10 Adventures in Getting Around London
There have never been so many options for getting around London. From renting a ‘Boris bike’ to flying over the Thames in a cable car, transport in the capital can be an exciting part of the modern tourist experience, as we found out on our post-Jubilympic tour of London.
Getting to work on the tube or bus. That’s what I did when I lived and worked in London.
Riding on cable cars over the Thames, cruising past Westminster in a water bus, riding the driver-less DLR, hopping in and out of black cabs; this is what we do now. Getting around London as a family can be a lot more interesting than simply going from A to B on the underground. Determined to see more than the inside of a tunnel, we set out to make getting around the capital part of the adventure and unearthed 10 different fast, cheap, convenient, but slightly more thrilling ways to get around town.
1 Fly the Emirates Airline Cable Car
Opened just in time for The Olympic Games, the Emirates Airline Cable Car is more than a form of transport, it’s a little attraction in its own right and definitely worth a family outing. On a cold sunny morning, we feel like we are in The Alps as we look down on a sparkling Thames from our insulated cabin. But it’s quieter than the Alps; we get the pod to ourselves. And it’s cheaper than the Alps; if you have an Oyster transport card, it’s comparable to the price of a single journey on the tube. And apparently you can take bikes!
The attraction runs every fifteen seconds from near the Excel Centre in London’s Royal Docks heading across the water to The 02 Arena on the North Greenwich peninsular. The terminology used throughout the experience has been borrowed from the airline; you don’t get a ticket, you get a ‘boarding pass’ for your ‘flight.’ After your flight, you could make a cheap day of it by visiting three free attractions nearby. The Crystal (on Royal Docks side) is the world’s first centre dedicated to improving knowledge of how to create a sustainable city. Nissan’s Innovation Station in the 02 takes a novel look at the future of the electric car, while at Sky Backstage in the 02 you can learn about TV production and even have a go at reading the news.
2 Cruise on a River Bus
There are plenty of tourist cruises running up and down the Thames but you can save money and have a very similar experience by joining one of the Thames Clipper Water Buses. Fast frequent services run up and down the river all day and most of the night. It’s a great alternative to being stuck on the underground, you get a totally different view of the city and you can have a coffee (or something stronger) while you ride.
After our ride on the Emirates Cable car we took a Thames Clipper all the way from The 02 to Embankment Pier, a leisurely journey of just under an hour. With the right ticket (Oyster card holders get a discount) you can hop-on and hop-off at lots of riverside tourist attractions like Borough Market, The Cutty Sark, Greenwich Conservatory, Canary Wharf, The Tate, Westminster and The London Eye. Or you can stay aboard and play name that bridge.
3 Pretend to drive the DLR
The DLR is London’s Docklands Light Railway, a whizzy little overground light rail system that travels around London’s Docklands and beyond. You need to stand at the end of the platform to bag the best seats on these trains; in the front or back carriages where the driver would normally sit. You see these are not conventional trains; there are no drivers as the DLR has one of the most advanced automatic train control systems in the world. Expect a fight for the best seats and the best views though, if not amongst your own family then with any other family getting on at the same stop. Everyone wants to sit at the front and pretend to be the driver. The DLR is a great fun way to get around and explore Docklands, the East End and the Olympics regeneration zone by train, the fastest changing parts of London.
4 Pedal around on a Boris bike
One of the cheapest, healthiest things to do in London is to pick up a ‘Boris bike’ and ride through the leafy parks, or if you’re feeling braver, the city streets or one of the city’s new blue ‘cycle superhighways’. Informally named after Boris Johnson (the eccentric Mayor of London who introduced the scheme) the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme (the official name no-one uses) has cycle docking stations around the city where you can pick up and drop off a bike for short term use.
Take a cycle, ride it where you like, then return it, ready for the next person. Bikes are available 24 hours a day and all year round. It’s self-service; there’s no booking but you must be 14 years to ride. You simply take one from a rack where you want to start, and put it back in the rack nearest to where you want to finish. Visitors pay a daily access fee and a fee for the time you use the bike, with the first half hour free (an incentive to go fast or ride in short hops?). Our top tip is to hire one from near Buckingham Palace, and pedal through Hyde Park and Kensington Parks (staying on approved cycle routes). There are at least two outdoor tea stops in the parks and the only traffic you’ll find is the squirrel and bird variety. Look out for the rows of herons on the canals, squirrels on the cycle path and the notorious London traffic!
