Many visitors to the city will pay vast sums to go on an evening cruise down the Thames where they can watch the sun setting and then see the lights of the city by night. It is however possible to do it under your own steam, no tour company required, and for a fraction of the cost.
A sunset cruise often features on many bucket lists of a trip to the capital and there is a wide variety of trips on offer - some with an audio guide and snack bar, some with drinks and jazz bands, some with dinner and dancing. They all require pre-booking and cash upfront, meaning that if you happen to have booked for a grey and dismal day, your sunset cruise is not going to have much of a sunset, you will be left feeling short-changed and no amount of freeform piano or canapes is going to change that.
The alternative of course is to plan your own, no pre-booking required, so you can go on a day when you know the sun will set in a clear sky. I tried it out on a warm summer evening in August taking my son with me, we had a lovely time, took some great photos and all for less than £10 each.
Planning your sunset cruise
The River Thames very conveniently travels from west to east, so travelling from east to west will put you in the direct path of the sunset. By not joining an organised tour, you aren't restricted to set times or set locations, you can obviously choose where you go from and to, based on how much time you have available. Forget the organised tours and cruises, you just need an Uber Boat.
Uber Boats (used to be called Thames Clippers), run a regular River Bus service which operates up and down the Thames. Part of the London transport network along with the underground and buses, these are a far more enjoyable and scenic way of traversing the capital.
Timing is everything here, but it only takes a quick look at the timetable and the sunset times to work out which boat to get on for maximum sunset.
Getting an Uber Boat
You don't need to book in advance and actually it is much cheaper if you just scan your debit card (or phone) on one of the machines at the docks, rather than buying an actual ticket from the ticket office or machine, so there really is minimal effort involved.
Just show up at the dock at the right time, and hop onboard.
Check the route and times on the Uber Boat Timetable
The boats all vary slightly in design, but they all have a large interior cabin with comfortable seating and a snack and drink bar, as well as an outdoor area with more seating. The outdoor area often fills up first, especially on a good day, but you can stand until a seat becomes free, which shouldn't be too long.
The boats go surprisingly fast for such a busy waterway, but they do slow down a bit around the more populated areas in central London. They are an exhilarating and agreeable way to travel through London.
North Greenwich to Tower Millennium for the ultimate sunset cruise
I would particularly recommend this route as it is a half hour trip past some diverse London scenery, ending at the icon of London's Thames - Tower Bridge. If you time it right, you can watch the sun setting directly behind Tower Bridge itself before you then get to explore central London by night.
The journey starts with some open skies and historic sites which look impressive in the pink sky before the sun sets. The rounded dome of the O2, the stark rigging of the Cutty Sark and rosy hue of the Old Royal Naval College lead to a mixture of modern flats blended with glimpses of classic old London, all crumbling brown bricks and blackened timbers amongst the chrome and glass.
As the boat speeds towards central London, Tower Bridge appears around the meanders in the river and if you have timed it right, you'll see the setting sun lowering between the two bastions. It is a truly impressive sight, and on our trip all the passengers rushed to the front of the boat with their cameras, with even the boat staff stopping to look. I overheard one crew member say to another, "We've seen some good ones, but that's a banging sunset, mate".
We got off at the Tower of London quay and bimbled around for a bit. It was good to see the Tower of London without any of the usual daytime crowds. We found the London Wall next to a favourite playpark and enjoyed watching the sun set behind the gardens of the Tower Hill Memorial.
We walked the banks of the Thames, through assorted riverside quays and over London Bridge, past the evening revellers having meals and drinks out, past a samba band that were playing to smiling crowds, watching the oranges and pinks turn to blues and greys in the skies above us.
We stopped for a drink and snack in the beautiful Hayes Galleria, a rather modern and mundane place by day, but which was transformed that evening, filled with flowers and twinkling lights for the summer season. With an outdoor pub and several restaurants all delivering to the flower covered tables, there were plenty of people enjoying cocktails and taking photos of all the lights.
By the time we had emerged from our pit-stop, the sun had fully set and we stepped out into the dark night.
London by night is quite spectacular.
The grime, litter and countless signs barking orders at you all disappear into the shadows, leaving just a multitude of sparkling, colourful lights which bounce off the river. The lights at the top of the ever present cranes are all that remains of their threatening presence, and the aircraft lights resemble shooting stars across the blue sky. The silhouettes of late night office workers stand out in the illuminated windows high above you, the prominent Walkie-Talkie nearly manages to blend into its surroundings and the top floors of the Shard burn like a beacon over it all. London at night looks shimmering and benign.
We wandered across the ornate Victorian Tower Bridge to admire the view, joining the small groups with their cameras out to catch the wonderful colours, then got on another Uber boat, the last of the evening, to take us back to Greenwich.
The boat passed underneath Tower Bridge itself, giving us rarely seen views of its underside, before we sped off into the inky darkness down the Thames.