Despite London's modern splendor, it spent most of the 20th century building low-rise office parks to preserve the realm of its historic structures, which embody tangible links to the past. Now, it's humbling to stand under the swirling, awe-inspiring towers that have since been built. These structures add to the myriad of things to do in London.
Dozens of great, hulking spires are sprouting like mushrooms all over. Here's the backstory on some of the most grand.
The Shard: Tallest Building in London
The Shard, one of the famous landmarks in London, might be the best place in town to get a view of London. Perched in the Shard Quarter, near the iconic London Bridge, this 72-story monolith zooms 1,016 feet into the sky. It's crowned as the tallest building in the UK, but it only takes the silver in Europe.
The only structure that's more towering is the Varso Tower in Warsaw, which beats The Shard by a mere 40 centimeters.
The start of Renzo Piano's mammoth design sparked controversy in 1998. At the time, such a soaring tower was a novelty for Ye Olde London skyline, where few buildings jutted above the mostly 80-foot cap. Construction started in 2009, the top floor was laid in 2012, and it opened to the public in February of 2013.
Take a lift to the 72nd floor observatory and have a satisfying lunch with a vista that will etch itself into your memory.
Tall buildings in London aren't just edifices; they're a performance, much like the artful spectacles of Cirque du Soleil. Rather than using uneventful numbers for their addresses, they spell out the words in flowy, glowing script with lots of curlicues and serifs. Take Twentytwo in Bishopsgate, in the pulse of London's financial district.
Standing at 912 feet, Twentytwo could have reached for the clouds. The architects adjusted their design for fear that planes inbound to Heathrow would face great challenges.
Twentytwo bears a part of London's banking history as the world's second-largest financial hub. Its journey was marked by resilience and challenges. It took almost a decade to plan with construction starting in 2008, just in time for the global banking slump.
In a scene reminiscent of the pausing of Medieval cathedrals, work came to a halt in 2012, and the whole thing was left as seven stories of concrete. But determination prevailed in 2016. Construction crews came back to the project, and Britain's second-tallest building finally got its glass skin in 2020.
One Canada Square
Canary Wharf is a bustling waterfront on the Thames, deep into the East End, way out from where London has bridges and mass transit. The area around One Canada Square spent the 1980s being extensively redeveloped. But no inspiration struck about what should be built there.
They considered an airport, then a shopping district, then maybe a bridge, or, again, maybe an airport. In the end, London built a financial hub topped by this 770-foot block tower that resembles a sharpened pencil topped with a pyramid.
Claiming the title of the third-tallest structure in Britain, One Canada Square boasts an impressive 50 stories of functional office space. From its inauguration in 1991 until The Shard arose in 2012, it proudly held the distinction of being Britain's tallest building.
Queen Elizabeth II opened One Canada Square in a gala ceremony that took place a stone's throw from the headquarters of Britain's most spirited tabloid newspapers.
There's no observation deck here, though. The building has been at basically 100% occupancy since it first opened its doors, a testament to its enduring appeal.
Until 2012, the property at 10 Marsh Wall, London E14 9GU in Canary Wharf bore nothing, except for a squat little pub called the City Pride. It was an adorable red-brick public house that eventually closed, leaving the building derelict for a few years. That changed in 2016, when a £200 million project kicked off.
In 2020, London's fourth-tallest skyscraper rose over the Wharf, rivaling the Canada Square project.
Landmark Pinnacle is an odd man out among London's towers. It's 75 stories tall and holds mostly luxury flats, making it the tallest residential skyscraper in the UK. It's got more habitation space than any other building in Western Europe, boasting 822 residential units and a load of amenities like cafes and a few darling little shops on the ground floor.
Cirque du Soleil’s performers have no qualms with heights, but even they might balk at the elevation of Salesforce Tower. Formerly known as Heron Tower, this building is a 755-foot glass-and-steel tower girded by an elaborate lattice of steel beams that give the impression of unbreakable strength.
The sensory experience continues indoors. The lobby overawes you with an 18,000-gallon aquarium. Its 1,200 fish live in an entirely self-contained and sustainable ecosystem.
Sustainability permeates the architectural details of this building's design. The solar panels all over the building, for example, could potentially generate all the electricity the occupants need. If you enter the Heron through Bishopsgate, you can take a scenic lift to Sushi Samba or Duck & Waffle, both restaurants with terrace dining on the 38-40th floors.
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122 Leadenhall Street
122 Leadenhall is the global HQ of Lloyd's of London, the world's most prestigious insurance company. Londoners affectionately call it "The Cheesegrater" for its iconic wedge shape. It starts big at the bottom but pinches into a triangle 738 feet up at the tip. Construction here started in 2007, only to stop during the financial crisis, then start up again and finish in 2014.
The iconic building's unconventional slant is an artifact of London's scenic view laws. When the first draft was being planned, the planning board worried that half the city would be unable to see St. Paul's dome if Leadenhall was built as a standard rectangle. They briefly considered making it shorter and decided against it, so the stunning blade design was born.
Newfoundland is a 720-foot residential block on the Isle of Dogs, perched between Westferry Road and Bank Street. It's home to some of London's ritziest apartments. The main part of the structure is an efficient glass box design. But the facade gets way more exciting with the diamond-shaped girdle of supports that rings the entire building.
The intricacy on the building’s face has been a catalyst for the masses pausing and pondering.
Crystal Palace Transmitter
London's eighth-tallest building isn't an office block or a residential tower. What you're looking up at is actually the Crystal Palace Transmitter tower, and it's one of the most important buildings in London.
This station is the main TV transmitter for Greater London. They built it on the ruins of the old Crystal Palace, where the great exhibitions of the Victorian era were staged. It rises 719 feet in the air, lording over the much shorter buildings surrounding it. Its 12 dashing facets give the base a very upward-and-onward vibe.
