Tips + Trends

A Walk Through London Docklands Proves There’s More to See Than Glass and Steel

The London Docklands are often thought of as a business hub more than a cultural one. With skyscrapers and banks dominating the geographical and commercial landscapes, it’s easy to see why. But this part of east London has a lot going on, and it’s not hard to find more to the area than steel and glass, suits and handshakes.

If you have 24 hours, you’ll be able to explore Canary Wharf, the Docklands and the area around ExCeL London. I recommend starting by the Canary Wharf tube station and taking a good look up at the buildings around you. They’ll soon start to seem less like banks and law offices and more like the feats of contemporary architecture they were designed to be.

london docklands
(Photo: Julie Falconer)

Everyone from Foster + Partners to Herzog & de Meuron has left their mark here, and the result is a stunning mix of modern styles. One Canada Square is the second-tallest building in the United Kingdom, and its pyramid roof is said to be inspired by Elizabeth Tower (home of Big Ben, the famous bell). The roof garden of Crossrail Place has a futuristic dome covering a green space with walking paths and is a great place to get away from the bustle of the city.

There are more feats of engineering popping up all the time, and it’s worth looking out for new projects underway as you walk around the area.

london docklands
(Photo: Julie Falconer)

But it’s not all new here. Canary Wharf is on the site of one of London’s historic docks. Dating back to 1802, it was a busy center of trade until the 1960s. The Museum of London Docklands has extensive exhibits on the area’s history and is worth a look to get a feel for Canary Wharf’s past.

Take another dip into the wharf’s past in the area around Blackwall Basin, which you can walk to next. This marina is not only home to picturesque boats, but also sits next to some of the most historic streets in the area. Coldharbour has houses dating back centuries and is home to The Gun, a riverside pub steeped in Lord Nelson legends.

Beyond architecture, the area has a lot of restaurants and bars. From traditional Scottish trimmings at Boisdale of Canary Wharf to street food stalls at Street Feast at Giant Robot, there’s a range of options to choose from.

london docklands
(Photo: Julie Falconer)

From Canary Wharf you can head over to ExCeL London. This area has more to it than just the convention center. The Emirates Air Line cable car is a great way to see the east London skyline from above, and the waterfront around it has public art by renowned British sculptors like Eduardo Paolozzi. That’s to say nothing of The Crystal, a contemporary building on Royal Victoria Dock with a permanent exhibition about sustainable development.

And that will bring you full circle to the architecture you first witnessed in Canary Wharf. By now you’ll have seen that the London Docklands are more than just that, though. Full of history and heritage, they’re an evolving part of the city — so much so that the area might look a lot different on your next visit.

Originally from San Francisco, Julie Falconer moved to London in 2007 and runs A Lady in London, a blog about all things lovely London and beautiful travel.