Bird’s “Eye” View of London
Steve Davey, author of Unforgettable Places to See Before You Die
(BBC Books/London/2004), knows a great attraction when he sees
it. Having traveled the world to document locations for his scenic
book, the British writer/photographer has a recommendation for
anyone traveling to London.
“Check out London Eye,” he says. “It’s
Built in 2000 in cooperation with British Airways, London Eye has
become as much a part of the city’s identity as Big Ben or
Westminster Abbey. Standing 443 feet high on the south bank of
the Thames River, London Eye is the world’s tallest observation
wheel. It’s also the United Kingdom’s most popular
paid tourist attraction. Each year, more than 3.5 million people
queue up for the carnival-like ride that offers spectacular views
of the city.
After buying my ticket, however, I remained skeptical. From the
ground, the massive 2,300-ton attraction resembles a glorified
Ferris wheel. Yes, it’s the 4th tallest structure in London—only
the One Canada Square complex (770 feet), British Telecom Tower
(620 feet), and Tower 42 (600 feet) are taller. But would my tourist
dollars have been better spent on a Thames River cruise? A visit
to Madame Tussauds Wax Museum? A day-trip to Legoland Windsor?
When I took off on the 30-minute London Eye “flight”,
I realized the answer was “no.”
Unlike Ferris wheels that carry a handful of passengers in suspended
gondolas, London Eye utilizes “passenger capsules.” Egg-shaped,
air-conditioned and made primarily of glass, the 32 passenger capsules
look like escape pods attached to a circular space station. The
futuristic capsules, which represent London’s 32 boroughs,
weigh 11 tons each and accommodate up to 25 people.
Mounting rings positioned on the outside of the main rim allow
the passenger capsules to rotate as the wheel revolves. This makes
for dramatic 360-degree views from the top of wheel.
As my capsule began to rise, I felt as if I were floating above
London in a bubble. The wheel turned at the almost imperceptible
rate of 0.6 miles per hour. That’s twice the speed of a fast-moving
On a clear day you can’t see forever. But you can see for
about 25 miles from a London Eye passenger capsule. Looking south
past Westminster Bridge, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament,
I followed the muddy Thames past Lambeth Bridge to MI6 Headquarters,
where the British Secret Intelligence Service (and its famous fictional
agent 007, James Bond) launch covert overseas operations.
Farther along the Thames, I could barely make out the four white
smokestacks of the defunct Battersea Power Station. As the capsule
climbed, I watched the river snake through a landscape of shrinking
buildings that faded into the horizon.
At static viewing platforms like Chicago’s Sears Tower (or
revolving platforms like Sydney’s Centerpoint Tower), perspective
is limited due to the fixed altitude. But because the passenger
capsules are constantly changing altitude, and because they allow
viewing in every direction, London Eye is perhaps the world’s
most comprehensive viewing platform. (The view of Cape Town, South
Africa, from the top of Table Mountain is perhaps the most stunning,
From London Eye, I got a bird’s-eye view of Whitehall Court,
Buckingham Palace and Wembley Stadium. I could even see 18-feet-high
Lord Nelson’s Column which stands at the center of Trafalgar
From the top of the wheel, the views are even more amazing. Covent
Garden, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the British Museum, Tate Modern
Gallery—many of London’s most popular attractions lay
before me like Monopoly board game pieces.
In addition to the expansive city views, London Eye offers the
excitement of a traditional Ferris wheel ride. Instead of 3 or
4 people in a gondola, I shared the experience with 20 strangers
in a passenger capsule.
Romantic couples can rent a private capsule for two. The “Cupid’s
Capsule” flight comes with a bottle of Laurent-Perrier champagne
served by a host. Like all trips on London Eye, it last only 30
minutes. But the complementary truffles and $600 price tag will
make it a memorable flight.
Eye is located at the Riverside Building, Westminster
Bridge Road, London; Tel: 011 (44) 870-990-8883;
Web: www.ba-londoneye.com; Admission: Adults
(16 yrs and older) $29, children $14, under 5
yrs free; Operating hours: daily 10:00 a.m. to
9:00 p.m. (Jun to Sep), 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
(Oct to May). Closed Christmas Day, and one week
during mid-January for maintenance.