Photography

8 beautiful British cities – and where to take in their best views

A view captures both a city and its context, and in Britain we are spoiled with some beautiful examples of both.Monday, April 8, 2019

By Simon Ingram
View of Edinburgh city from the Dugald Stewart Monument on Calton Hill.

There is something humbling about seeing a city from a distance. British cities are invariably saturated with history and local charisma – but sometimes the best way to appreciate it is to step back and just take it in from a suitably encompassing viewpoint. 

The definition of a city in the British sense is a curiosity in itself – and one that has attracted controversy. As stated in the Oxford English Dictionary, the word denotes 'a town created a city by charter, and usually containing a cathedral.' 

Any 'new' cities effectively require sign-off by a monarch, and the status is often bestowed during royal celebrations – as happened for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012, when Perth, St Asaph and Chelmsford received the nod. Conversely, something as slight as an alleged admin hiccup can rob a city of its status, as happened to Rochester in 2002. Cities that call themselves cities aren't necessarily cities (Welwyn Garden City, Letchworth Garden City) while tiny communities such as St Davids in Wales (population 1500) find themselves proudly bearing the title. 

What this leaves Britain with is a city landscape of great variety, with sprawling hubs of industry and technology to quaint backwaters alike enjoying city status. Add to this the considerable aesthetic and photogenic qualities of many of these places, and you have an urban landscape as beautiful as it is varied. Here are some of the best viewpoints to take them in.

Bath from Bathwick Hill

Nestled amongst rising hills and built from rich Bath stone, the name of this Georgian city invariably appears whenever Britain’s most beautiful cities are being discussed. Bath’s intrinsic Britishness has appealed to travellers for centuries; Jane Austen made her home here, the warren-like streets are full of trinkets and cobbles and ancient pubs, and the entire city is wrapped in rich Somerset countryside, and this contrast of steeples and tiles amidst the surroundings that the city can be appreciated in its context. Bathwick Hill to the east of the city is one such place, from where the sun warms the stone of the city at sunrise, and sets behind the hills to the west at the opposite end of the day.   

Looking west into the sunset over the countryside of Somerset over Bath, from Bathwick Hill. Visible to the right is Bath Abbey.

Ely from Roswell Pits

Adrift in the watery flatlands of the Cambridgeshire fens like a ship at sea, Ely is as bewitching as it is surprising. The key to this is its centrepiece: the enormous cathedral, dating back to 1083, from which sprawls a network of medieval buildings and waterways. The striking flatness of the landscape emphasises the vertiginous towers of the building, and the presence of so much water makes the little city prone to morning mist, heightening the drama of this unexpectedly striking place. Seen here from a nature reserve to the city's east. 

The gigantic Ely cathedral rises from the flatlands of the Cambridgeshire Fens like a galleon – and the tiny city that surrounds it is no less bewitching.

Liverpool from Seacombe

Few skylines in England’s north come close to Liverpool’s for distinctive charm – but getting the view for yourself may take a little more effort. The city’s seafaring history and status as a place of migration and transit casts a long shadow here, with the iconic Liver Buildings embodying this spirit for Liverpool as completely as the Statue of Liberty does for New York, 3,400 miles away across the Atlantic. Cross the rather narrower River Mersey on one of the tourist ferries to Wallasey's Seacombe pier, and your view of the Liverpool skyline is suitably watery – and also features such architectural gems as the Gothic-style cathedral (designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, whose work also includes London’s Battersea Power Station and the British red telephone box) the jagged chef’s hat of the Metropolitan Cathedral and the historic Royal Albert Dock.  

The historic waterfront of Liverpool, across the River Mersey from Seacombe on the Wirral Peninsula.

Glasgow from Queen's Park

Set against the building hills of the Southern Highlands, Glasgow is an aesthetically seething conurbation of the old, the new, the cherished – and perhaps the less so. Here you’ll find towering tenements shoulder to shoulder with the iconic brownstone buildings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the flamboyant Clyde Arc (known locally as the ‘Squinty Bridge’ due to its diagonal span). One of the best spots to take in the great city layering back against the mountains is Queen’s Park, in the south of the city.    

Looking over the fusion of styles that is modern Glasgow with the Lomond Hills beyond, from Queen's Park.

Durham from the Wear banks

Described by writer Bill Bryson as a ‘perfect little city’, Durham, tucked in England’s northeast, has a compact old town built around a tight bend of the River Wear. A series of bridges join the steep riverbanks, above which the city’s cathedral and castle seem even more imposing. The Elvet Bridge to the east and the Framwellgate Bridge to the west offer opposing takes on the old town, but both are entrancing. The latter dates back to the fifteenth century.

Looking up at Durham Castle and Cathedral from the west bank of the Wear, near Framwellgate Bridge.

London from Alexandra Park and Greenwich Park

It’s difficult to single out a single angle on a city as varied and rambling as London, with so many small-scale icons packed into it. The Palace of Westminster, the London Eye, the Gherkin, the Shard, Tower Bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral, all of which threaded together by the arterial Thames – are worth seeking out and admiring for their individual merits, but are difficult to combine into a single, encompassing viewpoint. Two aspects on London stand out: that from Alexandra Park in north London gives a fine impression of the city’s transition from leafy suburbs to concrete jungle, with the distant skyscrapers lining the horizon. 

North London and London City with The Shard, from Alexandra Park.

The second is from the historic Greenwich Park, home to the Meridian Line – and a view across the Thames into the heart of London’s City, where ancient buildings like St Paul’s cathedral vie for the eye with modern extravagances like the Millennium Dome, the Gherkin and the ‘Walkie Talkie’ of 20 Fenchurch St. 

London from Greenwich Park, with the London Eye and the Shard to the left, St Paul's Cathedral Centre, and the 'Walkie Talkie,' 1 Canada Square and The Gherkin dominating the Square Mile to the right. Visible far left is the Millennium Dome and the Thames.

St Davids city centre

Cities don't have to be large to meet the technical definition. St Davids status as one of Wales’ five cities – along with Newport, Cardiff, Swansea and St Asaph – is largely thanks to its modest but important cathedral, which is said to be the resting place of its eponymous saint. Around 1,500 people live in St Davids, making it smaller than some villages and the UK’s smallest city. Idyllically located on the coast of rugged Pembrokeshire and facing the sea, this makes it worth a visit all by itself. 

St Davids is slighter than some villages, and with a population around 1,500, this remote city by the sea on the coast of Pembrokeshire is the UK's smallest.

Edinburgh from Calton Hill

Scotland’s capital city has two advantages for anyone seeking pleasing city views. First, it’s a architecturally striking city. Constructed from distinctive, golden sandstone, many-spired, and with a raised castle as its centrepiece, Edinburgh’s mix of grand Classical and sturdy, resplendent Scottish Baronial buildings make it absorbing and varied just to look at. Secondly, it’s surrounded by high ground from which to gaze down at the warrens of streets and rooftops. You are spoiled for choice, but for aesthetics it’s difficult to beat the view from Calton Hill at the Dugald Stewart Monument, a columned Ancient Greek-style edifice – one of many scattered monuments up here – with a panorama across Edinburgh and its surroundings.   

View of Edinburgh city from the Dugald Stewart Monument on Calton Hill.

This online story is part of National Geographic's Cities Special issue, available now.

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