IT’S less than a year since I hit the heights in Chicago, stepping out onto the Willis Tower’s Skydeck Ledge, staring down at my feet and – through reinforced glass – the ground 1,350 feet below.
Skydeck ChicagoThe Willis, formerly the Sears, Tower, has been overhauled a couple of times in the world’s tallest building stakes and won’t even be North America’s highest when New York’s One World Trade Center is completed in 2013, but it offers thrilling panoramas that attract more than a million visitors annually.
That level of popularity shouldn’t be beyond London’s The View From The Shard, which opened on February 1 2013. Architect Renzo Piano’s controversial creation is a mere stripling in comparison with the Willis – despite being the tallest building in Western Europe at 1,016ft and spikily dominating the city skyline.
'It’s worth a visit just for the fresh oysters from Whitstable, the Spanish specialities of Brindisa and the chance to buy wild mushrooms'
I’m hoping to stay up there somewhere between the 34th and 52nd floors when the five star Shangri-La Hotel opens its first UK hotel there later in the year. In the meantime, the perfect base camp is the four-star London Bridge Hotel, which lies almost underneath it. Staying there a couple of times in recent years, I’ve gawped up at the Shard as Work in Progress.
Now it’s time to ascend and look down. Nothing’s quite as dramatic as the Sky Ledge, but it is still spectacular. The View from the Shard is a two-level deck (the first enclosed, the second partially open to the elements) 800ft up on floors 68 to 72, offering 360 degree panoramas of up to 40 miles on clear day.
At ground floor level there are video screens and display panels showing digital maps of London and film footage of city life. Then visitors zoom up in lifts that only take 30 seconds to reach the 'View', which also features multimedia displays and installations. The experience includes tongue-in-cheek illustrations of famous Londoners past and present, including Margaret Thatcher and Karl Marx on a tandem and Vidal Sassoon and Vivienne Westwood giving Charles I a makeover.
In the viewing galleries, digital 'Tell:scopes' with large touchscreens enable visitors to explore the city around them in real time, identifying famous landmarks and places of interest, as well as offering annotated alternative day and night-time views of the capital.
The district around The Shard is one of London’s buzziest. Here are a few suggestions to occupy your weekend:
Not far away are the delights of the South Bank, including the Tate Modern and The Globe Theatre. Further west next to the “Shard-dwarfed” London Eye, is the revamped London Dungeon (opening March 1, 2013), which has moved from its old Tooley Street base under the London Bridge Station arches.
Borough Market, fully open at weekends, is the obvious draw "on site" (www.boroughmarket.org.uk). This centre of London foodie culture always seems rammed and in a state of flux, the only constant its premium prices, but it’s worth a visit just for the fresh oysters from Whitstable, the Spanish specialities of Brindisa and the chance to buy wild mushrooms. Munch your top-end takeaway in the grounds of adjacent Southwark Cathedral. Borough’s cheese stalls are good, but Neal’s Yard Dairy next door is the place to go for the best of British. www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk/shops_borough.html.
The prime market pub is The Market Porter. You might recognise it from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when it was transformed into the 'Third Hand Book Emporium' next door to fictional pub The Leaky Cauldron! It serves a brilliant rage of cask ales, including personal favourite Harvey’s from Lewes Sussex as a regular bitter. 9 Stoney Streets, London Bridge SE1 9AA (www.markettaverns.co.uk/the_market_porter.html).
The Southwark area as once packed with coaching inns. Today the only survivor is The George, tucked away off Borough High Street. Dating back to the Middle Ages, this galleried fragment of the vast original is under the stewardship of the National Trust, which spares you the prospect of Ye Olde Serving Wenches and the like. Shakespeare's actors, and probably the Bard himself, used to slip across from the Globe for a tonsil-freshener. Notables from Chaucer’s pilgrims to Charles Dickens have quaffed here, as recounted in Pete Brown’s excellent history, Shakespeare’s Local (Macmillan, £16.99). The George Inn Yard, Southwark, SE1 1NH (http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/george-inn/).
For history of a different kind visit the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. This early 19th century teaching theatre is set in the roofspace of a Baroque church enclosed inside St Thomas’s Hospital and offers fascinating insights into past medical practices. Check opening times. 9a St Thomas St London SE1 9RY (020 7188 2679, www.thegarret.org.uk).
One of the best new wave hop-driven breweries is to be found in Borough. Kernel, at Arch 11 Dockley Road Industrial Estate SE16 3SF sells directly to the public every Saturday from 9am to 3pm (www.thekernelbrewery.com).
Dining options are good. For fine contemporary English food try Magdalen at 152 Tooley Street, Southwark SE1 2TU (www.magdalenrestaurant.co.uk). Or cheek by chowl at 184 and 194 Bermondsey Street respectively there’s rustic Italian Zucca (www.zuccalondon.com) and cutting-edge Spanish Pizzaro, 194 Bermondsey Street, SE1 (www.josepizarro.com).
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