London from above: Cheap and free alternatives to the London Eye
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With its sweeping views from the pods that soar 135 metres over the capital, it’s easy to understand why the London Eye is the most popular paid tourist attraction in the U.K., with more than 3.75 million visitors each year.
When it opened in 2000, the London Eye was the world’s tallest Ferris wheel, and it was the highest public viewing point in London until the Shard opened in early 2013, with its observation deck on the 72nd floor, 245 metres up.
Despite its popularity, the London Eye is not cheap — current pricing starts at £24.50 per adult if you purchase online at least one day ahead, £31 on the day of your visit and £37.50 for fast-track advance booking (£41 on the day). This is rather steep for a 30-minute ride — but good news, there are plenty of other ways to see London’s stunning skyline and urban beauty for free, or for a much smaller price tag.
Here we’ve rounded up the best free and cheap alternatives, though note that some of them may have altered hours or operations as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s worth checking the website of each before heading there.
Emirates Air Line
This airline-owned cable car travels over a kilometre across the River Thames at heights of up to 90 metres between North Greenwich and Royal Victoria stations, offering amazing views of the river and east London. It only cost of £3.50 with an Oyster card — a bargain!
How to get there: North Greenwich and Royal Victoria.
London’s highest public garden sits at the top of the “Walkie Talkie”, or 20 Fenchurch Street, in the City. With incredible views of nearby skyscrapers from 150 metres up, the large indoor garden space has places to perch amid greenery surrounded by slanted floor-to-ceiling windows, lending a bit of an airport vibe to the space. The Sky Garden is free, but you need to book ahead online. There is also the Sky Pod bar and several restaurants on the upper floors of this office building.
How to get there: Monument.
Read more: How to spend a Sunday in London
The Garden at 120
The Garden at 120 Fenchurch Street, which opened in February 2019, offers 360-degree open rooftop views from 15 stories up — approximately 50 metres. It’s a great vantage point for viewing the famed silhouettes of the London skyline: the Heron Tower, the Cheesegrater, the Gherkin and the Shard. The rooftop is absolutely free, no booking is necessary and it’s open during office hours Monday to Friday. However, as of time of publication, it’s still closed due to coronavirus.
How to get there: Bank or Monument.
Atop the 200-plus metre Heron Tower are two popular and delicious restaurants, Duck & Waffle and Sushi Samba. Duck & Waffle sits on the 40th floor, overlooking the Gherkin and offers panoramic views of London. For about £10 a person you can easily enjoy breakfast with incredible views, or spend a bit more for the signature duck and waffle (£20) or go for late-night snacks and cocktails — still likely cheaper than a ride on the London Eye. Buzzy Sushi Samba is spread over the next two floors down, boasting similar views and a vibrant bar scene plus a unique blend of Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian cuisine. Booking is advised but not essential for both.
How to get there: Liverpool Street.
One New Change
Open seven days a week and offering the best views of St Paul’s Cathedral is the rooftop of the retail complex One New Change. Up six stories via a futuristic glass lift, the rooftop entrance is free. There’s also Madison’s restaurant and bar plus various activities including yoga sessions.
How to get there: St Paul’s.
Viewing Platform at Tate Modern
When the Tate Modern added the Blavatnik Building extension in 2016, it included an open viewing terrace (which has gained some notoriety as it looks directly into multi-million-pound flats across the street) as well as offering unobstructed views across the River Thames, St Paul’s Cathedral, as far as Canary Wharf and Wembley Stadium on a clear day. Access is free and is open during the museum’s operating hours.
How to get there: Southwark, Blackfriars and St Paul’s.
Greenwich Park/The Point
Greenwich offers two places for immense views of London, including the London Eye and the other icons of the skyline. In Greenwich Park, just outside the Royal Observatory, a viewing area is open from 6 a.m. until 9:30 p.m., or walk about 10 minutes further up to The Point, where it’s a bit quieter. It has a newly installed plaque identifying all the buildings in sight.
How to get there: Greenwich DLR.
Parliament Hill sits 98 metres up in the south-east corner of leafy Hampstead Heath and got its namesake from views of the capital’s skyline reaching as far as 10 km to the Houses of Parliament.
How to get there: Kentish Town.
Though not really near a tube station — you must take a bus or go by car — the best panoramic views of London are from the hilltop of “Ally Pally”, the highest point of a stunning 196-acre park in north London, which has been around since Queen Victoria’s time. There’s a row of benches perfectly positioned for taking in London as it stretches before your eyes for miles with no obstructions, not to mention an activity-filled park with zip wires, pitch and putt, pedalos and ice skating.
How to get there: Wood Green then the W3 bus.
The closest park to central London offering spectacular views over Regent’s Park and the city, the summit of Primrose Hill is almost 63 metres above sea level and the trees are kept low so as not to obscure the view, which happens to be one of six protected views in London along with Ally Pally, Parliament Hill and The Point.
How to get there Swiss Cottage or Chalk Farm.
Getting up high and looking over a sprawling metropolis is a highlight of visiting every city — and locals seldom tire of it either. And London is no exception with its legendary skyline. However, attractions like the London Eye and other viewing platforms can be costly, especially en masse. So why not try one of our alternatives and have a bit of an adventure while you’re at it.
Featured image by Getty/Arthit Somsakul
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