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  • Writer's pictureHiranmayi Narayanan

TOP FREE VIEWS OF THE LONDON SKYLINE

Updated: Jan 17, 2019


My mum, like most other Indian mums, gave me nearly a million instructions before I shifted to London. Given a chance, she would have come all the way down the runway and rattled off instructions while the plane taxied. Her instructions ranged from “Don’t talk to strangers!” (Which elicited a sigh accompanied by a roll of my eyes – Mum, it’s a new city. Everyone’s a stranger!) to “Don’t go anywhere alone”. But, perhaps the funniest and most surprising of them all was “Don’t get on the London Eye!” Tell you what, I followed that bit of advice to the T and couldn’t have been more glad. I saved a significant sum of money and energy as tickets to these activities don’t come cheap and the queues are incredibly long.


London’s got a beautiful skyline. Lately, with the addition of some distinctly shaped, arguably weird buildings that pique one’s interest, the skyline has become even more fascinating.  Almost every famous city of the world has skyscrapers that make for stunning views. But, what makes London’s skyline unique is its eclectic mix of architecture spanning various time periods. So while it has the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater dotting the skyline, it also has the iconic Palace of Westminster and the majestic St. Paul’s Cathedral lending their unmissable presence. When viewed aerially or from an elevated platform, the sight can leave you speechless. It is no wonder that tickets to viewing platforms are priced quite high. Enter, my list of Top Free Views Of The London Skyline. There are no queues, they offer spectacular views and they’re free!


Sky Garden

It is the newest and quite possibly the most welcome addition to London’s viewing platforms. Although, not much of a “garden”, it ticks all the other boxes – elevation, location, convenience and cost. Offering a 360 degrees’ panoramic view of the city from its vantage height of 155 metres, it’s mighty impressive. It also houses a restaurant, a brasserie and a bar, in case your stomach gets distracted while you’re walking about in awe. While your visit to the Sky Garden is absolutely free, there is a booking system for gaining access. Plan your trip in advance and go on to their site to book a slot. Choose a weekday (which is my standard bit of advice regarding anything in London). In fact, I’d recommend booking two slots (on different days, if you like), one during the day and one after dusk. The night view is not one you’d want to miss.

Perhaps the only factor that slightly irks me is the grill on the glass windows all over. I’m sure there’s a good reason for its presence, but I wish they’d found a less-jarring alternative. My pictures would have looked nicer, without having to use a complex editing software. But, it’s free. I shouldn’t complain.


The Horniman Museum & Gardens

Situated at Forest Hill, it takes quite a while to get there, but once you do, it’s worth the seemingly tedious journey. Tucked away from the chaos of the city, in a quaint part of London, is this fascinating viewpoint which happens to be one of my favourites. While the museum, which bears similarity to the Natural History Museum, may appeal only to a certain age-bracket, other exhibitions like the African Worlds, the gardens and the bandstand offer plenty to keep visitors of all age groups pleased. The bandstand, in particular, is where one can get spectacular views of the city’s skyline. It makes for a great picnic spot as well. Remember to pick a clear, sunny day. Fog and haze would make it nearly impossible to get a good view of the skyline, plus picnics on such days could be rather depressing.


Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill

Hampstead Heath is 800 acres of lush, natural, green gorgeousness. It has a couple of elevated points that make for stunning viewing platforms. Wear comfortable shoes and carry a picnic basket, the trek up to both the points can leave you hungry, although the views can more than satiate that. Like Horniman Gardens, Hampstead Heath lets one observe the city’s skyline without being right in the midst of it. You can soak in the sights while lying on the grass, feel the dew settle on your clothes, stretch your legs and bury your toes in the mud (or not, if you have OCD), feel the sun on your face (visiting on a cloudy day isn’t the best idea), listen to the birds chirp, munch on goodies from your picnic basket and channel your inner Keats. So much better than being cooped up inside a capsule with strangers, don’t you agree?

Hampstead Heath has two vantage points that offer great views. Outside the entrance to Kenwood House and Parliament Hill towards South-East of the park. The view from Parliament Hill can be restricted on some sides, nonetheless, the paths that are accessible to the public all year round still manage to offer perfect views of the skyline.


