No visit to London is complete without taking in its iconic skyline and world famous views. But do you head up to the viewing platform at The Shard, the highest viewpoint in London, or opt for a bird’s eye view from the Sky Garden? Read on for our favourite places to enjoy the best views of London from above whether you’re visiting the UK for the first time or enjoying a family staycation.
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London’s tallest buildings – the history bit
London isn’t New York and until 20 years ago it was a relatively low rise city. Apart from the recent rash of skyscrapers, the majority of its iconic sights are found at ground level. The Tower of London for instance was built in 1098 and remained the tallest building in London for 200 years. At just 27 metres (89 feet) it was a brooding presence, looming threateningly over medieval Londoners.
In 1300 it was overtaken by the spire of old St Pauls Cathedral which soared to 140m (460 ft). This was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Out of the ashes in 1677 the Doric column of the Monument rose to 62m (202 ft).
It seems almost unbelievable today but the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, completed in 1708, was the highest structure at 111m (365ft) for 200 years. Eventually Battersea power station edged into top place by an extra 3 metres in 1939.
Nowadays St Pauls looks positively low rise in comparison to the bristling City skyline. From One Canada Square in Canary Wharf onwards, many new skyscrapers have sprung into the airspace in the last 20 years. Their nicknames give a clue to their shapes from the Gherkin to the Cheesegrater, the Shard to the Walkie Talkie. Several more giants, including The Scalpel are under construction.
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London from Above
The London Eye – best view of London from a tourist attraction
Congratulate us – we finally took a turn on the London Eye this February. Embarrassingly, since we’re locals, we were the only people we knew who hadn’t actually got round to it. Installed in 1999 as a temporary observation wheel to celebrate the Millennium, the Eye has become a London landmark itself and is still here nearly 20 years later.
What can you see from the London Eye?
Choose a clear day and get a great view of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the bustling river Thames. More distant views unfold of Buckingham Palace, St Pauls Cathedral and new city icons like the Shard, Cheesegrater and Walkie Talkie.
Our verdict. The queues: do not underestimate the queues for the London Eye. Even though we had booked in advance we still queued for half an hour on the (freezing cold) riverside on an ordinary Sunday in February.
The Eye rotates gently east to west and our complete revolution took around 25 minutes. The capsules carry up to 28 people and you can move around to vary your view. The windows can be a little reflective and smeary for photography. Standing at 135 m the wheel is not particularly high compared to other London viewpoints. But this isn’t a bad thing as the immediate surroundings, on the South Bank near Waterloo station, are pretty low rise.
Height: 135m /442ft.
Cost: from £24.30
Book here for skip the line tickets keeping in mind that these vouchers need to be exchanged for Eye tickets at the ticket office before you join the queue.
Nearest tube to the London Eye: Waterloo, Embankment
The Shard – for the highest viewpoint in London
The Shard, at 310 metres tall, is the tallest building in Western Europe. I love the story that architect Renzo Piano drew his initial sketch on the back of a menu during lunch. It made its mark on the capital’s skyline in 2012 and is home to London’s highest viewing platform. The observatory, The View from The Shard, is on the topmost habitable floors between levels 68 and 72.
Two high speed lifts zoom you to the top at 6 metres per second. We visited on a weekday in April when there was hardly anyone else there. On the plus side we had plenty of access to the built in interactive telescopes on floor 69. Upstairs on the floor 72 Skydeck you’re exposed to the elements – from above at least. The wind wafts overhead around the eponymous pointy glass panels and we sat on the fake grass floor to gaze down at the city all around us. This really is a bird’s eye view of London.
What can you see from The Shard?
Situated south of the river at Southwark, The Shard’s platforms give a 360° view which includes every major London landmark. They do say you can see 40 miles on a clear day. Certainly there are far reaching views of the river heading out to sea past Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs. The railway tracks snaking out of London Bridge station are pretty fascinating too. Up close there’s a great view of Tower Bridge and the Tower of London looks like a Lego model. St Paul’s Cathedral is easy to spot thanks to the laws which protect it from being overshadowed.
