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From the 360-degree observation deck on the 72nd floor of the Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe at 310m, London opens up like a pop-up book and the landmarks of St Paul's Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge look toy-town tiny.

Standing at the 244m-high viewpoint, with the wind licking the jagged shards of glass that razor another 66m skywards, is both dizzying and enthralling. Up here, where the traffic is reduced to a hum, you can trace the bends of the River Thames with your fingertips, and the trains on the tracks below resemble collectable Hornby models. The View from the Shard (the name given to the public viewing galleries on floors 68 to 72), which opens to the public on 1 February, is indeed a view like no other.

Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano in 2000 and approved by then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in 2003, this lightning bolt of a skyscraper on London’s South Bank appears to have weathered the storm of initial criticism – including English Heritage, a public body that protects and promotes the country’s historic environment, calling it “a spike through the heart of historic London”. While the aesthetic appeal of this crystalline, sculptured edifice remains debatable, there is no doubting its pulling power: despite an advance online price of £24.95 for adults and £18.95 for children, tickets to the viewpoint are selling fast.

On entering the Shard from London Bridge station, visitors are immediately treated to a glimpse of British humour. Images of Alfred Hitchcock fleeing from the pigeons on Trafalgar Square, George Orwell installing CCTV cameras and the Mayor of London Boris Johnson polishing the shoes of his predecessor Ken Livingstone are among the tongue-in-cheek caricatures that welcome you.

A classical soundtrack by the London Symphony Orchestra plays in the lifts that rise to the 68th floor in 60 seconds, racing past the many floors of office space, the five-star Shangri-La Hotel on floors 34 to 52 and multimillion-pound apartments.

On the 68th floor, dubbed the “cloudscape” for the cloud patterns that dance across its windows, it is worth going to the “loo with a view” for sheer novelty value (huge windows in the toilets afford magnificent open views over the city). From this level, a flight of stairs leads to the first viewing gallery on floor 69. In this triple-height atrium, touchscreen “tell:scopes” – digital telescopes with touchscreens – digitally map out the city. Zoom in on a landmark and you can bring up a description of it and view it live or at different times of day – a bit of genius that makes this city of 8 million people feel both vast and very, very small.

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