Ah, London. A city practically overflowing with history and secrets. It can be hard to know where to begin when vising the British capital. Well, the bridges in London are a great start. Because while the city of London is nearly 2,000 years old and dates back to Roman times, it wouldn’t exist at all if it wasn’t for its river: the mighty Thames.
The Thames is a vital life force for the city of London, facilitating trade, transport, and of course, providing food for its inhabitants. Over the years there have been many crossings over the Thames, but never more than today, as it currently boasts a whopping 35 bridges, making it the city with the most bridges in all of the U.K. But like the city itself, these bridges are steeped in history.
So whether you’re mad about bridges or just a curious London traveler, this guide to the most brilliant and beautiful bridges in London with give you a headstart on the captivating and curious history of London and its bridges.
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Brief History of London
London was born way back in the year 43 A.D. when the Romans invaded Britain and needed somewhere to safely traverse the Thames River. By many accounts, the first real structure in London was actually a bridge. How wild is that?
By the year 50 A.D., the city was well underway, functioning as a crossing place and vital port to the Roman forces. However, in 61 A.D. the Icini Queen Boudicca led an attack on London and burned it down. This was only the first of many times London, including its bridges, has been burned to the ground and rebuilt again.
Despite the burnings, London grew steadily over the centuries, acquiring stone buildings and many more permanent structures. The city saw many invasions, including the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, and Normans but somehow survived and thrived, albeit slowly. It wasn’t until thousand years later that London officially became the capital of the country when William the Conqueror invaded London following the famous Battle of Hastings. He was crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1066 and constructed the Tower of London. Then, a few hundred years later, Parliament was created as a result of the signing of the Magna Carta. Skip a few more hundred years, and we see get two more major events with the great plague in 1665, and the great fire of London the year after. Undoubtedly a busy few centuries.
Of course, today London is a bustling and prosperous metropolis. The year 2000 saw the opening of the Tate Modern and the impressive London Eye. Just 12 years later, the Shard was one of many buildings and skyscrapers created as an example of London’s wealth. Also in 2012, the Olympics came to London, confirming its status as one of the world’s greatest cities. In 2016 the number of visitors was a new record 37.3 million, making it one of the most visited cities in Europe. As of 2022, the population of London was a massive 9.3 million.
But what about the history of the bridges in London? Well, that’s what we’re about to find out.
The Most Beautiful Bridges in London
1. London Bridge
Of all the beautiful bridges in London, we absolutely had to start with London Bridge—quite simply because it is the original bridge. Well, kind of. It’s complicated.
Back before bridges were built out of modern materials like stone, steel, and concrete, they were of course all made of wood. When the Romans arrived in 43 A.D. what they built was a pontoon-style crossing using planks that were laid across anchored boats. Not exactly a bridge, but a good start.
This version of the crossing likely existed in different states for many years, with various walkways being added and taken away. Even so, it remained a small footbridge until the year 984, when a new and more substantial structure was erected. This wooden bridge didn’t last long, however, as in 1014 Vikings invaded and tore the bridge down in order to get their boats up the Thames—this is rumored to be the origin of the “London Bridge is falling down” nursery rhyme. It was also possibly the incentive for the locals to build a stone version next, as between the years 1176 and 1209 a new version of London Bridge was constructed.
The stone bridge was much larger, and the locals were wise enough to include a wooden drawbridge in the middle to help with river traffic, and in case the Vikings returned. However, over the years many Londoners started to build and trade on the new stone bridge. That’s right, the original stone bridge was covered in buildings and structures! It was very different from any bridges in London these days. Unfortunately, these buildings eventually cramped the bridge so much that disaster struck in 1212 when a fire broke out on either side, trapping many people on it.
This was followed by another fire in 1623 which destroyed countless houses and stores. It was at this point that people decided having buildings on a bridge wasn’t actually such a good idea, and by 1657, all the houses and stores were been torn down and the bridge was widened and partly rebuilt. It stayed that way until it was demolished in order to build a new one in the same location.
This new London Bridge opened in the year 1831, but it didn’t last very long. After only 140 years it was discovered to be sinking due to the increase in traffic, both vehicles and everyday pedestrians. However, instead of being demolished, it was deconstructed and sold to an eccentric American billionaire and amazingly, it still stands today. You can visit it in Lake Havasu City, Arizona.
The last and current bridge was finished in 1972 and was built using the foundations of the old bridge. While it may not be as pretty or as structurally complex as its predecessors, it has at least the reputation of being the first bridge, as it was the only key crossing point of the river Thames for a full 600 years. Incredible.