Our verdict: On our visit the viewing platform at The Shard lacked the pizazz of its NYC cousins. But it gave us a matchless aerial view of London. A year ago when we visited the space looked bare: it lacked seating and any real atmosphere to warrant a (quite expensive) glass or two of bubbly. But images on the website suggest that the bar is now more glamorous and flowerbeds have arrived! Tickets are dated and timed but you can stay up there for as long as you like.
A clear day is essential to make it worth the money. We’d booked our visit as part of a day out in April but you’ll see from the pictures that visibility wasn’t at its best! The glass is pretty reflective which can also make photography a challenge. I’ll bet it’s dramatic at sunset as the city lights up so a timed entrance to take in daylight and dusk might be perfect. Take a map or app up with you to help spot all the sights in case the telescopes are in use. NB Don’t miss the loos!
Height: 310m /1017 ft, 244m at the viewing platform
Cost: from £24.50 per adult if booked in advance, £30.95 if you book on the day
Book here for advance tickets including optional champagne. Or visit the website for the latest discounts.
Nearest tube to the Shard: London Bridge
St Paul’s Cathedral – for views inside and out plus an acoustic trick
It’s a few years since we visited St Pauls Cathedral and I have to admit that I didn’t go all the way up to the top. I paused halfway in the Whispering Gallery, busy catching up with an old friend, whilst our teens whizzed up the remaining stairs for the big view. They reported that it was definitely worth the effort.
What can you see from St Paul’s Cathedral?
The not inconsiderable entrance fee covers admittance to the cathedral floor and crypt as well as the galleries above. St Paul’s is rich in history and the internal views are as breathtaking as the external ones. The Whispering Gallery is a good place to stop, 257 steps above ground. Get your breath back and admire the dome above you and the floor of the cathedral 30 metres below.
Now you need to test the Gallery’s famous acoustic trick. Whisper into the curving wall on one side of the walkway and your accomplice will be able to hear you on the other. It takes a bit of practice but be patient and it’ll work in the end!
After all that whispering it would be a shame not to push on up to the Stone Gallery, an additional 119 stairs. From here it’s one more push of 152 stairs to the Golden Gallery at the summit. You’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view of London taking in the London Eye, the Shard and the river Thames. (NB the Whispering Gallery is temporarily closed, May 2019, check the St Paul’s website for further details).
Our verdict Not free and there isn’t a lift but St Paul’s Cathedral is an iconic symbol of London and worth a visit. Bring lots of energy and comfortable shoes for the trek to the top.
Height: 111m /365 ft. The Golden Gallery level is 85m.
Cost: adult £18, child £8, reduced if you book online
Book here for discounted skip the line tickets to St Pauls Cathedral
Nearest tube to St Pauls Quite a few including St Pauls, Mansion House and Blackfriars. Also train stations nearby.
One New Change – for a free view of St Paul’s
If you decide not to go inside St Paul’s pop up to the viewing platform at neighbouring One New Change instead. The roof terrace is open to the public from 6am to midnight daily. Madison’s Bar and Restaurant is up there too (over 21s only) but you are welcome to admire the view for free. A glass lift carries you to the sixth floor, with views of St Paul’s on the way up and down. It is especially good for photos of St Paul’s dome in the early evening.
The Monument – for the historical perspective (and the workout)
This is London’s original viewing platform. It was commissioned by Charles II in the 1670s as a memorial to the Great Fire of London and to celebrate the rebuilding of the city. Measuring 61 metres high it is located 61 metres from the starting point of the Great Fire in Pudding Lane.
The viewing platform is 311 cantilevered steps away so it’s a bit of a climb but it’s an affordable and no-fuss view of the City of London. As long as you don’t mind stairs. At the top there’s a metal mesh safety barrier which slightly obstructs photos, but we managed, see the photo of The Shard taken from the Monument.
Since King Charles II is said to have helped fight the Great Fire himself, armed with a spade and bucket, I like to think of him tramping up the spiral steps, sword rattling against the stonework, for a bird’s eye view of the restoration work. I’d imagine Sir Christopher Wren, Surveyor General, was close behind him. Wren masterminded much of the rebuilding work of London including 56 parish churches and, unforgettably, St Paul’s Cathedral. He and his colleague Dr Robert Hooke designed the Monument. Height: 61m/ 202ft.
What can you see from The Monument?