Primrose Hill

Arguably the most easily accessible, open view of the lot. It’s a hill located at a height of 256 feet inside Regent’s Park (North side). You can get a panoramic view of the city’s skyline. It’s usually crowded during any given time of the day or evening. However, you could choose to go during mornings, as soon as the sun’s out (a rare phenomenon during winters). Although it is technically considered to be a part of Regent’s park, it would not be wise to try to gain access through the main entrance gate(s) of the park. Reaching the hill through that would involve hours of walking and I wouldn’t recommend it. The nearest tube station is Chalk Farm and the hill is about 8-12 mins walk from the station. You could even take Bus Number 24, which covers most parts of central London and get off at Chalk Farm. Primrose Hill gets brownie points for being in Zone 1 as well.


Greenwich – The Royal Observatory

Greenwich deserves an entire post about it, which I shall save for a later date. The spectacular view it offers, however, warrants a mention here. A trek up the hill in Greenwich Park, next to the Royal Observatory is well worth the effort. Palladian houses, including the Queen’s House, set against the backdrop of the majestic Old Royal Naval College, is the first view that comes into sight. Right behind that lies Canary Wharf, providing a visually striking contrast in architecture from different eras. As you turn right, you can spot the skyline staples – the Shard, the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater and my favourite St. Paul’s Cathedral amongst others. Greenwich gets crowded during weekends and during holiday season in the summer, so the best time to get an unobstructed view for a perfect panoramic shot, without people milling around and photo-bombing, would be early mornings.


One New Change

It is a building that houses retail stores and offices, situated right next to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Why is it on this list, you ask? The answer lies in the sixth floor of One New Change – the rooftop terrace. While the view does not cover the entire skyline, the splendid and imposing view of St. Paul’s Cathedral makes up for the other buildings that don’t feature in the view. In fact, the view of the dome is so magnificent that I had a tough time getting my jaw off the ground the first time I saw it. Once you recover, if that happens, nurse your jaw and look around the terrace. You’d be able to spot the London Eye on one corner and the Shard on the other corner. I’ve always felt that the sky looks the loveliest during dusk when seen from this spot and the clouds form the most unusual abstract shapes around the dome, making for some naturally stunning pictures that require no filters or edits.  It becomes a hub of activity during summers, with Wimbledon screenings and outdoor movie screenings, so ideally you should be picking a time during a different season.


Alexandra Palace

Fondly known as “Ally Pally”, Alexandra Palace in North London is over a 140 years old. This recreation centre was the first home of BBC and the place where the first public television transmissions were made in 1936. Ally Pally has so much to offer that it probably is a one stop destination for any kind of fun-filled activity. From fairs and tree-climbing to all year ice-skating (So cool, I know!) and boating, there’s hardly anything this place does not offer.  But, that isn’t the reason why Ally Pally features in this list. Apart from everything else, this People’s Palace also offers magnificent views of the city’s skyline. Wood Green is the nearest tube station. Getting there from Central London can be quite a tiring journey, but planning in advance can save you a lot of time and let you experience the breath-taking sight in all its glory.


King Henry’s Mound

Located inside Richmond Park, largest of the royal parks, King Henry’s mound is a steep mound, complete with a viewing telescope, through which you can see the expanse of the Thames Valley in the west and the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the east. The view is protected and no building is allowed to be constructed in a manner impeding the view. If you marvel at the architectural brilliance of St. Paul’s cathedral, like me, a visit to this spot can prove to be exciting. The legend goes that this was the spot where King Henry VIII watched the signal from the Tower of London signifying the execution of his wife, Queen Anne Boleyn. This was later dismissed as mere tales with no evidential backing. Sigh. So much for a dramatic piece of history. Also, remember that as Richmond Park is a high-walled park with several entrances, it would be wise to check the map before choosing the most convenient entry gate.  


The Bridges

For fantastic views, I’d recommend the Waterloo Bridge and the Millennium Bridge. Stand right in the middle of Waterloo Bridge’s walkway and look around to see almost all of London’s iconic landmarks in one sweeping 360-degree view. It’s the perfect post-card picture spot. You would have to risk getting jostled around by busy people of course, since you’d be obstructing the pathway, but ehh..who cares? You might also want to wear a tee stating “I’m not a tourist. I just want to be happy. Please don’t hurt me” while gawping at the view, just to reduce the intensity of the deathly glares you’re likely to get from office-goers. A walk across Millennium Bridge is an equally fascinating option if you have a mildly scary obsession with either St. Paul’s Cathedral or Harry Potter (in my case, it’s both). Start from Tate Modern’s side of the bridge and walk across towards St. Paul’s, notice the dome growing larger in your frame of vision as you move closer whilst experiencing a steadily strong breeze, courtesy – the Thames. The ideal time to visit would be during sunset or well past midnight, when the bustling crowds don’t distract you from the gorgeous views.  

