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London's free views come at a cost

Soaring towers ignite new tourism interest amid concerns over city's changing skyline

By JULIAN SHEA in London | China Daily | Updated: 2024-02-16 07:46

Towers in the City of London provide stunning views looking out across the river to south London. JULIAN SHEA/ CHINA DAILY

Although it contains some hidden jewels to attract curious tourists, by and large, London's financial district, the City of London, is not high on most visitors' list of things to see and do.

For historical reasons, the west of the capital, which is home to its theaters and landmarks such as Big Ben, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace, is more about pleasure, whereas life farther east is largely about business.

However, it is these very businesses that are the key to some of London's newest attractions, which are growing in number because the public viewing galleries at the top of some of the City's tallest buildings command some of the best views the capital has to offer and, crucially in such a pricey place, they are free of charge.

The encouragement of viewing galleries by the City of London Corporation, which runs the financial district as a politically separate entity from the rest of Greater London, is often a condition of planning permission.

The Shard, which rises to a height of 310 meters on the south bank of the Thames and outside the City's boundaries, is Britain's tallest building, and as a result, enjoying its view of London from a 243-meter-high position, comes at a cost.

But this bird's eye view is now rivaled by those provided by the ever-expanding forest of glass and steel on the other side of the river, where the views are free.

Across from the Shard is the 160-meter-high Sky Garden, also known as the "Walkie Talkie" for its distinctive wider-at-the-top design, which houses a large indoor garden.

Open since 2015, it is probably London's best-known viewing gallery, as evinced by how quickly tickets are snapped up. Although free, for security reasons, many of the viewing galleries require advance booking.

While the viewing gallery at 120 Fenchurch Street stands slightly apart from the other spires piercing the skyline, and at a mere 69 meters high is also much lower, it has the advantage of being an open-air garden.

Vying with each other for attention on Bishopsgate are the 50th floor Lookout, which stands at an elevation of 200 meters, and its taller neighbor, Horizon 22, which stands at 254 meters.

Between them, and dependent on the weather- although cloudy skies can be even more spectacular than sunny - both platforms offer views taking in everything from the Olympic Park in eastern London, to Wembley in the north, with the dome of St. Paul's in the foreground and the Thames behind it snaking westward to Westminster and beyond.

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