After the Great Fire, houses in the city were restricted to heights of 3 or 4 storeys so the Monument would have towered above them. Nowadays, at 160 feet high, the viewing platform doesn’t make quite the same statement. It is eye to eye with St Pauls and Tower Bridge but the river view is obstructed in places by buildings which wouldn’t have been there in the 1700s. The nearby Walkie Talkie looms a bit too. Best not to think what Sir Christopher would have made of that.
Our verdict – another great vantage point to enjoy views of London, it’s not free but is reasonably priced. However be sure you and your companions are happy about tackling 311 steps before you start. We went up on a very hot day and met one or two people who were wishing they hadn’t bothered.
Height: 62m/202 ft. Viewing platform 49 m
Cost: adults £4.50, children £2.30. We were able to buy tickets and walk straight in on a weekday morning in August.
Book a combined Monument and Tower Bridge ticket here
Nearest stations to The Monument: Monument, London Bridge
Tower Bridge – for the glass-floored walkway and river views
One of the most famous and recognisable bridges in the world, Tower Bridge was built in the 1880s so is a relative newbie when compared to its neighbour the Tower of London. It’s a combination of suspension and bascule bridge with an overhead walkway and a road bridge which divides and lifts to allow ships to pass up or down river.
A new permanent exhibition in the North and South towers is rich with detail about the epic building of the bridge and the people who worked in it. Like the displays at NYC’s Empire State Building it’s a great addition to the structure itself.
We arrived fresh from conquering The Monument. A combined ticket gives admittance to both and it’s 15 minute walk between the two with lovely river and bridge views from the Thames path.
What can you see from Tower Bridge?
The river and London skyline can be admired from both sides of the walkways, 42 metres above ground. Sightlines are slightly obscured by the inevitable glazing and the criss cross ironwork. The unique aspect to Tower Bridge’s views are the glass panels in the floors of the walkways which give a bird’s eye view of the river, road and pavement below. It would be fun to be up there when the bridge lifts. It’s 206 steps up an ample Victorian staircase, punctuated by landings and the occasional loo, to the North Tower and the walkways. I did spot a lift out of the corner of my eye as my teen headed purposefully up the first flight of stairs.
Our verdict More than just a view, a Tower Bridge visit includes a fascinating exhibition as well. The highly organised will arrange to visit when the bridge is lifting to allow shipping to pass through. That’s a unique aerial view beneath your feet if you happen to be standing on the glass panels of the walkway. Check here for lift times – they vary, but the bridge often opens twice a day.
Cost: adults £9.80, children £4.20, discounts for booking in advance. Entrance to Tower Bridge can be purchased as an add-on to a Monument ticket, valid to use within a week.
Nearest tube to Tower Bridge: Tower Hill station to the north of the river or London Bridge station to the south.
Best Free Views in London
It’s true when they say that some of the best things in life are free – that applies to views of London too.
Sky Garden – best free view of London from above
This is my personal favourite. It might be my frugal Northern soul but this folks is a free and fabulous high view of London. Plus it has the added options of coffee, drinks, restaurants, an indoor garden to admire – and lifts! You just have to be organised and book your visit a week or two ahead. The down side of this is that you can’t predict the weather (except in the case of Summer 2018 in which London has been reliably roasting week after week). If you book a table in one of the restaurants you get the views thrown in.
What can you see from the Sky Garden?
This is another opportunity to look down on the Tower of London as if at a toy on the floor. The Sky Garden has an internal gallery and terraced garden with tree ferns, shrubs and flowers. Its external terrace faces south across the Thames towards the Shard. The Gherkin, the Cheesegrater et al are all around. The obvious omission is 20 Fenchurch Street itself which you can’t see since you are standing on its own level 35. Personally I reckon the Walkie Talkie is at it’s best when you’re using it as a viewing platform rather than looking at it.
Here’s their website for bookings.
Height: 160m/525 ft to the roof.
Nearest tube to Sky Garden: Monument
Tate Modern – best free view of St Pauls plus culture and coffee
Just across the river from St Pauls Cathedral, via the Millennium foot bridge if you so wish, is Tate Modern. London’s landmark free-to-enter gallery of modern and contemporary art has a viewing terrace in its new Blavatnik building.
