There’s three things I try and always do on arrival in a city: get on a bike, get on the water, and get high. Cycling combines the pedestrian’s macroscopic view with the speed and convenience of a vehicle and allows you to explore a place in great detail fast. From New York to Amsterdam, most places reveal themselves more quickly on two wheels. Heading out on a boat, meanwhile, offers new perspectives as canals and rivers act as crucial arteries through a place’s most significant stretches. You’ll learn more about London from a quick meander up Regent’s Canal or the Thames than you will in Leicester Square.
The single best way to get an instant sense of a place, though, is to climb to a high point. Churches, towers, vertiginous bars, clubs and restaurants – it doesn’t matter what they’ve put at a great height, just that you get up there. Reykjavik’s Hallgrímskirkja, Berlin’s Fernsehturm, New York’s Top Of The Rock and even St Vincent’s Fort Charlotte have all calibrated my traveller’s compass on day one recently and should be the first port of call for anyone with bearings to get.
London has as many places to escape the mostly grounded pigeons as any. The tallest, newest, and most controversial is that inescapable glass shank by the Thames called The Shard. A “timeless reminder of the power of imagination to inspire change” according to their website or “an engorged rectiliniear monument to fat-cattism… the most desperate, timid, pathetic, childish, impotent, small-penised gesture a state can make” if you’re reading Giles Coren, it has split opinion as dramatically as it ruptured the capital’s skyline.
Viewpoints may differ but the vista from near its summit is undeniably impressive. In fact, at 1,016 feet the tallest building in the EU is so high it’s almost too tall; viewing London from up there is like watching Sim City through a window of Dixons in the rain. You need to use the (free) digital viewfinder to get into the detail, a nifty video viewer that makes you feel like you’re playing Hitman over the city. It’s also extortionately expensive; an adult ticket is £24.95 and a family with three kids will pay over £100 to get whisked up in two lifts to the top. Far better to spend that money at the excellent Duck & Waffle restaurant across the river, which is open 24 hours a day and will feed and water you for a similar price, while providing views down onto the top of the Gherkin. The OXO Tower, meanwhile, offers hit-and-miss food (and was famously live-drubbed on Twitter by food critic Jay Rayner recently) but packs in a decent riverside panorama.
Height really isn’t everything, and the less statuesque but somewhat more appealing St Paul’s Cathedral (that dinky white dome you can see on the other side of the river from the Shard’s summit) charges half the price for a stunning view from its roof and throws in centuries of heritage. Christopher Wren’s nearby Monument to the Great Fire of London, meanwhile, is barely visible from The Shard’s celestial heights at 202 feet tall, but offers its own outlook from the top of its narrow spiral staircase for a bargain £3 – and they give you a certificate for successfully mounting it.
A spin on that old ferris wheel by Waterloo (or the ‘EDF Energy London Eye – supporting a lower carbon future’ to its sponsors) is also still worth your time, as is a trip up onto Tower Bridge’s walkways. Heading out of the centre of town, for walks across Primrose Hill, Hampstead Heath or Greenwich Park, meanwhile, is a free way to grasp a widescreen feel for the city and its surroundings.
For a true 360° view, albeit several miles from the landmarks most visitors want to gawp at, you need to climb into a boiler suit and clamber over the Millenium Dome with Up at The O2. My wife and I strapped in on a chilly afternoon recently and hauled ourselves up and down the tent’s roof – or rather a fabric walkway two metres above – as south east London descended into dusk (recording six seconds of it on Vine).
At the summit our guide talked about our proximity to Greenwich Mean Time, the clock and calendar-related architecture of the structure (52 metres above the ground, 12 support poles representing 12 months of the year) and pointed out notable local sights, from the Thames Barrier to Canary Wharf and the nearby Emirates Air Line, a cable car over the river and another way to log more bird’s eye photos.
London started blinking in the night as darkness fell. We were some distance from the postcard fodder of the city’s core but took in its eastern half sprawling before us, a fuming beast of relentless growth and industrious regeneration, car headlight trails marking out countless journeys and the river gliding silently through it all as it has for centuries, before we bounced our way back down to Earth and into the underground tube tunnels to take us home.
Do you like to head to higher ground? Where’s your favourite place to find a view in London?