From the 72nd floor of the Shard, London's tallest building, the city spreads out before you like a living map. At more than 240 meters up this is the highest viewing platform not only in London and the UK, but in the whole of western Europe. On a clear day you can see out to Southend-on-Sea, some 65 kilometres away. Closer by, all of the great architectural icons of the city: Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, the London Eye and Wembley Stadium are visible from up here. But even today it's the great English Baroque dome of St. Paul's Cathedral that anchors the eye, as it has for 300 years, and serves as a starting point for the spread of the city.
To the east of the Cathedral, a host of new developments are modernizing London's skyline and changing the look of the city more dramatically than Sir Christopher Wren could ever have dreamed of. Buildings with curious nicknames like the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater, the Can of Ham, the Cucumber and the Gherkin (Londoners have a penchant for nicknaming buildings after kitchen pantry items) are adding new luster to London's look.
At present there are over 250 buildings greater than 20 stories either under construction or already approved and they are having an impact on life in the city beyond the merely aesthetic. Straight across the Thames from the Shard, the financial district known as The City of London is attracting spectacular new buildings at a breakneck pace.
Inevitably, many of these buildings draw inspiration from one of the neighbourhood's most renowned buildings: Sir Norman Fosters, the Gherkin – or as it's officially known, 30 St. Mary Axe. Since opening in 2004, The Gherkin has become an iconic symbol of the city serving both as a great example of contemporary architecture and a building that combines green technology with a strong sense of community.
"The key issue in any discussion of London's skyline is whether a building makes a positive contribution to London's urban realm,” a representative of the London mayor's office recently told the BBC. “Protecting the things we value about our city, while helping us meet the challenges of growth and ensuring the continued prosperity of London and Londoners."
No longer the sole domain of the titans of industry who occupy their boardrooms and corner offices, the Gherkin and its new neighbours have a strong commitment to the people who live in and visit the city.
Take the Cheesegrater, or the Leadenhall Building as it's officially known. It has earned its nickname for its distinctive wedge shape - which is partially aesthetic and partially the result of needing to provide set-backs so the building would not block the view of St. Paul's from the street. Horizontal fins across its facade prevent the glare of the sun from overwhelming pedestrians. Perched on thin beams, the bulk of the building is raised off the street level, opening the space, creating a new pathway from Bishopsgate through to Leadenhall Street and ensuring that sunlight filters through.
A block away, 20 Fenchurch Street, aka the Walkie-Talkie, is home to the sky garden, a lush expanse of greenery overlooking the Thames, occupies the top three floors of the building making it the highest garden in central London. Best of all, admission is free, but there are berry mojitos and Champagne by the glass at the Sky Pod bar as well as duck confit and rock oysters at Darwin Brasserie.
In between those two buildings, plans have been submitted for the 1 Undershaft building. Although its design is relatively demure, when finished it will measure nearly 310 metres and span some 73 storeys making it the tallest building in the City of London. Plans for a looping ramp on the top floors will take visitors on a 360-degree loop that will explain the history of the city.
Similarly, when 22 Bishopsgate opens it will be home to nearly 100 companies and some 12,000 people. The public viewing gallery will also be free and will include bars and restaurants.
Back across the river, nearly directly across from St. Paul's, the renowned former power station that is now the Tate Modern will reveal some big changes of its own. This summer will see the much anticipated opening of the 10-storey, $500-million addition to the Modern, now the world's most visited art gallery. The new structure will have 60-per-cent more display space and include works from more than 250 artists from 50 countries. The restaurant on the tenth floor, sure to be one of London's hottest venues, will be joined by a public terrace on the top floor.
London isn't just about skyscrapers, however, and some of the biggest changes in the whole of the capital aren't happening above ground at all. The Tottenham Court Road tube station is currently undergoing a $2-billion transformation as part of the 118-km long Crossrail line (recently announced as the Elizabeth Line), the biggest construction project in Europe. When finished, the new station will extend four storeys uies underground, span the length of three soccer fields and include half a million square feet of retail and office space.
Soaring overhead or burrowing underground, London is changing in exciting and dynamic ways, offering visitors new ways to discover the ancient and modern face of one of the world's great cities.
On Oyster card is a must-have for travelling at the best-value fares around the London Transport system, and it allows you hop on and off between the Tube, trains and buses without having to buy tickets. Before your trip, get a Visitor Oyster card, which you top up with credit before you travel. You can get one in advance, see system maps and plan your journeys at visitbritainshop.com/londontravel.