If you want to get your bearings, in a new place or even in life, climb a tower.
It’s one of the best ways to start exploring a new city, provided of course that you don’t suffer from vertigo. Nowadays, towers are rather fashionable, so the odds are that there will be an accessible one somewhere in your city, even if it’s a commercial office building which happens to have a rooftop bar. Not only are you rewarded with amazing views, but you also get a better sense of what’s where, and what the major landmarks look like. Without this helpful orientation, visiting a new city can be an overwhelming experience, even if you’re a decent map-reader. Maps don’t always tell you about temporary blockages or missing street signs. It’s all too easy to lose your sense of direction.
Going up can have another remarkable effect. It raises you above your everyday world and gives you a wider perspective, not only literally but spiritually. I find that if I’m ruminating on some minor irritation in my life, a bit of altitude sorts it all out for me. I leave the house full of annoyance over that Thing, and walk to the top of the hill not far away. I look down at the wonderful views – the open sea to the south, the bay and harbour to the north, the airport runway busy with aircraft coming and going, and the distant hills and ranges, with tiny houses and communities dotted around them. The beauty of nature, the vastness of the universe and the creativity of humankind, are such massive blessings to be grateful for, and here they all are at my feet. The annoying Thing becomes a trifle, a mere pixel in my panorama. I walk home in a different spirit, my burden lifted.
There are many fabulous towers around the world, most of which are on my ‘yet to be visited’ list, but here’s a selection of those that I have enjoyed. They all give fabulous views of their host cities, day and night. Attractions like these tend to get very busy so it’s well worth checking out their web sites for hints as to the best times to visit in order to avoid peak time queues. If there’s an option to buy your ticket in advance, it’s well worth doing. Another tip is that if there’s a restaurant in the tower which offers 360 views, you might be able to ascend there and enjoy the views for free, instead of paying to be taken to an observation deck. This is how we visited the Shard in London, and it was a great option. You still have the expense of your meal, of course, but if this is part of your overall plan anyway, it helps reduce the cost while adding to your experience.
1. CN Tower, Toronto
Top viewing height: 447 m (1164 ft).
Like most of our towers, the CN Tower’s day job is as a communications hub. But its part-time one is to offer visitors a stunning lookout over the lovely city of Toronto. The tower opened in 1975 and is the tallest in the western hemisphere. You can choose to ascend to various different levels depending on your head for heights. The highest one is the spectacular Skypod observation deck which offers floor-to-ceiling glass windows, a glass floor and a 360 degree panorama. You can find out what happens when lightning strikes the tower, and watch a pendulum to find out how it swings in the wind – eek! If civilised dining is more your thing, you can head to the revolving restaurant, 360, which showcases Canadian wine and food. It holds the Guinness World Record as the highest restaurant in the world. Somewhat ironically, it has been designed to resemble an underground wine cellar.
2. Empire State Building, New York
Main outdoor observation deck (86th floor): 320 m (1050 feet). You can also visit the 102nd floor.
I didn’t really ‘get’ Art Deco until I purchased my first home – a tiny flat in a 1930s block in south west London. Once I became familiar with the stylish curves, clean lines, and the slightly industrial look of the chrome and bronze fittings, I fell in love with it. So when I first visited the Empire State Building in the 1990s, I was dazzled. It’s a magnificent, iconic period building which has been thoughtfully restored and updated to embrace sustainability and energy conservation. The restoration includes ongoing projects to recover original decorations and features that have been lost over time.
Built on what was once a desirable piece of farmland, the tower stands at the heart of Manhattan and gives fantastic 360 degree views from its various observation decks. With its exhibitions, shops and restaurants, it offers a complete experience, enhanced by technology and apps. If your visit to New York is short, and you won’t have time to visit all the landmarks you’d like to see, you’ll get a view of most of them from here including the Statue of Liberty, Central Park and the Chrysler building. You also get a good view of the rivers and the outer boroughs. The night-time view is breathtaking from the top of any New York tower, but this one is special.
3. The Shard, London
Viewing platform: 244 m (800 ft).
The Shard is the most recent of our towers, opening in 2012. I was very uncertain about it when it was built, and in some ways I still am. To my eyes its glass panels look rather dull, a bit like when you buy a new computer or TV and the screen is covered with a peel-away plastic film. The Shard always looks as though someone forgot to peel off the film. However, there’s no denying its impact as a landmark, nor the magnificence of the vistas from the top. You can pay to go up to the viewing platforms, or visit one of the dining experiences on offer, which is what I prefer to do. My favourite stop is Aqua Shard, a fine dining restaurant and bar. You can book for breakfast or lunch, and hope that the day is fine enough for you to appreciate the extensive views across the Thames and the London skyline. Or you can book for dinner, and enjoy the city when it comes alive at night. The food is top notch and the restaurant is often booked out for weeks ahead, so it pays to reserve early. Be sure to ask for for a window table, because not all tables have views. If you’re out of luck, you can always head to the bar instead and enjoy the even better views from the next level up.
4. Skytower, Auckland
Observation deck: 220 m (722 ft).
The SkyCity complex in downtown Auckland is an entertainment centre offering a casino, theatre, restaurants and cafes, shops and hotels. The SkyCity Grand is my favourite hotel in Auckland. On a rainy day, of which Auckland has quite a few, you could easily entertain the family at SkyCity for several hours. The telecommunications tower is the tallest free-standing structure in the southern hemisphere. Opened in 1997, it’s become a feature of the Auckland skyline.