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2. Putney Bridge
In chronological order, the next bridge to be built was Putney Bridge, in 1729. Originally made from wood, it connected Putney with Fulham and was actually an expensive toll bridge, making around £1,500 per year in revenue—that’s close to £130,000 per year in modern money.
An interesting fact about Putney Bridge is that it’s been the starting point, and perfect viewing spot, for the world-famous Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race since 1845. The boat race is an intense feat of athletic prowess held every year in March or early April. It consists of a four-and-a-quarter-mile push along the river, lasting about twenty minutes with around a quarter of a million people estimated to watch.
Another not-so-fun fact about this bridge involves the melancholic writer Mary Wollstonecraft—mother of Mary Shelly, of Frankenstein fame—who attempted to end her life here by leaping off the bridge one dark night in October 1795. Thankfully, she was seen and saved by ferrymen who hauled her unconscious from the river.
Finally, The Putney Bridge is also the only bridge in Britain to have churches at both ends of the bridge, with All Saints’ church on the north bank, and St Mary’s on the south bank. There’s an old joke that says you could get married at one end, have an argument as you walk across the bridge, and get divorced on the other end. Not very funny, we agree, but that’s English humor for you.
3. Westminster Bridge
Definitely one of the most iconic Thames bridges is Westminster Bridge. But from the beginning, this bridge was contentious. Like several on this list, it had several evolutions. The first, proposed in 1664 to help link the Houses of Parliament to the rest of the city, was heavily opposed by the ferrymen of the time, who made their entire living by taking people across the river—think of them as the UBER drivers of the age. Eventually, these ferrymen were paid compensation of £25,000, equivalent to around £2 million today, and work on the first Westminster Bridge began in 1739.
However, many things went wrong with the construction, from the planning to the distribution of funds, and this bridge was eventually given the nickname “bridge of fools” as it had taken so long to make and had so many mistakes. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful bridge, covered in elegant alcoves from which to enjoy the river and the city. In the year 1802, it inspired the famous poet William Wordsworth to write Upon Westminster Bridge.
This bridge, at last, fell into disrepair, and the current one was constructed in 1862, making it the oldest surviving road bridge across the Thames in central London. It was opened on Queen Victoria’s 43rd birthday, May 24, 1862, but unfortunately, she didn’t attend, as she was still mourning the death of Prince Albert. Around a hundred years later, in 1970, Westminster Bridge was painted green to match the seats in the House of Commons, the part of the Palace of Westminster closest to the bridge.
Perhaps the most fun fact about this bridge is that it’s a bit of a movie star, having been in dozens, or even hundreds of big-budget films and television series. It has to be said, Westminster Cathedral and Big Ben do look great on camera. A few highlights include the Bond films Spectre, Die Another Day, Mission Impossible—Rogue Nation, 101 Dalmatians, and in several Doctor Who episodes, including “The Dalek Invasion of Earth in 1964.” Quite the superstar!
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4. Tower Bridge
Possibly the most famous of all the bridges in London, and the UK, is Tower Bridge. With its distinctive castle-like towers making it one of the most recognizable bridges in the world, Tower Bridge was born out of the need for more river crossings and was completed in 1894. Its interesting Gothic design was chosen to blend with the Tower of London at the request of Queen Victoria.
The Victorian bridge is particularly clever due to its two raising bascules that go up and down allowing large ships to pass under. The word bascule comes from the French for see-saw, so you could think of it as the see-saw bridge, which is rather adorable. They weigh over 1,100 tons each, and there’s actually a special tour you can take that shows you the inside of the bacule mechanism, in case anyone wants to know how a 1000-ton aquatic see-saw works
5. Millennium Bridge
Next is another of London’s most famous bridges. The classic Millennium Bridge is the first true pedestrian bridge on the list. Opened on June 10, 2000, by Queen Elizabeth II, this suspension bridge was the first new bridge to be built over the Thames in London for more than 100 years.
However, despite being barely 20 years old, the bridge has already acquired a rich history and plenty of stories. For instance, it was given the nickname “The Wobbly Bridge” after an unforeseen side effect of the design that meant it literally wobbled when it was full of people. The architects insisted there was no possibility that the bridge would ever actually fall down, but even so, it was reinforced with suspension mechanisms to reduce the wobble.
