The Culture of the Thames

From world-famous boat races and regal palaces to large-scale art installations, the shores of the River Thames are bursting with unique activities and royal heritage. And with major events this year including Illuminated River and Estuary 2021, there’s no time like now to start dreaming of a future trip along its banks. 

Illuminated River and Estuary 2021

Illuminated River Project. Overhead view of London's bridges, illuminated as part of the art project.

Illuminated River will continue to light up London’s waterways this spring, with five new bridges joining the long-term installation already in place on four of the city’s most iconic river crossings. More than three miles of orchestrated, multi-coloured lights will transform Blackfriars, Waterloo, Golden Jubilee, Westminster and Lambeth Bridges, creating the world’s longest public art commission.  There will also be a number of digital extras to enjoy, including free, downloadable music scores from students of Guildhall School of Music and Drama, to enhance the experience.  

Celebrating the second edition of the event, Estuary 2021 is a large-scale arts festival held along the Thames Estuary in Essex and North Kent. Running from 22 May to 13 June, the festival promises a riot of art, music, literature and film events celebrating the landscape, heritage and local communities of the river. Held online and in Covid-safe venues, and led by a partnership between Metal and Cement Fields, one highlight includes newly commissioned chapters and artists’ interpretations of Tom King’s book Thames Estuary Trail: A Walk around the End of the World. Marking its 20th anniversary this year, the book brings the entire coastline to life in glorious detail and promises to inspire you on your next trip along the Thames.

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Westminster Bridge

Visuals arts on the South Bank

On a future trip to London, you can discover a wide variety of cultural highlights at the Southbank Centre and the Royal Festival Hall. One of London’s best-known music venues, the hall promises an annual calendar of events ranging from classical masterpieces to cutting-edge modern performances. Alternatively, if you’re seeking world-class art, you can get inspired at the centre’s Hayward Gallery, with 2021 set for major exhibitions from film maker Matthew Barney and artist Igshaan Adams, whose sculptures are inspired by indigenous dance.

Film buff? You can look forward to the BFI Southbank, a hub for important cinematic work showcasing new titles, cult classics and international film across four screens. Meanwhile, if you’re an art fans hungry for more, you can head to the Tate Modern. Considered to be one of the top contemporary art museums in the world, in 2021 it will welcome unmissable installations including Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms, abstract artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp's retrospective, and The Making of Rodin, displaying the master sculptor’s experimental works.   

Just a few steps away lies Shakespeare’s Globe – a world-renowned replica of Shakespeare’s original open-air venue. As well as unforgettable Shakespeare plays, there are also guided tours from April until the end of October 2021, and in the meantime you can enjoy this online virtual tour.

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Southbank Centre

Royalty by the river

The Tower of London is a historic royal palace, former prison and fortress and national landmark on the banks of the River Thames in London. The White tower. UNESCO world heritage site. View of the palace from across the river, from the South Bank river w

Crossing London Bridge to the other side of the Thames, you can delve into history at the Tower of London. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been pivotal in events that shaped Britain and has housed key figures including Anne Boleyn and Guy Fawkes. Having acted as prison, palace and fortress over its near 1,000-year history, it is now home to the Crown Jewels. If you’re keen to witness British tradition first hand, you can look forward to watching the historic Ceremony of the Keys and meeting the ‘Beefeaters’ on a future guided tour.  

Heading south-west along the Thames you’ll find Hampton Court Palace. The former home of King Henry VIII, who would often travel the river in his royal barge, the palace is wonderfully preserved and houses the Tudor monarch’s private apartments, the Chapel Royal, kitchens and vast formal gardens.  

Further along the River Thames lies Windsor Castle – a ‘working palace’ and the weekend home of HRH Queen Elizabeth II. Throughout its 900-year history it has housed countless monarchs, as well as many items from the Royal Collection Trust and major artworks kept in the baroque State Apartments.

The banks of the Thames are also home to a number of dream-worthy stately homes, from the 17th century splendour of Ham House and Garden, home to historic art and textiles, to the Bridgerton filming location, Syon House. If you’re a fan of the Arts and Crafts movement, you can dream of soaking up the magic of William Morris’ countryside retreat at Kelmscott Manor, which sits along the Thames Path, a National Trail that follows the entire river from the Cotswolds to central London.

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Tower of London

Historic sporting events

Henley Royal Regatta on the River Thames in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire.

If you’re a sports enthusiast, you can look forward to an almost 200-year-old riverside tradition at the annual Boat Race, where Oxford and Cambridge Universities’ rival rowing clubs go head-to-head. Although moved to the Great Ouse at Ely in Cambridgeshire for April 2021, this sporting tradition would usually take place on the River Thames’ four-mile Championship Course, a winding route from Putney to Mortlake.  

Established in 1839, the Henley Royal Regatta is another famous Thames rowing competition. Although subject to potential changes for 2021, Henley Royal Regatta is known for being one of the biggest sporting and social events in the British calendar. With more than 300 races being held across five days, crowds gather to cheer on battling rowers, often while enjoying a traditional picnic and glass of Pimms. 

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Henley

Restrictions on travel to and around Britain are in place due to Covid-19. You are encouraged to always check individual attraction websites for the latest information, as events and details are subject to change.

31 Mar 2021(last updated)

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