The observation deck gives superb panoramic views of Auckland city, harbour bridge (affectionately known as the Nippon Clip-on) and the Hauraki gulf. You can even attend yoga sessions up there at certain times, which I haven’t tried but I love the idea. There’s a revolving restaurant called Orbit 360, and also the famous Sugar Club restaurant by internationally-known New Zealand chef Peter Gordon. For the adventurous visitor, which I’m not, there are skyjumps and skywalks. I think I’ll stick to the Sugar Club.
5. Sydney Tower
Observation deck 250 m (820 ft).
The Sydney Tower was opened in 1981. It’s located within a shopping complex, the Westfield Centrepoint. To reach the tower entrance you have to go into the shopping complex, head up to the 5th floor and follow the signs from the food court. Incidentally, on the subject of shopping centres, the fabulous Queen Victoria Building is close by, so if you fancy a little retail therapy alongside your tower visit, you’re in the right place!
Sydney is breathtakingly beautiful, my favourite city in the whole world. From the Eye observation deck at the very top of the tower, you can take in the varied architecture, waterways, parks, cathedral and – on a clear day – the distant Blue Mountains. Unfortunately another nearby skyscraper has partially blotted out the Opera House and harbour bridge, but the view is still spectacular. You can even buy a ticket to watch the famous New Year fireworks from the deck, which must surely be an occasion to remember. There’s a revolving fine dining restaurant, the 360 Bar and Dining, and also a buffet restaurant although the latter gets mixed reviews.
The weather in Sydney can be a little unpredictable. When it rains, it pours, often for days. If you’re unfortunate enough to choose a bad weather day, you’ll be given a special pass which allows you to visit again for free within 7 days, provided certain conditions are met.
6. New Zealand House, London
87 m (285 ft).
Opened in 1963, New Zealand House appears to be an unremarkable office block situated in London’s Haymarket area. It was, however, the first tower block to be built in the city after the second world war, the first to be fully air-conditioned and the first to be fully glazed on all sides. It therefore has a grade II listing as a building of significance. The interior, which features marble, Portland stone and native New Zealand timbers, is perhaps more impressive than the exterior.
The tower is not generally open to the public, so to enjoy its magical penthouse, you’ll either need to get a job with the New Zealand High Commission, or attend one of the events organised by bona fide societies that occasionally use its facilities, like the New Zealand Society UK or the Katherine Mansfield Society. If this sounds like a lot of effort, it’s well worth it for the fabulous views you’ll enjoy of London’s west end and the Westminster area. There’s an outside balcony that you’re free to wander around, provided that you don’t take your glass of wine with you.
The building is due to be extensively refurbished by the Crown Estate and a public consultation was launched in July 2019.
7. International Commerce Centre, Hong Kong
484 m (1588 ft).
The ICC, opened in 2010, is the tallest building in Hong Kong. Located in west Kowloon, it dominates Victoria Harbour and offers this incredible view. It houses a mix of commercial and residential tenants, including 2 luxury hotels – the Ritz Carlton and the W Hotel. Sky Dining 101, on the 101st floor, offers 5 different restaurants and an observation deck. The Ozone Bar on the 108th floor is the world’s highest cocktail bar, and a great place to catch the sunset. The same floor houses the world’s highest swimming pool!
Hong Kong looks particularly spectacular at night, and the ICC is a great place from which to see the twice-nightly light show that flashes across the city. To get a different view, you can head to The Peak, which is the highest point on Hong Kong Island. The Peak is reached by funicular railway. Various lookouts and observation decks are on offer, along with shopping and dining options and a circular walk.
8. Eiffel Tower, Paris
324 metres (1063 ft).
If you’ve seen the James Bond film A view to a kill, you’ll remember the scenes in the Eiffel Tower. James Bond, 007 is dining in its elegant restaurant with a French counterpart, Monsieur Aubergine. They are discussing a French industrialist who is suspected of villainy. Suddenly, Monsieur Aubergine is assassinated by a mysterious figure in black. 007 gives chase in a daring pursuit up the external steps and structure of the tower. After some heart-stopping moments, the assassin – played memorably by pop singer Grace Jones – escapes by diving off the tower, eventually opening a parachute and landing safely on a passing boat in the river Seine. Needless to say, James Bond does not give up. The pursuit continues, leaving the usual trail of chaos and destruction in its wake. How I love that film! But the real star is the tower.
It’s incredible to think that this masterpiece of engineering, built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, was only meant to last 20 years! Scientific experiments in radio transmission, and eventually TV broadcasting, were carried out there after the exhibition closed, and the tower’s life was extended. Today it’s the most visited monument in the world, with 7 million visitors a year, and is celebrating its 130th anniversary in 2019. An international symbol, the tower often features colourful light shows which serve to make a statement, celebrate a special event such as the millennium, or support a particular cause.
This being Paris, gourmet dining is on offer in the Jules Verne restaurant on the 2nd floor. Another restaurant, the 58 Tour Eiffel, is due to reopen in spring 2020 following refurbishment. Informal buffet outlets are available on the 1st and 2nd floors. There is also a champagne bar at the top of the tower, which is a very civilised way to enjoy the amazing views of the stunning metropolis of Paris. Much better than free-falling or parachute jumping, which are not yet on offer to the general public!
If you have visited any other towers, please leave a comment and tell me about them.
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