From the free city rooftop The Garden at 120 to the soaring IFS Cloud Cable Car, here are eight of the best viewpoints that most tourists wouldn’t know to visit.
Endlessly reproduced on postcards, t-shirts and mugs, the London skyline is an attraction in its own right. Covering 607 square miles and 2,000 years of history, with dozens of iconic landmarks, the city’s sprawl is mesmerising. And no visit is complete without scaling one of its many vantage points to admire it.
While attractions like the Shard and the London Eye offer fabulous perspectives, they’re always busy and ticket prices are steep. But with a little insider knowledge, you can save your pounds and bag your skyline photos without the crowds. From rooftop bars with magnificent views to lesser-known historical monuments to under-the-radar public spaces, here are eight of the best viewpoints that most tourists wouldn’t know to visit.
Everyone wants their holiday images to include a dramatic sunset or bluebird skies, but sadly the British climate doesn’t always oblige. Nevertheless, all these places offer memorable London vistas, whatever the weather.
1. Parliament Hill
London is mostly flat, but if you know where to look there are a few hills that provide natural (and free) vantage points offering city views with a side order of fresh air.
A good route is to get off the Tube at Hampstead station, walk through the park to the viewpoint and then down the other side to rejoin the Tube at Kentish Town.
One of the most central is Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath – at 98m, this is one of London’s highest natural viewpoints. From here, on a clear day, you can sit on the park bench that featured in movies including Run Fatboy Run and Notes on a Scandal, and see all the way to St Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, the Gherkin and the Shard. As you admire the views, you’ll be in good company; Romantic poets including Coleridge, Shelley and Keats all spent time up here, too.
Formerly known as Traitor’s Hill, legend says the mound is where the 1605 Gunpowder Plot conspirators came to watch the planned explosion of Parliament (they failed, of course). The current name is thought to have been adopted during the 17th-Century Civil War when the hill became a defence post for troops loyal to Parliament. Today you’ll find only dog-walkers, joggers and nature-lovers who come to enjoy this little piece of countryside in the heart of London.
Entry fee: free
Address: Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath, London, NW5 1QR
Phone number: + 44 (0) 20 7332 3322
2. The Garden Museum Tower
If you exit left out of Westminster station, battle your way over the bridge (dodging the hordes of selfie-taking tourists) and then turn right, past the view of Big Ben that’s ubiquitous on Instagram, and walk along the south side of the Thames, you’ll come to a medieval church.
Entry to the museum costs £16, but you can buy a tower-only ticket for just £4.
This small structure, with its irregular stone walls, arched windows and crenellated tower, is the old church of St-Mary-at-Lambeth. After falling into disrepair in the ’70s, it was scheduled for demolition until it was rescued and turned into the Garden Museum. The small exhibition space is dedicated to the British love of gardens in honour of 17th-Century gardener John Tradescant, who is buried in the churchyard.
While you might be interested in British garden design, it’s the 14th-Century tower that’s the main attraction for photographers. Climb the 131 steps of the claustrophobically narrow spiral staircase and you’ll emerge onto one of the finest riverside viewpoints in the city – with views across to the Palace of Westminster on the right, downriver to Vauxhall on the left and behind you, the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. All of which can be yours for the price of a supermarket sandwich and without anyone walking through your shot.
Entry fee: Adult £16, or Tower only £4
Address: 5 Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7LB
Phone number: +44 (0) 20 7401 8865
3. The IFS Cloud Cable Car
If you want to soar over London in a glass pod, the obvious place to go is the London Eye. But a cheaper and crowd-free alternative is to ride the IFS Cloud Cable Car (until recently known as the Emirates Air Line).
You can use your Oyster or contactless card to pay as you go.
Built in 2012 for the London Olympics, the Cable Car ferries passengers between Greenwich Peninsula, home of the ExCel centre and the O2 music venue, and Royal Docks on the north side of the river. The journey takes 10 minutes and rises to a height of 90m – the highest views directly over the Thames – giving you a fantastic aerial vantage point from which to admire Docklands, Canary Wharf and, of course, the river itself as it snakes through the capital.