This was the tower that broadcast the first Night at the Proms in 1986, and it was taller than anything else in London, until One Canada opened in 1991.
South Quay Plaza 1
The breathtakingly beautiful South Quay Plaza 1 building, which has set Londoners' hearts alight for much of a generation, doesn't technically exist yet. At least, it's not finished. They tore down the old buildings from the 1980s in 2015 and started building a sprawling glass-and-steel complex in 2016.
When it's finished, which is tentatively penciled in for 2028, it’ll be a massive combination of half a dozen mixed-use modern buildings topped by a 704-foot residential block that juts against the skyline over the Isle of Dogs.
One Park Drive
One Park Drive, a cylindrical tower that rises 57 stories over Wood Wharf, is covered with protruding structural supports that look akin to boxes for a cubby. Its striking dovecote design allows balconies with stunning views of the financial district to be built for 484 residential units and a few luxury penthouses.
The whole structure is 673 feet tall, marking it as the ninth-tallest building in the UK and an unmistakable landmark for day trippers on the Thames.
The headquarters of the venerable old Barings Bank stood at 6-8 Bishopsgate from 1802 until the banks' inglorious collapse in 1995. Filling its metaphorical shoes is the UK's 10th-largest building and quite a local legend in its own right.
Called "the Jenga" for its tiered and blocky design, this 669-foot-tall tower doesn't break any design rules you can see from the street, but it's borderline revolutionary from the inside out.
The distinctive form at 8 Bishopsgate stands as a poetic testament to sustainability in London’s architectural landscape, mirroring Cirque du Soleil’s commitment to creating extraordinary experiences while treading lightly on our planet. Several lifetimes' worth of engineering genius are at work behind the warm wood-and-marble fittings in the visitors' lobby.
Much of the design recycles waste heat and features some of Europe’s loftiest solar panels. 8 Bishopsgate cleverly captures and purifies London’s abundant rain on its roof, minimizing water consumption. Interior spaces feature light-responsive shades to optimize cooling efficiency.
8 Canada Square
The HSBC Tower at 8 Canada Square is a testament to sturdiness and classic skyscraper design. This rectangular block tower has slablike curtain walls that stretch all the way up its 656 feet, with 4,900 thick glass panels abutting its 45 stories of office space. This is the European HQ of HSBC, a Chinese bank so monumental it merits permanent observer status at the UN.
This enchanting building embarked on its odyssey in January 1999. It soared like a phoenix in March 2001, and the whole shebang was leased by September 2002. The first tenants were introduced with an air of secrecy. The public was finally granted a glimpse inside in April 2003. This is practically record time for a start-to-finish skyscraper on London's Canary Wharf.
25 Canada Square
Another exemplary display of classic skyscraper design, the building looming over 25 Canada Square is a gargantuan tower of glass and steel. The European headquarters building for Citigroup spreads 1.8 million square feet of floor space across two massive towers on Canary Wharf, with dark smoked glass and somber marble fittings in the lobby.
The effect is the epitome of oxymoron, an exuberant sedated feel. The strength of the structure evokes a firm, protective feeling when you sign in with the concierge. You may meet unique and interesting people on each of the 40+ floors of residential space between the lobby and the financial offices above.
Underneath Citigroup Centre lies a tube station, making it an easy journey for the bank employees who don't already have a flat in the building. It's also a hub for people flowing to the other financial HQs on the wharf. More than the occasional tourist pops up through the tube lift to get a few snaps of the iconic skyscrapers of Canada Square.
One Nine Elms City TowerThe two wonderfully wonky blocks of flats nestled within One Nine Elms City Tower spent a decade in a whimsical game of ping pong, bouncing between various developers. Everybody had their own grandiose notions about what to build and how to do it, but the project seemed as elusive as a unicorn until the clock struck 2018.
That's when R&F Properties took the reins and set the wheels in motion. This spanking-new development is debuting in autumn of 2023. It will unfurl a magical tapestry of 494 residential abodes to the public.
Within this enchanting realm sits a luxurious Park Hyatt hotel. It transforms this site into one of the largest residential wonders in London.
The peculiar profile of the center is no accident. The desire to safeguard the scenic vistas of the city inspired the design team to orchestrate a delightful dance of heights, making one tower 528 feet tall, while the other reaches an astonishing 654 feet.
Imagine crafting a paper airplane out of steel and smoked glass, then delicately sticking its nose into a verdant belt adorned with open parkways and bike lanes. Now, erect an ancient Anglican cathedral beside it, forming a captivating contrast between old and new. Congratulations, you've just built The Scalpel, London's 15th-tallest structure.
When viewed from south of the River Thames, it remarkably resembles the iconic YouTube Play button.
"Scalpel" started as a jest from the Financial Times. It became an affectionate nickname and then the skyscraper's official title in planning documents. Soaring to a height of 620 feet tall, it boasts 38 stories, offering a harmonious blend of residential and commercial spaces.
What’s more, it's almost close enough to hug St. Andrew Undershaft, a revered gray-stone cathedral from the Tudor era that’s a cherished landmark. This makes the Scalpel a unique addition to London’s skyline.
Explore London's Skyline Today!
We love exploring London's nooks and crannies, including hidden gems in London. But to be honest, it's just easier to find the gargantuan skyscrapers that are all conveniently together in Canary Wharf.
London is poetic, with history, tradition, planning councils, and waitresses who call you "ducky." It also features some of the most life-defining cultural and entertainment experiences you'll ever find. We like to think our shows in London embody that life-defining culture that captivates your spirit, and we'd love to enchant you at one of our performances.