Years ago in San Francisco, I took a free city tour that showed me some of the 'secret' rooftop gardens and other public spaces in some of the city's tallest buildings were a requirement of their planning permission. The Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street (AKA the Walkie Talkie and the Jaguar melter) is a similar project, but on a much higher and much less secret scale. You can book a free ticket online and then ride the lift to the 35th floor where you can enjoy 360-degree views of London, including close-ups of its neighbours: the Shard, the Gherkin and the Cheese-Grater. Not everyone is a fan of London's new skyline, but I love its pleasing geometry.
The free tickets are all booked up until the end of March, but keep an eye on the Sky Garden's website and Twitter feed to find out when the next batch is released. My brother was super-organised and booked a group of us tickets for yesterday afternoon. We were allocated the 4.45 time-slot — sadly just after sunset — and then, having gone through an airport-style security scan (pro-tip: don't bring your selfie stick), the lift whisked us up to the top.
The Sky Garden looks like a particularly leafy, particularly high-altitude airport terminal, but that isn't really a bad thing. As soon as we stepped out of the lift, we were wowed by the amazing view of the Shard and South London. The sun had just set, but London was still bathed in a gorgeous pinky-orange light as we made our first circuit of the garden. There are steps along the west and east sides of the Sky Garden, which elevates the south-facing windows (with views of the Gherkin and the City) a few dozen feet above the northern end.
It must be said that there is a lot more emphasis on the sky than on the garden. There is a bar along the south-facing window, where cocktails ranged from £11–15. You can also book a table at a couple of restaurants, which give you slightly better views than you can get in the main gallery. The Sky Garden is quite dimly lit, but the spotlights on the garden and metal bars approximately at eye level make taking decent night-time photography quite challenging — by the time we made our second circuit, it was much darker and I found that my bright pink coat ended up getting reflected in a lot of my photos.
There is an open-air terrace but it wasn't open last night. Although it wasn't my best photo, one of my favourite spots was the Alaska Building in Bermondsey, which is close to where I live, although I couldn't quite pick out my house.
If you have a head for heights and would rather spend the Shard's admission price on two cocktails, I would definitely recommend trying to book tickets to the Sky Garden. There isn't a lot to do at the top, but the views are stunning, especially if you get lucky with a great sunset. Just remember to print out your tickets and try not to bring any liquids or anything else you wouldn't take through airport security!
The Sky Garden. 20 Fenchurch Street, London, EC3M 4BA (Tube: Aldgate). Website. Twitter.