From the famous dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral to the myriad riverside attractions or the looming monuments of Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace, London has no shortage of photo-worthy landmarks, but if you really want the best views you’ll have to get up high. Whether marveling at the vistas from a glass pod on one of the world’s most famous Ferris wheels or climbing the hilltops for a sight-spotting picnic, here are 8 ways to get a lookout on London from above.
1. London Eye
One of the most iconic symbols of the Millennium, the London Eye is one of the most popular ways to experience the capital from up high. The giant Ferris wheel towers 443-foot over the Thames and while the futuristic glass capsules make it a landmark in itself, the real selling point is the view. The London Eye offers a unique 360° panorama, boasting a vista that could read as a London itinerary in itself—the 30-minute ride gives plenty of time to spot the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, St. James’ Park, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Tower Bridge, and all the city center’s attractions.
For the most atmospheric experience, take to the skies at nighttime, when the riverbanks will be a glittering stream of lights and the horizon speckled with neon. Tickets cost £18.60 on the day, but book ahead to skip the queues or rent out your own private pod to avoid the snap-happy tourists.
Read more: Tips for Riding the London Eye
2. St. Paul’s Cathedral
Few tour the sights of London without paying a visit to the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral and if you’re joining the tourist masses, make sure you take a climb into the galleries and check out the views. A hefty 250 steps will land you in the upper ring of the giant dome and you can take in the famed Whispering Gallery on the way up. The Stone gallery offers great lookout where you can catch your breath before climbing the final 50 steps to reach the outdoor viewing deck of the Golden Gallery. Not only can you say you’ve climbed the Cathedral’s famous dome, but you’ll get a great bird’s eye view of the Houses of Parliament and a view down the Thames.
3. The Monument
An impressive stone column built to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1966, The Monument stretches some 200 feet into the air and makes good use of its altitude by using its panoramic cameras to record weather patterns and chart development activities in the city below. Luckily, it’s open to tourists too, who can marvel at the real-time camera shots or climb to the viewing deck just below the iconic flaming fireball atop the monument. It’s a bargain £3 to climb to the spiral staircase to the top and with 311 steps to the top you’ll get a free workout to boot.
Read more: The Insider’s Guide to Visiting London
4. Paramount bar
Towering over the junction of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, amidst the dazzling billboards for West End shows, the Centre Point skyscraper has long been used as a local point of reference, thanks to its visibility throughout the surrounding shopping district. Unless you’ve got a friend with a windowed office, the best way to take in the view is from the comfort of the Paramount bar, a breath-taking 31 floors up. Sip your way through the cocktail list as the city center buzzes with action beneath you and take in the views of Tower Bridge, the Gherkin and St Paul’s. Call ahead to book yourself on the guest list as it’s always packed, but the doors stay open until 2am so you’ll get a great view of the city nightlife.
5. Waterloo Bridge
With 24 bridges joining North and South London, there are plenty of options if you’re looking for a view over the Thames, but the unassuming Waterloo Bridge is a local favorite. London Bridge and Tower Bridge may be more famous (and the latter offers some pretty impressive views as part of the popular Tower Bridge Experience) but Waterloo is both free and well situated—perfect to snap some photos of nearby attractions like Westminster, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
Take a stroll at night for the best views when the riverside bars of South Bank and Embankment twinkle with fairy lights and the luminous glow of the London Eye demands attention. For a great photo opportunity, keep to the southwest side of the bridge and see if you can spot Big Ben through the center of the London Eye.
6. OXO Tower
Another place to dine with a view is the OXO Tower and a trip to the bar and restaurant on the 8th floor offers some great views over the riverbank. Visit in summer to take full advantage of the 250-foot open-air terrace—a spectacular place to watch the sunset over the bustle of South Bank below.
7. Primrose or Parliament Hill
The best viewpoints in London aren’t all skyscrapers and inner-city monuments—there are plenty of green spaces where you can enjoy the landscape from the comfort of a picnic blanket. Primrose hill is one of North London’s most popular parks and an area known for celebrity spotting, boutique coffee shops and some of the capital’s best local bakeries, but the hilltop view is the real draw. Climb the gentle slopes to the peak for a unique lookout over central London from the Northwest and stay to watch the sun set over the city.
Another key spot is at Hampstead Heath, where visitors might recognize the open-air swimming holes and spectacular greenery from films like Notting Hill. Head to the highest point at Parliament Hill for some of the best vistas north of the river—a skyline speckled with tourist haunts like St.Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye, and the spectacular glass pinnacle of the brand new Shard glinting in the sunlight.
8. The Shard
This list wouldn’t be complete without a nod to the European Union’s tallest building, The Shard. A breathtaking 1,016 feet tall and constructed to mimic a giant shard of glass, London’s most impressive new landmark will open its glass-fronted doors next year. You’ll have to wait until February 2013 to take advantage of the much anticipated open-air rooftop observation deck but the capital’s highest viewing gallery with 360° views and a sky-high position on the 72nd floor is sure to be a view worth waiting for.
Read more: Booking Tickets to the Shard in London
- Zoë Smith