Experiences with a view
WORDS Susan Lundy
PHOTOGRAPHY Courtesy London & Partners
Close to 1,000 stairs. Three “lifts.” One very long walk uphill. One observation wheel, one cable car and one double-decker bus. During our six-day trip to London this summer, we did all we could to “get high” and witness the views of this spectacular city.
We also walked 62 kilometres and climbed 92 flights. We savoured some truly exquisite food, slept in three stunning hotels, visited a strange pub, and used our Oyster cards to access the exceedingly simple and efficient tube system.
What did we learn? This beautiful, walkable city, with its stunning architecture—both old and new—friendly chaps and so many things to explore is a must-do on any travel lover’s list.
As for getting high? Here are some of the many options:
The London Eye
An icon of the London skyline, the London Eye is the world’s largest cantilevered observation wheel (not a Ferris wheel) and is centrally located across the River Thames from famous landmarks like the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. This is a major tourist attraction, so expect to join a quickly moving lineup and then follow a dozen or so others into a transparent observation capsule. The 30-minute experience showcases breathtaking 360-degree views as you slowly climb the wheel to a height of 135 metres. Purchase advance tickets at londoneye.com. We augmented this attraction with a 40-minute circular sightseeing boat cruise along the Thames—a lovely open-air voyage that was both fun and informative.
The number of options for High Tea (or Afternoon Tea) in London is dizzying. But to get high, how about tea on the top level of a double-decker bus?
We nibbled on delicate sandwiches, buttery pastries and iconic cream scones on a B Bakery Tea Bus Tour, while driving about the city and listening to an amusing tour guide drop enlightening tidbits about various landmarks. Check out b-bakery.com to discover an array of bus tour offerings, including the intriguing-sounding Slingsby Gin Afternoon Tea (next time!).
Every area in London has its own “high street,” basically a main street. But some are higher than others and Oxford Street is one of the most famous. Located in the west end of London, it’s considered the city’s premier shopping destination, offering more than 300 stores, outlets and shops. It boasts more than 90 flagship stores along a 1.9-kilometre stretch and provides the best places to shop in London.
The View from The Shard
At 310 metres (1,017 feet), the 95-storey skyscraper The Shard is the tallest building in Britain and 96th tallest in the world. It dominates the London skyline like—as the architect planned—a jagged glass sculpture rising from the river.
The “View from The Shard” is a tourist attraction that offers views from two viewing platforms inside the building: the first is a triple-level indoor gallery on Level 69, and the second is a partial-outdoor gallery on Level 72. An innovative lift system transports guests in lifts that travel at six metres per second, making the total time to go from Level 1 to Level 68 about a minute.
We had the immense luck to partake in a truly divine five-course meal overlooking the River Thames and city skyline in TING restaurant on Level 35 of The Shard. Everything about this feast—from the sublime flavours to the sommelier-recommended wine pairings and impeccable service—made it one of the most memorable meals we’ve ever enjoyed. And then there was the view….
Climb the O2 Arena
Here’s an opportunity to get high in London that we witnessed during a few hours spent exploring the shops and restaurants at the O2 Arena, another London landmark. In this experience, you don a climb suit, boots and harness and cross a walkway on the roof suspended 52 metres in the air. With a daylight climb, you’ll see views for miles; at night you’ll witness a blanket of twinkling city lights.
A visit to the O2 Arena is a worthwhile trip in itself. In addition to stores and restaurants, there’s lots of activities available for young and old.
Emirates Air Line Cable Car
Here’s a unique and fun way to take in the London skyline—soar across the River Thames 90 metres high in your own private cable-car cabin. You can grab either one-way or round-trip tickets from launching sites at Royal Victoria Docks or Greenwich Peninsula. This is a peaceful way to get high in a different part of London and soak in views of the river and beyond. If you catch the cable car after 7 pm, the journey slows down, adding a dozen or so minutes each way. Timed right, you might be able to catch a sunset. We loved this ride: quiet, peaceful—and no stairs!
