By David Armstrong, Contributing Editor
Labyrinthine and densely populated but with plenty of room to spread out, London has historically been a horizontal city.
Christopher Wren’s 365-foot-high St. Paul’s Cathedral with its noble dome and 1965’s BT Tower, at 625 feet high, were rare vertical points in the British capital until recent years.
That began to change with the first wave of high-rises in the Canary Wharf business district in the 1990s.
A building boom which picked up speed ahead of the 2012 London Olympics and was driven by London’s globalized masters of high finance is transforming the 2,000-year-old city, adding vertical exclamation points to London’s horizontal sprawl.
Evidence of that lay at my feet as I looked out from the Shangri-La Hotel at the Shard London.
Occupying 19 floors in The Shard, a 1,016-foot-high skyscraper on the south bank of the Thames near London Bridge, the 5-star Shangri-La, which opened in May 2014, is the highest hotel in town, ensconced in the tallest high-rise building (though not the highest tower) in the European Union.
With 202 rooms and suites, it’s a posh boutique hotel in the sky.
The Shangri-La’s 35th floor check-in is reached via elevators (called lifts in the UK) from the ground floor. The hotel occupies levels 34 to 52 of architect Renzo Piano’s landmark office and residential tower, a gleaming pyramid clad with 11,000 sheets of glass (‘shards’) that gives the building its name.
I didn’t have a 360 degree view from my beautifully appointed premium city view room, but I’m not complaining. I was staying on the river-facing side, looking north through floor-to-ceiling windows.
Far below, to my right, was the curving Isle of Dogs and bristling forest of Canary Wharf towers.
Straight ahead, in the square-mile City of London, were two other vertical additions to the skyline: Norman Foster’s gorgeous Gherkin, built in 2004, and the Cheese Grater (the Leadenhall Building), a high-rise which opened in 2015.
Far off to the left and up-river are resonant Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, an enduring legacy of London’s Millennium celebrations.
Flowing through this impressive cityscape is the dark, serpentine River Thames.
The views from the Shangri-La at The Shard can’t help but be the first thing a guest notices, as my wife, Georgina, and I did when we checked-in for our one-night stay in October 2015.
But while the luxury hotel’s attractions begin with the knock-out views, they hardly end there.
The hotel, operated by Hong Kong’s Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, embraces the latest digital technology.
Useful electronics abound, with free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel, international sockets and power ports at guest-room desks and remotely controlled window curtains and sheers, bedroom and bathroom lights and flat-screen TV.
Our body-contoured Shangri-La Bed was draped with 300 thread-count Frette linens and slept two with ease. There was a welcome bedside reading light for guests, like us, not reading on illuminated devices.
A desk chair and couch near the big windows were practical and comfortable. There was ample closet space for clothing and luggage, as well.
The premier city view room’s bathrooms offer a bathtub, walk-in shower and heated marble floors. Our bathroom came with softly fragrant Acqua Di Parma amenities.
Our stay also included breakfast for two in Ting restaurant, located just off the lobby.
I have stayed at many Shangri-Las in Asia, where the hotels highlight opulent Chinese decor, multi-story tapestries and huge lobby chandeliers. This London showcase is sleeker and more European.
Due to The Shard’s pyramidal shape, the hotel’s public spaces are more compact than Shangri-Las I’ve frequented in Asia. Missing is the expansive Lobby Lounge, where tea and light meals are served, though the lobby here is smart and attractive.
Gone, too, is Shang Palace, the Cantonese fine-dining restaurant featured in most of the company’s 5-star properties. (Shangri-La also manages attractive 4-star Traders Hotels and Kerry Hotels.)
The London Shangri-La’s prime restaurant, the aforementioned Ting, is handsomely designed, with fine wood flooring and, of course, magnificent views.
Although Ting sounds Chinese, the food is Western with a few Asian accents. Grilled meats and seafood are especially good, and wines are a fine mix of European and New World vintages.
The Shangri-La at The Shard boasts a 24-hour gym and an indoor infinity swimming pool, both on the 52nd floor. The property also offers three meeting spaces; the largest can accommodate up to 140. All are wired to the max.
The hotel’s South Bank location is both charming and occasionally challenging. It is just a three-minute walk to Borough Market, a large and venerable covered market by the railroad tracks that stocks the best of British meats, poultry, fowl, fish, baked goods and more in dozens of food stalls.
However, West End attractions can take time to reach from The Shard, especially by bus or taxi, given London’s notoriously congested traffic.
But happily for business travelers, the Shangri-la is just across the river from the City, London’s famous financial district.
We ended our visit at the highest bar in London: Gong, run by the Shangri-La and located on the 52nd floor. Gong draws a youngish, flamboyant crowd for Champagne, cocktails and nibbles.
The views aren’t too shabby either, especially after dark, when London – vibrant, vividly lit, increasingly vertical – looks its best from on high.
Shangri-La Hotel at The Shard London is located at 31 St. Thomas St., London SE1 9QU, United Kingdom.
To book, phone +44 20 7234 8000, or visit www.shangri-la.com. Rooms start at GBP 429 (US$639) per night.
David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist specializing in features, news and reviews about travel destinations, airports, airlines, hotels and resorts. He is the former tourism, aviation and international trade reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered tourism, movies, media and theater for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. He is the author of five books and numerous travel articles for TheStreet.com, Travel + Leisure, Global Traveler, Napa Sonoma Magazine, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Toronto Star, Chicago Sun-Times, Aviation.com and many others.