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River Cruises along the Thames

A trip up or down the river gives you an entirely different view of London. You'll see how the city grew along and around the Thames, and how many of its landmarks turn their faces toward the water. The Thames was London's first highway.

City Cruises (tel. 020/774-0400; www.citycruises.com) When you take a standard trip on its generously glass-sided and -topped boats, live narrators point out details of interest. The “Red Rover” ticket allows you to hop on and off all day. Boats go every 30 minutes, generally between 9am and 9pm, at four piers: Westminster, London Eye, the Tower, and Greenwich. Note that two of those stops are across the river from each other, leaving the stretch between the London Eye and the Tower of London (the meatiest section) without a stop. 

Thames RIB Experience (tel. 020/3432-6856; www.thethamesribexperience.com) Touristy to the core and annoying to everyone except passengers, this outfit loads you in semi-inflatable RIB speedboats with twin 245-horsepower engines and flits you downriver to Canary Wharf, around the O2, or Greenwich from Embankment. Try in vain to make a lasting memory of St Paul’s flying past, blurry from estuary spray in your eyes. Tours are 50 to 75 minutes. 

Bus Tours & Cycle Tours

For the bewildered first-timer, the quickest way to bring London into focus is probably to take a bus tour -- but it isn't cheap. The Original London Sightseeing Tour passes by many of the major sights in a couple of hours or so, depending on traffic. The tour -- which uses a traditional double-decker bus with live commentary by a guide -- costs £25 for adults, £12 for children aged 5 to 15, free for those 4 and younger. A family ticket costs £86 and includes up to 3 children. The ticket, valid for 48 hours, allows you to hop on or off the bus at any point on any of three different circuits around the city. Your ticket also entitles you to a free riverboat ride with City Cruises and a choice of free 90-minute walking tours.

Tickets can be purchased on the bus or at any of the five start-points -- Marble Arch, Trafalgar Square, Woburn Place, Piccadilly Circus, or Grosvenor Gardens -- and from the Original London Visitor Centre, 17-19 Cockspur St., Trafalgar Square, SW1 (tel. 020/8877-2120 or 020/7389-5040; Tube: Charing Cross). Many hotel concierges and Travel Information Centres also sell tickets. For information or phone purchases, call tel. 020/8877-1722. It's also possible to book online at www.theoriginaltour.com. Do so ahead of time, especially in low season, and you may secure significant discounts on the prices quoted above.

Big Bus Tours, 48 Buckingham Palace Rd., SW1 (tel. 020/7808-6753; www.bigbustours.com; Tube: Victoria), operates a similar 2-hour tour, departing frequently between 8:30am and 8:00 pm daily from 50-odd  points around the center. The cost is £26 for adults, £10 for children aged 5 to 15; a family ticket (two adults with two children) is £62. Tickets are valid for 48 hours; you can hop on and off the bus as you wish. As with the Original London Tour, a City Cruise tour and a choice of 3 walking tour are included in your ticket price.

A much cheaper alternative is to seek out the two remaining London bus lines where old-fashioned Routemaster double-decker buses still operate. Only route 9 -- which skirts Hyde Park and Green Park, and halts at Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square -- and route 15 -- linking Monument and St. Paul's with Trafalgar Square and Regent Street -- offer this "heritage" service. Although you can't hop on and off at will -- unless you've bought a Travelcard -- you can enjoy your own self-guided London bus tour for £1.30 per person.

If you prefer two wheels to four, the London Bicycle Tour Company (tel. 020/7928-6838; www.londonbicycle.com) guides groups around three separate circuits of the capital, originating from its home-base at Gabriel's Wharf, on the South Bank. The Central London Tour costs £15.95 and takes approximately 2 1/2 hours, passing Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul's Cathedral en route. It leaves daily at 10:30am; tours of the Royal West and East London are on weekends only, and cost £18.95 for the longer, 3 1/2-hour circuits. Between November and March booking ahead is essential. Hybrid bike rental is included in the tour price.

Fat Tire Bike Tours (tel. 0788/2338-779; www.fattirebiketours.com/london) offers a 4-hour tour of Royal London (£20, £18 students) originating from Queensway Tube station, and a 5-hour River Thames Tour (£30) starting from Waterloo Road, on the South Bank. Both offer plenty of guiding as well as cycling, and you're advised to book ahead of time; you can cancel in case of bad weather. Bike rental is included in the price -- at a reduced rate for children, for whom the Royal London Tour is ideally suited.