Built between 1671 and 1677 to commemorate the Great Fire of London and celebrate the rebuilding of the city, The Monument is a 61-metre-tall Doric column, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Inside, visitors can climb 311 steps through a narrow, winding passageway to take in panoramic views from the top. Hidden beneath the entrance is a tiny laboratory from where the column was once used as a giant zenith telescope. Who knew! It took a bit of huffing and puffing to reach the top, but the views—and the nod to history—were worth it.
Royal Observatory Greenwich
You can’t get much higher than space, and at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, you can marvel at The Great Equatorial Telescope and Camera Obscura, as well as climb to the top of Greenwich Park for great views of the city. This is also the home of Greenwich Mean Time where, in the Meridian Courtyard, you can stand on the world-famous (albeit slightly underwhelming) prime meridian line, or longitude 0, the starting point for measuring global distance east and west. Outside the observatory, there’s a fantastic viewpoint in front of a statue of General Wolfe.
The Dome at St. Paul’s Cathedral
Visiting the splendour that is St. Paul’s Cathedral is a must-do, even without the lofty goal of getting high. Described appropriately as a “vibrant church, a national treasure and a London icon,” the cathedral is more than just a breathtaking example of Baroque church design. It houses an art collection and a crypt, and has figured prominently in events such as the funerals of Winston Churchill and the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer. First built in 604, it has burned down and been rebuilt three times, most recently in the 1600s. At 111 metres high (365 feet), it was the tallest building in London from 1710 to 1963. The dome remains among the highest in the world.
And guess what? Should you desire to embark on an upwards trek of 538 steps, you can visit the top of the dome. On the way up, you’ll pass the Whispering Gallery at 259 steps and the Stone Gallery at 378 steps. At the top is the Golden Gallery, and it encircles the highest point of the outer dome.
This is al fresco dining at its best. Located on the seventh floor of the Trafalgar St. James Hotel, The Rooftop bar is set against a backdrop of London’s iconic skyline. We savoured a delectable assortment of unique small-plate fare—hello watermelon sashimi and cider-poached chorizo—as well as a main plate of artisan cheeses, apple and cider chutney, grapes and focaccia. Although we sipped flutes of Prosecco, The Rooftop is renowned for its cocktails.
Elevate the night
Here are a few ideas to enjoy the high life in London. Try any or all of these hotels:
Shangri-La The Shard: As we used our card to activate our room at Shangri-La The Shard, magic happened. Blinds on a semicircle of floor-to-ceiling windows lifted upwards, revealing dazzling views from every vantage point. The bathroom, encircled in glass, was also a revelation. Sitting in the tub, it feels like you’re soaking and floating at the same time. Every detail in this room was topnotch, from pillows and linen to technology, space and comfort, and the staff was super helpful. Want to get even higher? Reserve ahead and plunge into the hotel’s infinity pool on Level 52—nearly 200 metres above sea level.
The Trafalgar St. James: Location, location, as they say. Situated amid London’s bustling Trafalgar Square, across the street from the National Gallery and just steps from cute patio bars and restaurants on The Strand, this is an excellent place to stay. Throw in impeccable service, comfortable rooms, an excellent rooftop bar and delightful breakfast served buffet-style in the garden-themed Rockwell restaurant—and what more could you want? The Trafalgar St. James is also within easy walking distance of Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and many other London landmarks.
Sea Containers London: Named for its location on the former site of Sea Containers London (a former shipping company), this funky, cool hotel is set right on the waterfront in London’s Southbank. Standing on the balcony of our river-side room, it seriously felt as though we were in a boat—the gentle sound of the water lapped below us and a gentle hum of river traffic motored by. Built to mimic a 1920s transatlantic cruise liner, there are dozens of nautical touches, such as the copper wall built in the shape of a hull behind the front desk.
Our room was exquisite, and our seafood dinner on the river-side patio at Sea Containers Restaurant was lovely. We also didn’t miss the opportunity to try one of the unique cocktails at Lyaness Bar, where each drink is created from five rotating ingredients. Mixology taken to new heights!
The hotel also has a basement cinema, open to the public, and a lusciously scented spa. Want to get high? The 12th Knot bar is located on the 12th floor and once again, there’s a panoramic view. We absolutely loved this hotel.