The best plane spotting options in 3 of the United Kingdom’s largest cities
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Was there one moment you can remember that sparked your love of airplanes? For many, it came from idle moments watching planes from afar either as a passenger in the terminal or as a bystander near the airport.
The slightly more advanced version of this, plane spotting, is incredibly popular with both photographers and aviation enthusiasts alike. And if you’re in the U.K., there are some fantastic places to watch the comings and goings of aircraft in our busy airspace.
London Heathrow Airport (LHR)
As the busiest airport in the United Kingdom — and one of the busiest in the world — the land surrounding LHR offers plenty of opportunities for seeing just about any aircraft imaginable. In fact, without too much effort, from within the city centre of London, you shouldn’t be surprised to see an A380 or a 777 on final approach. But if you want to make an effort for the best views, there are a few spots in the area for watching the arrivals and departures from LHR.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
About: As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Kew Gardens offers sprawling land with more than 50,000 species of plant life. With temporary and ongoing exhibitions, family programming, restaurants and shops, Kew is a fantastic day out. But what’s less known is that it’s a winning location to catch the arrivals into Heathrow. If you walk to the far end of the property nearest the River Thames, there are benches overlooking the river and you’ll have some great views of the aircraft on final approach. Keep in mind that tripods and filming may be discouraged.
Facilities: Kew has six different restaurants and cafes, offering everything from simple burgers and chips to elegant afternoon tea service. Additionally, there is a gift shop and plenty of toilets for use around the property.
Cost: Adult from £16.50, children from £4.50
Transport: Tube (Kew Gardens station is 500 metres from the Victoria Gate entrance. Served by the District Line (Richmond branch) and London Overground); Bus (Route 65 stops close to Lion Gate, Elizabeth Gate and Victoria Gate. Route 391 stops near Kew Gardens station and Elizabeth Gate. Routes 237 and 267 stop at Kew Bridge station); Car.
Thistle Hotel Runway View Restaurant, Bar and Terrace
About: If you’re looking for a more exclusive and well-catered space to watch the planes, complete with a cocktail, the Thistle Hotel bar and restaurant is the spot. Offering a full menu for breakfast and dinner of modern British and European cuisine, the location alongside runways 09L and 27R is ideal for both culinary and aviation enthusiasts alike.
Facilities: Facilities are about as good as you can get, with food and drink served alongside fantastic views. And at the end of the evening, why not retire to a room at the hotel and start again in the morning?
Cost: Average restaurant prices. Viewing on the outdoor terrace is only available to guests of the hotel and is limited to two hours. Additionally, filming is not allowed, nor are tripods for still photography.
Transport: Tube (Piccadilly Line, Heathrow Terminal 5); Bus (Hatton Cross Line 423 to Hounslow Station).
About: One of the most popular spots for watching the 27L arrivals, Myrtle Avenue offers uncompromised views on open land. At the end of this residential street, you’ll find a viewing oasis offering plenty of room to spread out a blanket on a nice day and enjoy the views.
Facilities: Nothing on site, though you will pass a petrol station on the way that offers snacks and water. The Hatton Cross area has restaurants and toilets available.
Transport: Tube (Piccadilly Line, Hatton Cross Station and then approximately a seven-minute walk); Car (Parking is limited in the area but can be found on nearby streets, within a 3-5 minute walk).
London City Airport (LCY)
Just about as central as you can get, London City Airport is located in the Royal Docks of London and is a hub of domestic and short-haul airline activity. Easily reachable by all forms of public transit, LCY offers some great plane spotting, especially if you don’t want to leave the city.
Yi-Ban Chinese Restaurant
About: For those who prefer plane spotting with a side of dumplings, Yi-Ban is the spot. Views from this restaurant directly across the river from the airport are best in the summer. And, of course, they’re best seen from a seat outside.
Facilities: Food and a friendly atmosphere across from the airport.
Cost: Menu prices range from £26 – £40
Transport: DLR to Royal Albert; Car (Ample parking available on site at the restaurant).
London Gatwick Airport (LGW)
Gatwick airport (LGW) is 47.5 kilometres south of London’s city centre (easily connected by public transit) and served a whopping 46 million passengers in 2018. The airport operates out of two terminals: North and South. But, it uses a single runway for the majority of its operations, making plane spotting at LGW less complicated than at some other airports.
Blue Car Park 1
About: Although there are plenty of excellent spotting areas at LGW, level 5 of the so-called Blue Car Park 1 is my favorite. Offering fantastic views of all arrivals onto 26L, the location is a gem for any spotter.
Facilities: The nearest facilities are in the terminals, offering restaurants, toilets and Wi-Fi. Bring a snack and some water.
Cost: £13 for two hours in the short-stay, but less in some other car parks. Check what is available before you go.
Transport: Car (From the direction of London or Brighton, exit the M23 at Junction 9 and follow signs on the roundabout for Gatwick Airport); Train (From central London, the Gatwick Express is an option. Once at the airport, follow sigs to short-term parking).
Manchester Airport (MAN)
Often referred to as England’s second city, Manchester is a buzz with aviation activity and serves as a popular base for airlines such as British Airways, TUI and Jet2. It offers flights to all corners of the world in addition to a bustling freight and cargo operation. A short 13 kilometres from Manchester’s city centre, the airport saw more than 28 million passengers in 2018.
Runway Visitor Park
About: So much more than just a viewing area, the Runway Visitor Park is an AvGeek paradise. Beyond the views of the runway, which are stellar, there’s dinning, aviation-themed shopping and even aircraft tours. If you are looking for a wedding venue, the Runway Visitor Park can host that as well.
Facilities: The Concorde Restaurant and Coffee House is open daily from 8 a.m. and offers snacks, coffee and lunch to visitors. Toilets are also plentiful. If you prefer to bring your own food, picnic tables are available.
Cost: The park is free if you arrive on bike, foot or public transit. Parking will cost you £5 for up to two hours, £10 for two hours up to four hours or £12 for all stays more than four hours.
Transport: Car (From the M56, leave at Junction 6 and follow the A538 to Wilmslow. After approximately 500 metres, take a left turn down Sunbank Lane (opposite DHL). A the T-junction turn right onto Wilmslow Old Road and follow the road to the Runway Visitor Park gates); Train (Manchester Airport train station is less than 3 miles from the Park); Bus (Runway Visitor Park is serviced by the 737 and 288 service).
Liverpool John Lennon Airport (LPL)
Serving roughly five million passengers in 2018, LPL is often referred to as the gateway to the northwest. Located 12 kilometres southeast of Liverpool’s city centre, the airport offers primarily regional flights on both low-cost and full-service carriers.
Estham Country Park
About: An award-winning park on the banks of the River Mersey, Estham Country Park is a great place to plane spot in Liverpool. While at the park, you are opposite the end of Runway 27 and the start of Runway 9. Although a bit of a distance from the airport itself, on a clear day, the planes are directly overhead.
Facilities: Within the park there is a cafe, ranger station and toilets.
Cost: Admission to the park is free.
Transport: Car (Approximately 1 mile from the M53 Motorway Junction 5 and reached locally by the A41 and Ferry Road via Eastham Village); Public transport (Merseyrail Station: Bromborough); Bus: available along the A41 to Bromborough and Eastham Village to Eastham Ferry).
What are your favorite places to plane spot in the UK?
Featured photo by NurPhoto/Getty Images.
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