For many of the abovementioned bus and cycle tours -- as well as walking tours and a unique tour of the city by Mini Cooper (£99 per car) run by Small Car Big City (tel. 020/75850-399; www.smallcarbigcity.com) -- it's worth checking with Discount London (tel. 020/8295-8383; www.discount-london.com) for savings on headline prices.

Walking Tours & Guided Visits

London Walks (tel. 020/7624-3978; www.walks.com) is the oldest established walking-tour company in London -- and still offers the best range of guided walks, departing every day of the week from points around town. Their hallmarks are variety, value, reasonably sized groups (generally under 30), and -- above all -- superb guides. The renowned crime historian Donald Rumbelow leads the daily Jack the Ripper walk (www.jacktheripperwalk.com) on Sundays, and alternate Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays; gather outside Tower Hill station before 7:30pm. Other popular themed walks include "Shakespeare's and Dickens' London," "The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour," and "Hidden London." Several walks run every day, and all cost £8 for adults, £6 for students and seniors; children 14 and younger go free. Check the website for a schedule, or consult the London walks leaflet that you'll find in almost every information center and hotel in London; no reservations are needed and walks last around 2 hours.

Context Travel (tel. 020/3318-5637, or 800/691-6036 in the U.S.; www.contexttravel.com) takes a more didactic approach to its walking program, with smaller groups led by engaging docents who are experts and scholars in their fields. Tour topics range from London's struggle for democracy to London architecture. Prices are around £100 per person for walks of 2 to 3 hours' duration. 

City Guides (www.cityoflondontouristguides.com) offers a small program of high-quality walking tours based in and around the Square Mile. Themes include the "City's Gardens," "Dr. Johnson," or tours of such places as All-Hallows-by-the-Tower Church. Prices range from free to £6 per walk.

It's also worth searching the directory of official professional tourist guides at www.blue-badge-guides.com. Whatever your special interest, there will be a Blue Badge Guide to match; you can book personalized full-day, half-day, or evening tours.

If you want to see behind the scenes of the world's most famous broadcasting organization, BBC Tours (tel. 0370/901-1227 or 01732/427770; www.bbc.co.uk/tours) leads group visits around Television Centre, in White City, and recently renovated Broadcasting House, in the West End. The former focuses on television and includes a visit to the BBC newsroom, while the latter is all about radio and takes in the famous BBC Radio Theatre and the chance to create your own short program. The tours are restricted to visitors aged from 9 and 12 upwards, respectively. There's also an interactive tour of CBBC (Children's BBC) aimed at accompanied youngsters aged 7 to 11. Little ones get a chance to see inside a real BBC dressing room, hang out on sets of well-known programs, and even make a short TV spot of their own. All tours last between 1 1/2 and 2 hours and cost £9.95 for adults, £9.25 seniors, and £7.75 children. Family tickets for up to four people cost £30. There's something running most days of most weeks; book online or by telephone.

Soccer fans may be interested in an all-areas tour of Arsenal's Emirates Stadium (tel. 020/7619-5000; www.arsenal.com/stadiumtours). Approximately 1-hour guided visits around the capital's finest club ground take in the dressing rooms, players' tunnel, and directors' boxes. Tours are arranged for most non-matchdays, and cost £15 for adults, £8 for children aged 5 to 16, and £38 for a family of four. Dedicated Arsenal fans should consider paying extra (£35/£18) to join a tour led by a club legend such as Charlie George or Kenny Sansom.

Voluntourism & Slow Travel

If you have an interest in giving something back, try volunteering while you're in London. Conservation charity BTCV (tel. 020/7278-4294; www.btcv.org/london) runs sessions improving the city's natural spaces. Many are part of its "Green Gym" program designed to keep you fit as you work on such projects as clearing ponds and coppicing woodland. Anyone can volunteer via the website, and it's free to take part. Sessions last a few hours and run most weeks. It's also worth keeping an eye on Timebank (www.timebank.org.uk). This online resource helps you match your location and availability with volunteering opportunities nearby -- although most are more suited to a long stay or residency.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.