London’s latest tourist attraction is 800 feet above ground and it takes two lifts to get there – but The View from The Shard is likely to become one of the capital’s major visitor experiences, despite the relatively high entrance price.
Designed by the famous Italian architect Rienzo Piano, the building makes full use of an irregularly-shaped site by climbing more than half a mile into the sky to become what its designer calls a ‘vertical town’. At 1016 feet (310m), The Shard is the highest building in Western Europe and contains 95 floors. Of these, 78 are habitable consisting of shops, a five-star hotel, office space, ten luxury apartments, restaurants, a swimming pool and The View from the Shard itself, the first of these areas to be open to the public.
It is claimed that the view from The View is the only place from where it is possible to see all of London at once as it offers a complete 360-degree panorama of the metropolis. On a clear day that may well be true. Unfortunately, my preview took place beneath overcast skies and the normal range of 40 miles (64km) across the city and beyond was more limited. However, what it did offer was a wonderful snowy carpet as far as the eye could see, a unique experience in itself. Visitors enter the building in the appropriately named Joiner Street by London Bridge station. This is also your one and only chance to use the toilets as you won’t find any once you ascend. While security checks are made, you can pass the time being amused by a gallery of 140 famous ‘Londoners’ including Boris Johnson shining Ken Livingstone’s shoes, Kate Moss marrying Henry VIII and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge depicted as a Pearly King and Queen.
Video screens illustrate the growth of the capital over the centuries and explore the history of the London Bridge area itself. Short films show famous London sights and streets, many of which are visible once the visitor looks down from The View. Then it’s elevator time, two to be exact, the first taking the visitor to level 33 at the rate of six metres per second, a thirty-second journey in all. The lifts are what the attraction calls ‘kaleidoscopic’ – that is, they have built-in video screens and mirrors which aim to give the impression of soaring upwards through the London skyline. Famous sights include the dome of St Paul’s, the Monument’s spiral staircase and the glass roof of the British Museum’s Great Court. Ticket-holders then transfer to another lift through a map of London made from graffiti and questions designed to tease out your knowledge of the capital. They are guided by a winding image of the River Thames below their feet with wall projections describing different parts of the city.
Half a minute more and the second lift has transported the visitor to level 68 and the ‘cloudscape’ which gives examples of the type of clouds you might be seeing up above and what you could expect from them in terms of weather conditions. Cumulo-nimbus, anyone? From there it’s a short flight of steps up to the next level and the main viewing gallery. It’s a triple-height, glass-encased airy space which offers a total view of London. Clocking the Tower, St Paul’s and the Houses of Parliament wasn’t difficult. Trying to locate the Olympic Stadium and the Thames Barrier was more of a problem due to the misty weather conditions. I was even hoping for a glimpse of my home near Ally Pally to the north, but no luck. Ironically, directly in the shadow of The Shard is Southwark Cathedral, itself once London’s tallest building – in the 17th century!
A spokesperson for The View told me that “if visitors come to the attraction and visibility is poor they will be offered the chance to come back on another day. Also tickets are transferable so if they can’t come somebody else can use them. “In terms of monitoring visibility, it is difficult because the weather can be so temperamental. It’s done on a case-by-case basis; there’s no set visibility limit by which the offer to return kicks in. “But we do offer people the opportunity, if they still want to go up, to use the Tell:scopes which display pre-recorded day, night and sunset views. And fortunately there are very few days a year when visibility is so poor that we would be forced to make the offer.” Clear day or not, The View has twelve Tell:scopes, state-of-the-art digital telescopes being used in Europe for the first time. Visitors can view the scene in real time on a screen while the scopes zoom in on what they are seeing and describe the landmark. If the view is obscured, pre-recorded commentaries are available detailing more than 200 landmarks in ten different languages. But the time on each scope is limited and you may find yourself having to move to another in order to give someone else a chance.
Visitors can then climb even further, to the viewing gallery on level 72, the highest floor of the skyscraper open to the general public. This area is partially exposed to the elements and on my preview day there was no shortage of them as the temperature barely climbed above freezing and light snow began to fall. But the arctic conditions were offset by the spectacular sight of the giant shards of glass forming the building’s pinnacle rising towards one another while not actually touching, allowing the edifice to ‘breath in’ the atmosphere through its summit. As the attraction offers free Wi-Fi, guests are encouraged to share pictures, texts and video on social networks as they look across the capital stretching out before them. And it must be said, speaking both as a fan of very tall buildings and a Londoner, the sight enthralled me. The descent lifts also provide a multi-media experience: the sky recedes, seasons change and busy London streets suddenly appear. However, while the views are breathtaking, so are the prices. This high doesn’t come cheap. An adult will pay £24.95 and a child £18.95. There are no family tickets to lessen the blow but entrance is strictly timed and there is no queuing. However, if you and your mates haven’t taken the time to book online or by phone in advance and are suddenly grabbed by the urge to ascend The Shard, it will set you back a whopping £100 each.
“If we’ve got the room and if you’ve got more money than sense – or time- you can turn up at the box office and go up immediately,” says The View’s chief executive, Andy Nyberg. “But that’s just a pressure valve for people who want immediate access.” Nyberg is the go-to guy when you’re opening a very tall building like The Shard and he has previous. He did the same job at the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago, America’s tallest building, and at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building.
“We are offering a queue-free experience,” says Nyberg. “If you go to similar places and pay for a queue-free ticket, it’s about the same price.” But there are no similar places in town and that’s The View’s USP, as Nyberg knows. “This is the only place in London where you can get a 36-degree view of the city. All the other buildings are private. Here, anyone can come and look down at the river winding along and the train tracks spreading out from the base of the building like a spider’s web.” This is true and having been to the top of the Burj in Dubai, the Empire State Building and the excellent Top of the Rock in New York, The View from The Shard has one other great advantage – its historical outlook. “The historical perceptive is unmatched,” says Nyberg. “In The Shard we have a 21st-century tower across the river from the 11th-century Tower of London.” But he could have gone on and pointed out every major historical and unique London landmark: Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Lambeth Palace, the Thames Barrier, Wembley Stadium, Battersea Power Station; literally hundreds of them. You cannot compare this to a forest of skyscrapers stretching to dry desert in Dubai, for example, and it could be argued that the Eiffel Tower offers less famous landmarks, although its viewing gallery is higher than The View’s.
Nyberg is aiming to draw in a million visitors a year and is suggesting people book ten days in advance so as not to be disappointed. A quick check on the website indicated that weekends, as you’d expect, are busy, but weekdays are relatively free and, as the attraction is open from nine in the morning until ten at night, that might be a better bet. But if you’re thinking of transporting your loved one to the giddy heights on Valentine’s Day, act fast as many others have got the same idea. Ultimately, The View from The Shard has the same chance of succeeding as had the London Eye. Many doubted the Eye’s long-term viability but it has become an iconic part of the London skyline and the most popular paid tourist attraction in the UK, and all this in less than thirteen years. If The View from The Shard can generate enough buzz on social media and through word-of-mouth, helped also perhaps by a hefty marketing budget, there is no reason why, with the building’s other attractions, it too cannot be successful and become yet another unmissable London attraction.
All images © The View from The Shard unless otherwise stated. http://www.theviewfromtheshard.com/ [Archive]