What we love about London and other old European cities is that they are so different from our own skyscraper-laden metropolises in North America.  Although the city retains its Old World charm much has changed architecturally over the last century and it now has many tall buildings. Queen Victoria would not approve.

View of London

View from The Shard – photo: Angela Tiffin, History Buff Traveling Mom

History of the London Skyline

Did you ever wonder why an old city like London is not filled with modern skyscrapers like New York or Chicago?  The answer is the London Building Act of 1894. The law was enacted after the construction of a block of flats fourteen stories high blocked Queen Victoria’s view of the Parliament Buildings from Buckingham Palace. Officially created for fire safety reasons; the Act restricted building to a 100-ft height limit because that was the highest that 19th century fire safety equipment could reach. The restrictions were rarely disputed and it wasn’t until the 1950’s that they became somewhat relaxed. A post-World War II London needed affordable office space to recover economically from a devastating and costly war.

Today, the city still has a series of protected vistas that limit the height of new buildings within or adjacent to the sightline between two places to preserve the ability to see the landmark as a focus of the view. The summit of Parliament Hill to St. Paul’s Cathedral is just one of thirteen protected views.

Historic Views

Monument to the Great Fire of London

Photo: Angela Tiffin, History Buff Traveling Mom

Photo: Angela Tiffin, History Buff Traveling Mom

Designed by the ubiquitous Sir Christopher Wren along with Robert Hooke in 1670 to commemorate London’s Great Fire of 1666. While it may seem tiny at only 202-ft tall, it is big in history and is older than all of the structures surrounding it, since most burned in the fire. Its location is, not coincidentally, 202-ft from the location on Pudding Lane where the fire is thought to have begun in a bakery. The historic fire devastated the city as it burned over 13 thousand homes, 87 parishes and the original St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Originally, Its central shaft was intended for use as a zenith telescope and for use in gravity and pendulum experiments but this fell to the wayside when it was discovered that vibrations from local traffic made that impossible. The people of London benefited from this scientific loss as it was opened up to the public.

Just like the citizens of London in the 17th century, visitors can climb the 311 steps up the narrow winding staircase to the viewing platform. Granted, the view has changed from those days when it was the highest viewpoint in the city, but it is still enjoyable and getting up there is great exercise.  Admission is a comparative bargain at 4GP for adults and 2.70GP for children up to 16 years of age.

St Paul’s Cathedral

The oldest cathedral in the city, St Paul’s has a beautiful domed ceiling where you can travel almost to the top with excellent views of the city. There is no elevator so be prepared for the climb.  It’s 257 steps to the whispering gallery (it’s said that you can stand on opposite sides and hear someone whispering to you as clearly as if you were standing next to each other). A further 121 steps takes you to the stone gallery but the really outstanding views are from the golden gallery, a further 152 steps consisting mostly of narrow open wrought iron spiral staircases.

The present church, dating from the late 17th century, was designed by none other than Sir Christopher Wren in the English Baroque style. Its construction was part of a major rebuilding program in the City after the Great Fire of London. It is one of the protected vistas in the city.

Photo: Angela Tiffin, History Buff Traveling Mom

Queen Victoria’s London – photo: Angela Tiffin, History Buff Traveling Mom

Photo: Angela Tiffin, History Buff Traveling Mom

Viewing deck at The Shard – photo: Angela Tiffin, History Buff Traveling Mom

Modern Views

The Shard

Without question the most extensive views of London can be seen from the viewing platforms of The Shard. Located beside the Thames at 32 London Bridge Street, it is reputed to be the tallest building in the European Union at 1016-ft. What we liked best about this site was that it had unrestricted 360-degree views so you really could see the entire city for many miles on a clear day. It also has a very pleasant viewing deck with trees, flowers, a café with tables and chairs, and a bar serving champagne and other refreshments.

Be sure to get the audio tour to identify and learn about the history of all the old and new buildings that are part of the modern London skyline. Its location in Southwark means you will get excellent views of the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and modern structures like the “Gherkin” (because it looks like a pickle), “Walkie-Talkie” and the “Cheesegrater” buildings.

At 25BP per adult and 20BP per child, it is a bit pricey (as are all popular attractions with a view) but on Sunday they offer a family ticket for 75BP that includes admission for two adults and two children. It is a great starting point to get acclimated during a visit to London because you can see it all laid out and plan where you want to go next.

Photo: Angela Tiffin, History Buff Traveling Mom

Photo: Angela Tiffin, History Buff Traveling Mom

Sky Garden

The observation deck at 20 Fenchurch Street (also known as the Walkie-Talkie building) is the most unique of its kind because it is an official public garden. Named, the Sky Garden, it is free to the public and has an indoor garden along with gorgeous views of the city, including the dramatic Shard building. Your Instagram photos at sunset here will get a lot of likes!

old meets new

Photo: Angela Tiffin, History Buff Traveling Mom

What you need to know before you go you is that only a limited number of tickets are available each day. We missed out because we thought, being a public garden, you could just show up. Tickets must be purchased online. They are released three weeks in advance and up to one hour before you go. Tickets are only valid for the date and time stated on the ticket and have a time limit of one hour from time of entry. Luckily, if you don’t make it here there are many other public gardens around the city to enjoy.

The best views in London: Where to find scenic overlooks and amazing skyline views on your next trip to London, England.