The views are impressive at any time, but the Cable Car stays open late, so you can even enjoy magnificent sunsets from the west-facing side or admire the twinkling city lights after dark. Use it to travel from one side of the river to the other, or buy a round trip and enjoy the experience twice.
More than 15 million journeys have been made on the London Cable Car, and everyone is offered their own cabin – an initiative that was introduced during the pandemic and continues due to its popularity. You don’t get that on the London Eye.
Entry fee: £6 one-way
Neighbourhood: Royal Docks
Address: IFS Cloud Cable Car Terminal, Edmund Halley Way, London SE10 0FR
Phone number: + 44 (0) 343 222 1234
4. Seabird, Southwark
London has no shortage of rooftop venues offering knockout cityscape views, so it can be hard to pick just one or two. But for location, angles and a great experience, it doesn’t get much better than Seabird, on the 14th floor of the Hoxton hotel in Southwark.
A great time to visit is between 15:00-17:00 on weekdays, when you can tuck into £2 oysters and £7 martinis along with the view.
Completed in September 2019 and costing £55 million, the building sits on a narrow plot on busy Blackfriars Road; a rectilinear grid of square windows crowned by an elongated roof space. Here’s where you’ll find Seabird, a Southern European seafood restaurant that claims to offer London’s longest oyster menu. Inside, the atmosphere is warm, with peach-toned lighting, a marble bar with the day’s fresh oyster selection chilling on ice and full-height windows looking out onto the garden terrace.
This is where you should head, ordering a beer or coffee on your way through. With wicker chairs, leafy pot plants and chest-height glass panels giving the place a conservatory feel, Seabird’s wraparound patio and unique location give it obstruction-free views on three sides. From here you can look directly north towards the river at Blackfriars, west towards Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, or east to photograph the Shard, Canary Wharf and the tangle of train lines going into Blackfriars station.
Entry fee: Buy a drink: draught beer costs £6.50 or small glass of wine is £9; a portion of olives costs £5
Address: 40 Blackfriars Road, London, SE1 8NY
Phone number: +44 (0) 207 903 3000
5. The Monument
In 1666, the Great Fire of London started in a bakery in Pudding Lane. Over four days it gutted the medieval city centre, including the original St Paul’s Cathedral and more than 13,000 homes. Five years later, in 1671, the Monument was built as part of the extensive reconstruction work to commemorate this terrible event that transformed the city.
For another historic London viewpoint experience, buy the combined Monument and Tower Bridge Experience ticket and save 20%.
The Monument stands 62m tall in a small square 62m west of the spot where the fire started. It’s built of the same white-grey Portland Stone used in many of London’s most famous landmarks, including St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace, and is capped with a flaming golden orb and decorated with carvings of dragons.
When it was built, the column had a dual purpose. As well as a memorial, it served as a telescope controlled from an underground laboratory. Today, the secret basement is closed, and the main attraction is not below, but above. A spiral staircase with 311 steps takes you to a viewing platform at 49m above ground level, from where you can enjoy magnificent 360-degree views over the river and across the city.
There’s no glass here to cause annoying reflections, but there is a fine gauge net to prevent you dropping anything over the side. This is frustrating for anyone with a DSLR camera but photographers using their phones should have no problem.
Entry fee: Adult £5.80
Address: Fish St Hill, London EC3R 8AH
Phone number: +44 (0) 20 7403 3761
6. Bōkan, Canary Wharf
Bōkan – a Modern European restaurant, bar and roof terrace – takes up the top three floors (37, 38 and 39, respectively) of the Novotel Hotel in Canary Wharf, which at 127m is the tallest Novotel in the world. Completed in 2016 and costing £149 million, it’s a shiny glass skyscraper in a district packed with shiny glass skyscrapers, so you probably wouldn’t have any reason to go there if it weren’t for its crowning glory.
Don’t forget to check out the view from the loos – possibly one of the most dizzying handwashing experiences in the world.