This is a 10th floor 360° view with a drink and snack bar too. It’s not super high but the outlook is pretty and, did we mention, free. Obviously it makes sense to combine this with a visit to Tate Modern itself.
Nearest tube to Tate Modern: Southwark, Blackfriars or St Paul’s
More must-see city viewpoints for family trips
Check out our favourite sky-high views in New York City here or Venice, Italy here. Climb the cathedral tower or ride the ferris wheel in Vienna here or take the funicular and cable car to see wonderful Rio de Janeiro here
Best views from London’s Bridges
If you spend any time at all in London you’ll find yourself crossing one of the bridges that span the river Thames. Most of them give lovely, if only slightly elevated, views – these are our favourites:
‘As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset I am in paradise,’ sang The Kinks presciently in 1967. The song went on to be ranked in Rolling Stone’s Top 50 all time greatest. Let’s not dwell on the fact that Ray Davies was originally going to call it Liverpool Sunset. Waterloo bridge conveniently spans a bend of the river so the views are panoramic. Loiter at sunset and watch the city light up around you. Landmarks include Westminster, St Pauls Cathedral and Canary Wharf as well as the London Eye and Houses of Parliament.
Although a plain and understated structure compared to some of the others this is your Instagram bridge. It’s a great spot to take photos since the London Eye stands on one bank and the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are on the other. The effect is slightly underwhelming at the moment because the Elizabeth Tower is under wraps for restoration work.
The modern so-called wobbly one that leads pedestrians from the Tate Modern on Bankside to St Pauls Cathedral on the north of the river. Another great photo opportunity.
The Pagoda at Kew – the new one
So new we haven’t visited it yet. The recently restored Great Pagoda in Kew Gardens offers the same ten-storey high view that lucky guests of the Royal family could enjoy back in 1762. From 13 July to 30 September 2018 its 253 steps will be open to 21st century visitors. To climb the Great Pagoda book a timed entrance online for £4.50 adults, £3 for children. Normal Kew Gardens entry prices also apply.
Book tickets to Kew Gardens here
Panoramic views of London – from the outskirts
Although these are obviously long views, there are several vantage points on London’s hilly green outskirts where you can appreciate the city’s skyline. To the north try Alexandra Palace or Primrose Hill. From Hampstead Heath you can enjoy a leisurely view from Kenwood House or Parliament Hill.
The panoramic view of London from Greenwich Park was showcased in the 2012 Olympics. Climb the grassy hillside in order to take in the classical beauty of the National Maritime museum juxtaposed with Canary Wharf’s glittering skyscrapers across the river.
You can visit Greenwich in style with a bit of planning. A Thames cruise from Westminster pier takes in the London skyline from the river. Book tickets here for a cruise to Greenwich
Blackheath Park, also in the south east, has a view to St Pauls Cathedral. But for the most carefully cultivated long vista you need to head to Richmond Park in the south west. At King Henry’s Mound you can appreciate the protected view of St Pauls Cathedral, 10 miles away. You might need to use the handy telescope! There is some controversy about the high rise block in Stratford that has muscled into the background recently.
In central London, the view of St Pauls from the Serpentine in Hyde Park is also carefully protected.
London activities with a view
These are the ones we haven’t got round to yet. We’ll report back when we do.
Up at the O2 – the urban mountaineering option. Clip on a harness and trek up and over the roof of London’s O2 arena. The guided walk takes 90 minutes and gives panoramic views of East London including Greenwich, Canary Wharf and the Thames Barrier from 52 metres above ground. You can book tickets to climb the O2 here
ArcelorMittal Orbit Take a lift 80 metres up to the top of the UK’s tallest sculpture in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Enjoy views of up to 20 miles including the London skyline and five famous football stadiums. Then decide whether you dare ride the world’s tallest and longest slide to the bottom again! Find out more and book tickets here.
Emirates cable car A short hop across the Thames linking the Royal Docks and the Greenwich peninsula in East London. The cable car ride takes 5 to 10 minutes, a few minutes longer each way after 7pm. You can even enjoy a champagne experience with the views. Find out more on the Transport for London site, here.
Please note that all visitor info here is for guidance only. Please check the venues’ websites for the most up to date information on tickets, entrance requirements etc.
Our best views of London
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