these 101 London Date Ideas on for size