Step out of the lift on the 38th floor, and you’ll discover a chic bar, all industrial warehouse-inspired decor, with floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed brick- and pipe-work, copper fixtures and fittings, and unvarnished wooden floors.
The main attraction, however, is up a wooden staircase on floor 39: the roof terrace. This glass-walled, part-covered space is furnished with benches and bar stools, from where you can enjoy an almost 360-degree panorama, with the serpentine bends of the river winding away in both directions, and views of almost the entire city.
Of course, London’s skyline is ever-changing, and Bokan has already lost a portion of its epic vista to another skyscraper going up right next door, which partially blocks the view towards Greenwich. Don’t worry though, the other 340 degrees are still more than enough.
Entry fee: Free but you’ll need to buy a drink. Soft drinks or tea are £3.50
Neighbourhood: Canary Wharf
Address: Floor 37-39, 40 Marsh Wall, London E14 9TP
Phone number: +44 (0) 20 3530 0550
7. Greenwich Park Observatory
In a city as large and diverse as London, anywhere claiming to have the best of anything should usually be taken with a pinch of salt. But when Greenwich Park touts the view from the Observatory as “the best natural view of the city”, well, they’re not wrong.
For an alternative view, follow the path downhill to the right to One Tree Hill, which is less well-known and not as crowded.
Greenwich Observatory sits on a hill in the middle of the park, but you don’t need to go inside to enjoy its most celebrated attraction. Directly in front of the entrance there’s a statue of General James Wolfe, an 18th-Century British Army officer, and in front of him, a viewing platform offering sweeping vistas across the neatly manicured lawns towards the Unesco World Heritage Site of Maritime Greenwich.
Take in the gleaming white colonnades and gold-capped twin domes of the Old Royal Naval College, the glass roof of the National Maritime Museum, and the triple masts of the 19th-Century sailing ship Cutty Sark.
Beyond, you can also see the river, clustered with favourites including St Paul’s Cathedral, the Gherkin, Canary Wharf and the Shard. After you’ve taken your fill of photos, head inside the Observatory to stand on the Prime Meridien line, admire one of the UK’s largest telescopes or get a live action close-up of that view in the camera obscura.
Entry fee: Free (entry to the Observatory costs £16 but you don’t need to go inside to admire the view)
Address: Blackheath Ave, London SE10 8XJ
Phone number: +44 (0)20 8312 6608
8. The Garden at 120
Not to be confused with the more famous Sky Garden just around the corner, The Garden at 120 is a little-known city rooftop where you can soak up London’s dramatic city views with no booking required.
Award-winning restaurant 14 Hills, one floor below, offers excellent deli sandwiches and cakes, or a full à-la-carte menu, to refuel after your visit.
The walk-in queue starts in a covered courtyard, where a ceiling screen playing calming footage of treetops on a sunny day makes you feel like you’re already outside in nature. After passing through the security scanners, dedicated lifts carry you up to the 15th floor, where you step out into the City of London’s largest public rooftop space.
The glass walls reach above head height, so on a sunny day you’ll have to deal with reflections, but they also allow you to enjoy uninterrupted vistas of the city in all four directions. Thanks to its central location, The Garden at 120 gives you an up-close perspective on icons including the Gherkin and the Walkie Talkie; you can also look down on Tower Bridge, across to Canary Wharf and even peer into nearby offices.
Around you, patio walkways cross between flowerbeds containing bedding plants and fruit trees, while steel pergolas support climbing wisteria that provides a gorgeous wash of purple in spring. There’s also a 200ft-long water feature, plenty of seating and a coffee hut for a relaxing pitstop high above London’s busy streets.
Entry fee: free
Neighbourhood: City of London
Address: 120 Fenchurch Street, London, EC3M 5BA
Phone number: +44 (0) 20 7374 4127
(Bella Falk moved to London 20 years ago to study journalism and never left. Now she’s a travel photographer, documentary director, writer and keen explorer of the city’s less-touristy places.)
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