Best Tours in London

With its crooked medieval streets, layers of history, and atmospheric buildings, London is a true walking city often best explored on a guided tour. Tours are a great way to investigate out-of-the-way, hidden, historic, and secret districts; to get an insider's eye on where locals like to eat, drink, and be merry; and to learn all the interesting and infamous aspects of London's history, architecture, and inhabitants.

Boat Tours

City Cruises. In nice weather, an open top-deck ride from Westminster, the London Eye, or Tower Piers to the ancient royal romping ground of Greenwich along the Thames River is one of the best ways to get acquainted with the city. You'll pass sights like Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, and St. Paul's Cathedral, all with a chirpy Cockney boatman running commentary. Lunch, Afternoon Tea, and nighttime cruises are also available. Cherry Garden Pier, Cherry Garden St., London, Greater London, SE16 4TU. 020/7740–0400; From £11.

Thames RIB Experience. Make like James Bond in an exhilarating special forces–style inflatable speedboat as you whiz past the MI6 building, Shakespeare's Globe, and Tower Bridge on a high-speed 50-minute round-trip to Canary Wharf. There are also 40-minute roller-coaster blasts to the O2 Arena in Greenwich and 75-minute round-trips from Tower Pier to the Thames Barrier. Embankment Pier, London, Greater London, WC2N 6NU. 020/3613–7838; From £27.

Bus Tours

Golden Tours. Various hop-on, hop-off open-top double-decker tours with this company take in the main sites on three key loops. With 60 drop-off points and 48-hour passes, they also offer discount tickets to attractions like the Tower of London and the London Dungeon, as well as nighttime tours, free walking tours, and boat rides on the Thames. London, Greater London. 020/7630--2028; From £28.

The Original London Sightseeing Tour. This one-day, hop-on-hop-off, open-top bus tour with over 80 stops along six different routes takes in major landmarks like the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, the British Museum, the Tower of London, and, of course, Buckingham Palace, as well as more off-the-beaten-path sites like Lambeth Palace (home of the Bishop of London). Tickets are good for the entire day and for all routes. London, Greater London. 020/8877–1722; From £29.

Free Tours

City Guides. The City Guides (or, to give them their full name, The City of London Guide Lecturers' Association) are the official guides to the City of London, the "City" being not the entire metropolis but the "Square Mile" historic financial district. They offer two highly informed daily walks at 11 am and 2 pm–-some bookable but others just turn up on the day–-that cover essential sights like Guildhall (the City's town hall), Mansion House, the Bank of England, and the Royal Exchange. More specialized walks offered by the Museum of London focus on topics like Samuel Johnson's London, the gardens of the City, the Great Fire of London, Roman London, or the churches of Christopher Wren, most notably his magnificent St. Paul's Cathedral. 0207/606–3030; From £7.

Sandemans New Europe London. It seems almost too good to be true: Sandemans offers an excellent free, 2½-hour Royal London walking tour daily, which winds from Buckingham Palace to Big Ben. Led by wisecracking actors, poets, and esteemed art historians, other paid walks include a boozy five-stop pub crawl and spooky East End's Dark Secrets tours. Tours are also available in Spanish and while free, tips are the expected way to show your appreciation (along with a round of applause at the finish). 30/5105--0030; Free.

Specialty Tours

Brit Movie Tours. See the exterior of Grantham House and the spot where Branson first confesses his love for Lady Sybil on this insiders' central London tour of Downton Abbey filming locations. Other tours focusing on James Bond, Sherlock, The Da Vinci Code, and Harry Potter filming locations, among many others, are also available. 0844/247–1007; From £12.

London Food Lovers Food Tours. London's a top global foodie city now, and the London Food Lovers walking tour of Soho is a fascinating way to explore the capital's gastro delights. Well-led and synchronized throughout, the four-hour walk kicks off with Hawaiian blueberry pancakes at burger bar Kua'Aina and takes in offbeat stops for truffle pumpkin ravioli at Soho's retro Italian delicatessen Lina Stores, a hot chocolate tasting at SAID artisanal Roman chocolatiers, and a sit-down lunch of fish-and-chips and Indian pale ale in quaint Soho pub the Dog and Duck. You'll also stop in Chinatown to sample steamed prawn dim sum at Beijing Dumpling and spot celebrities amid the Afternoon Tea crowds at the Maison Bertaux French patisserie and tearoom. The tour ends with a dessert and wine pairing in the Dickensian underground cellar vaults of the 1890s Gordon's Wine Bar. There are various versions of the Soho tour, as well as a Jack the Ripper Happy Hour Tasting Tour and a Borough Market tour. Islington, London, Greater London. 0777/4099–306; £60.

Walking Tours

Context Travel. This company takes a high-brow approach to its intellectually curious small-group walks program, providing PhD- and MA-level scholars, authors, architects, and historians to lead walks of no more than six people. Lasting up to three hours, walks include the evolution of London theater to Charles Dickens and Victorian London. 800/691--6036; From £90.

London Walks. With London's oldest established walking tours, there's no need to book ahead; instead, just turn up at the meeting point at the allotted hour and pay £10 for a first-rate, guided two-hour walk with themes like Secret London, Literary London, Harry Potter film locations, Haunted London, and much more. Top crime historian and leading Ripper authority Donald Rumbelow often leads the 7:30 pm Jack the Ripper walk in Whitechapel. As a bonus bargain, kids can come along for free. 020/7624–3978; From £10.

Sophie Campbell. Travel journalist and former BBC Travel Show broadcaster Sophie Campbell specializes in superlong London walks. Full-day walks include Old Church Chelsea (by the river) to St. Michael's Highgate (high on a north London hill); or Hampton Court Palace to Richmond Palace via the noble palazzi of the nontidal Thames. Half-day hikes include a forensic examination of Fleet Street journalism and James Bond's London. 07743/566–323; From £220.

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