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The Docklands Renaissance
For centuries the Thames was a fevered hub of activity. Great palaces were built along the river, most long gone (such as Whitehall, which dwarfed even Versailles in splendor). Dock warehouses sprang up to the east of London in the 18th century to cater to the burgeoning trade in luxury goods, from tea, coffee, and spices to silks and exotic pets. By the 1950s, however, this trade had all but disappeared—partly due to the devastation of World War II, but also because trading vessels had simply gotten too big to fit along the river. The area all but died until a massive regeneration scheme known as Docklands was completed in the 1980s. It brought renewal in the form of cutting-edge architecture, galleries, restaurants, and bars. Many of the old warehouses were restored and are now used as museums or shopping malls, such as Hay's and Butler's Wharves. The best way to explore is on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), whose elevated track appears to skim over the water past the swanky glass buildings. If you explore on foot, the Thames Path has helpful plaques along the way, with nuggets of historical information.
Museum of London Docklands. This wonderful old warehouse building, on a quaint cobbled quayside beside the tower of Canary Wharf, is alone worth a visit. With uneven wood floors, beams, and pillars, the museum used to be a storehouse for coffee, tea, sugar, and rum from the West Indies—hence the name West India Quay. The fascinating story of the old port and the river is told using films, together with interactive displays and reconstructions; a permanent exhibition, London, Sugar, and Slavery, outlines the capital's involvement in the slave trade. The museum runs a highlights tour (free) on Wednesday and Sunday at 3 pm. There are also a few special themed tours per season; call or see the website for details. On the second Friday of every month the museum hosts the Docklands Cinema Club, which shows rare and classic films, together with talks, inside the old warehouse. No. 1 Warehouse, West India Quay, Canary Wharf, Canary Wharf, London, E14 4AL. 020/7001–9844. www.museumoflondon.org.uk/docklands. Free. Daily 10–6; last admission at 5:40. Tube: Canary Wharf; DLR: West India Quay.
Ragged School Museum. In its time, the Ragged School Museum was the largest school in London and a place where impoverished children could get free education and a good meal. The museum re-creates a classroom dating from the 1880s. It's an eye-opener for adults, and fun for kids, who get the chance to work just like Victorian children did in one of the many organized workshops. If you really want to get into the spirit, visitors of all ages can attend a Victorian-style lesson (first Sunday of every month, 2:15 to 3:30), complete with a fully costumed schoolmistress who tests your slate-writing technique—and might give you a dunce hat if you're naughty. 46–50 Copperfield Rd., Mile End, London, E3 4RR. 020/8980–6405. www.raggedschoolmuseum.org.uk. Free; £2 donation requested for Victorian lessons. Wed. and Thurs. 10–5, 1st Sun. of month 2–5. Tube: Mile End; DLR: Limehouse.
Firepower Royal Artillery Museum. Adjacent to the old Royal Dockyard at Woolwich is a brilliant exhibition, the Firepower Royal Artillery Museum. The Field of Fire experience is a powerful recreation of what it was actually like to be in the thick of the London Blitz or the D-Day Landings, complete with giant projections of archive film on all sides, live smoke effects, and a floor that quakes in time to the roar of exploding bombs. The rest of the museum explores the role of the gunner, from the discovery of gunpowder to the present day. Also on show are tanks and guns—some complete with battle scars. Housed in the old Royal Arsenal leading down to the river shore, the museum's setting provides a powerful sense of the Thames and its lingering effect on the capital's history. Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London, SE18 6ST. 020/8855–7755. www.firepower.org.uk. £5.30. Tues.–Sat. 10–5; last admission at 4. Tube: DLR: Woolwich Arsenal.
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