To see London's blockbuster buildings at their best, you need to get high. But where is the city's finest vantage point? We've pitted London's tallest building, the Shard, against dazzling newcomer, the Sky Garden, to weigh in on the battle of the observation decks.
What You See
The View From the Shard
Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano and inspired by a church steeple, the 244-meter-high Shard is Western Europe's tallest building. The three-tiered viewing platform spans floors 69 through 72 (level 72 is open-air) and on a clear day, the heart-thumping views stretch for 40 miles. From this height, London looks like a miniature town complete with toy trains and a ribbon-like river Thames.
If you're unable to see at least three of the following landmarks due to adverse weather conditions you'll be given a free ticket to use within three months: the London Eye, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Gherkin, Tower Bridge, and the Canary Wharf tower.
Right across the river from the Shard, the Sky Garden occupies the top floor of the building dubbed the Walkie-Talkie for its distinctive shape. True to its name, the 35th floor features a tropical garden that wraps around a spacious bar and outdoor terrace. At 155 meters, it's less than two thirds as high as the Shard but the 360-degree views are still spectacular, especially at sunset as the skyline twinkles.
In the immediate vicinity you can peer over the river and the financial district (home to other buildings with comedy nicknames including the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater) and further afield, the views stretch from the Houses of Parliament in the west to the Olympic Stadium in the east.
Winner: The View from the Shard. London's tallest building = London's best views.
Cost and Accessibility
At £25.95 a pop (£19.95 for children aged 4 to 15) for advance tickets, these lofty views come with a sky-high price tag. Although it's good value if you pit the price per height cost against the London Eye (it's half the size of the Shard and the cheapest tickets are £21.20). Selecting a specific time slot when you book helps manage the lines and although you need to enter within 30 minutes of that slot, there's no restriction as to how long you can stay on any of the viewing decks.
Lines are busiest at the weekend but it's unlikely you'll wait any longer than 20 minutes to enter. The weather can be very changeable in London so if you want to guarantee clear skies, you can buy on-the-day tickets for £30.95. When you're up there, the viewing platforms are small but there's a constant flow of people so it's easy to find a spot for photos and there are interactive touch-screen telescopes that allow you to zoom in on over 200 landmarks.
The Sky Garden
Free! You can book free tickets up to three weeks in advance although the sooner you book, the more likely you'll get one of the popular weekend or evening slots. You can reserve up to 10 tickets at a time and there are a limited number of tickets available on the day. Either way, you need to be prepared to wait in line. There are two restaurants and two bars up on the 35th floor too and all offer free access to the garden so people with reservations take priority. And bear in mind that if you're more than 10 minutes late you'll probably lose your slot.
You can spend up to an hour up in the clouds; more than enough time to check out the views from all sides and take a selfie on the outdoor platform (sans selfie stick, they're banned). The multi-level space is huge with plenty of areas to take a seat or enjoy a cocktail from the central bar. It never feels overcrowded and it's easy to find a spot for photos without having to peer over someone's shoulder.
Winner: The Sky Garden. Who says you don't get anything for free these days?
There's a small bar that serves a limited selection of pricey drinks including champagne (this is a popular spot to pop the question; the first proposal took place just 10 minutes after the viewing platform opened in 2013). Yoga sessions can be booked on Saturday mornings and Silent Disco events run frequently throughout the year.
For an alternative experience at the Shard, consider heading to one of the bars on the lower floors (between 31 and 52). All are free to enter but operate on a walk-in basis so space is limited.
The Sky Garden
It's as much of a space to wine and dine as it is to take in the impressive views. If you've nabbed a free ticket for the observation deck you can still order drinks from the Sky Pod or City Garden bars. Alternatively, you can book a table at the Darwin Brasserie on floor 36 or the fancier Fenchurch Restaurant on the 37th floor to skip the lines (ask for a window table on the west side for the best views). There's often live music from bands or DJs near the Sky Pod bar at weekends.
Winner: The Sky Garden. With a choice of two bars, two restaurants, an outdoor platform, plenty of places to sit and frequent live music, the Sky Garden is more than just a view.
For bragging rights, it's worth forking out for a ticket to the top of the Shard. The views are truly spectacular and being able to peer over London above the clouds is a unique experience. However, the Sky Garden is our overall winner. We love the free entry policy and what you save on the ticket price you can spend on drinks (the cocktail prices are on par with most London bars).
While the Shard feels like a touristy experience (there's narration in the elevators and you exit through the gift shop), the Sky Garden provides a laid-back alternative where you're encouraged to wander around the garden and to lounge a little while taking in the wow-factor views. Plus, it sits right opposite the Shard so it's one of the best spots in the city to take in the beauty of the building itself.