Free Views in the City

Updated: Apr 21, 2019

When I lived in London, I dated. Like, a lot. I affectionately call it my "Year of Tinder". At the time, I lived a three minute walk from the London Bridge tube station and a one minute walk from a pub that had a Happy Hour (a rarity in this city that drinks far too much). I always had the guys met me there because I didn't want to travel far and it wasn't hard to lure them with the promise cheap beer. I typically got a few free pints out of the meeting and then promptly sent them on their way while I headed home to tv and bed. It was a great system! (Shout out to the Old King's Head at London Bridge for being a great host - if you find yourself in the area, head on over. Cheaper beers in Central London you will not find.)

The most common "look at how smart and impressive I am" line that was used on me by this parade of men was, "did you know that the City is the oldest part of London?" I did, in fact, and had for years. Nor am I the bat-my-eyelashes type, lest you think I allowed them to think they were actually smart and impressive. Of every guy that pulled that on me, a grand total of one knew more about Londinium (the Roman settlement that grew into what we know as London) than I did. I granted him a second date. (I realize how bratty these last two paragraphs make me out to be, but the fact that I was an England-focused history major in college/uni was listed on my profile, so this was on them and their men ways).

This misguided pickup line was used because London Bridge (the actual bridge, not the tube station) connects the Southwark neighborhood, where I lived on the south side of the River Thames, to the City of London (or, Londinium). Today, the City is the financial district of London. To give you an example of how important this area is, London and New York are constantly competing for the top spot in terms of who generates more money each year (and with Brexit looming, let me be the first to say "USA, USA, USA!" because New York is now going to hold that top spot for quite a few years as that economic fallout is dealt with).

Ironically, while the City is the oldest neighborhood in London, it is one of the newest looking. In general, Europe is not a skyscraper-engineer's paradise, but the City has some of the most unique looking buildings in the world. My personal favorite has always been 30 St Mary Axe, or what is colloquially referred to as the Ghurkin. Because who is going to use an address when talking about a building that is shaped like a penis, I mean really.

But alas, this blog is not a love letter to the Ghurkin. Instead, let me shift your attention from that beautiful, phallic engineering feat to it's neighbor. Officially, the building rising above its neighbors in the photo on the left (and the far-left one in the photo above) is 20 Fenchurch Street. Yeah, I know, the City is really clever with its building names. But again, nobody uses addresses when talking about famous buildings. So, ladies and gentlemen, meet the Walkie-Talkie.

Fun fact about the Walkie-Talkie: it opened in 2010, but gained global fame three years later when it melted a Jaguar. Yes, you read that correctly. A man parked his luxury car near the building and came back an hour later to a destroyed vehicle. The curve of the building was at such an angle that when the sun hit it just right, it created a sort of magnifying glass effect. This man's complaint was not the first raised against the design of the building, though it was certainly the most famous. Nearby shopkeepers had complained of carpet fires and heat-shattered tiles, for example. After the global media made this incident the joke of the day, a California company was quickly brought in to install a form of shading called "brise soleil", which now prevents the glare that caused such mischief.

At the top of this building is a free (yes, I said free!) observation deck called the Sky Garden (cuz it's a garden in the sky, get it, get it?). It's a beautiful, three-story landscaped garden that is surrounded by glass on all sides in order for visitors to enjoy the views of the City and surrounding areas. Especially given the price, this is my favorite viewing platform in London.

What I especially appreciate about the views offered by the Sky Garden are that the building is at eye-level with it's neighbors. You are able to look straight at my beloved Ghurkin, as well as the Cheese Grater (the other noticeable skyscraper in the picture on the right. It's real name is The Leadenhall Building, so at least that's a step up from a mere address.). I have deliberately chosen to not spend the £25 ($33) on a ticket for the observation deck of the nearby Shard (in the below photo), because as impressive as that building is, it is too tall for the purposes of observing London. Their observation deck is twice as high as the Sky Garden's and I would rather see the other buildings up close rather than in miniature.

From the Sky Garden, you can easily see not only the other skyscrapers of the City, but also the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, City Hall, the HMS Belfast, (all of which you can see in the photo below), St. Paul's cathedral, London Bridge, the Shard, the Tate Modern, the Globe, and the London Eye, among others. It's a fabulous way to spend 45 minutes (or longer, as there is a bar and a restaurant up there if you're so inclined).

Visiting tip: while visiting the Sky Garden does not cost you anything, you do need to book tickets in advance. I have gone up twice, once during the day and once after dark, and had to get tickets about a week in advance before they were "sold" out. Both experiences were great, though from a photography standpoint the daytime was better because I don't have a good enough camera to truly capture night lights. But luckily, due to the very fair price, you don't have to choose when to go up because you can go twice!

And for me, the second time was bringing my boyfriend who had never been, because the Year of Tinder worked itself out in the end.

There is one other free observation deck that I know of in the City, at the One New Change shopping centre (if there are more, please comment and let me/everyone know!). It is next to St. Paul's cathedral, and offers a great view of that. However, that's about all it offers a great view of. A restaurant at the top has high walls that block views of the rest of the City, and other than the cathedral there is nothing else in the area that will take your breath away. It's still worth a stop though, and is only a few minutes walk west from the Walkie-Talkie.