There’s more to London that meets the eye; all you have to do is look up, writes Anne Whelton, as she takes a whistle-stop tour of the city’s skyline.
One of the most iconic and vibrant cities in the world, London attracts over 16 million tourists every year, most of whom visit the English capital to soak up the culture at the Tate, take in a show on the West End and ride the oldest metro system in the world, The Tube.
However, while London was once synonymous with whatever landmarks Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes could make out through the city’s ‘pea soup fog’, the London of the 21st century is recognisable for its ‘family’ of skyscrapers; all vying for space in a skyline filled with iconic structures such as Big Ben and the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Gherkin; The Shard; Heron Tower; The Leadenhall Building; even the London Eye — all constructed and opened in the last 15 years, and all taller than their predecessors.
While London was once best explored by foot, now many tourists choose to explore it from above, soaring to heights of up to 250 metres to gain a bird-eye view of Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park or catch a glimpse of Trafalgar Square and the shoppers on Oxford Street. With this in mind, I decided to leave the streets of London behind to investigate its heights, and see what all the fuss was about.
First stop on any whistle-stop tour of the London skyline has to be the city’s tallest building — which also happens to be the tallest building in the EU — The Shard.
Measuring approximately 1,016 feet, architect Renzo Piano’s vision for The Shard, when construction began in 2009, was to create a ‘vertical city’ where Londoners could live, work and relax. The building now comprises offices, restaurants, a five star hotel — the Shangri-La Hotel — a number of exclusive residences for the city’s rich and famous, and the UK’s highest viewing gallery, The View from The Shard, which was opened in 2013 offers 360 degree views of the city below and the sky above.
The London of the 21st century is recognisable for its ‘family’ of skyscrapers.”
A visit to The View from The Shard begins on the 68th floor of the building — after a dizzyingly fast elevator ride — and continues on to the 69th and 72th floor of the building, where you can use interactive touchscreen telescopes to identify the 200+ landmarks visable from The Shard or even catch a glimpse of unsuspecting Londoners going about their day on the streets far below.
The View from The Shard will set you back a hefty £29.95 for an adult ticket and £23.95 for a child (4-15 years), and while it certainly offers a spectacular panorama of the changing face of London, if you’re looking for the ‘quintessential’ view of the city from above, you can’t get much better than the Eye in the sky.
An Eye for an eye
Located on the South Bank of the Thames, opposite the Houses of Parliament, Europe’s, and possibly the world’s, most famous Ferris wheel, offers the perfect vista of some of London’s most iconic buildings.
Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s, The Gherkin, the Tower of London, the list goes on — in fact the views from atop the UK’s most popular paid-for visitor attraction are only limited by your ability to identify London’s famous landmarks.
A full rotation on the London Eye takes just half an hour, and I would highly recommend opting for a fast-track ticket online before visiting the Eye — at a price of £26.96 for an adult — to avoid lengthy queues.
We were lucky enough to experience the Eye in the mid-afternoon, with a glass of champagne, which served as the perfect wind down after a busy morning of sightseeing. The Champagne Experience costs just £28.80 if you purchase online in advance and again is well worth the money.
Something old …
While some of London’s newer buildings boast gravity defying heights, few boast as much history as is contained within the walls of the city’s Tower Bridge.
Built 120 years ago, one of the world’s most famous bascule bridges shows no signs of falling down just yet and the Tower Bridge Exhibition offers visitors the chance to ascend 42 metres above the River Thames to explore the bridge from within.
Not one for acrophobics, visitors are encouraged to experience the bridge’s high-level walkways and newly installed 11 metre-long glass floor which offers views of the traffic on the bridge and the Thames below.
Tickets for the London Bridge Experience are £8 for an adult on £3.50 for a child (5-15 years) when you book online.
… And something new
Of course not every visitor to London is a history buff and those with a penchant for sport would do well to pay a visit to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London, home of the Summer Olympics in 2012.
‘And what does the Olympic Park have to do with the London skyline?’ you might ask. Well, as luck would have it, the park is now home to the UK’s tallest sculpture — the ArcellorMittal Orbit, which stands at 114.5 metres and was build in honour of the Olympics in 2012 at a cost of over £22m.
Designed by Turner-prize winning artist Anish Kapoor and Sri Lankan architect Cecil Balmond, and lauded by Mayor of London, Boris Johnson as a structure which would have “dwarfed the aspirations of Gustave Eiffel”, the ArcellorMittal Orbit has proved a bone of contention for Johnson and many of his political colleagues. On first inspection, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. However, once you reach the Orbit’s observation dock, its clear that the ArcellorMittal Orbit certainly offers a view of London like no other.
The remnants of the East End’s industrial past, and the regeneration work completed over the past number of years, lies out before you until your eyes reach the horizon and The Gherkin, The Shard and The Walkie-Talkie come into view. The view below you takes in a deserted Olympic Stadium – which is currently being transformed into West Ham’s new football ground – and the Aquatics Centre.
Of course what goes up must come down, and be warned the 455-step descent, with added sound effects of ‘life in London’ is not for the faint hearted.
Up, up and away
Of course, while there is certainly no shortage of tall buildings with impressive vistas in the London skyline, those with a taste for adventure should consider viewing London’s skyscrapers from above, with a hot air balloon flight around the city.
Take to the skies with Adventure Balloons and feel like Phileas Fogg as you float over London’s many iconic landmarks.
Neil Gaiman may have written about London Below in Neverwhere, but from what I’ve seen there are even more wonders to be experienced in London Above for those with a taste for heights, whether you’re visiting the UK capital for business or pleasure.
Sky high dining
If dinner and drinks amongst the clouds is your preference during your stay, here are our top picks for mealtime lookouts in London town.
If it looks like a duck …
Located on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower, Duck & Waffle has been wowing critics and patrons alike since it opened in 2012. Offering a truly eclectic mix of European and British influenced dishes, dining at Duck & Waffle is unlike anywhere else you’ve ever eaten.
I highly recommend the Chef’s Signature Sharing Menu — priced at £65 per person — which offers 16 dishes in total and is a feast for the sense.
Deliciously smokey BBQ-spiced crispy pig ears are followed by a spicy ox cheek doughnut with apricot jam and smoked paprika sugar, which is followed by the pièce de résistance — the duck & waffle crispy leg confit served with a fried duck egg and mustard maple syrup. Sublime!
Reservations are essential, however as London is vying for NYC’s crown as ‘the city that doesn’t sleep’, Duck & Waffle is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Windows to soul food
If Michelin-star dining with a spectacular view is your preference, it doesn’t get much better than Galvin at Windows.
Located on the 28th floor of the London Hilton on Park Lane with views of the London Eye, Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace and Wembley Stadium, Galvin at Windows offers seasonally inspired menus based around modern French haute cuisine.
During our visit, we were treated to an exceptional menu of Loch Fyne salmon and Dorset crab; wild garlic and quinoa tortellini; and Cornish lamb, served with pea puree, spring vegetables, lamb Bolognese and mint jus.
Check out Galvin at Windows’ Menu Dégustation — £99 pp — which offers a tasting menu of seven courses chosen by head chef Joo Won.
Located on the rooftop of The Trafalgar Hotel, Vista at The Trafalgar offers unparalleled views of Trafalgar Square and the surrounding area; and the cocktails aren’t half bad either.
Regularly used for location filming, you might even spot a celeb or two while you enjoy Vista’s range of light bites and delicious beverages. Open until midnight most nights, try the bar’s refreshing signature cocktail the Vista Boulevard — melon liqueur, fresh lemon juice and agave syrup with vodka and topped with ginger ale.