Love sights hate tourists: Views of London

Stylised version of iconic London landmarks

Stylised version of iconic London landmarks

C speaking here. I find London’s skyline breathtaking, every single time I see it.  I challenge you to find a more eclectic mix of architecture – and here’s some tips on the best way to get a good view.

The Famous: The London Eye

from the London Eye website

from the London Eye website

As with many now-iconic structures throughout London, the London Eye was originally strongly resisted. If someone told you a giant Ferris wheel was going to be erected just across from the Houses of Parliament directly on the Thames, you’d be pretty upset too, right? British Airways pushed ahead with the project anyway, and this big revolving wheel is now in so many pictures and movies I imagine most Londoners would be really sad to see it go. Funny story (that may be apocryphal!): a rival airline had its headquarters in the building directly across from the site where the London Eye was being built, right on the river.  Once the wheel was completely assembled flat on the ground, they tried to pull it upright and disastrously it didn’t work as planned and came crashing back down to the ground. The next day, the rival airline had unveiled an enormous banner out of all its windows that proclaimed: BRITISH AIRWAYS CAN’T GET IT UP

All that aside, I found my (one and only) actual ride on the London Eye very, very disappointing. First off, you queue for ages to buy tickets that cost GBP 15.50! Then you’re crammed in a little bubble with tons of other people (the website helpfully states 25), who all promptly jostle to get a small bit of window space, and then you slowly complete a full circle. Forty-five minutes later, you’ve probably got a slightly plastic-y picture of the Houses of Parliament and a strong desire to get out of that confined space.  Many tourists do consider a ride on the London Eye essential to their trip – yeah, it is unique and kind of cool. But here’s a few other suggestions – I recommend you just visit it and take pictures OF it.

Recommendation: Climb St. Paul’s Cathedral

view from dome

view from dome

Every other European city you visit, the first thing you do generally is locate the giant cathedral in the middle of the city and climb up to the very top. Why in the world isn’t this people’s first impulse in London? St. Paul’s Cathedral is as London as it gets – there’s been a cathedral of this name on the site for 1400 years, the current structure by Sir Christopher Wren rose out of the ashes of the great fire in 1675, miraculously survived the blitz in WWII to be a massive symbol of hope for the British, and for a long time was the tallest building in all of London – nothing was allowed to be higher than its spire. Still firmly one of the most recognizable and beautiful buildings in the skyline, it remains the best-placed and best-designed building to ascend for true London views. Though still relatively pricey at GBP 8.50 for students and 11 for adults, believe me, it is WELL WORTH IT. First off, the entrance fee grants you at least an hour of wandering around the main body of the cathedral itself, which is stunning and hands down my favorite cathedral in Europe (and I really, really love cathedrals and old churches…). Don’t miss the bizarre/disturbing/beautiful memorial (depending on your perspective) carved wooden structure at the rear of the church dedicated to the Americans who lost their lives in WWII.  Then, locate the entrance to the stairway – it’s slightly hidden and sadly there are visitors who don’t even realize you can climb the dome.

It’s a multi-staged hike. The first bit will get you up to an internal viewing gallery that looks down on the gorgeous interior you’ve just been wandering around. Be sure to station yourself and a friend 180 degrees from each other and whisper along the side of the walls – it’s a classic whispering gallery.

The next set of stairs takes you to the first of two external viewing galleries, open to the elements. Your impulse will be to hang around here and take a billion pictures/stare lost in thought over the city – but know that there is another higher gallery with lower railings, where you’ll be able to get much better pictures.  That said, this level is amazing. Suddenly after huffing up a bunch of stairs you find yourself taking in 360 degree views of London, from the traditional centre of the city itself.


The last climb to the highest gallery is – well, it’s a bit scary. The stairs are open grate style, so just look up and focus on getting to the top – don’t think too much about it or you might get a little bit motion dizzy. Also, try not to wear a skirt, as for this bit it’s just a bunch of people below you staring up through the see through stairs and therefore straight up your skirt…! This happened to C on the first time she climbed St. Paul’s…oops.

The final view gallery is incredible. You’ll be stunned by how beautiful and diverse this city and its architecture are. You’ll probably also be struck by how much construction there is – London is booming, and constantly in flux.

Then, after your descent, go down into the crypt, view the famous graves and a nice cup of tea in the decent crypt café.

El Cheapo version: Tate Modern viewing gallery

Building with the smokestake is the Tate Modern

Building with the smokestack is the Tate Modern

If you just prefer to take pictures of the outside of St. Paul’s or an unable to climb stairs, cross the millennium bridge between St. Paul’s and the south bank – it’s an entirely pedestrian bridge. Make sure you turn around when you get to the south bank – the bridge frames St. Paul’s perfectly and it’s a nice photo spot. Then, enter the Tate Modern art gallery (the giant old factory building – probably the best re-use of building space ever).  It’s FREE. Go to the  4th floor, where there is a glassed in viewing gallery and also a viewing balcony. You’ll be right on the river and high enough to get great views left and right. The Tate Modern itself is also well worth a wander through – whether you love modern art or just get a giant giggle out of it. The café here is also excellent – I’ve had one of the best tea and scone afternoon breaks ever at their nice little restaurant.

El Cheapo version 2: Any London bridge

We recommend:

From Tower Bridge, you get nice views of all the main stuff at once, because it’s so far east. Downside: you don’t get pictures of the bridge itself, and it is the famous pretty one. Plus: you can actually climb up the towers for a small fee. We’ve never actually done that but hope to soon and will report back.

From Waterloo bridge, you get a nice mix of almost half and half – half the city one way, including the gherkin, St. Paul’s, Tower Bridge, the OXO building, Tate Modern, Somerset house etc. The other half of the city the other side – Parliament, London Eye, etc.


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