I’m quite certain London has more bridges that offer great views of the skyline, that I haven’t discovered yet. But, there is one such bridge that I discovered on one of my perfectly random walking tours across North-West London – The Archway Bridge. Splendid view aside, the most striking feature is getting to see the skyline at eye-level, due to the elevation of the bridge. It’s a near-perfect view, except for the high net that borders the bridge to prevent people from falling off. It makes photography nearly impossible, except if you’re amazing at Photoshop and can edit the grill-lines out. For a quick but unobstructed view, take Bus No.134 from the bus stop called Langdon Park Road right before the bridge and climb on to the upper deck (preferably the first seat right near the front window), you would be surprised at what you see as the bus moves forward.


Southbank Centre & Tate Modern

Southbank Centre, is one of my all-time favourite spots in London. My friends wonder why, since it’s usually crowded, noisy and occasionally messy. But, I’d say that not only does it have a charm of its own, it also has a unique, lively and artistic buzz surrounding it. The Centre is a mix of different complexes and comprises of six floors. Unfortunately, The Queen Elizabeth Hall, The Hayward Gallery and The Purcell Room are closed for refurbishment and wouldn’t open till 2017. But, you can still manage to get some lovely views of the landmarks lining the Thames from most of these floors. The terrace café has the atmosphere of a university cafeteria, since no one really notices if you haven’t placed an order for something. The restaurant, in particular, makes for a brilliant albeit a slightly expensive viewing platform. But, why fear when you have the wonderfully British option of tea? Order a cup of tea for less than a pound, hold your chin up, start scribbling in a notebook, pausing meaningfully and pretending to be in deep thought like some award-winning writer working on his or her next bestseller, while sneaking peaks at the view. The staff won’t judge you. Hopefully. Try the same at the restaurant on the 6th floor of Tate Modern. It’ll work. Remember, the key is to look prim and polished. Even if you’re placing an order for just a cup of tea that costs less than a pound. Broke but proud, should be the motto.  If you’re not a tea-drinker (quite possibly a crime in England), Tate’s got a lovely balcony overlooking the Thames and you can soak in the view to your heart’s content for free.


The “So cheap, it’s almost free” options –


Monument

Climb 311 steps to the Monument’s viewing platform to get panoramic views of the city’s skyline. Tickets are priced at £4 for adults and concession tickets are priced at £2.70. So if you’re a student, good for you.


Emirates Air Line

Firstly, the view that you get in this 1 km journey is of the docklands, O2 and Canary Wharf. The other landmarks in Central London, like the Gherkin make for a distant view. The tickets are priced at £3.30 one way if you have an Oyster Card, which isn’t too bad especially if you like cable cars.


And if you’re willing to let go of a little more of those crisp currency notes…


You could go to The Shard. Before you take that cup of tea I’ve been asking you to drink all this while and pour it on my head, let me just say that I am dead serious. The Shard does have restaurants like the Ting Lounge that will not leave you homeless post a dinner there. They do have food priced between £10-£15. Some might think a plate of leaves is not quite worth that cost, but the jaw-dropping views are completely worth it. You will have to book a table in advance, though. And, wear great clothes unless you really don’t mind the look the hostess is likely to give you when she spots the “Kristian Lubutons” you bought at a flea market in Thailand. Follow the same principle in places such as Duck & Waffle, City Social or London Hilton, you’re bound to find a plate of leaves that is reasonably priced.

Lastly, since you’ve been so patient through this long post, here’s an additional tip – Keep an eye out for the Open Houses Weekend in September. It gives you access to most buildings that are otherwise off-limits. You can go all the way up the top floor and treat yourself to the views that you’re never going to get bored with.      

 So, that’s my list of Top Free Views of the London Skyline. I’ll be adding more as and when I discover them. Until then, Happy Viewing!


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