48 hours in the life of London's Docklands

You need a break - and a short cut to the soul of a city. Each week, `The Independent' provides a prescription for the perfect weekend break. This week's subject is London's Docklands, where

Harriet O'Brien and Simon Calder slip out of Canary Wharf to spend 48 hours exploring.

Why go now?

Because the transformation from historic hub of the world's greatest trading empire to futuristic metropolis is not yet complete. Because the Independent Travellers' World exhibition takes place in the middle of Docklands this weekend. And because we could do with a few real people hereabouts.

Beam down

Citizens of Manchester and Edinburgh can fly direct to the area's own airport, London City, on Air UK (0990 074074). Others will need to make their way to Bank or Tower Gateway Underground stations, where the Docklands Light Railway begins. A pounds 4 ticket gives you the freedom of the network all day. But to cover the ground south of the river, you'll need a four- zone Travelcard covering both the railway and tube and bus services - it is cheaper, too, at pounds 3.80 for the day.

Get your bearings

East of Tower Bridge, the Thames starts swerving wildly. The biggest loop is around the Isle of Dogs (not an isle at all, more like a sloppy Labrador's tongue), which is the heart of the area. As officially defined, most of Docklands is north of the Thames, stretching nine miles east from Tower Bridge. But a chunk of Bermondsey, Rotherhithe and Surrey Docks on the south side is also included within the borders of the London Docklands Development Corporation, which has presided over the rebuilding of the area - and, some say, damaged old communities for the sake of new office blocks. Two months from today, the LDDC ceases to be.

Check in

Best value is the Rotherhithe youth hostel, south of the river on Salter Road (0171-232 2114). You can get there on a P11 bus that runs to and from Waterloo station; Rotherhithe tube station, a 10-minute walk away, is still closed. A bed in a dormitory of six costs pounds 20.50 a night, a twin room pounds 23.50.

For four-star comfort, a swimming pool and a night-club, head north of the Thames to the Britannia, at 163 Marsh Wall (0171-712 0100), where weekend specials are pounds 90 single and pounds 100 double, including breakfast.

Take a ride

Toytown trains running on old railways and new elevated lines, a system so poorly designed when it opened that twice as much cash again had to be spent making it even vaguely serviceable - but say what you like about the Docklands Light Railway, it makes a great tourist attraction as it threads, driverless, through the surreal cityscape. Try to board the DLR on the hour, between 10am and 2pm, from either Bank or Tower Gateway - a guide uses the on-board public address system to give information about the network and its history.

The network also offers some of London's best views of the emerging Millennium Dome at North Greenwich, now a spidery tangle of wires encircling some rather chilly air. The best spots for dome-watching are around West India Quay and Heron Quays.

Take a hike

Get off at Crossharbour, the nearest station to the Docklands visitor centre (which closes down at the end of February) - and the London Arena, venue for this weekend's travel exhibition. The helpful staff will kit you out with maps, which will enable you to explore Mudchute City Farm - the closest you'll get to a walk in the country. This hovers on a hill, accessible, rather bizarrely, from the car park at the Asda supermarket. Entrance is free to see some rather disconsolate-looking sheep, a vast and friendly black pig and a much-loved pets' corner.

The path through the farm leads to Pier Street: walk to the end of the road, turn right and follow signs to the left which lead to a riverside walkway. The 15-minute walk from here to the DLR station at Island Gardens offers spectacular views of the Royal Naval College and the Cutty Sark on the far side of the Thames at Greenwich.

Lunch on the run

The Pier Tavern on Pier Street is a quiet, unpretentious pub with a menu to warm the souls of those in search of hot food: a steak-and-ale pie costs pounds 4.75, plaice and chips pounds 4.25. There's an extensive choice of sandwiches at about pounds 2.90. If you're looking for more atmosphere, head for Ferry House on the corner of Ferry Street, beyond Island Gardens station. Built in 1822, this claims to be the oldest pub on the Isle of Dogs - and it looks suitably dog-eared. The mood makes up for a limited menu: sandwiches are pounds 1.50, a ploughman's lunch pounds 2.25.

Cultural afternoon

Tower Bridge, that neo-Gothic wonder of Victorian hydraulic engineering, not only offers some of the best views of the area but also provides a lively historical perspective. The towers of the bridgehouse are billed as an "Experience" - and it's a good one, too - where you meet animated models, admire the panoramas from high walkways, and learn the basics of hydraulic engineering. Open daily 9.30am-6pm, adults pounds 5.70, children pounds 3.90

Window shopping

Docklands is no place for shopaholics: at one end of the spectrum, Canary Wharf is full of office chic with the likes of Austin Reed, Moss Bros and Jaeger; the shopping mall at Surrey Quays across the river has a host of down-to-earth high-street chains. If you're in search of atmosphere and a possible bargain, make for Greenwich just beyond Docklands, where the antiques market runs on Saturdays and Sundays.

An aperitif

Cross south to the Mayflower, at 117 Rotherhithe Street, where you get the best view of the setting sun along the Thames.

Demure dinner

Keep south of the river to reach The Blueprint Cafe (0171-378 7031) on the edge of Docklands at 28 Shad Thames, Butler's Wharf. Try to book a window seat at Terence Conran's least pretentious and most dramatic restaurant. Expect to pay pounds 5.50 for starters such as saffron risotto, and pounds 13.75 for main courses such as poached cod with lentils and salsa verde.

For a cheaper option north of the river, try Baradero (0171-537 1666), a friendly tapas bar on Turnberry Quay, opposite the London Arena at Crossharbour.

Sunday morning: go to church

And what a choice there is. Nicholas Hawksmoor built some beauties here, and their graceful spires hold their own against Docklands' shiny skyscrapers. The finest is St Anne's near Limehouse, and thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Open Church Scheme it is unlocked for visitors between 2pm and 4pm on weekdays and Saturdays, and between 3pm and 5pm on Sundays. You'll see St Anne's best in its full crumbling splendour at Sunday services, which take place at 10.30am and 6pm.

Sunday lunch

A short walk from St Anne's, The Grapes pub at 76 Narrow Street (0171- 987 4396) serves a good, old-fashioned Sunday roast (pounds 6.25) from noon. It's well worth coming here for views of the river, the creaking timber - and the literary associations. The Grapes features as the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend.

A walk in the park

Amid the frenetic building work, a small patch of green has been stoically preserved. To get a warm sense of community care, visit Stave Hill Ecological Park, off Timber Pond Road, which has been lovingly developed as a haven for wildlife - particularly butterflies (more than 21 species have been found here). At this time of year, of course, there's not a great deal to see, but from the top of the hillock itself the sweeping views of the Isle of Dogs are magical.

The icing on the cake

Visit Butler's Wharf, just south east of Tower Bridge, before it is completely transformed into designerland. Here a few old warehouses remain quietly decaying alongside swish developments of loft-style apartments. And here you'll find the Design Museum - at Shad Thames (2pm-6pm weekends, 11.30am-6pm weekdays, adults pounds 5, concessions pounds 3.75).

From fridges to cameras and TV sets, you'll sharpen your awareness of the form and function of consumer goods, and wonder at the changing shape of the future.

Until the end of March the museum has an exhibition on bicycle design, ranging from 1860s velocipedes to space-age folding bikes complete with integrated lights. Forget buses and toytown trains, you may think; this is just the vehicle you need for a weekend exploring London's Docklands.

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