Lofty London

To get the best views, head to the top of its sleek skyscrapers


London is not as big as it seems. Elaborate bus routes, colour-coded tube maps and thick A-Z indexes can conjure an overwhelmingly complex metropolis.

Locals will tell you that if you have friends living on the opposite side of town, forget about it: you might as well be living in different cities. But that’s not true. It’s easy to get around on foot or by bike in a fraction of the time. You can even use London Underground maps found online, revealing surprisingly simple walking distances between stations.

Look at London from above and you’ll see how clustered together everything is. There’s the classic skyline of Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge and the Battersea Power Station.

Then there’s a new generation of landmarks, a set of sleek architectural designs that symbolise the new face of London: the Shard, the Gherkin, the Strata and the Cheesegrater (officially known as the Leadenhall Building).

All of them are surrounded by cranes, vying for space: more than 230 new towers are either being planned or are under construction, most more than 35 storeys high. This means London’s skyline will continue to expand for the next 20 years, with future centrepieces such as the curling Pinnacle and the soon-to-open Walkie-Talkie (20 Fenchurch Street) already visible.

Head to the Shard, the tallest building in the EU, and the journey to the top begins with a £29.95 (€37.50) admission fee and a trip through metal detectors. After rocketing upward at six metres per second on two different elevators, a staircase leads to the 69th floor. Here, the first of two viewing platforms offers a commanding 360-degree panorama that stretches clear for up to 64km.

The digital Tell:scopes, which have pre-recorded day and night-time views, can zoom in on unsuspecting figures at street-level, illuminating everyday scenes with an intrusive (and slightly unnerving) level of detail. Getting a glimpse can be difficult, though, as the platform can get crowded even on midweek mornings.

Upstairs, on level 72, you can step into a partially outdoor observation deck and gawk out through the gaps between the skyscraper’s jagged, angled-glass facade. At 244 metres, with the air blowing in around you, the clouds can start to seem unnaturally close.

But the city below seems too far away to feel a part of it: the buildings look like miniature models, the gleaming train tracks part of some futuristic landscape.

The ultramodern ArcelorMittal Orbit, which juts boldly above the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on the outskirts of East London, creates a similar illusion. This controversial addition to the skyline was originally conceived to be the biggest and most iconic piece of public art in British history. Its loopy steel structure was designed by Turner-Prize winner Sir Anish Kapoor so as not to have a singular image from any one direction.

“It would have boggled the minds of the Romans, it would have dwarfed the aspirations of Gustave Eiffel, ” reads the quote from Mayor of London Boris Johnson above the sculpture’s entrance, though in reality its reception has been mixed at best.

The attraction incorporates two features that are almost as eccentric as the tower’s design: concave mirrors that invert the horizon and a spiral walkway where your descent is soundtracked by piped-in construction noises among other sounds of London.

At 114.5 metres tall, the Orbit isn’t the highest vantage point in London (37th overall, marginally outstretching Battersea Power Station) but its distance from the others makes the view the least obstructed.

The other selling point is its proximity to the Olympic Park, itself an emblem of changing London, as well as Westfield Stratford City, one of the largest urban shopping centres in Europe.

It was always hoped that the impact of the 2012 Summer Olympics, and its blockbuster opening ceremony, watched by an estimated billion people worldwide, would act as a catalyst to regenerate a derelict area into a mixed-use development.

Two years into its 25-year “post-games master plan”, which envisions 11,000 new homes, a high street and a university, the newly re-opened site is already being utilised like any other park: its waterways and play areas drawing pram strollers, picnicking families and sunbathers.

If a panoramic view accompanied by a gourmet meal sounds like a better way to spend your visit, the Duck & Waffle serves some of the most curious dishes in town. It’s a glass-walled restaurant that’s open 24 hours a day on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower, overlooking the Gherkin and the giant glass onion known as City Hall.

Though the vista and scarcity of seats take up much of the talk about this restaurant, the real draw is the unexpected culinary fusion: a spicy ox-cheek doughnut with apricot jam; smoked mozzarella with granola, as well as bacon-wrapped dates. The signature dish is a chunky waffle topped with a crispy duck leg confit, fried duck egg and mustard maple syrup.

But the most popular is the barbecue-spiced crispy pig ears, delivered as a fancy packet of crisps: in a brown paper bag with a wax seal.

Almost all of these are tapas-style entrées that cost less than £10 (€12.50), so if you can snag a spot by the window it’s likely to be a memorable meal. If not, a cocktail menu that continues the novelty pairings should make up for it: the standouts include a chocolate and blue cheese Martini, a Marmite and Guinness Black Velvet, a celery and wasabi Bellini as well as a bacon and caramel Manhattan.

Of course, not every view of London comes with a price. Primrose Hill, a quiet spot in North London with a village atmosphere, is free of bustling footpaths and flashing lights, making it one of the most attractive addresses in London real estate. It also has an elevation of 78 metres, offering a tranquil and queue-free way to gaze south across Regent’s Park to a skyline that includes the BT Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Gherkin and the Shard.

Apart from being one of the best spots to watch fireworks on New Year’s Eve, it’s popular year-round for brisk walks, kite-flying and celeb spotting. Point Hill in Greenwich and Parliament Hill on the southern crest of Hampstead Heath are also worthy detours with nice views of the city.

But there is one last place guaranteed to squeeze the best of London into a quick spin. More than 27,000 people visited the London Eye in one day during April and it’s easy to see why. After hopping onto a pod while the wheel is still in motion, you get a shifting perspective of the city from the South Bank along the River Thames to a 134-metre lookout above Westminster.

On a nice day, the greenish waters of St James’ Lake glisten in the sunlight as you peer down along the florets of trees leading to Buckingham Palace.

Each rotation lasts half an hour, there’s never more than 20-odd people in any pod (so you won’t be elbowed out of the way for a photo opportunity) and the average off-peak queuing time is around 20 minutes.

You can, however, opt for a fast-track ticket by booking ahead online (€32 compared to the €26 that a general ticket will cost on the day) or include a glass of champagne with the visit for £28 (€35).

As someone who spent three years living here, the London Eye is easily the fastest way to get a sense of what the city offers. But once you see how highlights are packed into such a tight space, you’ll realise there’s no way to cover it all without coming back for another visit.


DoubleTree by Hilton - Tower of London

A smartly-designed hotel located beside Tower Hill tube station and a 20-minute stroll from Brick Lane and Shoreditch. There’s a 24-hour gym and an iMac that doubles as a TV in each room. Its showpiece is the Skylounge: a 12th-floor bar awash with natural light, offering a great spot to take in Trinity Hall and Tower Bridge on a bright summer evening.


Galvin at Windows

is a Michelin-starred restaurant with views of Hyde Park, the Serpentine and Kensington Palace. It’s on the 28th floor of the London Hilton on Mayfair’s Park Lane and its seasonal menu serves the likes of wild garlic and quinoa tortellini. Three-course lunch, without wine, is £29 (€36).


Liberty is arguably London’s quintessential department store: a mock-Tudor building overlooking Carnaby Street, its facade constructed from the wreckage of two warships. There’s a charm to the idiosyncratic mix of haberdashery and instantly recognisable floral prints that makes it unlike anywhere else in London.

Cian Traynor travelled as a guest of London + Partners, Hilton Worldwide and British Airways.

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