5 Strike out on foot
I know, it’s hardly high tech. But striking out on foot is one of the best ways to stumble across the many and varied treasures of this capital city or just to relax and enjoy the many green parks and spaces. And believe me, if you walked for years you’d still be stumbling across new things. We wandered for miles along the Southern embankments, and found lots of it pedestrianised and perfect for anything from a family stroll to a half marathon.
We visited the Tate Modern and strolled across the pedestrian only Millenium Bridge to visit St Paul’s Cathedral. We meandered along The South Bank from Tower Bridge, past the Shard and the Gherkin (landmark London buildings) to the South Bank Centre. We strolled from Westminster Abbey to Big Ben then down past the river boat restaurants moored along Embankment. And after all that I had a much better mental map of central London than I did when I lived there. And some kids who were well exercised and ready for bed.
6 Hail yourself a black cab
You can’t come to London and not ride in a Black Cab. Of course half the fun is hailing one and kids will be desperate to flag one down if you’ve just made them walk for an hour or more. As long as you’re not travelling far it’s not going to cost you a fortune, and if you’re lucky (or is that unlucky?) you’ll get a bit of London cabbie chat too. We found ourselves running late for an appointment at the The London Eye after relaxing for a little too long on the Water Bus so jumped in a taxi for the last mile or so and it only cost us a fiver. Truly a stress free and traditional way of getting about London.
7 Drive yourself around (and possibly mad)
London’s a big city and if you’re wanting to get to some of the more out of the way places, or those less well served by public transport, you could try driving yourself. It takes a London cabbie years to acquire the knowledge to get around without getting lost, so expect it all to be a bit of a challenge (especially if you don’t have SatNav). Accept getting lost and getting stuck in traffic as part of the adventure and you’ll be fine. In a city this size there are lots of options for economy car rentals if you don’t bring your own. You could try and even rent a classic British model for the full experience; if you can’t stretch to an Aston Martin, Roller, Jag or Bentley, how about a mini?
Don’t forget London has a congestion charging scheme for some areas so unless you’re in an exempt vehicle you’ll need to make sure you pay for that. Although there’s no charge before 7am, after 6pm or at weekends.
8 Get on a bus – a Big Bus
The Big Bus tour is one of the most popular London attractions in its own right, with the added advantage of getting you places. Hop on, sit back and let someone else do the driving, while you listen to an audio guide or a real life version with a few entertaining stories. If you’re feeling hardy you can sit on the top deck and feel those elements while you’re seeing the sights. And when you spot one you’d like to visit you can hop off. There are more than fifty stops along the route.
9 Get yourself a guide
There are plenty of ways of seeing London without having to swot up beforehand or carry a large guide book. Themed tours like theatreland, historic London or spooky London can be done on bus or on foot. There are even some bike tours too. We took a walking tour of the areas around the 2012 Olympic Park to learn more out about the regeneration of the East End. You can end up where you started on one of these, but at least you’ve learnt something along the way!
10 Get your skates or skis on
If you are comfortable on wheels, you can get round London in a number of ways. The parks are great for in-line skating and in season you can rent skates (and protective gear) to have a go yourself from places like Club Blue Room at Marble Arch, near Hyde Park. If you’ve rented or got your own gear Hyde Park, Dulwich Park, Battersea Park and Hampstead Heath are popular spots for skating and for private or group lessons that you can organise with companies like Citiskate. If skiing’s more your thing then you can do that too, without waiting for snow!
Rollerski run courses in central London in Hyde Park and have training session and private instruction options in other parks including Richmond in South West London. Richmond’s a favourite for adventurous skiiers since the park is closed to traffic at twilight, giving the opportunity to ski or skate along 10km of traffic-free roads, although helmets, lights, gloves and high visibility clothing are still recommended. And you do need to watch out for the deer and horse-riders as well as other skaters. All adds to the adventure though.