Another interesting fact about the Millennium Bridge is said to be the perfect starting location for visitors to London. With St Paul’s Cathedral and the House of Lords on one side and Tate Modern and Globe Theatre on the other, you really can’t go wrong. And it’s especially beautiful at night, as it’s one of the bridges involved in the Illuminated River project, which is a light-based art installation that turns the bridges into beautiful works of art.
Finally, just like Tower Bridge, Millennium Bridge has acquired a reputation as a bit of a filmstar location, having appeared in various films and music videos, such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Namaste London, the video to the Olly Murs song Heart on My Sleeve, and perhaps most famously, the scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when the Death Eaters start causing mayhem. Just another day in London.
6. Blackfriars Bridge
Blackfriars Bridge is another that’s had several lives, as it were. The original was finished in 1769 and was known as William Pitt Bridge after the then-prime minister. However, it was changed to Blackfriars when Pitt fell out of favor. The name Blackfriars refers to the Dominican monastery that once stood nearby—Dominican monks used to wear long dark cloaks, hence the nickname: blackfriars. Despite extensive repairs over the years, this bridge was irreparably damaged by erosion from the polluted water.
Queen Victoria opened the existing Blackfriars Road Bridge on November 6, 1869, almost exactly a hundred years after the opening of its predecessor. The beautiful bridge is a grade II listed building, with the red, white, and gold design serving as a reminder of the lost monastery from which the bridge took its name.
The bridge also marks the border of the historic City of London, with a statue of a silver dragon guarding its southern landing. interestingly, the bridge was widened in 1910 and is now the widest bridge over the Thames in London. Blackfriars Bridge is used by approximately 54,000 vehicles a day. That’s a lot of wheels!
7. Waterloo Bridge
Waterloo Bridge is—you guessed it—another bridge that was built twice. But even the first one, built in 1817, was renamed before it finally opened to the public. Originally called Strand Bridge, after the company that wanted to build it, Parliament declared the name be changed to Waterloo in order to honor the victory of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
It was also, as with so many of these bridges, an economic fiasco, as the public refused to pay the toll, and instead used the free bridges on either side. Nevertheless, it was very beautiful and inspired lots of paintings. John Constable captured the excitement of the bridge’s opening ceremony in a gigantic painting that can be seen today in Tate Britain, and legendary Fench artist Monet painted the bridge over 40 times from his window vantage point at the Savoy Hotel.
But alas, when modern vehicle traffic caused it to fall into disrepair, it was eventually decided—after a long argument— to build a new, less beautiful, but more cost-effective and functional, bridge. The second Waterloo was started in 1939 but was severely delayed due to the war. It opened in the year 1945 after having been largely constructed by a female workforce. Because of this, the bridge has the affectioned nicknamed “The Ladies Bridge.” Very cool.
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8. Richmond Bridge
The last bridge on our list is in fact the oldest surviving bridge on the upper thames. Constructed in 1777 from Portland stone, just like St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London, and the Palace of Westminster. Like most of the other bridges, Richmond Bridge was originally a toll bridge, that charges the mighty sum of half a penny for foot passengers. However that all stopped in 1859, and then between the years 1937-1940 the bridge had to be widened to accommodate increasing traffic.
Richmond Bridge sits in one of the most well-known boroughs of London. Richmond is famous for many things, not least of which is its celebrity scene, as many famous people choose to live here, such as the likes of Tom Hardy, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie. Quite apart from that (or possibly because of it?) the area of Richmond upon Thames has for many years been voted the happiest borough in London. Maybe it’s because they have such a beautiful bridge.
Bring on the bridges!
If you’ve enjoyed this list of the most beautiful bridges in London, don’t forget there are many more. Cannon Street Railway Bridge, Albert Bridge, Battersea Bridge, Lambeth Bridge, and Hammersmith Bridge are just a few of the ones we didn’t have space for. Why not try to see them all? Don’t forget to take Let’s Roam with you for all the best adventures. Our Explorer blog has hundreds of fascinating articles just like this one. For instance, continue your adventure down the rabbit hole of this historic city with “The Ten Best Things To Do In London, England”.
Frequently Asked Questions
Probably the most famous bridge in London is Tower Bridge, with its castle-like architecture and two raising bascules. However, it’s often confused with London Bridge, which is very different.
Depending on how you count, London Bridge is arguably the oldest bridge in London, as it stands in the location of the first bridge nearly 2,000 years ago. But it has been rebuilt at least four times.
The world-famous Oxford and Cambridge boat race starts at Putney Bridge and has done so since 1845. This beautiful bridge is also the perfect viewing spot for the race.